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True Stories of Britain's Biggest Street Battles
By Garry Bushell
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2010 Garry Bushell
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS THE TED: FROM BILL HALEY TO NOTTING HILL
You're young, tough and working-class. You're earning money, but you're bored. Your world is so black and white and austere you could be living in a Pathé newsreel. And then one night at the pictures you hear it: 'Put your gladrags on and join me, hon, we'll have some fun when the clock strikes one ...'
Everyone is up from their seats and dancing in the aisles. You too. This is the music you love, and you're hearing 'Rock Around the Clock' on proper speakers for the very first time. Excited, you reach for your razor and you cut the nearest cinema chair, stabbing it and slashing it. And your mates are dancing too, and so is that girl you've always fancied. Life could not be sweeter.
And now the police are here, trying to drag you away, drag you out of your own local fleapit. Why? You're just having a good time. And so, when the copper pushes you, you fight back ...
Teddy Boys reached their peak in Britain in 1956, and became forever tarnished by their association with the Notting Hill race riots two years later. But where did they come from and why did they catch on? The first major myth of youth-cult history is that the Teddy Boys were a by-product of rock'n'roll. Not so. The Teds had been in existence for years before the arrival of hammy Bill Haley. It just took the release of the movie Blackboard Jungle in 1956 to drag them to the attention of a cowering nation. Its use of Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock' over the opening credits electrified young audiences. Kids danced in the aisles, seats were slashed in the excitement, and everything got blown out of all proportion. The police reacted savagely – and were met with unexpected resistance. At the Elephant and Castle Trocadero in south London, frenzied teenagers started hacking at the seats with cut-throat razors. Cops who were called to break up the crowd found themselves pelted with bottles and lighted fireworks. Two officers were injured and nine Teds were arrested.
Similar scenes occurred all over the UK. Down the road in Lewisham, the Teds yanked out the front seats at the Gaumont Theatre and proceeded to slice them up. A few miles away in Stratford, east London, police ejected an estimated 120 teenagers from the Gaumont. Out of control and high on life, the Teds continued to jive and party defiantly on the flower gardens outside.
At Manchester's Gaiety Theatre, Teddy Boys in the balcony hurled lighted cigarettes at kids in the stalls below. At Bootle, police drew truncheons to escort 'delirious' kids out of the cinema. Worried councillors quickly banned the film in Blackpool, Birmingham and Belfast; and the Teddy Boy was nationally recognised as the face of delinquency. Public Enemy Number One.
But where had they come from – and why? The Teds actually predated rock by quite a few years. They had grown out of the territorial gangs that had long been a part of young, working-class, inner-city life. Pre-Ted but postwar, the national press was awash with a new youth threat – the Cosh Boy, a species of juvenile hoodlum who livened up his boring life with random violence. The young Reggie and Ronnie Kray, for example, figured prominently in the Hackney youth battles of the early 1950s. 'It was just kids running free,' Ronnie once told me. 'It was finding your feet, carving out a name for yourself with your fists, and anything else that came to hand.'
What the gang fights offered was high-adrenalin excitement in the very drab postwar world. London especially was riddled with hideous bomb sites. National Service loomed like a coming court conviction, and rationing, and with it those never-ending queues, was a fact of life until 1954. Popular culture wasn't coming from the streets, but from the Establishment. It was tailored for young adults 'training' to become 'real' adults. Entertainment for the young working class was particularly ropey, being mostly confined to massive dance halls like the Mecca, the Locarno and the Palais: big bands and ballroom dancing. BBC radio's po-faced Light Programme was equally grim. Films were tame and clothes were a nightmare, with foul dungaree and tartan designs mass-produced to distinguish Joey Teen from his old man in his floppy demob suit.
Only the spivs with their US dress had any sense of style at all.
Of course, the Marxists were right when they said the consumer boom of the 1950s changed all this. Youth wages were growing, but capitalism didn't create the Teddy Boy cult for young workers – they stole it for themselves from right under the noses of the Establishment, contemptuously rejecting the patronising crap that was being created by clothing companies for them.
At the fag end of the 1940s, Savile Row had tried to revive Edwardian men's fashion among the upper classes. The style had first been resurrected in homosexual circles. Savile Row's espousal of it resulted in its brief, limited popularity among young Guards officers and the like, for whom the long Edwardian jackets with their velvet collars evoked a sense of nostalgia for the pre-World War One so-called golden age of Edward VII's reign. It hadn't exactly been a laugh a minute for the working classes, but it was working-class kids who really picked up on the fashion, lifting it right from under the toffs' noses to create their own identity as Teddy Boys (Teddy being an obvious contraction of Edwardian).
Skinny youths from inner-city London – the Elephant & Castle first, with Clapham and Tottenham not far behind – crossed cosh-boy aggression with a dedication to fashion, creating a phenomenon all of their own. The effect was astonishing – simultaneously foppish and vicious.
Society soon recognised this shocking development with newspaper articles in 1953 identifying Edwardian suits as the distinguishing mark of 'the craze that leads to gaol'. In south London especially, the Teds were involved in vast inter-gang territorial battles, leading to some dance halls banning Teddy suits altogether. During that same year, questions were asked in the House of Commons and a 17-year-old kid called John Beckley was stabbed to death by Teds on Clapham Common.
It wasn't a one-off. There were incidents all over the southeast of England. In Essex, Teds smashed up a train on the Barking–Southend line. In Epping Forest two brothers, both Teddy Boys, robbed another teen with a loaded air rifle. In April 1954, 55 youths were taken in for questioning after two rival mobs of Teds met for a rumble at St Mary Cray railway station in Kent after a dance. Their arsenal of weapons included house bricks and socks packed with sand and coins.
The previous month, a 16-year-old youth was convicted at Dartford Magistrates' Court in Kent of robbing a woman 'by putting her in fear'. The chairman of the bench told him, 'There are a lot of so-called pleasures of the world which demand a lot of money. You tried to get hold of money to pay for ridiculous things like Edwardian suits. They are ridiculous in the eyes of ordinary people. They are flashy, cheap and nasty and stamp the wearer as a particularly undesirable type.'
Flashy maybe, but cheap? Hardly. Young Teds would spend their entire wages on clothes. Different areas sported different-colour drape jackets (or just drapes with different-colour collars, or even just different-colour socks) to identify them as a gang distinct from other gangs. For full peacock glory, these frock coats were augmented by fancy embroidered waistcoats, moleskin collars and 'drainpipe' trousers so tight they were a second skin. Like the mods a decade later, the Teds were obsessed with looking good, looking right.
At first narrow ties were favoured but, as the American influence grew, the gambler's bootstring became more popular, held together with a variety of different medallions – American eagles, death heads and suchlike. The look became vulgarised until the Ted was more like a US gunslinger than an English Edwardian nob. The urban cowboy was here. The shoes that went with the look were also American: brothel creepers (a.k.a. beetle crushers), which had thick foam-rubber undersoles. The hair had to be right, too. The Teds pioneered their own versions of the US Marine crew cut like the spiky-top and the silver dollar, the latter being the shortest but both styles being heavily greased back. Film star Tony Curtis donated a much-imitated style, but the cut that evolved as the standard male look had a frontal quiff and a DA (duck's arse) cut at the back with the hair lovingly greased to meet in the middle. Sideburns caught on, too.
The original Teddy Girl look included hobble or pencil skirts, black, seamed nylon stockings and coolie hats. Like the men, they adopted drape jackets. Some adventurously wore slacks. Brooches and lace-up espadrilles were popular, and, later, American-style circle skirts and toreador pants caught on.
Although the Teds are the youth cult normally associated with the fifties, there were smaller, less well-publicised localised alternatives such as the Vicky Boys in Hammersmith, who looked to Victorian rather than Edwardian fashion for their uniform. They favoured a short jacket with thin lapels, a loud waistcoat, starch-collared shirts and thin ties – an obvious forerunner of the Italian look that became nationally popular later in the decade. Like Ted, the Vicky look was an exclusively working-class fashion, middle-class kids being more prone to express their dissatisfaction through CND and folk music – standard protest – or they took to jazz. Duffle coats were disgustingly prominent.
Nationally, the Teds were the only sharp dressers and the only action going.
'Straight' society didn't know what to make of it all. Why was juvenile crime on the up and up, at the same time as juvenile wages? These kids were like a secret society, a teenage Mafia, impenetrable to the adult experts. Scotland Yard compiled a report on the Ted phenomenon for the Home Office. Pulpit preachers blamed the collapse of Christianity for these devils in drapes. Newspaper pundits belched forth acres of shock-horror column inches. For the first time kids all over the country were able to read about other kids as though they were an alien breed.
Until the mid-fifties the Teds were a very small minority, however. And then Ted met rock'n'roll head-on. It was a union forged in teenage heaven.
Rock'n'roll was liberating: the manic mixed marriage of black American R&B and white American country. In it, the Teddy Boys discovered music as wild and untamed as they appeared to the authorities to be. They took to rock as enthusiastically as they took to the new breed of American actor – men like James Dean, whose death in 1955 while he was still young and beautiful guaranteed his immortality, and Marlon Brando, whose movie The Wild One, about a marauding motorcycle gang, was banned in Britain for over a decade.
One piece of dialogue from the film summed up the Ted mood perfectly. A girl asks the Brando antihero, 'Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?'
Brando shrugs and says, 'Whaddya got?'
Rock'n'roll was the only music energetic and exciting enough to do the Teds justice. George Melly captured the essence of the new sound when he called it 'screw-and-smash music'. Or more coarsely, fuck-and-fight.
Naturally, the Establishment and reactionaries hated it as much as they hated the Teds themselves. But, the more the papers sensationalised it and the authorities put it down, the more it grew. In America, groups like the Alabama White Citizens Council issued severe statements warning that 'the obscenity and vulgarity of the rock'n'roll music is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven to the level of the nigra – it is obviously nigger music.' In Britain the naturally more polite Any Questions radio panel preferred to label it 'the logical extension of jungle music'.
This unsavoury racialist element pervaded the opinions of even the most respectable criticisms. Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe likened rock'n'roll to 'Mau Mau music', a reference to Kenyan terrorists/freedom fighters (delete to suit your prejudices) in Africa, while leading classical conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent snorted that it was 'nothing more than primitive tom-tom thumping'. He went on, 'Rock'n'roll has been played in the jungle for centuries.'
All of which is pretty ironic when you consider that a few years later the Teds would be blamed for Britain's first postwar race riot at Notting Hill in west London.
It's hard for us now to appreciate just how threatening and otherworldly rock'n'roll appeared. It wasn't just old fogeys who were outraged, either. Even Old Blue Eyes saw red. 'Rock'n'roll smells phoney and false,' Sinatra raged. 'It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons ... and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration and sly, lewd – in fact, plain dirty – lyrics, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.'
The Teds weren't bothered: 1956 was their year, the year Teddy Boys blew up into a mass cult, and the Americanisation of their look moved up a gear.
The spark was a very ordinary Bill Haley movie called Rock Around the Clock, which sent the mass media into a frenzy. It was made quickly to cash in on Haley's chart success. As a film, it stank. It was cheaply made with next to no plot. But somehow the papers conspired to make the genial but balding and boring Bill Haley look like some sort of fire-breathing, baby-gobbling subversive. More riotous behaviour in cinemas followed and by September Haley had five singles in the Top Twenty.
The title track of the film has now sold in excess of 20 million copies worldwide.
Increased youth spending power saw record sales soar. Businessmen recognised the youth market as a separate consumer group and rushed to supply the new demand coming up from the streets. Rock'n'roll was the main beneficiary. First heard in Britain via Radio Luxembourg, by 1956 it became the first genuine teenage music.
With the coming of Elvis Presley, the Teds got the icon on the cake, the first real rock heartthrob. Elvis was the poor white truck driver who became the megastar of megastars, embodying the rags-to-riches rock dream along the way. In 1954, aged just 19, he recorded 'That's All Right Mama' at Sun Studios, Memphis, fulfilling producer Sam Phillips's dream of finding 'a white guy who sings like a Negro.' That recording was the moment when the embryonic new music found its perfect embodiment.
There were black performers who were more creative, such as the duck-walking wordsmith Chuck Berry, whose style influenced everyone from the Beatles to the Beach Boys, or the hysterically hyperenergised Little Richard Penniman, but at the time whiteness itself was a pre-requisite of mass acceptance.
It's important to emphasise that rock'n'roll was part of a rich two-way flow between black and white musicians at this time, however. Berry admitted his sublime first hit 'Maybelline' was inspired by 'Ida Red' by white western-swing performer Bob Wills.
Besides, Elvis was more than just another singer. He had everything that Malcolm McLaren was to correctly identify as the mainstays of rock'n'roll immortality – Sex (such was the suggestive power of his strutting hips that on TV he would be screened from the waist up), Style (Presley was cool personified) and Subversion (he oozed it – until he got drafted down the middle of the road). A Des Moines Baptist preacher denounced Elvis as 'morally insane'; several cities concurred, and banned him altogether.
With mass appeal, Teddy Boys inevitably changed. Once, Ted was about fighting and fashion, now it was more to do with music and dancing. Gradually it became publicly acceptable. By 1957 Princess Margaret could be seen tapping her royal tootsies to those despicable jungle rhythms as Jayne Mansfield bust out all over The Girl Can't Help It. The Daily Express considered it front-page news. In less than two years, rock'n'roll had achieved, if not society's approval, then at least its tolerance.
That same year the Daily Mirror got in on the act, organising the Bill Haley Special train that brought the man himself to Waterloo to be met by 3,000 screaming fans. Hysteria plagued his European tour. More seats were slashed, aisles were jived in, and in Berlin film cameras captured scenes more reminiscent of the Sham 69 concerts of 1978 than Rock Around the Clock. Chairs were trashed and the stage was invaded with Germanic gusto.
Excerpted from Hoolies by Garry Bushell. Copyright © 2010 Garry Bushell. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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