“It is not likely that the air of this town has ever been polluted by the hordes of hooligans, male and female, such as we have seen this weekend and of whom you are an example. These long haired, mentally unstable, petty little hoodlums, these sawdust Caesars who can only find courage like rats hunting in packs, came to Margate with the avowed intent of interfering with the life and property of its inhabitants.”
George Simpson, magistrate, prosecuting Mods and Rockers after the Easter Bank Holiday ruck, 1964.
Nik Kohn didn’t get the Brooklyn subculture he was assigned to write about in the original article on which ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is based. Travolota’s Vincent “was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road”. At one point in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ Tony bursts into the ‘2001 Odyssey’ disco and effuses about all the “faces” (movers, shakers, local celebrities). It’s straight out of ‘Quadarophenia’. Travolta may as well be talking about Chris Stamp hanging out in Soho, or on Margate seafront, in 1964. It’s a line that has absolutely nothing to do with Brooklyn, New York in 1977.
Around 1964, English Mods like the young David Jones were doing their own experiments with social mores and conventions.This included Bowie’s first media stunt at 17, forming The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men to lig his way onto the ‘Tonight‘ show on telly.
You can see a progression – away from a conscription uniform of Buddy Holly twangs and and Beatles-cut suits, to an aspirational, effortless effeminacy that it’s doubtful that Toby Young could have pulled off as a teenager – in the Essex-set Joe Meekfeest ‘Live It Up!‘, then in its South London and Brighton-bound sequel ‘Be My Guest‘. (Aspiring popster David Hemming’s parents open a guest house, round the corner from where my grandparent’s lived in 1965 in Powis Square, Brighton, where my mum – then at art school – had been caught up in the now legendary May Day, Mods vs. Rockers ruck on the seafront, the year before).
Future ‘Small Faces‘ front man Steve Marriott swaps a GPO uniform in the first film for a gleaming tea boy’s outfit on the London to Brighton train, in the second. (“Bell boy! Bell boy!”)
But it’s Ray Phillips and ‘The Nashville Teens‘, sporting rings and scruffy ‘Rolling Stones’ barnets, that suggest something was changing…
A flimsy excuse to showcase some pop bands, maybe getting some teenagers into cinemas and selling prints to the US market, ‘Be My Guest’ is especially poignant for Brightonians because it’s mostly filmed inside the currently derelict Hippodrome on Middle Street, not far from another neglected gem, the Middle Street Synagogue, and the Aquarium, where it can be argued that the film studio system began with pioneer George Albert Smith’s magic lantern shows. (You can also see Mods rampaging past it in ‘Quadrophenia’).
This number by Kenny Bernard & the Wranglers, a great South London band, is outstanding. It sounds like Joe Meek producing Portishead. Aside from Eddie Grant in ‘The Equals‘, and ‘The Foundations‘, how many English r&b combos can you think of with white musicians backing a black or Asian front man or woman?
What Nik Kohn was writing about – which was put through the prism of Brooklyn in 1977, but which was really about West London and fading English seasides a decade before – was the fact that it didn’t matter how many mirrors you put on your scooter, you couldn’t buy style, or an attitude that made the likes of Chris Stamp or Bowie a “Face”. In desperately trying to vault over a velvet rope to a VIP room of celebrity, Toby Young has crashed and burned, much as Donald Trump did at Studio 54.
Ian Schrager, Studio 54 co-founder, told the Guardian “we wanted a mix of rich, poor, gay, straight, old and young, because when you have that alchemy, magic happens. Somebody topless could dance with a woman in a ballgown and a tiara.” Young’s eternal frustration, performatively worked through every second of his public life, which accounts for the hollowness of the movie based on his book, is akin to Trump’s in that both men are astute enough cultural operators to know that – whatever the magical, mercurial quality that true celebrity is – they haven’t got it, while many working class British kids in the Sixties undoubtedly did. No amount of cocaine can make you less of an arsehole.