An English friend slightly older than I am recently remarked – with pride – that he had never owned or even worn jeans. Startled at first, I realised that, of course, he had never been a teenager in the modern sense of the word.
Teenagers appeared in the UK around 1955, fully formed like a 20th-century Athena, long-haired, clad in blue jeans or drainpipe pants, and hopping about madly to rock ‘n’ roll. My friend was already 20 by then, had finished his national service in the army, and clearly considered himself adult, whereas I was 13 and ready to leap onto the bandwagon in my circular skirt, starched petticoats, ballerinas, bobby-sox – and jeans.
The negative association of jeans with tumultuous teenagers and reprehensible rock ‘n’ roll has obviously stayed with him, whereas I think, in the general consciousness of post-nineteen-fifties generations, jeans are simply leisure wear – unless they are designer jeans, in which case you can wear them anywhere.
This got me thinking. I remember the first time I ever heard real, raw rock ‘n’ roll. I had gone, aged 14, to see the X-rated film “Blackboard Jungle”, the story of a courageous teacher in a rough American inner-city High School. My memories of the film are vague but I vividly recall the electrifying feeling of sitting mesmerised, all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, while the credits rolled at the end of the film and Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” filled the cinema with its clanging metallic sound.
I was not the only one to experience this transfixing effect: somehow, that primitive music echoing the tension and violence in the film sent adrenaline shooting through the testosterone-laden bodies of thousands of teddy-boys who rioted and wrecked cinemas from the first UK showing of “Blackboard Jungle” in the Elephant and Castle district of London up to Newcastle in the north. It didn’t happen in our town, but I can understand the impact, and when the (non-violent) film “Rock Around the Clock” was released a few months later, many towns banned it for fear of teenagers smashing up the cinemas.
Hearing that sound for the first time was one of those unforgettable epiphanic moments. I was a jazz fan, devoted to Humphrey Lyttelton, a flesh-and-blood idol whom I had seen and heard live on several occasions. But – hard to believe nowadays, when rock has been through so many metamorphoses including punk and heavy metal – this unsophisticated recorded music was entirely different, unlike anything I had heard before.
This was a sound whose time had come, and it swept us all off our feet, got us all jiggling about, some falling into a trancelike state known as being “sent”, a phenomenon that seemed totally incomprehensible to anyone over nineteen, yet led by a man who looked more like a country rep than a teenage idol: Bill Haley, a chubby, well-scrubbed, thirty-something man in a loud suit with a ridiculous kiss-curl in the middle of his forehead.
I understand my non-jeans-wearing friend. He was far removed from the frenzy of rock ‘n’ roll, and its jeans-clad fans. He didn’t even get as far as associating sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll: by the time it had evolved that far, he was happily married with a mortgage and small child, never to descend into the shame of wearing jeans. A totally different generation, separated by just a few years.