Wednesday, June 4, 2008

All Dressed Up

  • Jonathon Green. All Dressed Up: The Sixties and the Counterculture.. London: Pimlico, 1999 [1998].

The book was retracted immediately publication when the author was sued (successfully) by George Harrison of The Beatles and Caroline Coon of the charitable group Rescue for stating that the latter had solicited donations from the former with sex. Apparently that's not true. I don't care either way; but I agree with the author when he says in a new introduction to the paperback edition: "too many individuals, famous for fifteen minutes when that cliché was still fresh, have become modern-day Miss Haveshams, clinging forever to their once relevant past." A bit petulant, perhaps (and George had a bit more than fifteen minutes), but true of sixties partisans nonetheless, hanging onto the past.

Ah, but what a past it was. This is an English book, so it's an English, and particularly a London, perspective (with a dash of May 1968 in Paris). Many of the central Sixties ideas and expressions came originally from America, but the English Sixties was quite different than the American one. Their pop music was very different, of course, and they had "Swinging London", and they didn't have the JFK-RFK-MLK assassinations and Kent State and Chicago 1968, except second-hand.

To an American, the English story isn't as well-known; we know about the Beatles, and the Mods and Rockers, but who in the US has ever seen a copy of IT, or has ever heard of the Angry Brigade or Michael (not Malcolm) X?

This book is a comprehensive overview of the English threads that make up that thing called "The Sixties" -- not the actual Sixties, but the Sixties of the mind. I'm still waiting for the book that tells the whole story, wherein the top-selling pop singers are Dean Martin and Englebert Humperdinck, not the Beatles and the Stones; wherein new car models like the Mini and the Ford Falcon matter more than the avant-garde galleries; and wherein the creation of a new mass market of JC Penney clothes and color TV and explicit sex in popular books and movies matter more than what which radical leftist said to which other radical leftist in some dingy commune. This isn't that book.

But "The Sixties" was a real thing, and as Green points out, it still reverberates today -- in 2008 as much as a decade earlier when this book was written. It's not just the familiar names, like Margaret Thatcher (a bluenose art censor from Finchley, among other things), Mary Whitehouse (Christianist loon morals advocate), and Richard Branson (alternative-press hanger-on); it's the whole zeitgeist of the times. It still gets people riled up, as former 60s people are firmly in charge of major institutions on both sides of the Atlantic (and both sides of the intellectual divide). The 60s still matter, and it's this version of the decade that Green covers so well.

He starts by covering the antecedents: starting with the Teddy Boys, who were sort of the Edwardian English version of American bikers without the motorcycles, and the Beats, who were wholly American but had a major impact in England and Scotland. That impact is spelled out here, from Jim Haynes's Edinburgh poetry bookshop to the famous poetry reading at Albert Hall in 1964, which was sort of a coming-out party for all the freaks in London (who quickly made whatever fragments were left of the Beats obsolete). His chapter on the Mods is very good; he's very finely tuned into fashion ideas, and grasps the "three waves" of Mod, with only the last, greatly watered down, being the sort of Mods who made the papers.

This is as good as source as you're likely to find for the main political threads of the decade, beginning with the CND marches in the 1950s, which accomplished little but were a model for all of the street action that followed, including the events in Paris in 1968. He charts the rise of the rather plodding New Left, and its split into various flavors of Revolutionary Socialism on the one hand, and boring, accomodationist left-Labour on the other -- which nonetheless accomplished a great deal of good, through the efforts of Roy Jenkins and Lord Annan in breaking down some of the bleak old morality code. And he also shows how the alternative-society freaks paid little attention to either side, preferring instead to make their own mistakes in the realm of dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the streets.

The art world played a major role in creating the atmosphere of newness and fresh creation, primarily filtered through the galleries of Robert Fraser and Barry Miles. Miles's Indica gallery was as much a part of the London scene as the Scotch of St. James or the UFO Club, and artists like Peter Blake set the visual tone much as did Mary Quant in fashion.

The spread of pot and LSD, the famous censorship trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, gay rights, women's rights, the growth of the alternative press, and the burgeoning rock scene, so different than the old-school sharkskin-suited promoters like Larry Parnes, with wild-eyed hippies putting on light shows and free (or not so free) festivals on a Woodstock-like scale; it's all in here.

Green covers an astonishing amount of detail here, with dozens of obscure names and movements filling in around the obvious ones. He doesn't shy away from ridiculousness; perhaps the emblematic episode of the 60s in Britain was the utter chaos of Apple, where the biggest pop group of all threw away millions of pounds in spectacularly insane fashion rather than give them to the taxman. The Beatles are of course at the center of many of the stories here, but the more interesting ones are on the periphery, in the offices of IT and the rotting hulks of pirate radio.

Green is good at showing how the impact of the actions of a relatively few innovators (or blowhards) on the wider society. The horror that Carnaby Street almost immediately became (so reminiscent of the Haight-Ashbury, though in very different ways) sprang from the genuine creativity of early tailoring stars:

[...] home of such traditional 'gents outfitters' as Aquascutum and Austin Reed, it was a block down from Newburgh Street where ex-photographer Bill Green, trading as 'Vince', had a decade earlier set up London's first ever outlet for chic young men. His original patrons were the gay musclemen, airing their pecs round the corner at the Marshall Street Baths, but Vince soon found itself selling to a wider market--not the teens (they couldn't afford its prices)--but Peter Sellers, Lionel Bart, John Gielgud and similar showbiz celebs. It was the start of something big. Green's star faded by the late Fifties (he moved into catering) but a replacement did all he had and more. John Stephen, a refugee Glaswegian who learned his trade in the military department of Moss Bros., set up his first business in 1957, working in Beak Street under the name of 'His Clothes'. When His Clothes was accidentally burnt down he shrugged, and moved round the corner to Carnaby Street. And where the older generation still went to Vince, Stephen attracted a new breed: Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele: the pop stars. He undercut Vince, putting immediacy and excitement in the place of traditional tailoring standards. Attuned to the ephemerality of 'youth culture' he drew in the young, including--at first--the Mod exquisites. As Nik Cohn explained 'There were ... ploys, lots of gimmicks and publicity stunts. But this was all embellishment. Underneath the central equation was that every time you walked past a John Stephen window, there was something new and loud in it, and when you counted your money you found you could afford it.' By the end of 1961 Stephen had four shops of his own and his imitators--Donis, Domino Male--had opened in Carnaby Street. They had a new name: the boutique. Originally it had meant a store within a store, dealing the latest fashions. It was a bit Frenchified, a bit camp, but no one objected to this little tribute to Carnaby Street's gay origins.

Carnaby Street truly took off in 1963, the year of Beatlemania, a brief interregnum in which the Establishment believed that it could grab 'youth' and consign its eccentricities to the dump-bins of commercial exploitation. Two years later it was dead, a tacky carnival Midway full of Union Jacks and hucksters, inflated rates fattening the local council coffers, tourists blocking its passage as they searched for the real-life version of what they'd read in Time.


Of course, the Establishment COULD grab youth and consign its eccentricities, etc., and just a couple of years later I was having my mother buy me tragic versions of these fashions, filtered through The Monkees' TV show, at JC Penney and Frederick & Nelson in Bellevue Square. But that's another story. This story is wonderfully told, though, in this book, whatever frigging George Harrison thought. It expands wonderfully upon the brilliant essay that opens Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald, and makes a nice sixties companion to Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser by Harriet Vyner, Quant by Quant by Mary Quant, and the more mainstream period history Run It Down The Flagpole by Bernard Levin (or his later The Pendulum Years), to name a representative sample. I liked it at least as much as I did Shawn Levy's poppier, less political Ready, Steady, Go!. But good luck finding it; I had to get mine through Interlibrary Loan.

1 comment:

m3warlord said...

I have a children's book on Carnaby Street fashion that my oldest brother (a real live Summer of Love hippie -- talk about affecting one's aesthetic!) gave me when I was in the third grade. I was doomed to love fashion from the start.

m3warlord = it'smarkmitchell