Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing Rise And Giddy Fall of Swinging London by Shawn Levy

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The proclivity of the press to create news out of thin air is hardly a new phenomenon. It extends from the innocent invocation of alien love children in the contemporary supermarket tabloids to the violently consequential inflation by William Randolph Hearst of the sinking of the Maine in 1898 that resulted in the full-scale calamity of the US invasion of Cuba. Thankfully, the third estate’s activities have led infrequently to genocide, as was case with that lamentable escapade, yet they have time and time again manufactured narratives out of thin air.

One of the most memorable journalistic concoctions of a ready-made phenomenon that took hold of the public consciousness was the designation in an April 1966 Time magazine cover story of the British capital as “Swinging London.” The piece was surprising in more ways than one. It did not concern itself with the physical place so much as its ambience, the effervescence of its youth culture, so as to imply that the zeitgeist under examination was a matter of the ineffability of human creativity that chanced to locate its efforts in one city at one time. Furthermore, it was the first cover story in the magazine’s history by a woman, Piri Halasz. Her efforts combined elements of travelogue, social analysis and cultural dissection so compellingly that the mid-1960s have forever been associated with the expression.

Shawn Levy’s Ready, Steady, Go! resurrects this transitory efflorescence of English cultural energy. He draws the narrative’s title from the television series that debuted during the course of the period and corrals the vast amount of social and artistic ferment through a group of emblematic figures. They are the Snapper, photographer David Bailey; the Crimper, hair stylist Vidal Sassoon; the Draper, designer Mary Quant; the Dreamer, actor Terence Stamp; the Longer, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein; the Chameleon, Mick Jagger; and Blue Blood, art dealer Robert Fraser. For Levy, each of them embodies some of the salient characteristics of the times, particularly how the straightjacket of class that strangled English society began to give way in the face of the onslaught of the social and commercial achievements of working class-bred figures like Bailey and Stamp. For a time, the aristocracy was replaced by a hierarchy bred of taste and talent, a popocracy, if you will.

No longer were a proper education and the appropriate social pedigree necessary for admission into the limelight. In the words of Terence Stamp, “The working class was just dogsbodies up until then. Suddenly we were Jack the lads. Everybody wanted to be like us.” Many of those bred to privilege, like Fraser, or creatures of the middle class, like Epstein, felt themselves attuned to the activities of those they were bred to believe were socially inferior. Talent and taste repeatedly trumped the predictable divisions that had kept the British isolated from one another. This burst of formerly leashed creativity furthermore thrived in an environment where young people had begun to come into their own as arbiters of fashion due to a healthy economy that filled their pockets with ready cash. Sure of their ability to possess what they desired, the denizens of “Swinging London” for a brief but boisterous period seemed to embody the epicenter of global cultural consciousness. As Levy states, “London was where youth culture finally cemented its hold on all forms of expression, and made itself loudly and exuberantly known.”

Levy is as broad in his approach to the period as his subjects were in their approach to expressing their pent-up energy. He treats the worlds of pop music, film, fashion, photography and the marketing of the fine arts. Often, his subjects tread across these formerly isolated precincts, as it was a common assumption of the day that the boundaries between fields of expression should be as porous as the emerging approach to class. In addition, the people he profiles were not denizens of a bohemian community that saw itself as antagonistic to commerce. They effectively marketed either themselves or the individuals they represented, the Beatles in the case of Epstein, and enjoyed the fruits of their expertise. Like those young men who identified themselves through clothing, mode of transportation — Vespa scooters — and musical preference as Mods, the stars of “Swinging London” preened and posed in the public limelight. For them, affluence and physical attractiveness went hand in hand. The most successful amongst them possessed “Face,” the Mods’ expression for those who exemplified the period’s dedicated following of fashion.

Levy successfully draws attention to the transformation of male attire during their period, the abandonment of the gray flannel suit for the flashy gear of Carnaby Street. He chronicles the succession of designers and clothes shops that encouraged a generation to treat their bodies as a canvas and promoted preening as a matter of routine rather than a practice that led to questions about one’s sexual orientation. The eroticisation of the male physique that pervades present day fashion began at this time. So too did the mix and match heterogeneity of clothing design, as young people saw nothing odd in combining wildly disparate apparel. Levy draws out how figures like Bailey, Quant and Sassoon, in addition to models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, reconfigured the human physique and how we choose to cover ourselves.

At the same time, Levy addresses the cinematic and musical dimensions of the period with a less sure hand. Part of the problem is that his choice of subjects reeks of the familiar. How many times has Brian Epstein’s promotion of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones’ elevation into the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll been told? Would that Levy had instead chosen to delineate the fascinating career of a band that has not been so firmly etched in the popular memory, like the Yardbirds, amongst whose members were the guitarists Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Their transformation from a group that belonged to the blues revival, ascended to the Top Ten with the aid of successful producer Mickey Most, and then engaged in more experimental work is less familiar to the average reader. The fact that they, and not the Who, trashed their instruments during the club sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up [1966] attests both to the Yardbirds’ importance during the period as well as their relative absence — and that of the film itself for that matter — from the current public record.

Levy’s grasp of film at the time also resorts to the recognizable signposts, even though his chronicle of Terence Stamp’s ascendance from the docks of London to the silver screen bears a telling poignancy. The actor’s recognition of the transitory dimension of fame and his eventual self-imposed resignation from the social whirl for over a decade points out how principle can occasionally overcome the machinery of promotion. One wishes Levy might have combined this information with the complex trajectory of other representative figures of the period, like the director Richard Lester. In an act of what seemed like self-willed commercial suicide, he traded in the effervescence of the Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night [1964] and Help [1965] for the bleaker emotional canvas of the anti-war diatribe featuring John Lennon How I Won the War [1967] and the post-apocalypse black comedy The Bed Sitting Room[1969].

The metamorphosis of Lester’s attention from that of wide-eyed innocence to corrosive cynicism typifies one of the larger points Levy wishes to make: how “Swinging London” collapsed when the external pressures of politics and drugs eroded the period’s idealized mood. He states, “The whole vibe of the scene had mutated from something dashing and smart to something frankly revolutionary, determinedly freaky and studiedly shabby: a whole new mode of cool.” Evidence of that transformation can be observed in many movies that he ignores, particularly the grottier domain of commercial genre cinema, and most notably the horror films of the day. The work of Michael Reeves, who died at the criminally young age of twenty-five in 1968, unleashes with memorable ferocity the latent violence that lay below the period’s placid surface in The Sorcerers [1967] and The Witchfinder General [1968]. Virtually unknown in this country, Reeves’s work has been reappraised by film historians as some of the most important of the time in England. It is even more tellingly indicative of the unleashing of the apocalypticism that Levy illustrates with the better known examples of Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance [1970] and the murder and mayhem during the Rolling Stones 1969 Altamont concert.

The absence of these kinds of examples illustrates what I find frustrating with Levy’s readable and occasionally illuminating, but ultimately underwhelming, chronicle. Much as he compellingly conjures up the creative bubble that surrounded the privileged denizens of Swinging London, he fails to locate their innovative activities in the larger social sphere of a complex city like London. If his subjects seem at times deliberately oblivious to the world of those who were not equally groovy, Levy likewise closes himself off from much that was not headline-grabbing and hedonistic. As the British critic Michael Bracewell has written, “the pageant of Swinging London took place within a city whose remaining Victorian and Edwardian constitution, and the lingering ambience of post-war austerity, were as vital as its latest development as the Pop Capital of the world.” If for a few short years, as the American songwriter Roger Miller stated, “England did swing like a pendulum do,” that did not mean the rest of the population was dozing off.