Scorcha! Skins, Suedes and Style from the Streets 1967-1973 by Smiler Anderson and Mark Baxter
Omnibus Press – out now
Ready. Steady. Go!
”Yesterday I was what you are. Tomorrow you will be what I am” – Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, 1990.
It’s a mammoth piece of work that deserves more than these words can possibly contain. A labour of love by Smiler Anderson and Mark Baxter aiming to let people interested by what happened in on the secret.
Paragraphs that, in comparison to the entire history, of entire human beings, perhaps appear as nothing but the linguistical latitude of a fan betwixt and bemused between worlds, between multitudes.
Fascinated by past and present. Intrigued by the prospects of a future when I face forward with style, and supercharged by the brief, intense spikes of stimulation in a simulated, monstrously modern playground…and plenty of it, of just that: curiosity without compromise, rather than dastardly sanity served in a handful of damaged, fantastical scraps.
Scorcha! published on September 9th, digs deep, and feet first, into the streets of the late 1960s, taking us on a dizzying journey from one scene to another, one club to the next, one subculture somehow bleeding and blending into another one, all supported by a kaleidoscopic collage of previously unseen, and therefore rare images making this an impeccable, incredible, and essential piece of literature to indulge in.
Posters like the advert for Brutus shirts (Wild Streaks, ‘an easy ride for you’) or The Crazy World of Author Brown with Jefferson Airplane. Plus a contact sheet of skinheads looking like lions. Fabulously fascinated and unfazed by the camera’s headlights and cubs coupled with other cubs, stood against redbrick walls, smoking cigarettes in the warehouse backyard, fitting in and having fun.
Newspaper cuttings like the Colour Me Pop or Butch Look from p118 or 119 about Hair (‘a shaven look from Paris, it’s real cool’, and a set of instructions to do it. Or ‘Martin King Shot to Death’ from the Daily News. Or a visual manual of how to perform the Twist in a set of steps, and a feature on the initiation of Blue Beat (Breaks Through).
Or…45s like Sherman by the Cats on Crystal, Mine Exclusively by the Olympics on Action, The Vampire by The Upsetters.
Or…Book covers like Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, City of Spades and, Mr. Love and Justice (plus the immense trove of subcultural classics by Richard Allen).
Or…Magazine articles like Meet The Crombies from March ’71 (‘a gentlemanly fad’ from London that ‘swaggered out of the East End, onto the football terraces, caught like measles and spread to places as far as Highgate and Barnes’)
Sartorial slices of fashion articles and photographs outlining the pages like an encyclopedia of the human body, vibrant, visual scrapbook or historical spirograph (Levi’s Sta-Prest: Never Needs Ironing! or Where Can You Buy The Best American Clothes In England?)
All of which irradiate transmissions of written fashion, rhetorical and rationalized, littering the page to dazzling effect, each amusingly hangs as a graphic snapshot, an anchor to the web of information, active as visual cues to complement the range of stories, exhaling breaths, intimate expositions, rhizomatic breadths and depths explored alongside the time’s stylish survivors who tell their own tales with conviction, precision and admirable honesty.
Noteworthy stories, and therefore, non-exhaustive ones appealing to me, litter each pulsating chapter, subtly changing shape as the West Indian migrants that made their way over to the UK from Jamacia in the mid-1950s, find counterparts in their white ‘modernist’ individuals. Entities amongst many, enlivened by the unstoppable expositions in the Kensington and Paddington to ska and calypso. A soundtrack, and a flavour (liquor and curried goat), concurrently kicking open a door and transmogrifying a system of values, a set of rules, to new, unique templates for existence, able to be made, entirely a Mod’s own.
One of the more surprising aspects of Chapter 2 when Rude Boy and primitive Mod-youths, was the distinction to be made between what ‘Mod’ was. It’s a contentious topic, capricious and sometimes adding to the contemptuous nature of a finite term.
In as much that what it can resolutely be confirmed as for all those who conform to this way and walk of life, will be different for someone else. The confirmation of one mod, of one suedehead and rudeboy as the confinements in the eyes of another…but with youth as glue, camaraderie links each piece together.
But attempts at such a absolute insistence as to what ‘Mod’ is, isn’t applicable to everyone. Poet Carmen Gimenez-Smith, expressing this disenchantment with the particular pigeonholes gradually tightening its grip around, frankly fictitious, fantastical factions of the emerging ‘Mod’ scene says to 60s face Mickey Tenner: “Two person’s version of the same thing can be so completely different from each other. To me, it was clothes, food, music and dancing”. This: as insightful and intellectual as swallowing a pill or punching a penny into the booming illuminations of a members-only club jukebox in cellars and basements galvanised with electric life, is what it was to her. In a way, it could well be different for you.
But the point still stands that violence, although apparent, was in parts, mythologised. Strategies upheld by strings, each attached to a specific media finger and once sensationally spun, sold another story to the masses. The ‘beach riot stuff’, although looks good, is the fluff of legend.
But as one myth is debunked (mods vs rockers who, rather than on the pier wielding spanners, were in penitentiaries serving time) other myths, pertinent to violence as an analogical stitch between one set of styles and another, is portrayed with graphic detail in Chapter 5 with the likes of the Junction Boys ‘out on a beano’ (party or celebration) who would drink in boozers such as Apples and Pears and the King’s Arms as the Junction concluded and became Old Kent Road.
One such anecdote, in addition to the inclusion of George Warrington Francis, or Coco, who looks like an utter tank of a man who was a part of the nominal ‘firm’ or ‘gang’, was a bloody battle that saw a gentlemen called Charlie Taylor fall on the wrong side of a fairground boy’s motorcycle chain when a brawl broke out between members of the Boys and the group working the rides.
With his blond hair dyed black-red with blood, and upon taken to hospital with the police waiting for him when he successfully made his escape when he realised he was soon to be arrested, shuffled out of a cubicle window in a nearby toilet. A lift back to Southend greeted Charlie with two policemen, a handcuffed wrist, treatment, and the entire Junction, adorning handmade suits from Henry London or a black guy named Norman on Fulham Palace Road, were escorted back in their coach by an Essex county police vehicle to the Windsor Castle Pub at St. John’s Hill.
Ultraviolence has never sounded so appealing, so disorderly, but so cohesively activated by sparks with more stitches between them shared by suit and not the state of the damaged skin beneath.
Violence aside, but music always resonating throughout each member of the moving unit, the book also unveils and enumerates stories from unshakably influential figures of immense, subcultural iconicity and impact.
Guy Stevens being one of them.
Stevens, who also worked with the Clash and Mott The Hoople, was responsible for assisting in the accessibility to black artists from the US in UK clubs which were rarities to come across in English record collecting circles. Ushering in, when he connected himself to Sue Records, an offshoot from Island, as it’s captain, and later, a voice to be heard for the output of Pye International who curated releases by Diddley and Berry, and who’s vast trove of a record collection enabled the search engines of the 60s, the Google of Soho pre-internet, to establish itself as a force not to be reckoned with and located within the DJ sets that Stevens was a purveyor of.
An obsessive, autonomous encyclopedic machine whose musical tastes manoeuvre themselves between comic strip pop oddity fuelling the mod scene with rhythm and amphetamine, and hammer-heavy soul, provided intricate traces leading directly into other worlds with their own independent horizons, sources hung from ceilings gleaming with a different kind of scenery, black bones glowing alone, always of interest to those in attendance at local clubs like the 100, Flamingo on Wardour Street or Lyceum.
Records of some obscurity that, due to them being sourced on shores unheard of by the faces and figures on the scene, like Chess, Motown, and Stax, sharpened the edge that Steven’s spun his history alongside like a blast of light, a bullet between the eyes, a beacon of journalistic light as a writer for Record Collector and Sounds whose position in amongst this long, unwinding story, is solidified in his tapes, The Sue Story Compilation LPs that everlastings trailblaze a trademark of hard-hitting ska beat, rocksteady, and boiling-hot blues sound-signals shot from afar in some cosmic swamp that, alongside the repertoire of other mavericks like Spector, alongside the overarching visual auteurship of Truffaut’s and Goddard’s gangsters, influenced the loss of a virginity, ushered in the encouragement of the popping of a purple pill, and in doing so, drop a bomb on the binaries of black and white, converged in the dancefloors of the underground.
It creates a mood, paints a picture, of all those characters and catalysts as embodiments and advocates for something special, something propulsive to shake the somnabulance and stupor from the streets, as the needle is dropped unto grooves like a nexus, signalling spaceships descending from distant worlds and suddenly: doors are opened; clubgoers from personnel part of Who, Yardbirds, Them, Zoot Suit, and Faces, transported from and taking us to, dimensions distinct from our own.
The book is wonderfully engrossing the more it unfurls. Empirically and emotively encapsulating a broad spectrum of strata from the accounts of those who were present during the death knell of the hippy dream as discussed, as well as, in the same chapter and fascinatingly so – the notions of the skinhead. One in particular emphasized as such in name only. Here between the pages as a street, a stage and dismantling and dissecting the suedehead look and what was required, where 1967 ‘youths’ (which remained nameless as the ‘the press couldn’t call us anything’) in their Plush Happies from Dolcis, turns into a pivotal 1968. Norman J MBE attends his first market in Shepherd’s Bush, Geoff Dean’s little mob making waves of their own in their Wranglers, their Brutus, their must-have Levis and cherry red, steel toe-capped Docs with the steel exposed.
A means to dig a dividing line in the sand between London and San Fransico, exposing the cold bones of old, concrete council estates antipodal to America where stencilled on the surfaces of just about everything, ‘GROOVY’ is the rage. Whereas in the UK, there was both a sense of separation from this dream, this phoney utopian pot, this fabricated amassment of collective sensibility.
And in its place, came a convergence of sincerity with Ian Hingle’s freestyle approach to the dominating aesthetic templates. A living sign embodying this notion of ousting the immutable grooves of youth as a living, breathing subcultural engineers shifting between the scene. Scenes with their own connotative, linguistical systems, exposing the codes of the parole and langue of the lot, including ‘ticket’, ‘face’, ‘number’, ‘seven and six’ and ‘being on the firm’ as a way to let the reader, the outsider, in on the subcultural secret with charmingly inclusive sentiment, genuine generosity and seamless, common cool. The definitions of which will not be found in your catchphrase dictionary.
But no matter, the book you need between your fingers, is here.
He, The Patchwork Man with a savage mind, and others, provide interesting, insightful psychogeographical ideas, able to fluently communicate and easily convey the notions that ‘different areas had different styles’. A bricolage, or mishmash of various assortments, repurposed for new meanings in new ages, contributing to the projection of their uniqueness, the distinct outline of each amongst many. But also, as a mixture of politicised mods, clash and collide, hybridizing and spontaneously placed at Palais or Portobello Road, congregating with West Indian men at the Wormwood Scrubs funfair blasting ska and soul and the occasional, odd pop tune carried along with the crash of dodgem cars and bulbs of bright lights that sit strung atop the Super Speedway. A means of underpinning the idiosyncrasies, and the diversity of ideologies included.
Fascinating theories fill each page whereby the self is subject. Penny Reel from London introducing an enchanting genealogical theory that, much like a conservative pedestrian seeing their first punk, witnessed his first Skinhead. A magnificent mobile metaphor for racism, for violence, although in some cases misrepresented and unfairly castigated as exhibiting such tropes(‘working-class kids, hardnuts, Millwall supports and football hooligans’)or the antithesis of hippy liberalism as symbols for a lifestyle of hard work, Oi! as their folk, and localised tropes looking for truth in trouble; of handsome, young-dumb toughness. But sweet and tender hooligans and hardnuts that he believes to be direct descendants from their siblings (actual or analogical), that then adapted and scratched at that style to impress into the mould a brand new youth movement.
A blossom of affiliation, of resemblance, but a movement grown from the seeds on the streets. To ‘satisfactorily explain the world and make it able to be lived in’ (Hawkes, 1977, cited in Hebdige, 1979, p.104). To ‘respond to their environment’ and ‘serve to establish homologies and analogies between the ordering of nature and society’ (Hawkes, 1977); constantly on the cusp of collapse; and therefore change; subcultures never to be caged by the past or condemned to history in their everlasting ambiguity and contradictory creative motions.
It’s a book about lots of things. About real people. Effervescent adolescence. An experiment of soul rather than science. Incandescent creatures exploring the pockets and corners of the night, indulging the compulsions to create their own chatting, oddly organised situations. The evolution of one experience, everlastingly crashing into another as a supercharged impact of accounts and occurrences. The rich wellspring of the city streets as a source of something unstoppable and tapped and tripped and spilling into the wild, galvanised dilated twilight. Suited and booted and surfing the seismic waves of the day.
But really, it’s about clothes and food and music and dancing.
Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson is the author of the books Mods: The New Religion, and Mod Art, both published by Omnibus Press.
Mark Baxter is a writer/filmmaker and a native of southeast London. He has produced films on Sir Peter Blake and The Style Council for Sky Arts via his company Mono Media Films, which he runs with Lee Cogswell, and Scorcha! is his 18th book.
Ryan Walker is a writer from Bolton. His archive for Louder Than War can be found online here.
Works cited –
Barthes, R. (1990) The Fashion System. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. University of California Press.
Hawkes, T. (1977) Structuralism and Semiotics. York: Methuen.
Hebdige, D (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.</em