Tuesday, 24 January 2012
Born Too Late
It's an odd thing for an old man like me to walk around London these days and be confronted with 3-D memories. Turning a corner into the Exmouth Market the other day I thought I'd stumbled into a video shoot for The Smiths in 1983 (I ran the mixing desk at a Smiths gig attended by 250 lucky students that year). There were four or five young men with quiffs, National Health spectacles and loose v-neck sweaters worn over t-shirts gathered together by a vegetarian food stall.
A month or so ago I saw a young couple (no more than 20 years old) dressed as if they were members of the Thompson Twins circa 1984; she even had a red quiff poking out from under a cap just like Alannah Currie. Both wore donkey jackets and turn-ups on their dark denim jeans, both probably unaware of the 1950s-reference in their dress, thinking only of the 1980s as a 'golden period' of fashion, music and youth in revolt. Well, it was, kind of. It's the 1950s element of fashion and music that really surprises and delights me these days, though.
When I was 12 years old I managed to bluff my way into a cinema at the seaside town I grew up in, to watch David Essex and Ringo Starr in the excellent That'll Be The Day. Twenty years after Bill Haley (a fat, middle-aged C&W singer tricked up like a rocker) had inspired the original Teddy Boys into ripping up seats in cinemas, Rock n Roll and Teddy Boys were enjoying a renaissance among British youth. BTW, they were called Teddy Boys because, in the early part of the 1950s, with rationing still in place in the UK, young men with jobs and a little money to spend found the menswear shops empty of anything except demob suits. So they took their grandfather's suits into local tailors to have them refitted. The grandfathers having been Edwardians, the shortening to Teddy Boys seemed natural.
Original Teddy Boys wore much more ornate waistcoats, jackets and shirts than those worn by the post-Elvis Teddy Boys who usually just stuck some velvet on their lapels, bought brothel-creeper shoes, wore bootlace ties and grew their hair into quiffs. Teddy boys numbered thousands across the UK by 1957, and became infamous for their rowdy behaviour, violent disposition (according to the gutter press of the time) and wild dancing, with women who liked their men tough.
That'll Be The Day tells the story of a boy (David Essex) who rejects lower middle-class life as a shopkeeper in favour of a summer spent working at a holiday camp, and the pursuit of dream to be a rock star. He's roomed with an older Teddy Boy (Ringo Starr) who shows him how to live life properly. The scene in which Ringo short changes a customer is taken from real life. Or at least, I did it often enough when working the waltzers in the late 1970s. The soundtrack to the movie was so familiar to me that I didn't realise how old a lot of the music on it actually was. I'd grown up hearing the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny & The Hurricanes and Johnny Tillotson etc constantly blaring out of the amusement arcades and parks along the seafront since I can remember. Naturally I thought it was all contemporary.
The movie's mix of sex and violence, the misunderstood Essex and fabulous music was thrilling. I fell in love with the wordily, sensual Deborah Watling (above) and didn't realise she'd been a Dr Who assistant. The pop charts of the time were filled with bands who'd been born during he first wave of Teddy Boy uprising, and were now using glam versions of the clothes to sell their versions of 1950s classics. I despised Showaddywaddy, the Rubettes and Alvin Stardust because of their inauthenticity. Dr Feelgood, The Pirates (who'd once been Johnny Kidd's backing band) and Sha Na Na however, seemed to be the real thing. Teddy Boys in the 1970s were pub rockers and proud of it.
In the 1980s the dead Elvis effect spawned new quiffs and an American interest in rockabilly music outside of the South. As well as Morrisey's quiff, The Stray Cats and Billy Idol put faux rockabilly into the charts both sides of the Atlantic. Punk's adoption of certain Teddy Boy clothing items, particularly the brothel creepers, was misinterpreted by the original Teds and their sons as an insult; we meant it as a compliment.
Seeing a renewal of interest in Teddy Boys and 1950s-era Rock n Roll today is both oddly nostalgic—my old man had been a Ted who wore razor blades sewn into his drape jacket lapels; anyone grabbing them in a fight got sliced doing so. It was another trick learned from the original 1940s Mexican zoot suit rebels of LA—and weirdly 'original'. Imelda May looks the part, even if she sounds too clean and packaged. New Teds really know how to look like the 1970s version of the originals, though. They make this old man feel almost as though he were born too late.