December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1980s Rockabilly and the Teddy Boy revival

7 min read
1980s Rockabilly fused rock'n'roll and punk but traditional British Teddy Boys were not amused as Tony McMahon discovers
1980s rockabilly

In the 1970s and 1980s, Teddy Boys fought a bitter battle to preserve their subculture from what they perceived to be an onslaught – first from Punks and then the Rockabilly revival scene. Proud of their look – the Teddy Boys didn’t take kindly to it being subverted in any way.

Back in the early 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll revolutionised youth culture. In Britain it spawned the Teddy Boys – working class blokes who loved the music and wanted to make an aligned fashion statement. The term ‘Teddy Boy’ was coined by the tabloid press after violent incidents involving Teddy Boy gangs. This was based on the assumption that the look referenced early 20th century ‘Edwardian’ fashion. That is gentlemen’s attire under the reign of King Edward VII. Teddy is short for Edward – hence Teddy Boy.

But in reality, the look borrowed equally if not more from the American 1940s Zoot suit with its knee length drape jacket with added velvet trim. And the elaborate waistcoats worn by Teddy Boys had a touch of the Wild West saloon about them. Drainpipe trousers were worn high at the waist and some way above the ankle to show off the shoes with thick crepe soles often referred to mockingly as ‘brothel creepers’. The suede upper of the shoe might be black or patterned. Instead of a tie, there would be a bootlace or ‘Slim Jim‘ tied at the neck and hanging down. Surmounting all of this was the greased back and piled high hair do with a pointed quiff at the front. This was unflatteringly termed a ‘DA’ or duck’s arse.

One theory about how the Teddy Boy suit came to be was that Savile Row tailors in central London were trying to wean men discharged from military service after World War Two from their boring “civvy street” suits. So they developed this more glamorous and fashionable look. They didn’t get the marketing right and the whole thing bombed, leaving them with heaps of unsold menswear. This was then offloaded on to high street and provincial retailers and somehow got picked up by fashion conscious working-class youth. Well, that’s the story!

Once this ensemble was established as the classic Teddy Boy look – it was jealously guarded. The rival Mods in the 1960s paid the same obsessive interest to sartorial detail – but their fashion, music and choice of two-wheeled vehicle (Vespa and Lambretta scooters) was judged by the Teddies to be effete. Ditto the rockers who were a grubby subset of the Teddy Boys eschewing the tailored suits for a uniform of leather jackets, jeans and greasy motorbikes. In the late 1960s, the Teds slipped largely out of the public view before experiencing a revival in the 1970s. The reality is most likely they never went away but were crowded for a while by newer subcultures like the hippies and skinheads.

1970s Teddy Boy revival

The beginning of the 1970s Teddy Boy revival is often attributed to the first ever musical concert at Wembley Stadium in 1972: The London Rock and Roll Show. This brought together some of the great 1950s acts such as Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Bill Haley and the Comets. They were joined by younger and very reverential British acts like Joe Brown, Screaming Lord Sutch (yes, really) and Heinz – with Wilko Johnson on guitar. Wilko would become a mainstay of Dr Feelgood – a band that was part of the pub rock scene which would cross over with punk after 1976.

Also on the bill was Roy Wood – formerly of The Move and the Electric Light Orchestra – whose new band Wizzard made its first public outing at the 1972 show. Wizzard became part of the glam rock wave of the early 1970s which often referenced the Teddy Boy look but otherwise departed radically. To the horror of Teddy purists for many years afterwards, bands like Mud, Showaddywaddy, The Rubettes and The Glitter Band adopted what could be described as Teddy-esque fashion. In 1973, singer Alvin Stardust had a huge UK chart hit with My Coo-Ca-Choo and his look and persona, while clearly influenced by 1950s rock’n’roll, foreshadowed the 1980s Rockabilly trend.

Then, as if things couldn’t get worse for a conservatively minded Teddy Boy – Punk gobbed and spat its way into the limelight.

DISCOVER: The 1980s Mod Revival

Rise of the 1980s Rockabillies

The Sex Pistols arrived in 1976 proclaiming a kind of year zero in which everything before had been rubbish and they had come to deliver Punk redemption. Our lives were changed. The 1970s suddenly got a lot more interesting. And then – barely had the revolution begun when the Sex Pistols split up in early 1978. In the two years of their existence, they had got right up the nose of the resurgent Teddy Boy movement. The subverting of elements of Teddy Boy attire by punk’s favourite clothes designer Vivienne Westwood at her shop on the King’s Road made them see red. The result was running battles between punks and Teddy Boys on the King’s Road to the horror or bemusement of shoppers.

From the end of the Sex Pistols in 1978 to the early 1980s – let’s say 1983 – there was a deluge of British youth cults. Many of these putting a new twist on old genres like heavy metal, ska and rock’n’roll. This was a time of massive political and social upheaval plus sky high youth unemployment. The Thatcher government had swept into power in 1979 and there was a mood of sullen rebelliousness in the air. This made the music scene both exciting and slightly threatening. A kind of tribal sectarianism developed resorting very easily to violence so you had skinheads, Teddy Boys, Rudeboys, and rockers beating the crap out of each other for looking different.

The music press loved to announce yet another youth trend and so right at the end of the 1970s we got the Rockabillies. Like the Teddy Boys, this was another genre revival. But whereas the Teddy Boys worshipped the traditional 1950s rock’n’roll acts like Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Little Richard that had featured at the 1972 London Rock and Roll Show – Rockabillies went for a Southern states sound that was more frantic and streamlined – ie, no piano. Rockabilly artists from the 1950s included Carl Perkins who wrote ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Most of the American Rockabilly artists were white. Elvis Presley straddled both rock’n’roll and Rockabilly.

The Rockabilly sound that emerged at the end of the 1970s was best exemplified by The Stray Cats from New York who roared up the UK charts with the hit ‘Rock This Town’. Their British success was undoubtedly helped by the presence of a vibrant Teddy Boy scene. But the Rockabillies were tuned into the Punk legacy as well. Their pared down sound was very much in line with punk’s advocacy of simplicity and raucousness. A guitar, double bass and biscuit-tin sounding drums was more than enough for a Rockabilly. But this Punk influence bled into the clothes as well. Rockabillies mixed Teddy Boy elements with T-shirts and trousers covered in zips that might easily have been work by The Sex Pistols.

Needless to say – some Teddy Boys were less than impressed. Far from welcoming this influx of interest in 1950s music, they feared that their own look and sound was about to be watered down or taken in very unsavoury directions. As one commentator put it – the assault from punks was bad enough, but the assault ‘from within’ by Rockabillies was too much to endure. Especially as many Rockabillies were clearly former punks looking for a new identity. In fact, Rockabilly originals from the 1950s exerted such an influence on punk that in 1979 you had Sid Vicious releasing his version of the song Something Else – originally recorded by the Rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran twenty years before.

The 1980s Rockabillies included bands like The Polecats (Rockabilly bands like to be called “cats” of some description), The Sharks and Rockats. Some 1980s Rockabilly bands got bored of singing about High School romance and, again influenced by punk, explored darker subjects. Like committing mass murder with a chainsaw in one song, for example. This led to a new sub-genre dubbed Psychobilly with bands like The Cramps in the United States and The Meteors (formed in 1980) in the United Kingdom.

So, what did all this mean for me as a sixth-former between 1979 and 1981 in the suburbs of north-east London? From my memory, Rockabilly was the music of choice for the sports jocks who wanted to be cool. Though they would have denied it vehemently at the time, there was a bit of Grease cosplay going on. Let’s pretend we’re at Rydell High and you’re Danny Zuko dating Sandy Olsson. And I’m sure some of the school’s Rockabillies imagined themselves to be The Fonz – the cool cat character in the stupendously popular American retro sitcom Happy Days that ran for ten years from 1974 on American and British television.

In all of this, I’ve not mentioned the Welsh chart topping pop sensation that was Shakin’ Stevens (real name Michael Barratt). Like much of the music press – guess I was a bit snooty about Mr Stevens and his cheesy, feel good take on Rockabilly. And to be honest – I still am. But hey, he was one of the top selling stars of the 1980s and I do think it was rotten that he was passed over for the UK leg of Live Aid in 1985.

The Rockabilly look was popular with men and women throughout the 1980s and other “…billy” sub-genres popped up including neo-Rockabilly and Gothabilly with yet another surge in popularity in the 1990s.

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