(23 March 2016) – Rock and roll music has always been a fashion statement. The statement was in the clothes worn by the musicians and their fans, and also in the topics they wrote and sang about. There was Chantilly lace, white sports coats and pink carnations, and big panamas with purple hat bands. There were tan shoes with pink shoelaces, blue suede shoes and high heel sneakers.
The music we listened to defined who we were and what we thought. The clothes we wore reflected our music, visual cues to the soundtrack of our youth. Rock and roll wasn’t just about the sound and fury of jive music or the snuggly romance of a slow song. It was also about the look. What the musicians wore and the music they played were the A and B sides of a 45 rpm life.
Rock and roll was all about dancing, and dancing was all about the shoes. Penny loafers, winklepickers, saddle shoes, Beatle boots, Jesus boots, platform shoes. They all took their turns out on the dance floor.
When my family left England in 1957, the number one song on the UK hit parade was All Shook Up by Elvis Presley. When our ship tied up at the Quebec City dock seven days later, the number one song on the American hit parade was (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear, also by Elvis. His main rival in England during the 1950s was Tommy Steele who had two songs on the UK chart when we were leaving.
Many of Tommy Steele’s male fans were Teddy Boys. These were a distinctively English phenomenon. Young working class lads who adopted the Edwardian styles associated with their grandparents’ generation. They wore long sports jackets with velvet lapels and pocket flaps, drainpipe trousers and shoes with the peculiar name of brothel creepers. These shoes had suede leather uppers with thick crepe rubber soles.
The Teddy Boys were closely associated with the skiffle bands that were popular across the country. Tommy Steele began his musical career in one, as did other rock and roll groups like the Beatles. When we arrived in Canada, the popular music was heavily dominated by American artists. The emerging rock and roll stars came out of the rockabilly environment, singers like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and others. Carl Perkins had the biggest hit of his career when he wrote Blue Suede Shoes in 1956.
Both the American rockabilly bands and British skiffle bands trace their roots into early folk and blues music. Lonnie Donegan, one of the more famous English skiffle performers, had a big hit with a version of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line. He also had a major hit with a song he wrote himself called Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight.
As we grew into the mid-sixties, year not age, we embraced British rock and roll bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones and their contemporaries. In their early days, the Beatles somehow became identified with their footwear. Suddenly we all needed a pair of Beatle boots. Except for the girls. They wanted the Carnaby Street look, with miniskirts and a pair of white go-go boots. Our Beatle boots were black leather to just above the ankle, a bit of a heel, a zipper up the inside. With a pair of them on your feet, you stood less chance of being turned down when it came time for the last dance.
As the music evolved, and our tastes expanded, we embraced new folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez who introduced us to older folk artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. And our clothes changed. Beatle suits and Beatle boots fell out of favour. They were replaced with old jeans, tie-dyed shirts, beads around our necks, flowers in our hair and sandals on our feet. The sandals quickly became known as Jesus boots.
Even while we had one foot in a Jesus boot, we always kept the other in a Beatle boot. Except for those who favoured Country music. Even the ones who had never been up close with a real horse would find their way to a tack shop and get some honest to goodness cowboy boots. Or we’d stand back in wonder as we saw kids younger than us with their glam rock eight track tapes, wearing platform boots just like those worn by Ziggy Stardust or Kiss. If they toppled over, they could break some bones.
It’s the same today. As we finally get out of the sixties, forty years later, and move into our seventies, not much has changed. Still nothing is right unless the shoes are right, but now it’s orthopedic shoes with Velcro fasteners and compression socks.
It’s been a long hike from high heel sneakers to sensible walking shoes, but we got there.