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

by Shawn Levy
(Doubleday) $24.95

Who knew there were three waves of mods? I had no idea that the mods portrayed in Quadrophenia were the ragamuffins of the breed until I read Shawn Levy's riveting story of the '60s, Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, which covers mods, trends, and juicy rock gossip of that era.

For the record, mods were first bebop- and jazz-loving modernists, extremely particular about their clothing, and highly intellectual. They included French and Italian students who hung out in clubs and were often hopped up on speed, assuming the posture of someone who doesn't give a shit. The Soho mods took up the attitude, adding scooters and inspired fashion to the scene, followed by mods with day jobs--Quadrophenia mods, who cared simply about clothes, rhythm and blues, scooters, and pills. These were the kids that caused Carnaby Street to explode into a fashion mecca, and were targeted by the Who's publicist, who forced the band to play to the speed-freaks.

Levy's book is an eye-opening collection of such back-stories, demonstrating how the party kids paved the way for the rock stars. He describes Mick Jagger as a chameleon, "a suburban boy with a bourgeois upbringing, who could mimic whatever he wished: Black American music, the stage manner of raunchy female performers, the go-go mentality of rising pop bands, the chic manners of slumming aristocrats and the arcane sexual and narcotic practices of bohemians both native and exotic--a quiver of cannily selected arrows that let him survive the decade unscathed while the road behind him was littered with the corpses of friends." Jagger and his girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton were the first "beautiful couple of the first wave of the Swinging Sixties," even though he'd pretend like he wasn't with her if recognized in public. Before they broke up, Jagger and Richards had used her as inspiration for "Heart of Stone," "Stupid Girl," "Under My Thumb," and other odes to love.

Marianne Faithfull came along when '60s puppetmaster Andrew Loog Oldham spotted her at a party, the lone chaste teenager among a rowdy crowd, and commissioned Jagger and Richards to write a song for her, the legendary "As Tears Go By." After her success at age 14, Faithfull became a wanderer and trendsetter. Married at 18, she fell into the decadent bohemia of Soho. "She dove in avidly: drugs, a little sex.... She dropped acid with Brian, Keith... she dallied sexually with Brian and Keith; she smoked hash with all of them," says the author of her trajectory toward Jagger, who dumped his girlfriend for Faithfull in 1966 because "Chrissie was so... 1964."

Levy also sheds light on the competition between bands. Popular music was all about London--Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks--with the exception of the Beatles, Liverpudlians who truly ruled the scene and would better the Stones with every album. For the first time, America seemed old-fashioned, and looked to British fashion and music to catch up.

My favorite part of Ready, Steady, Go! is when Levy tells of Paul McCartney and George Harrison's visit to check out San Francisco firsthand. "Paul liked it okay, but George--who was tripping during his visit--was appalled by the spectacle of grubby young freaks walking barefoot through the streets and panhandling money in the name of free love, peace, and good vibes." It's a small anecdote but it says a lot about not only the Swinging Sixties vs. Haight-Ashbury, but also the future, and an America that still looks toward London for trends.

Ready, Steady, Go! transitions quickly from the London kids, the mods, and the early '60s to nothing but gossip about the rock stars and famous hangers on. Levy puts an end to the old rumor, first started by the police after a raid and later picked up by the papers, about a doped-up Jagger eating a Mars Bar out of Faithfull's coochie, but quotes her astute observation of the establishment coming down on the Stones: "It was far too jaded for any of us even to have conceived of. It's a dirty old man's fantasy--some old fart that goes to a dominatrix every Thursday afternoon to get spanked. A cop's idea of what people do on acid." Overall, Ready, Steady is a great read, 315 pages of scandal and education.

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