Tag Archives: fashion

On The Sex Pistols, And Revolt Into Style

In 1970 George Melly, the jazz singer, Surrealist and general bon viveur about town, wrote Revolt Into Style. The book was an overview of the popular culture, music and arts which he knew intimately.

He came up with the theory, if I recall it rightly, that any new aspect of youth culture was at first attacked and denigrated by the mainstream. It was subsequently and profitably subsumed into it, marketed by big business and the fashion industry and sold back to the young consumer.

As I have written in the paper I work for, the Sex Pistols are being used to sell a credit card. You can get a special novelty card featuring the artwork from their only album and first single.

Melly died in 2007, so he was around to witness just the process he described in his book take place on the coming of punk rock, six years after it was published. At first the movement was excoriated as a sinister youth cult and a nihilistic, anti-social rejection of everything middle England held dear. The hysteria it generated at the time is hard to credit now, though the punks didn’t help themselves by attacking, often physically, any musician or DJ they deemed too old and out of touch.

Within months, artfully ripped T-shirts, held together with safety pins, were appearing in high street boutiques, mass-produced by the same fashion companies that had brought us crushed denim loon pants and flared jeans a few years earlier. Record companies were frantically signing any band that fit the stereotype. Revolt had indeed turned into style, though rather more quickly than in previous incarnations of youth culture.

Kids who had been barely aware of the early punk gigs were queuing up to buy identikit versions of the uniform. As a satirical song at the time put it: “Oh, I wanna be me, I wanna be myself/Even though I look like everybody else.”

(Though one might argue that punk, most of which was musically worthless, was itself a con perpetrated by the music industry on the young consumer, so it was probably ideally suited to the process.)

You could see the same thing happening in the case of acid house, or rap music. Revolt into style. RIP George Melly, an acute observer of popular culture. Though I bumped into you briefly at the Edinburgh Festival once and thought you were a bit of a plonker.


Inside Llewyn Davis

It says much about our expectations of Hollywood films that Inside Llewyn Davis should have arrived garlanded with so many awards and so much praise – five star reviews from The Times and The Guardian.

It is a well-scripted, well acted film about a folk musician who has the misfortune to emerge just before Dylan – on the intellectual level of a middle-brow popular novel.  Jonathan Coe, Nick Hornby, Iain Banks, David Nicholls, say.

It isn’t, like most blockbusters, half an hour longer than it needs to be, to be fair. I grew up around failing musicians, though I never had any ambitions, and much of this rings true. The belief that what you are doing, playing to a few people in a small pub, is somehow worthier than getting a proper job. At some stage, the real world intrudes. You accept you are not going to make it, and music becomes a hobby.

What the film brings out, inadvertently, is the sheer awfulness, the greyness, of the times. It is set in 1961, just 16 years after the end of the War, an event as near then as the second year of the Blair administration, the Kosovo War or the founding of Google today.

The ugly hairstyles, the drab, fuddy-duddy clothing – Mad Men was happening elsewhere, in a parallel universe, presumably. Even in hip, happening Greenwich Village, the music was dull, po-faced, cable-sweatered. No wonder Dylan went electric.

That was the US. Over here it was worse. You have to have lived through the Sixties to realise this. Visionaries such as Terence Conran, Robert Carrier, Elizabeth David were beginning to show us that meals could be a thing of joy, that furniture did not have to look like it was designed by an MoD committee circa 1942.

But fashion, haute cuisine and design were still only for the rich. For most people, olive oil was something you bought in an Italian shop in Soho to cure earache. You went out seldom because there were not a lot of places to go. And there wasn’t much money around. The cinema, the pub – though these were almost exclusively places where males drank beer.

If you ate out, there was no point in complaining that the food was awful. It’s food. What did you expect? The acme of culinary exploration was the local steak house. Where you ordered steak, a dish as easy to prepare in your own home. You ended the meal with one of those sorbets that was a real orange or lemon, scooped out and filled with water ice. With a green waxed paper on a wire on top, to imitate a leaf. So sophisticated. I wonder if they still make them?

That was in prosperous, vibrant London. Elsewhere it was even worse. If, as Larkin said, sex began in 1963, then for most people the Sixties, in terms of social, artistic and cultural freedom, started about ten years after that.

When I had my first Chinese meal, in the Kings Road, circa 1966, it was so exotic, so outré, that if you had told me it was Martian, I would have half believed you. The opening of our first local Augustus Barnett, where you could actually choose from different bottles of wine, lots and lots of them, was a revelation.

Sometimes we don’t know when we’re well off.