Scorcha! Skins, Suedes and Style From The Streets 1967-1973 by Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson and Mark Baxter (Omnibus Press, 2021)
With words and images, Scorcha! sets out to document one strand of UK working class youth culture in the pre-punk era. The pictures provide a far more accurate depiction of late-sixties and early-seventies street style than slick fashion photos using models, stylists, make-up artists and professional photographers ever could. There are a slew of previously unpublished photos of ordinary kids all pilled up and with only a handful of places to go. Some of those in the pictures have also been interviewed – alongside a few pop personalities ranging from former BBC Radio One DJ Emperor Rosko to mod revivalist Paul Weller. Alongside this, there is record art and other promotional schlock I’ve seen before, but it provides needed context.
The period covered is a lot wider than the six years indicated in the subtitle. In terms of clothes, the book goes back to the 1950s and teddy boy gear but the authors’ mod-into-skinhead obsessions provide the main focus. Anderson in particular has spent decades looking back at mod’s early incarnations but nonetheless has little to say when it comes to the subculture’s modern jazz roots – he and Baxter are much more up on the r&b, ska, soul and rock side of things. This reflects the biases of most mod revivalists – and indeed my own.
What’s nice about the book is that as the oldies tell their stories of being young, you can see how age and just different tastes impact on what people do and don’t like as far as youth culture goes. The book runs more or less chronologically, and early on Marc Bolan gets a bit of a kicking from some of those sixties mods voicing their opinions, whereas towards its end the ex-suedes and sorts who the authors have interviewed clearly love the early-seventies singles made by Bolan and his band T. Rex. I’m with the latter camp because at the start of the seventies T. Rex really turned me on to music, alongside the skinhead reggae and soul tunes that made the charts back then. Whether Bolan was ever credible as a teenage mod in the early sixties has never really troubled me. I look to other figures for original mod inspiration.
As one of the voices featured in Scorcha! notes, it was when you got to wear long trousers at secondary school that you also learned to appreciate the finer points of English working class sartorial style. For me that was 1973, the end of the suedehead/smoothie era. So my tweenie-bopper and early teen preening was premised on the next incarnation of hard mod – the only one not really addressed in its original form in the book – boot boy. Although punk is unthinkable without mod, it also drew more heavily on the teddy boy and rocker subcultures than the boot boy style, although the latter absorbed some elements of the early seventies rock and roll revival, mostly via glam rock’s plundering of such sources.
There’s a quick skip though West Indian immigration and later on racism in an attempt to contextualise some music and fashion tastes, but ultimately these sections come across as only slightly less random than a page featuring a graphic headlined ‘Hey, Let’s Twist!’ Scorcha! doesn’t even try to deconstruct modern British racism as an ideology that evolved from attempts by the English ruling class to justify its colonial barbarism, including but not limited to the Atlantic slave trade. Likewise, the immigration to the UK in the twentieth-century isn’t traced back to the British ruling class plundering and impoverishing much of the rest of the world for its own enrichment. When it comes to racism, Anderson and Baxter appear to have their hearts in the right place, but they clearly haven’t thought much about the matter. This lack of understanding is reflected in the views of one of the original hard mods they quote: “My old man learnt not to be racist by meeting a lot of my mates. I never had time for all that racist bollocks…. If I came from Jamaica and got off a boat here, I’d turn around and get back on again!” It should – but here unfortunately can’t – go without saying that most of those who emigrated to England from Jamaica by boat weren’t in an economic position where they could easily make a decision to return to the West Indies.
Tracking back, underneath the ‘Hey, Let’s Twist!’ headline are instructions for various twist moves. Readers like me will probably see that headline as invoking the 1961 song and/or film of the same name associated with Joey Dee and the Starliters. I’ve never thought of the twist as a mod thing, although it is a quintessential part of early sixties global pop culture. I was left wondering what the relationship between mod and the twist is since Anderson and Baxter having nothing to say about the dance. I’m sure my mod mother would have done the twist as part of the professional dancing she did alongside her hostess work at London clubs like Murrays and Churchills. But she wouldn’t have been twisting at the mod jazz joints she frequented when she was off work in the early sixties.
There’s a chapter dedicated to Guy Stevens, The Scene club and the British Sue record label. I first started picking up British Sue 45s at 10p a pop from a market stall in the mid-seventies, so much of this section was very familiar to me. Nonetheless, it was a nice surprise to find buried within it a story about Bo Diddley’s guitarist The Duchess, who always mesmerises me when I see sixties footage of her performing. Here Lesley Gould relates how she became the girlfriend of Diddley’s percussionist Jerome Green and through this connection got the job of The Duchess’s dresser on a UK tour: “The best night was a pre-tour performance, just Bo, Duchess, Jerome and me, at a US airbase. Many of the airmen were black and I imagine homesick and the appearance of Duchess in her gold lamé catsuit caused a sensation. I will never forget the noise and atmosphere! You could have cut it with a knife. Even skinny 18 year-old me awash in some of the reflected glory of The Duchess shaking a tail feather, as she put it.”
Sadly, there isn’t a picture of The Duchess accompanying these observations, although the opposite page features the cover of the Have Guitar Will Travel album showing Bo Diddley on his scooter with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Beyond its depiction of one of hard mod’s favoured forms of transportation, you wonder why the cover of that album was chosen when the female guitarist playing on it was Lady Bo (Peggy Jones) rather than the later Bo Diddley & Company LP which showcases The Duchess (Norma-Jean Wofford) not just playing on its tracks, but also pictured on the sleeve. Even worse, there’s an unrelated pull-out quote run down the right side of the iconic Bo Diddley cover that is used, followed by some random ska 45 labels crudely stuck over it. Incidentally, for those of you who play guitar – or used to like me – it seems the difficulty in getting Bo Diddley songs to sound perfect when trying to cover them is the fact that he, Lady Bo and The Duchess, all used a violin tuning rather than a standard blues guitar tuning. Scorcha! doesn’t have much technical detail about musicianship or even dancing (beyond the unexplained inclusion of some twist moves).
After the Guy Stevens chapter, the book switches between the subjects of gangs, clobber, music, football and aggro, with the odd mention of drugs too. The accompanying photos grooved me, but the tales of fights and run-ins with the old bill were on the whole generic and very similar to hundreds I’ve heard before. The accounts of club-going are more thrilling, although it’s the London joints and the famous northern soul clubs that fascinate me (The Torch isn’t mentioned). I found memories of south coast and Whitley Bay hard mod life less interesting – but I’d also assume people from those places would be less fired up by the material I liked best since my tastes are, of course, influenced by the fact I was born and still live in London. If I hadn’t been reviewing the book I’d have skipped a lot of the text that didn’t interest me – you certainly don’t need to read it all.
Moving on, the people interviewed for Scorcha! aren’t much into dropping the names of rare tunes. The music covered is now mostly very well-known despite northern soul’s most divisive DJ Ian Levine cropping up, and soul legend David Godin too. The familiarity of the music invoked to anyone interested in this area of subculture gives the text authenticity. The book is about a popular and very much shared culture, even if a lot of what grooved those attracted to hard mod didn’t make a huge impression on the British charts.
The penultimate chapter on books and films has little in it that won’t be known to anyone familiar with the subject – but there is a nice touch in that the authors have managed to dig up the guys featured on the front of Richard Allen’s Suedehead novel, so we get their story. It turns out the photograph on the cover of both Allen’s Skinhead and Suedehead books were taken in Croydon, a town in Surrey just to the south of London.
Scorcha! ends by looking at suedeheads, and as it concludes the reader is told: “In the late sixties there’d been a band called Neat Change that played around Hounslow doing heavy Motown numbers. They’d started off as mods but adopted a much more skinhead look.” Neat Change were from Hounslow, but they played all over the place and had a residency at The Marquee in Soho. There’s an interview with their singer Jimmy Edwards on my website, and while there’s always a limit on what can be included in a book like this, it would have been great if a photo or two of Neat Change had been featured in Scorcha!
Again, it’s a matter of taste and personal choice, but I’d have preferred it if the book had gone up to 1976 and taken in the boot boy era. In the suedehead chapter we’re told: “Other bands that had flirted with the look were The Hammersmith Gorillas and The Jook.” Now to me, in the mid-seventies Jesse Hector of The Gorillas (they’d shortened the name by 1976) had perfected the boot boy style I aspired to pre-punk with his grown out mod barnet, sideburns and Oxford bags. Hector is as much a template for boot boy perfection as Terry Taylor (who isn’t even name checked in Scorcha!) was for early mod style – check the photo of Taylor by Ida Kar on the first edition dust jacket of his 1961 book Baron’s Court, All Change and another on the cover of a recent Spanish translation. The closest Scorcha! gets to Taylor is reproducing – but again without explanation – the covers of the Absolute Beginners and Mr Love and Justice novels by Colin MacInnes, in which the main character is a thinly fictionalised version of Taylor.
You can’t have everything in one book, and while Scorcha! Is definitely worth a look if you’re interested in sixties and seventies British working class youth culture, it’s a shame a publication so obsessed with style is such a dog’s dinner in terms of its design. The typesetting is clunky, the pages are laid out with two columns of dense text, and a third narrower column given over to pull out quotes and graphics. Frequently, the graphics on the text pages are of 45 labels reproduced in an annoyingly small size. Some but not all the text pages have distracting underlays – the worst of which are newspaper text reproduced in light blue beneath the black type of the main text. The choice of colours for the pull out quotes leaves much to be desired, and any sense of composition some of the photographs have is obliterated by other graphic elements being clumsily inserted into or over them. I’ve only ever glanced at Anderson’s earlier Mod: The New Religion book because like Scorcha! it was slapped together by Paul McEvoy, who ruined graphic design the way William McGonagall ruined poetry.
Aside from the crap design, the other thing that really pissed me off about Scorcha! was that every time the authors inserted a piece of their Norman Jay interview into the narrative, they put MBE after his name – this even happens in the pull out quotes for fuck’s sake! In the circles I frequent it isn’t enough to refuse honours – as the likes of Stuart Hall, a cultural theorist Anderson and Baxter need to read carefully, have done – you should avoid doing anything to merit being honoured in the first place. Nonetheless, overall I dug Scorcha! because it’s stuffed with boss hard mod photos I’d never seen before – alongside a few oddities such as a poster for the Mike Raven Blues Show in which the DJ and his wife feature looking much more like refugees from quasi-Satanic hippie cult and Scientology offshoot The Process than suedes or sorts. In this explosive book mostly about the sixties and early seventies youth trends with a few other random elements thrown in for no good reason, subcultures run amok and logic is left in the cloakroom!
Stewart Home is the author of Red London, Come Before Christ and Murder Love, She’s My Witch and plenty of other novels. He has also authored a highly entertaining account of punk rock, Cranked Up Really High.
Book obviously wasn’t woke enough for Home, yawn.
What an idiotic comment, yawn.