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Author Shawn Levy

Shawn Levy is the author of the new book Ready Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London. It's about London from 1961-1969. He writes, "for those few evanescent years it all came together: youth, pop music, fashion, celebrity, satire, crime, fine art, sexuality, scandal, theater, cinema, drugs, media: the whole mad modern stew." Levy is also the author of Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey & the Last Great Showbiz Party and the biography, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis.

17:26

Other segments from the episode on July 24, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 24, 2002: Obituary for Chaim Potok; Interview with Shawn Levy; Obituary for Matt Dennis.

Transcript

DATE July 24, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Shawn Levy, author of "Ready, Steady, Go," talks
about the swinging London of the 1960s
TERRY GROSS, host:

"Ready, Steady, Go" is a new book about the time and place Austin Powers
would
be most at home in: swinging London in the '60s. Author Shawn Levy says
that
in the '60s, London rose from a prim and fusty capital to the fashionable
center of the modern world. His book is centered around the city's music,
fashion and social life, focusing on the lives of several people who helped
create that scene, including Mick Jagger, The Beatles' manager, Brian
Epstein,
hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, fashion designer Mary Quant and actors Michael

Caine and Terence Stamp. Shawn Levy is also the author of the book, "Rat
Pack
Confidential."

I asked him what set the stage for the cultural explosion in London.

Mr. SHAWN LEVY (Author, "Ready, Steady, Go"): In the '50s, Britain really
had
a tough time recovering economically from World War II. While Germany and
Italy were being rebuilt with the help of American money, France was
recovering, the US obviously was enjoying a very fecund period of commercial
and even cultural growth, England was kind of stagnant, until about the
middle
of the decade, when you had the advent of sort of the angry young men in
theater and literature. You had a growth and prosperity that allowed
families
who had, you know, been living in houses with outdoor bathrooms and, you
know,
the whole family crammed into two upstairs rooms--were able to afford a
larger
home, move to the country, that sort of thing, the suburbs, and the young
people of that generation, uniquely, did not have to serve in the military.
They were the first generation of Britons to be freed from the obligation to
serve national service. There were art schools that were now part of the
national education program, so if you weren't going to go on to college, or
university, as we would say, you could attend an art school and maybe learn
painting or music. So a number of factors started to come together at the
end
of the '50s.

And then there were a few places in London where the prosperity, the access,
the leisure time that young people had, the work that young people suddenly
had--they were actually making more money, in a lot of cases, than their
parents--sort of all came together. But it was about 1961, '62, even into
the
beginning of '63 that there was clearly something going on in England that
was
unique in the world. You know, if you look at American kid music shows of
that time from television, the audience looks very square, you know. You
know, they could be watching Patti Page six or seven years earlier. And you
look at the British kids in '62, '63, and they look hip.

GROSS: What are they wearing?

Mr. LEVY: Well, the boys are wearing something like mod. It was skinny
ties
and lapels, very nicely cut suits. They had their done at hairdressers, not
barbers. The girls were wearing shorter skirts. They had their hair cut
shorter. They were wearing bolder colors, both the boys and the girls. All
of that was new to England, and it would have been novel in America. You
talk
to some of the swinging Londoners about the first time they wore their gear
to America, and they talk about getting stares for wearing things that
nobody
would have blinked at in London.

GROSS: You mentioned that you were familiar before writing this book with
fashions and movies and music that came out of London in the '60s. What are
some of those key cultural moments for you that defined London in the '60s?

Mr. LEVY: Well, two of the very early innovators are Mary Quant, the
fashion
designer, and Vidal Sassoon, the hair cutter. And you know, we've come to
think of Vidal Sassoon in particular as kind of like a goof, you know, with
his blow dryers and shampoos, but here was a guy who in the late '50s began
to
rebel against the tradition of hair dressing, of setting hair into place
several times a week with gels and heat and expensive treatments and having
women sleep sitting up so that they wouldn't look bad the next day and
things
like this. He figure out how to cut hair so that you didn't have to go to
the
hair salon more than once a month, say, so that your hair would be cut into
the shape you wanted, so that it was much freer and looser.

Mary Quant similarly using sort of the techniques and quality of couture
fashion, designed sort of sporty city clothes, things that made young women
look sensual and made them look different from their mothers, and that was a
lot of it, you know, that these young people had money and didn't want to be
like their parents any longer.

In music, I think The Beatles are a similar sort of thing, taking materials
that had already been there and injecting it with a kind of verve that was
new. In cinema, The Beatles' first film, of course, "A Hard Day's Night,"
but
at the same time, you had British films, you know, of more serious weight,
things like "Tom Jones" and "The Leather Boys" by Sidney Furie, that felt
more
like continental films than like American films. So there were a number of
things that were happening in England first.

GROSS: See, one of the things that's interesting for me from this period is
during, you know, part of this period, I'm a pre-teener growing up in
Brooklyn, New York, and getting my, like, yellow miniskirt at the department
store and having the neighborhood hairdresser give me his version of a
Sassoon
haircut, and it's just interesting how all this stuff just like filters down
to, you know, kids growing up in Brooklyn and all over the United States.

Mr. LEVY: Yeah. It really was infectious, you know, and it wasn't
offensive
the way, say, you know, long hair and burn-your-bra, the end of the '60s was
to the older generation. The irony is, so much of swinging London was
inspired by America--the pop music, you know, people like James Dean and
Elvis
Presley were revered by the British, and they couldn't believe that they
weren't as loved in America by the mid-'60s as they were in England.

Sassoon described swinging London to me as the marriage of American genres
with a continental sensibility, the French grafted on to the American, as
interpreted by the British.

GROSS: My guest is Shawn Levy, author of the new book, "Ready, Steady, Go."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Shawn Levy, is the author of the new book, "Ready, Steady,
Go: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London in the '60s." He's
also the author of the book, "Rat Pack Confidential."

I asked him to talk about what the Rat Pack was up to during the swinging
London era.

Mr. LEVY: Well, of course, the Rat Pack, they were all older gentlemen,
married, with kids in most cases, and they were taking part of a different
sort of license, you know. They had this kind of public image of swinging
guys and you know, sort of men's men, and they appealed to that sort of
`greatest generation,' you know. They were the age of people who would had
fought in World War II and become the sort of men in the gray flannel suit
in
America, and they had adult tastes. And you know, it's funny. Sinatra's
womanizing was part of this appeal, you know, to an audience in the early
'60s, that he was unmarried and had this enviable life.

The Beatles had to pretend that John Lennon wasn't married, and Mick Jagger
used to hide his girlfriend, Chrissy Shrimpton, because they wanted to put
forward a face of being youthful and clean and free and available. The Rat
Pack owned things, you know. Sinatra owned the Sands Hotel or part of it,
and
Dean Martin owned part of it. He owned a record company. He produced
movies.
The Beatles didn't even own their likeness. It was sold away to a kind of
sharp character from London, and then a couple of companies in England and
the
US, and they lost hundred of millions of dollars until they formed Apple and
got it back. So there was a certain sophistication to the Rat Pack's party
that the swinging London people just didn't have, you know.

I don't think a lot of them thought that it would be going on as long as it

did. You see Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney and The Who on stage today, and
you couldn't imagine in 1965 that they would be doing it in 1970.

GROSS: Now you write a little bit about The Rolling Stones. In writing
about
The Rolling Stones, you focus on Mick Jagger, and what you really emphasize
in
Mick Jagger's background is his suburban upbringing; that this is a real,
like, middle-class suburban kid who gets deeply involved with
African-American
rhythm and blues. Why emphasis this suburban middle-class aspect of his
background?

Mr. LEVY: Well, one of the great things about swinging London that British
people remember is that it was a time when the class system, which was so
rigid in England, even really today, from the queen down, was fractured. It
wasn't broken. It wasn't scuttled, but there were perforations in it that
had
never been before, so you could get working-class people like some of The
Beatles, like Vidal Sassoon, who grew up in an orphanage because his mother
couldn't afford to keep him in the house--they were suddenly celebrities,
and
they were able to run elbows with the daughters of dukes and duchesses.

And Jagger was in a funny position. Mary Quant says that the smart thing to
be was either very high or very low. The middle was dull, and Jagger came
from the middle. He's in ways a fellow who had to sort of pretend to be
more
common than he was, but at the same time, when he was a hit, he had to then
learn how to be with people who were from a higher station in life. And he
has done that dance, that tightrope walk, more and more successfully than
any
of these other figures.

GROSS: Now one of the early Rolling Stones appearances in the United States
was on "The Hollywood Palace," which was a variety show in the '60s, and I
believe that Dean Martin was hosting it the night that they were on.

Mr. LEVY: That's right.

GROSS: Is that like a real pivotal point for you, having written a book
about
the Rat Pack, and a book about London in the '60s?

Mr. LEVY: And about Jerry Lewis, whose theater that was.

GROSS: Oh, right. OK.

Mr. LEVY: He actually rebuilt that theater for his 1963 TV show. Well...

GROSS: So what does that moment embody for you? Dean Martin introducing
The
Rolling Stones on "Hollywood Palace"?

Mr. LEVY: Well, he didn't only introduce them, he practically slandered
them. You know, he said, `Aren't they pretty? Don't leave me backstage
with
them.' And he says, `That isn't long hair. It's just high eyebrows and low
foreheads.' And later in the show, there was a trampolinist on, and Dean
said,
`This guy is The Rolling Stones' father. He's been trying to kill himself
ever since.' And The Stones didn't hear any of that because they were in
the
green room, and they saw it a week later when they were in Chicago, and they
were incensed. Bill Wyman told me Mick Jagger got on the phone and was
yelling at their management in England that, you know, `We'll never do this
again.'

But it really is, you know, sort of a place where the two cultures, the
aging
dinosaur culture of great American showbiz, nightclubs and the borscht belt
and Hollywood, is meeting this `youthquake' that it cannot stop, and let it
be
said in Dean's defense that when The Beatles had all those number-one hits
in
1964, the record that finally knocked them to number two was "Everybody
Loves
Somebody Sometime."

GROSS: Some things are inexplicable.

Mr. LEVY: Yeah. Yeah. Dean is my good luck charm. I can't write a book
without him.

GROSS: In the United States, most youth movements are met with some kind of
adult, or conservative adult, backlash. Was there a backlash in London in
the
early '60s?

Mr. LEVY: You know, there wasn't, not in the sense that there was here, and
again, it's partly the difference between the two cultures. The British
'60s
was, in large measure, about joining in. People from the North of England,
people from the East End of London, lower-class people, people who might
have
otherwise been sort of fringe characters or had no real shot, were able to
belly up to the bar, come to the party and be part of the scene, someone
like
Terence Stamp, you know, telling me, you know, without the '60s he would
have
never been able to date the daughter of the Duke of Bedford.

In America, the '60s, as we think of it more was about protest and dropping
out, so there was much more of a generation gap in the States, I believe,
than
in London. Also the first phase of the '60s in England was smart. You
could
be a mod kid, spend all night in a nightclub in London on amphetamines, and
show up at the next day at a bank for work, because the way to look was to
look good in a suit and have a nice haircut. You rode a Vespa, you looked
like a responsible young lad. So it didn't quite give off the same creepy
vibe that, say, a hippie did later on.

GROSS: What ends this period in London's life?

Mr. LEVY: Well, the drugs. Drugs changed everything in the '60s, in the
States as well as in England, you know. If you read histories of the
Haight-Ashbury, it's a little later, and it's a little more severe, even.
The
economics of England changed. In 1963, England had one of the most robust
economies in the world. In 1966 the Labour government put a wage and price
freeze on, so that narrowed down the opportunities.

One of the people I interviewed told me that in the early '60s, everyone had
a
job, if you were a photographer, a model, a musician. By the end of the
'60s,
there were fewer jobs to be had, and the people who had shown over time that
they could do quality work reliably and repeatedly were the ones who kept
working: Sassoon, Mary Quant, the photographer David Bailey, The Beatles,
Michael Caine. And the ones who were flaky and difficult to deal with or
really didn't have much talent sort of drifted away. So it became smaller.

Taxes drove a lot of these people out. The government started taxing people
in certain professions at like 90 percent, so rock bands and actors had to
leave to, you know, keep their money. And the climate changed in such a way
that the British no longer had the monopoly, you know. For a few years, if
anyone looked cool, they were English. People like Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol,
Allen Ginsberg, went to London to see what was happening. And the mode of
being, the hippie influence that started coming in at the end of the '60s
really wasn't the same vibe any longer. Swinging London was about, you
know,
looking chic and going to nightclubs and dancing next to the genius whose
record you were listening to and things like that, and hippie was more
about,
you know, getting back to the earth, and you know, being free and wearing
loose clothes. You can't do hippie in Hyde Park in January.

GROSS: Now your book is coming out at about the same time as the new
"Austin
Powers" movie, and of course, "Austin Powers" just really spoofs the whole
London in the '60s thing. Do you like the "Austin Powers" films? Did they
at
all inform your direction for the book? I mean, did you take any
inspiration
from that?

Mr. LEVY: Well, it made it easy to explain to people in America what I was
doing. Everyone in England, if you say `the '60s,' thinks about swinging
London. Everyone in America thinks about Haight-Ashbury. So if I said
`It's
"Austin Powers," nonfiction,' everybody got it. And the genius of the
"Austin
Powers" conceit is that he gets all the cliches. It's partly a Bond movie,
it's partly "What's New, Pussycat?" which was partly made in England in the
'60s. But it's done in a very gently mocking away in the style of the '60s.
That first "Austin Powers" film has little interstitial bits where Mike
Myers
is with some go-go dancers and they just freeze-frame and then they go back
to
the story. That feels so much like "The Knack...and How to Get it" or "A
Hard
Day's Night" or "Help!" That's, I think, the brilliant thing, to parody it
in
the form that the original took.

GROSS: Well, Shawn Levy, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. LEVY: Thank you. Thanks for your interest.

GROSS: Shawn Levy is the author of the new book, "Ready, Steady, Go: The
Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London."

Coming up, we'll remember Matt Dennis, who wrote the songs "Angel Eyes" and
"Everything Happens to Me." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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