I Tried to Find and Join Britain's Remaining Style Tribes
People say subcultures are over, but I met a load of people in London and Liverpool who would disagree.
Punk's not dead. All photos by Chris Bethell and Harry Johnson
We spoke to over 2,500 18 to 34-year-olds living in the UK to explore and document what life is like for young people in Britain in 2016. From Blackpool to Belfast, from country fairs to council estates, the nation's youth told us exactly how they felt about money, politics, drugs, sex, music, clothes and everything else that matters. This is the VICELAND Census, all this week on VICELAND and VICE.COM.
Over the last ten years, endless trend forecasters and researchers have told us that youth tribes are on the way out. Young people today don't want to look weird and listen to aggressive music; they just buy all their clothes from Asos and Snapchat their breakfasts. Gone are the days of men putting on full make-up before heading to the shops, or legitimately thinking a pork pie hat with Winklepickers is a good look: academic research and think-pieces have decreed that the style tribe is suffering, terminally.
But I'm not so sure. Yes, our amalgamated culture may have made them rarer, but this a country built from the leather of punks, the ruffles of the New Romantics and the mascara gloop of the goths – surely young people haven't just given up on that altogether? In fact, when we questioned actual VICE readers in the recent VICELAND UK Census, the majority said they did still identify with a subculture.
I needed to find the truth. So I headed out into 21st century Britain with two goals: to see if style tribes still exist, and to find the right one for me.
CAMDEN LOCK PUNKS
My first stop was Camden – the spiritual home of dog chains and whoopee cushions – to immerse myself in its infamous Lock punk scene, inhabited by the tattooed, ripped-jean-wearing tough guys who sit around the canal every day. But I wasn't going to fool these angst-riddled day drinkers any old way. I was going to have to walk like them, breathe their air and embody their very essence. I needed to feel the anger, to stick a finger up to my own face, so I underwent a rite of passage.
FUCK! PUNK! YEAH! I felt the angst course through my veins. I grabbed a marker and began scribbling over my arms – what was happening to me? What was happening to me is: I was becoming a punk.
Tattoos, a bleeding ear and bin bags: I was ready.
After purchasing the garb, I spotted the Camden Lock punks straight away, hanging from a bridge. "I come with an offering," I said, and divvied out the bottles of London Pride, Spitfire and Punk IPA I'd just spent 20 minutes fretting over. They seemed to like it. Dave, 18, told me I looked "fucking sick". The group concurred.
"Do you dress like that every day?" he asked. I nodded.
Ellena, 16, tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around I saw her pointing with a look of dread. "Your ear is bleeding, badly," she said. "Have you just had it pierced?"
"No, seriously, you need to get that looked at – it could get infected and you could get ill. Put some Savlon on it or something." The word Savlon inspired a group nod.
Will, 22, introduced me to the clan, most of whom are aged between 14 and 16. There was Nat, George, Dale and Ellena, with her sage advice on antiseptics, who was quick to assert that she's "not punk, but Polish goth".
"Me too," I said.
I got involved with the group activities. We stood, drank and, on occasion, yelled things at the denizens of Camden. I called a Yorkshire Terrier a "prick"; Dave laughed.
After a bit of being faintly aggressive on a bridge, I was spent. Punks seem to be angry, and I'm just not sure how much anger there is in me. To be honest, I really like dogs – especially Yorkshire Terriers. So it was time to wave goodbye to Dave and his comrades.
He had a look of disappointment strewn across his face as I made my excuses. "We're all coming down next weekend and there's gonna be tons of us. You should come," he said, hopefully.
Yeah, sure Dave, I'll definitely, definitely be there.
Being a skater isn't like being a punk: it requires commitment, skill and courage. I wanted to be a skater when I was a teenager, but I was too busy pilfering gin from my mate's parents or memorising Kurt Cobain's ThinkQuote page. But now I have much more time on my hands, so I planned on achieving my dream at the Southbank.
I quickly tried to make friends with my best skater chit-chat. I asked what OPM track they were listening to, but they just kind of giggled. Rohan, 18, had never even heard of the "Heaven Is a Halfpipe" one-hit wonders. "Nah, I listen to Japanese techno when I skate, bruv," he said.
It quickly became clear that one must prove their worth to be taken seriously in this world: I needed to skate. So I took a gulp of air, galloped over and asked for a minute with Rohan's board. He scrunched his face and rolled it over toward me. With all eyes on me, I jumped on. I held myself still on the concrete pillar and pushed out across the paving slabs, feeling the breeze against my reddened cheeks. I'd never felt so alive. 'I am a natural a master of the ground.' I thought. And now, to fly...
My ollie didn't quite come off, but I certainly had everybody's attention. Shortly after this, though, I became very tired. Years sat at a computer pitching new ways to embarrass myself for VICE articles have not made me the fittest of fleas. I needed a sit down.
Stretched out on the wall alone and completely zonked got me thinking. 'Do I really want this?' I pondered. A grown man, risking my life like this for the praise of a few teenagers in Billabong shorts? No. I strolled off into the sun and, though Rohan didn't say goodbye, I knew he was crying it out inside.
I was looking for something comfier – something that didn't require kneepads – and the perfect thing was just one train away. The subculture sweeping through the streets of South West London is a simple one: Nu-Toryism.
So I sprayed on some aftershave, headed to Clapham's finest self-service fine wine spot and poured myself a glass of Prosecco.
I don't know anything about wine – never had an interest. But after overhearing one or two Blumenthalian conversations, I reckoned I'd got the gist. "Have you tried the Zinfandel?" I interjected, as this guy and his companion tried to make their choice. "It's hearty, but really sets the tangers off."
"I haven't, but we had a heavy lunch, so we're looking for something a bit more... humble?" this guy replied.
"Well, why don't you just slide into something nice and autumnal?" I said.
"That's a really good point," his friend replied. Her face lit up. "Do you work here?"
"I don't, no. Can see why you'd think that, though!"
We all laughed, and I died a little inside. Punks, skaters and now nu-Tories had all welcomed me with open arms, but the ease of assimilating had cheapened the experience. Not even the prick to the ear felt real. And is that a surprise? Real people don't live in London; real things don't happen in London: it's a false place. To get the authenticity I craved, I needed to get out of the capital.
SKINHEADS AND THAT
From the Beatles to its ingrained citywide distrust of mainstream media, I've always felt an affinity with Liverpool. It's like an inclusive family more so than anywhere else in the country, and it's a family I want to be a part of. Stepping off at Lime Street station, the first thing you see is actual young people hanging out. One group in particular looked like they've strolled out of a doomed-to-be-cancelled-after-a-season Channel 5 drama executive produced by Fearne Cotton. But with the last 30 years of youth culture somewhat surreally represented in one group, they seemed like a good place to start. So I headed over to ask what they identify themselves as.
"Well, he's a mod, these four are punks and we're skinheads," said George, 16, pointing at his friend on the far right. "He was a skinhead, then his dad took his boots off him."
He seemed to know what he was talking about, so I asked for an inside scoop of the city: what are the dominant subcultures? Where do I find them?
"Well, you've got the classic Prinnies drinking their Prin and Tonics and the scallies or whatever. But I suppose what everybody is talking about at the moments are Johnheads."
"Johnheads?" I asked. They all laughed.
"Yeah, Johnheads. Comes from hanging in St John's – that shockin' old shopping centre."
"Where do I find them, these Johnheads?"
"Just follow the ketwigs, mate."
"Okay. Remind me what ketwigs are again, quickly?" They all laughed again.
"Something that the scallies got hold of so they can get into fessies without trouble." I need a fucking Rosetta Stone to keep up. "Mate: just follow the ketwigs, that'll lead you to the Johnheads." Right.
Find the ketwigs and they'll lead you to the Johnheads. Got it. I asked a local Liverpudlian walking through town: "Where can I buy a ketwig?"
He keeled over with laughter, patted my back and said, "Classic, mate!" I didn't understand what was so funny. So I turned to Google and slowly started to understand. From ketwigs through Lids to Johnheads, before my eyes, a rich tapestry of fluid nomenclature and sociological progression rolled out. So how do I become one? Basically, it's black outerwear, coupled with greasy hair stuffed under a cap and, weirdly specifically, a bottle of milkshake. I could handle that.
Walking through town, I felt a sense of ease at my core. And as the prophecy foretold, what looked like a "ketwig" flew past me, doing a wheelie on a bicycle down the middle of the road. I gave chase.
"Alright, lad?" he asked.
"Yeah, what are you up to?"
"Yeah? Where are you going?"
"Just biking, really."
He cycled on. Then a little further up the road – coming from the same direction – he passed me again. And again. This Johnhead was contently circling the block – fascinating.
Strolling through the park, I saw a duo of Johnheads talking while their dogs stood nearby. What were they up to? "Nowt." We talked a bit more. They had never met each other before. That's just the code of the Johnheads: standing about, doing nowt.
I reared off towards Liverpool's stadium and found a Johnhead standing alone, looking out over a balcony and sipping a Galaxy milkshake. It was like looking in the mirror.
"What are you up to?" I asked.
"My mate is at the game, la, so I'm just waiting."
"You're not going?"
"No, I'm an Evertonian."
"But it's only just kicked off: you're just gonna wait here for two hours?"
"Sound," I replied.
We stood there and waited, each sipping our milkshakes absently; sharing nods and occasional words; listening to the whirls and crashes from inside the stadium and feeling the ground lightly rumble below us. After 20 minutes of waiting, I realised that it's quite zen, being a Johnhead: a Cagian masterclass of tying oneself to the rhythm of the city. Not enjoying the small things, just existing among them. I had found deep satisfaction on a level I'd never experienced before. Johnheadism was an antidote to my intensity and dissatisfaction; I was a better person.
So if you can learn anything from me, let it be that it's never too late for happiness. Dig out those old boots, go buy yourself a snapback, crack out your best hair-clips – whatever it takes – and embrace the feeling of belonging. Me? I would disappear into the Wilderness of St John's Market, would let my hair grow out and let the sweetened milk nourish me from here on in.
I am a Johnhead.
More on the VICELAND UK Census:
UPDATE 20/09/16: A quote from the original version of this article has been removed.