Teddy Boy at a rock’n’roll gig at the Adam & Eve pub on Homerton High Street, London, UK. November 1976. ©Richard Braine/PYMCA
Life was hard for everyone in Britain in the years immediately after WWII. Much of the country was still a bomb site, housing was in short supply, money was scarce and rationing was more severe than it had been during the war. Including petrol rationing – which meant that any would-be Bikers had to bide their time. Then, in the early ‘50s when the rationing finally ended, to add insult to injury, when the filmThe Wild One came out in 1954 it was banned for ten long years in the UK. OK, you could catch a glimpse of Brando in his Biker gear on film posters and stills but who could afford the imported American ‘Perfecto’ motorcycle jacket anyway?
When a genuine motorcycle subculture did finally get going in Britain, rather than ‘Bikers’, they called themselves ‘Coffee-bar Cowboys’after the isolated roadside ‘caffs’ (like, most famously, The Ace Café on London’s North Circular) they hung out in between racing their machines. Or, much more exciting to the media, they were called ‘Ton-up Boys’ – a ‘ton’ being slang for doing more than 100 mph. With British companies like Lewis Leathers and Pride & Clarke producing their own versions of the ‘Bronx’ (‘Perfecto’) jacket, more could afford them. Those that couldn’t made do with a similar style made from PVC rather than leather.
Rockers in the Ace Cafe, UK, 1964. ©Frank Monaco/Rex Features
Needing to protect themselves from worse weather than their compatriots in California, the British Ton-up Boys tended towards chunky aran sweaters, jeans, thick white socks rolled down over the top of their motorcycle boots and, a touch of elegance, a white silk scarf. Ideally, this would all be set off by the black, dazzling ‘Bronx’ leather jacket. As Johnny Stuart points out in his book Rockers!, ‘the term ‘leather-clad’ had become a code word to signal delinquency and the media never missed an opportunity to use it to describe any suspect young person’.[i] It’s interesting in this regard to consider the case of the Beatles who, in their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg, even if they didn’t actually own bikes, opted defiantly to be ‘leather-clad’ whenever they performed. When Brian Epstein happened to catch them perform at a lunchtime gig at the Caravan Club in Liverpool, though much taken by their music and cheeky attitude, he immediate set about transforming them from ‘leather-clad’ delinquents into sharp-suited Mods.
Rockers on Chelsea Bridge, London, UK. 1964. ©Frank Monaco/Rex Features
Throughout the ‘60s leather-clad ‘Rockers’ faced an uphill struggle against the Mods who first captured the attention of the British media and then, following on from the now Modish Beatles’ conquest of America, the attention of the world. It’s said that it was the Mods who first rechristened the Ton-up Boys as ‘Rockers’ but in fact the Bikers quite liked the name and adopted it with pride. At the same time (from 1962 onwards) they also made some alterations to their style: now featuring lots of metal studs, hand-painted insignia and sharply pointed shoes known as ‘winklepickers’. (The winkle is a tiny, edible shellfish traditionally popular as a cheap snack amongst the English working class. The point of the name is that the shoe had such a sharp point that it could be used to winkle a winkle out of its shell.)
The glass-fronted caffs they frequented located on the new, sleek roads and motorways, their gleaming black machines and leather jackets, their unisex style (in complete contrast to the Teddy Boys/Girls who had extremely distinct styles) and even their coffee consumption (as opposed to traditional British tea drinking) all identified them as modern and ahead of their time – almost something from science fiction or, perhaps, suitable for exhibition in the forward-looking 1951 Festival of Britain.
Group of teddy boys and one rocker girl at The George pub Hammersmith London February 1980. ©Richard Braine/PYMCA
But by the early ‘60s it was the Mods who were seen as futuristic and the Rockers who seemed passé. By 1964 the Mods had taken over not only ‘Swinging London’ but, indeed, the world. In truth, for many of them, such success had gone to their heads. Many had completely lost that elegant, always ‘right’, less-is-more perfectionism which had mattered so much to their predecessors. When in the summer of ’64one after another English seaside resorts became the setting for a battle between Mods and Rockers the former far, far out numbered the later who, while still often demonized by the press, seem to have typically been the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence.
In the second half of the ‘60s a large number of Rockers joined the ’59 Club’ which had been founded by a motorcycle-riding vicar to show that you didn’t have to be in league to the devil to be a Bikers. By the end of the ‘60s, however, much influenced by films like The Wild Angels (1966), another group of British Bikers renamed themselves‘Greasers’ and set out to prove that, unlike the goody goodies of the ’59 Club’ there were still Bikers proud to be on the devils side.
Rocker at an Ace Cafe re-union Croydon, London, UK. 1990’s. ©Simon Buckle/PYMCA
Adopting the baroque look pioneered by the post Wild One generation of bad ass American Bikers, the British Greasers weighed themselves down with as many chains, fringes, badges and insignia as possible. They wore jeans so soaked with grease they glistened, had long, lank hair which they sometimes topped with sinister peaked leather caps. Sleeveless ‘cut down’ leather jackets which had their sleeves hacked off were also popular – sometimes adorned with the Iron Cross or even Swastikas to up the provocation level to max.
Now ‘motorized outlaws’ these were some nasty and threatening looking Bikers who, one would have thought, were completely at odds with the peace & love Hippies who featured even more prominently at the end of the ‘60s. Yet, as Easy Rider would show in 1969, there was potentially a vast common ground between these subcultures. For starters, long hair – something neither group shared with the newly emerging Skinheads.
Judy Westacott at the ‘59 club with a rockin’ beehive hairstyle, London, UK. 1990’s. ©Ted Polhemus/PYMCA
Texts ©Ted Polhemus/PYMCA