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READY, STEADY, GO! by Shawn Levy


The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London

by Shawn Levy

Pub Date: July 23rd, 2002
ISBN: 0-385-49857-8
Publisher: Doubleday

The vitality of London in the swinging ’60s—and the pathetic, sordid underbelly of it—ably conveyed by Levy (King of Comedy, not reviewed, etc.).

Three forces were at work in turning staid England on its head, writes Levy: “Bohemians in Chelsea and Soho; radical leftists from the universities and in the media; teens with spending money” (this last very important, for the upsurge in the British economy was the quiet partner to this romance). Londoners had a war-and-recovery toughness, but they were also “people who’d absorbed the sensibilities and attitudes of the French and the Italians and grafted them onto the materiality and energy of the Americans.” This was no dropout crowd, however, as Levy notes, but a New Aristocracy, a celebrity culture that was hardly inclusive. It was fashioned by individuals like the photographer David Bailey and model Jean Shrimpton, Vidal Sassoon and Mary Quant with their “playful, puckish, geometric” designs in hair and clothes, Terence Stamp, and, certainly, the music, to be understood as the Beatles and the Stones. It was “excitable and overheated and dismissable and convincing,” all these bells and alarms in music, art, fashion, sex, hair; it celebrated the ephemeral and was fascinated by, in Francis Wyndham’s words, “tinsel—a bright, brittle quality, the more appealing because it tarnishes so soon.” In other words, it ate its children, but not before sealing its own fate with a taste for drugs, bogus mysticism, and a bad case of blinkered attitude. Economic and cultural malaise were in wait—“race trouble, austerity, Thatcher, and the gob in the eye of punk rock as the requisite retort.” Goodbye, sunshine.

Levy’s wasn’t-it-a-groove closing chapter gets at only half the story that he has otherwise documented so well, of a scene essentially imploding—and taking a lot of lives along the way—from the start.