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

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9780385498579: Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London

It’s the summer of 1966... The fundamental old ways: chastity, rationality, harmony, sobriety, even democracy: blasted to nothing or crumbling under siege. The city glows. It echoes. It pulses. It bleeds pastel and fuzzy, spicy, paisley and soft. This is how it's always going to be: smashing clothes, brilliant music, easy sex, eternal youth, the eyes of everybody, everyone's first thought, the top of the world, right here, right now: Swinging London.

Shawn Levy has a genius for unearthing the secret history of popular culture. The Los Angeles Times called King of Comedy, his biography of Jerry Lewis, "a model of what a celebrity bio ought to be–smart, knowing, insightful, often funny, full of fascinating insiders' stories," and the Boston Globe declared that Rat Pack Confidential "evokes the time in question with the power of a novel, as well as James Ellroy's American Tabloid and better by far than Don DeLillo's Underworld."

In Ready, Steady, Go! Levy captures the spirit of the sixties in all its exuberance. A portrait of London from roughly 1961 to 1969, it chronicles the explosion of creativity–in art, music and fashion–and the revolutions–sexual, social and political–that reshaped the world. Levy deftly blends the enthusiasm of a fan, the discerning eye of a social critic and a historian's objectivity as he re-creates the hectic pace and daring experimentation of the times–from the utter transformation of rock 'n' roll by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the new aesthetics introduced by fashion designers like Mary Quant, haircutters like Vidal Sassoon, photographers like David Bailey, actors like Michael Caine and Terence Stamp and filmmakers like Richard Lester and Nicolas Roeg to the wild clothing shops and cutting-edge clubs that made Carnaby Street and King's Road the hippest thoroughfares in the world.

Spiced with the reminiscences of some of the leading icons of that period, their fans and followers, and featuring a photographic gallery of well-known faces and far-out fashions, Ready, Steady, Go! is an irresistible re-creation of a time and place that seemed almost impossibly fun.

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About the Author:

SHAWN LEVY is the author of King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis and Rat Pack Confidential. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the London Guardian, Sight and Sound, Movieline and Interview. A former editor of American Film, he is currently a film critic for the Oregonian.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Cloud of Pink Chiffon

The story of David Bailey's early life and career would come to sound a cliche: Scruffy East End (or maybe northern) boy aspires to a field normally reserved for the posh and sets the world on its ear without bending his personality to fit the long-established model. But like the jokes in Shakespeare or the Marx Brothers, it was only familiar because it was repeated so often from the original. All the pop stars, actors, dressmakers, haircutters, club owners, scenesters, satirists and boy tycoons who exploded on the London scene in the early sixties did so after Bailey, often in his mold and almost always in front of his camera.

Before mod and the Beat Boom, before Carnaby Street and the swinging hot spots of Soho and Chelsea, before, indeed, sex and drugs and most of rock 'n' roll there were the laddish young photographers from the East: Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan, "the Terrible Three" in the affectionate phrase of Cecil Beaton, an iconoclastic snapper of another age whose approval of the new lot made it that much easier for them to barge in on what had been a very exclusive and sedate party.

The trio--and a few others who came along in the rush--dressed and spoke and carried on as no important photographers ever had, not even in the putatively wide-open worlds of fashion magazines and photojournalism. They spoke like smart alecks and ruffians, they flaunted their high salaries and the Rolls-Royces they flashed around in, they slept with the beautiful women who modeled for them, they employed new cameras and technologies to break fertile ground in portraiture and fashion shoots. They were superstars from a world that had previously been invisible, perhaps with reason. "Before 1960," Duffy famously said, "a fashion photographer was somebody tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual."

Duffy could enjoy such self-deprecating boasts because, recalled Dick Fontaine, who tried to make a documentary about the trio, "He was really the kind of architect of the guerilla warfare on those who control the fashion industry and the press."

But it was Bailey who would bring the group their fame and glory. Bailey was the first bright shiny star of the sixties, a subject of jealous gossip, an inspiration in fashion, speech and behavior, an exemplar of getting ahead in a glamorous world, and, incidentally, the great, lasting chronicler of his day.

Bailey was born January 2, 1938, in Leytonstone, east of the East End, a block over, he always liked to brag, from the street where Alfred Hitchcock was born. When Bailey was three, the family home took a hit from a Nazi bomb and they relocated to Heigham Road, East Ham, which was where Bailey and his younger sister, Thelma, were raised.

Their father, Herbert, was a tailor's cutter and a flash character who dressed nattily, ran around on his wife and like to have a roll of fivers at hand; his wife, Gladys, kept house but also worked as a machinist, especially after Bert finally split on her. The family wasn't rich, but they were comfortable--they were among the first people in the block to have a telephone and TV set, and Bailey was made to dress smartly, to his chagrin ("What chance have you got in a punch-up in East Ham wearing sandals?" he later sighed). But they weren't entirely free of money worries, and one of their ways of dealing with them was, to Bailey, a blessing: "In the winter," he recalled, the family "would take bread-and-jam sandwiches and go to the cinema every night because in those days it was cheaper to go to the cinema than to put on the gas fire. I'll bet I saw seven or eight movies a week."

Bailey fell, predictably enough, under the spell of rugged (and mainly American) actors at around the same time that his parents' marriage was foundering. But Bert Bailey was nonetheless a little worried about his son's fancy for birdwatching and natural history, which loves led the boy into vegetarianism. "My father thought I was fucking queer," Bailey said, "but queer didn't mean homosexual. In those days it just meant a bit of an oddball."

Part of Bailey's queerness was taking and developing photos of birds--he preferred the latter process, as it involved playing with chemicals. But he didn't think of taking pictures as a career ambition--"photography was something you did once a year on Margate beach"--and he had enough on his hands at school, where his learning disabilities (undiagnosed at the time) made for a hellish routine. "I can't read and write," Bailey said. "Dysgraphia, dyslexia--I've got them all. I went to the silly class--the school for idiots--and they used to cane me when I couldn't spell. It was quite tough knowing that you're smart and thinking you're an idiot."

At fifteen, he dropped out of school altogether and started a series of unpromising jobs: copy boy at the Fleet Street offices of the Yorkshire Post, carpet salesman, shoe salesman, window dresser, time-and-motion man at the tailoring firm where his dad worked and debt collector. He developed a taste for jazz and spent nights checking out the music and women at the handful of venues the East End offered someone his age. His musical interests were underscored in his oft-quoted quip about his roots: "You had two ways of getting out in the fifties--you were either a boxer or a jazz musician." So perhaps it was inevitable that he followed an artistic muse, especially as he quickly learned how ill-suited he was to make a living with his fists: "The Krays, the Barking Boys and the Canning Town Boys were the three gangs at the time," Bailey remembered. "They weren't gangsters, they were just hooligans. They just went around beating people up if you looked at them wrong in a dance hall. I got beat up by the Barking Boys because I danced with one of their girlfriends. They left me in the doorway of Times Furnishing."

Bailey's dreamy aimlessness was finally punctured by the call-up: In the spring of 1956, he was ordered to report for a physical for the National Service. He tried to duck it--he stayed up two nights straight and consumed a huge quantity of nutmeg ("Someone said it made your heart go faster"), but it didn't work. He might have requested assignment to a photographic unit, but that meant a longer hitch than he was ready to sign for. In August, he reported for basic training in the Royal Air Force, and by December he was stationed in Singapore as a first-level aircraftman with duties such as helping to keep planes flight ready and standing guard on funeral drill.

On the whole, Private Bailey found the situation pleasant enough. "I had a good time in the National Service," he confessed years later. "I hate to sound like a right-wing middle-aged man, but I think it was very good for me." There were, he admitted, drawbacks: "The snobbery! They had a toilet for privates, a toilet for sergeants and a toilet for commissioned officers, as if all our arses were different. It made me angry, the way we were treated, almost like a slave. You were dirt compared with an officer."

Indeed, it was a run-in with an officer that would prove pivotal in shaping Bailey's future. He was still on his jazz kick--his "Chet Baker phase," as he later deemed it--and trying to teach himself to play the trumpet. But when an officer borrowed his horn and failed to return it, he was forced to seek another creative outlet. Cameras could be gotten cheap in Singapore, so Bailey--who'd been as enamored of the photos of Baker on the trumpeter's album jackets as by the playing inside--bought a knockoff Rolleiflex. He was sufficiently hard up for money that he had to pawn the camera every time he wanted to pay for developing his film, but he caught the bug.

The camera suited Bailey's growing bohemianism. He had begun to read, and where his barracks mates had pinup girls hung over their beds, he had a reproduction of a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar. His pretensions didn't go unnoticed: "I did used to get into fights," he said. "But because I was from the East End I could look after myself. I also had the best-looking WAAF as my girlfriend, so they knew I wasn't gay."

When he demobbed in August 1958, Bailey acquired a Canon Rangefinder camera and the ambition to make a living with it. He applied to the London College of Printing but was rejected because he'd dropped out of school. Instead, he wound up working as a second assistant to photographer David Olins at his studio in Charlotte Mews in the West End. He was a glorified gofer--not even glorified, actually, at three pounds, ten shillings a week--and was therefore delighted a few months later to be called to an interview at the studio of John French, a somewhat better-known name and a man who had a reputation for nurturing his assistants' careers.

French, then in his early fifties, was the epitome of the fashion photographer and portraitist of the era: exquisitely attired, fastidious, posh and gay (although, as it happened, married). "John French looked," Bailey remembered, "like Fred Astaire. 'David,' he said, 'do you know about incandescent light and strobe? Do you know how to load a ten-by-eight film pack?' I said yes to everything he asked and he gave me the job, but, at that time, I didn't even know what a strobe was. We became friends and after six o'clock Mr. French became John. One night I asked him why he gave me the job. 'Well, you know, David,' he said, 'I liked the way you dressed.' Six months later everyone thought we were having an affair, but in fact, although we were fond of each other, we never got it on."

In fact, French--"a screaming queen who fancied East End boys," according to documentarian Dick Fontaine--was the first person to really recognize something special in Bailey. Partly it was his bohemian style--Cuban-heeled boots, jeans, leather jacket and hair over the...

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