Monday, January 08, 2018

Book Review: Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London
By Shawn Levy

For Americans (and Brits, for that matter) who may know Swinging London mostly from the Austin Powers movies, this book will come as both a corrective and a thrill. Author Shawn Levy fairly persuasively argues that not just the sixties (so what’s new?) but London in the sixties (well, maybe so) was the main impetus for all subsequent Western popular culture. Not NYC, not L.A., not Paris. Whether or not he’s right, there has long needed to be a book on this topic, and it’s amazing there wasn’t until this one, in 2002. And it’s by a Yank, no less. It’s generally pretty fab.

Generally accurate, but not always. Levy uses the description “nonthreatening young manhood-squeaky clean…smiley and skin deep” to describe not only the Dave Clark Five and Gerry and the Pacemakers (where he’s on firm ground) but the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Animals (where he makes a fool of himself). Even a moderately well-versed historian of sixties British rock could get that right. Making fine distinctions should be part and parcel of any pop history. It frequently isn’t, of course. But if you raise high the import of pop culture, you better know what you’re talking about. Levy usually does, but sloppiness like this does wound the account and make you suspect the whole book. I’m glad to say that howlers like that are few and far between.

Levy is generally good at showing how the London scene was the beginning of the global village. What happened there often quickly impacted other Western countries. So it’s a mystery as to why he slags the London anti-war movement, saying that since Britain wasn’t at war, they looked silly protesting it. But his own argument that London youth knew that the local could, and often did, impact the Western world was the idea behind those peace rallies. But this is his only misstep in the global village field.

Levy makes a mass of material hang together by focusing on a few talented key individuals, each in a different field, who ended up becoming very influential. Thus David Bailey, Mick Jagger, Brian Epstein, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, Robert Fraser, and a couple others demonstrate how you could be the kind of person (Northern, working class, upper class, gay, Jewish, female, not well-educated ) the establishment had previously tended to keep out of certain careers (music, music management, fashion, fashion photography, film acting). In the sixties the youth of Britain were fed up with the old ways, they swelled to great size, they had enormous spending power and they wedged themselves in so that a lot of customs fell away. If you had a lot of talent, and made a lot of money, you could shove that wedge a lot more and faster and harder. Levy has done a lot of research. For instance, I’ve read dozens of books on the Beatles, but he still told me a good amount about their manager Brian Epstein I didn’t know. Same with Mick Jagger. I was surprised how much Levy had dug up on what you’d think was exhausted soil. It’s fun to read about how a culture loosens, up, goes from black and white to color, from preordained to spontaneous, from stuffy to kicky. Fill Your Slot and Shut Up turned into No, I’m Gonna Do Things My Way. All in a really short amount of time. Instead of being organized by their culture, youth started organizing it. Even the classes started to mix socially, and in Britain that really was shocking.

One thing connected to all this was what one Briton called the deregulation of morality. But many youth saw that the upper classes had been getting away with it all for centuries, and they wanted some of that freedom. So it may be more accurate to call it the democratization of freedom. It was fun and scary for several years, heady stuff, very heady indeed. But, of course, it couldn’t go on too very long. People took too many drugs, got burned out, lost their sense of boundless hope. A cultural revolution didn’t stop, but it did slow down a lot and morphed into something less threatening.

In America today, youth are similarly fed up with the old ways and have the numbers and money to potentially change things. So this book may be more relevant now than it was in the early aughts. But I’m not young and I certainly found it relevant and enjoyable and I liked traveling back and seeing Oh What a Time They Had. It’s a cautionary tale, but it’s also a celebration. Maybe they’ll get it more right this time. Maybe not. Until then, read and see just how exciting social explosion is.

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