Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ready, Steady, Go! by Shawn Levy

Like so many people, every January I tend to get a touch of the post-holiday blues.  It isn't depression so much as a letdown and I'm always starved for something, anything, that will fully engage me.  Many is the Janvier where no matter what book I read, what films I watch, what music I listen to, what fabulous parties I attend, nothing grabs me the way I need.  This month I got lucky when a dear friend of mine lent me this absolute delight.

Shawn Levy first came to my attention some fifteen years ago with Rat Pack Confidential, an engaging account and a story-behind-the-story of The Summit, the famous show the Rat Pack put on in Vegas while filming Ocean's Eleven in Hollywood.  Shame on me for losing track of this talented writer. 

Sub-titled The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging LondonReady, Steady, Go! examines how the scene that had an enormous worldwide influence on popular media and youth culture was built, brick by brick and person by person.  Not only did this cultural explosion encompass the obvious exports, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but the men behind them, Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog-Oldham.  Levy also brings focus on fashion designer Mary Quant and the first supermodel, Jean Shrimpton, (Twiggy, familiar to us here in the U.S., is portrayed as less the next big thing than this year's girl), actor Terence Stamp, photographer David Bailey, artist and gallery owner Robert Fraser and hair stylist Vidal Sassoon.  This often overlapping group created a small scene that became a gigantic force in pop culture and had a tremendous effect on class and social standing that reverberated throughout the UK.  And who knew Vidal Sassoon fought in the Israeli army against the Egyptians?  Not me. 
Class had an overwhelming effect on British citizens.  There were the royals, the titled, the working class and the poor.  As Levy mentions in the opening pages, the rationing that began in England during World War II didn't end until 1958 (!) and that mindset made England a very gray place, especially for working-class people. In one of his stand-up routines, comedian Eddie Izzard describes growing up in a time when America seemed to have it all over England.  If you were an American and wanted to be an astronaut, such a thing was encouraged.  In Britain, the kid with that very same dream was told 'You're British.  Scale it down a bit'.  What happened as a result, this sense of 'classless' success of the David Baileys and Mary Quants and Brian Epsteins gave those kids not only hope to become astronauts (or anything else they dreamed of) but the will to give it a shot.  In a short time, little Carnaby Street, a virtual nothing, and London itself became the center of the swinging world.

Levy writes with authority but in a manner so genial it reads as though he's holding court over drinks at your favorite night spot and you can't wait to hear more.  As well, he writes RSG! from a very British perspective, an example being the inclusion of Terence Stamp as one of the bright young things of the time.  I could only remember seeing a film with Stamp (The Limey) from much later in his career.  To me, Stamp's roomie at the time, Michael Caine, would seem a better subject since his body of work is far more substantial and spans decades.  However, as Levy tells it, Stamp's success opened the door for young British actors of the 60's to become the British stars of the '60's.  

As with Rat Pack Confidential, Levy tells the complete arc of the story from the gray beginnings to the unexpected heights to the overblown end.  When the scene was over, Carnaby Street and the Kings Road were pale imitations of a creative vortex that thrived just a few years prior, leaving many dead, many more wounded and most everyone worse the wear.  Despite the casualties, the many legacies had profound impacts that are still evident all these years later. 

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