With their love for motorcycles, leather and beer, Rockers have always had a bad reputation, even when they first began to emerge in post-war Britain. Christopher Raymond Brocklebank takes a look at a youth culture phenomenon which still fascinates us today.

Rockers have been suffering from a mistaken subcultural identity for over fifty years. Teds, those frothily-quiffed dandy thugs in Technicolor facsimiles of Granddad’s 1911 sunday best, were not Rockers. And though the Greaser tag eventually became interchangeable with Rocker, flowing alongside Rockabilly and later Psychobilly, into one big, grease-slicked reservoir, Rockers were at first out there on their own, a very pre-Swinging Sixties phenomenon. Their roots were in the immediate post-war era; an historical incubating period for nearly every youth cult, big or small for the next 25 years.

marlonBetween 1945 and 1950, the average wage of teens in Britain increased at twice the average rate of the adult wage. This new prosperity collided with the explosion of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, Hollywood’s take on insubordinate youth in The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause, and, oddly, the construction of arterial roads around major British cities – veritable racetracks with the circumference of a metropolis.

British motorcycle building hit a peak in these years too, and the youths who roared up and down the freshly set concrete on these gleaming monsters became known as ‘Ton-Up Boys’ (Ton-Up being slang for driving at 100mph), whizzing by in a phalanx of smoky leather, smoggy exhaust smoke and inky blue denim.

By the early Sixties, the Ton-Ups had become as well known – if not better known – for their devotion to Rockabilly and a singular style of dress, as for their motorcycles, and the Rockers were born (Teds, conversely, had by now passed into history – at least as a visible youth cult). Rockers now began to strip down and soup up their bog-standard factory motorcycles, which ended up closely resembling racer bikes: speed not comfort was the desired end.

Storming north and south of the river and around London’s arterial roads was thirsty work, and while battered leather, reflective slicked hair and the tribal stomp of engineer boots quickly became unwelcome, if not banned, in dancehalls and ‘respectable’ pubs, The Ace Café, the Ace of Spades and the Chelsea Bridge Tea Stall quickly became Rocker haunts, not only for slurping endless mugs of sickly-sweet beige tea while chuffing unfiltered tabs, but as starting and finishing points for increasingly competitive and treacherous motorcycle races.

Rockers were loathed by ‘motorcycle enthusiasts’ and the feeling was probably mutual. As the subculture grew stronger, the outfit became tougher, largely born of practicality. The leather jackets became increasingly studded, patched and covered in enamel or metal pin badges. Levis were tough, midnight blue and wide-legged, with turn-ups of several inches plus. Under these, a Rocker would sport the classic Lewis Leather biker, or engineer boots.

grampsHair was Brylcreemed into shimmering pomps, ramrod stiff quiffs, or slick, swept-back waves; certainly nothing the chill air could shift while roaring up the North Circular, were you forgoing your helmet or your peaked leather cap (latterly a much-favoured fetish item). A fluttering white silk scarf and aviator goggles completed the look. Of an evening, the boots might be replaced by crepe-soled brothel creepers in a spectrum of rainbow colours and off came the leathers to reveal Daddy-O-style bowling shirts.

girlRocker girlfriends (for they were nearly always girlfriends – they didn’t have subcultural autonomy like their rival Mod sisters) wore a similar daytime get-up, but with a wild bouffant and more eyeliner than a silent movie star. When the sun went down, she’d shimmy into a circulation-hindering pencil skirt, a bullet bra and a pair of spike heels.

Thus attired, the Rocker couple would dance to Elvis, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, Johnny Burnette, Wanda Jackson and Link Wray. Their drug of choice was beer, for Rockers where emphatically, almost puritanically, anti-drugs. The reason for this appears to be little other than Mods’ fondness for them: anything Mods liked, Rockers emphatically hated.

A Rocker would have no more necked a Purple Heart than he or she would have donned a parka and jumped on a Vespa. By the late Sixties, after a succession of well-publicised seaside clashes with Mods which had helped create Folk Devils out of both cults, Rockers began to splinter as elements of their world became appropriated (as usual) by hippies who liked motorbikes, e.g. Hell’s Angels. Released in 1969, Easy Riderwas anathema to Rockers, and it’s hardly surprising: it’s harder to think of a more wholesale theft of Rock ‘n’ Roll by hippies than this beardy, weirdy, much-lauded film.

leatherFrom here on, the ‘Greaser’ tag took over. In the early-mid Seventies, old Teds and Greasers became one on the cultural imagination: both were seen as vaguely tragic throwbacks. Teds undoubtedly helped this attitude along with their innate conservatism. The social and political changes of the Sixties and Seventies hadn’t touched them, and they liked it that way.

Greasers were not cut from the same cloth, but they were united with Teds in their hatred of Punk, come ’76, casually beating several shades of Crazy Colour out of the King’s Road crowd of a Saturday afternoon for what they were doing to ‘their’ Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Fortunately, youth creates afresh, and those who loved their parents’ Fifties and Sixties Rockabilly as much as the new-fangled three-chord thrash combined the two and Psychobilly was born, alongside a passionate Rockabilly revival. Both – especially the former – were faster and harder than the originals, and Psychobilly style took the original look to cartoon extremes – 10-inch quiffs, shaved temples, multicolour full-sleeve tattoos; and this was just the girls!

The Rockabilly revival never truly died out and remains a solid subculture today, a colourful, hardcore, obsessive alternative to a world that seems to drift from the bland to the blander, day in, day out.

3 Responses

  1. Lynn Jackson

    Just in case you want a trip to the seaside in the Summer don’t miss the BBC acclaimed exhibition on the Mods & Rockers in Margate again this year from 2nd June /home/kate/Pictures/in their words posterwhite copy.jpg