What We Can Learn From The Streets’s Complex Portraits Of British Masculinity

15 years after the release of Original Pirate Material, its nuanced depictions of working class men still feel remarkable.

March 23, 2017
What We Can Learn From The Streets’s Complex Portraits Of British Masculinity Mike Skinner of The Streets performs at The Warsaw, Brooklyn, on March 19, 2003   Scott Gries/Getty

On Original Pirate Material, the identity of working class men — specifically, white cis straight men — contains multitudes. With its self-produced garage beats and modest vocals recorded in a bedroom wardrobe, the debut album by The Streets, a.k.a. Mike Skinner, catalogued the complexities of a “day in the life of a geezer,” charting the highs and lows of this distinctively British character with clarity and wit. 15 years after its release, low-income British men have seldom been described with such nuance.

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Born in Birmingham, an industrial city in the middle of England, Skinner had moved to Brixton in south west London by the time he began recording Original Pirate Material in the year 2000. Both on the album and in interviews, it was clear that Skinner prized authenticity above any other quality. His desire was to articulate fleshed out, necessarily flawed visions of young British men and the world they occupied. “I didn't want to lie in the way that rappers lie,” he told The Guardian in 2004 of his approach to writing lyrics, creating distance between his vision and the narratives of the more mainstream end of American hip-hop at the time. Additionally, Original Pirate Material sought to express a far less aspirational version of the club culture portrayed in songs like east London crew Pay As U Go Cartel’s “Champagne Dance,” typical of the ostentatious weekend lifestyle described in many U.K. garage hits.

In contrast, Skinner’s lyrics were scattered with descriptions of life’s mundane ephemera, from slugging Kronenburg beer on “Who Got the Funk?” to eyeing up late ‘90s TV presenter and model Gail Porter on “The Irony of it All.” For a generation of men who lived that life in the U.K. at the turn of the millennium, these touches gave the record an immediate seal of authenticity. Skinner’s beleaguered characters inhabited a world that was at once punishing and boring, with occasional faint glimmers of promise. There was the “boozer,” where evenings were whiled away drinking pints and playing pool; the “chip” shop, where everyone ended up after the pub for late night carbs; and then home to the tower block that graced the album’s cover. Crucially, these scenes found immediate recognition in an audience who weren’t being represented elsewhere.

What We Can Learn From The Streets’s Complex Portraits Of British Masculinity Mike Skinner of The Streets performs at T In The Park festival in Kinross, Scotland, on July 9, 2005   Christopher Furlong/Getty

Original Pirate Material didn’t moralize, holding its cast of layabouts, petty criminals, and bored stoners neither in esteem or contempt. Take “Geezers Need Excitement,” perhaps the song on the album which is most outwardly focused on working class British men, and exploring what makes them tick. The threatening, string-led track is built around a tale of habitual nighttime violence as a result of injured male pride, describing a man attempting to suppress the rage sweeping through his torso when he sees the object of his affections “laughin' and jokin' with a bloke.” On this track, Skinner’s description of adult men throwing fries around a fast-food spot and looking for trouble isn’t supposed to inspire pity or respect — just recognition. As the refrain goes, “Geezers need excitement/ If their lives don't provide them this they incite violence/ Common sense, simple common sense.”

In that sense, the album was a counterpoint to dominant U.K. conversations around masculinity around the turn of the millennium. In a 1998 article, British newspaper The Independent spoke of the “new lad,” a socio-cultural caricature born from a “blokelash” against women’s successes of the 1990s — from the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997, which was introduced to safeguard victims of stalking, to the “girl power” manifesto of the Spice Girls. The geezer became a central character in think-pieces and pop-culture, but only as a two-dimensional symbol, such as in the hardmen of Guy Ritchie’s films Lock Stock… (1998) and Snatch (2000). The Streets’s debut album rejected this glamorization of bloke-hood, in favor of the broken hearts and empty pockets of “It’s Too Much,” or the deluded self-aggrandizing of “Sharp Darts,” which grappled with the psychological vulnerabilities of men stuck in arrested adolescence.

From students to soldiers, every character on the album is looking to get lifted. Nothing appears with quite such reliable regularity throughout the record as drugs, whether the “kids on whizz” (speed) and “darlings on charlie” (cocaine) of the album’s euphoric standout track “Weak Become Heroes,” or the educated stoner preaching the merits of weed on “The Irony of it All.” Yet if one poison wins out, it’s booze. At the time of Original Pirate Material’s release, the U.K. was in the grips of an alcohol abuse phenomenon scornfully dubbed “Binge Britain” by commentators in the early ‘00s. "What we're seeing is an epidemic of binge-drinking," said Andrew McNeill of the Institute for Alcohol Studies, speaking to The Guardian in 2002. "By the time you're 15, getting slaughtered is a central part of your social activities." The Streets reflected this in songs like “Same Old Thing” and “Too Much Brandy,” which describe a British masculinity defined by excessive consumption, where restless young men seek mind expansion in the face of the repetitive bleakness they see around them.

In capturing this desire to break away from the ordinary, Skinner was able to empathetically give depth to the humdrum urban existence these young men were running away from. The fact that suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 suggests British society still isn’t very good at raising young men to engage with their emotions in productive ways. Lessons remain in just how intimately Skinner was prepared to understand his characters, in all their complexities. He captured the contradiction at the heart of the white cis straight working class British man — playing his untethered braggadocio against his grim, stinking reality — with insight that has rarely been matched since. And in hands as dextrous as those, even the weak can become heroes.


Read 11 artists and fans on why The Streets’s Original Pirate Material still matters, 15 years on.

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What We Can Learn From The Streets’s Complex Portraits Of British Masculinity