There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Ready, Steady, Go!:
It never actually got past the drawing board, but The Assassination of Mick Jagger could have been the funniest film ever. The brainchild of fashion photographer David Bailey—an inspiration for both Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup and the hyperactive photographic style of Austin Powers—it would have starred none other than Jagger himself, as a pop star “condemned to death by a cabal of middle-aged establishment types.”
Ah, Swinging London: where the lean and hungry progeny of postwar Britain collected to smash forever the classist
shackles of the despised “establishment.” Revolt—by hemline, haircut, hallucinogen, or “happening”—was in the air. A not-yet-undead-looking Keith Richards put it best during his 1967 trial following the notorious drug bust at his Redlands cottage. In response to a prosecutor’s question as to whether he found it “quite normal” that fellow pop star Marianne Faithfull should have been discovered wearing nothing but a fur rug “in the presence of eight men, two of whom were hangers-on and the third a Moroccan servant,” Richards famously replied: “We are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals.”
Hashish, a naked woman in a fur rug, a leering Moroccan—the particulars may have been saucy enough to fire the perfervid fantasies of your average News of the World reader, but it was just another day in the decade that saw dowdy London transformed into the spinning epicenter of the fab universe. And in Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, Shawn Levy—the author of Rat Pack Confidential, as well as a biography of Jerry Lewis—does an admirable job of capturing the heady excitement of a time and place where the “whole mad modern stew” came to a boil and “the most amazing thing in the world to be was British, creative and young.”
Rather than attempt a comprehensive history of the period—which according to Levy began around 1960 and lasted “[t]en years, maybe fifteen, maybe six”—Ready, Steady, Go! focuses on some of the era’s brightest “faces”: the upstart East End photographer (Bailey), the hairdresser on fire (Vidal Sassoon), the posh gallery owner (Robert Fraser), the preening pop singer (Mick Jagger), the fashion visionary (Mary Quant), the film star (Terence Stamp), the model (Jean Shrimpton), the impresario (Brian Epstein), and so on. As a result, the book is more than just the history of a time and place; it’s the story of how a few luminescent personalities came to shape—and in turn be shaped by—an era.
It’s easy to forget, in our day and age, just how out of it London was at the dawn of the ’60s. London was “an old man’s town,” in the words of journalist Peter Evans. “There was nowhere to go. Even Soho closed early.” For music, Londoners looked to America. For fashion, to Paris and Rome. There were no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Carnaby Street—soon to be the ground zero of Mod—was just a nowhere thoroughfare. Twiggy—aka Lesley Hornby, the 87-pound “FACE of ’66″—hadn’t even been invented.
Then came a new generation. Fueled by an economic upturn—the first, really, since World War II—England’s youth found itself with money in its pocket and nearly nothing—or nothing English, anyway—to spend it on. What’s more, cracks were appearing in Britain’s rigid class system, and young upstarts—from the East End, Liverpool, Dartford, and God knows where else—wasted no time slipping through. For the first time, the plummy accents of the private schools mingled with Cockney rhyming slang in a scene that would outshine those of New York, Paris, and Rome.
This melting pot included Bailey, with his brash, Cockney, skirt-chasing ways, and Shrimpton, the natural-looking country-girl-from-Berkshire-turned-model who became his lover. Also from the East End came Sassoon, who reinvented hair styling through careful study of Bauhaus architecture. (“I dreamt hair in geometry—squares, triangles, oblongs and trapezoids,” he once said.) Quant, on the other hand, was an art-school student who had fallen in with a group of bohemians who came to be known as the Chelsea Set. Her bold designs, bright hues, and diminishing hemlines—she is generally given credit for creating the miniskirt—finally gave young English women a look to distinguish them from their mums.
Epstein, whose clever machinations helped the Beatles to reach the toppermost of the poppermost, was the solidly middle-class son of a Liverpool merchant. (In what may be the most affecting passage of the book, Levy describes how once—but only once!—Epstein gave in to the long-suppressed urge to “scream along with the girls” at a Beatles concert.) Stamp, who like Bailey and Sassoon hailed from the East End, parlayed the lead role in Billy Budd into instant superstardom. Gallery owner Fraser was that rarest of birds, a blueblood who actually did something. And then there was Jagger, who, though the son of middle-class suburbanites, in time came to speak with an exaggerated Cockney accent. A ruthless social climber, Jagger left a trail of psychic casualties—most of them ex-girlfriends—in his wake. (Ah, Mick: One of my favorite passages in Levy’s book describes how Jagger blubbered upon his incarceration following the same trial that inspired the best from his bandmate Richards. “What am I gonna do? What in hell am I gonna do?” he sobbed, until, in Levy’s words, he was “upbraided” by disgusted girlfriend Marianne Faithfull: “God, Mick! Pull yourself together!”)
Levy writes wonderfully; he makes the seemingly unthinkable—namely, reading page upon page about celebrity snipper Sassoon—not only possible, but positively enjoyable. Just as important, he understands that God is in the details. Thus he packs Ready, Steady, Go! with vignettes of some of London’s more colorful, if less famous, showbiz personalities. I’m a happier man for having learned about the irrepressible pop manager Larry Parnes, who insisted upon naming his discoveries Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Billy Fury, and—”most appallingly,” in Levy’s opinion—Dickie Pride. And I won’t rest until I find a biography of Lionel Bart, the creator of Oliver!, whose subsequent musicals Blitz! and Twang!! (he seems never to have reached the three-exclamation-point level) flopped. (Noel Coward on Blitz!: “Twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing.”)
Alas, nothing gold can stay, and gradually London let slip its headlock on the worlds of art, music, and fashion. According to Levy, much of this had to do with the birth of the hippie; just as sandals made more sense in sunny California than in the dirty snow of Soho (“The idea that you could have worn Flower Power in the rain!” scoffed Patsy Puttnam, the wife of movie producer David Puttnam), the new drug-inspired passivity inspired widespread flight to the new cultural capitals in America—London was a Do-In rather than a Be-In. Then there were the tourists, who descended on Carnaby Street just as they would on its successor, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. And of course there were the drugs, which claimed Epstein, Fraser, the Stones’ Brian Jones, and so many others.
London has had its days in the sun since then—we have it to thank for that flashest of rock fashion movements, glam, as well as for that nihilistic fusion of fishnet and fury known as punk—but they were nothing like that extended Mod riot of the mid-’60s. The city, in Levy’s opinion, has simply lacked “America’s energy or gumption or zealous commitment to the enterprise” of youth revolution. There was no draft to protest in what Mick Jagger, in 1968’s “Street Fighting Man,” could still call “sleepy London town.”
And yet, even now, we feel the pull of that town and that time, and not only through the Austin Powers films or the sight of a Mini Cooper with a Union Jack roof. Swinging London has never really stopped swinging. When Morrissey sings about “Giddy London”—”home of the brash, outrageous, and free”—in “Hairdresser on Fire,” you just know it’s Swinging London he’s talking about. He may not have been there, but like the rest of us, he wishes he had. And thanks to Levy’s double-decker bus of a book, we can at least take a brief tour. CP