capturing the teds: a classic of british documentary photography
Before rock ‘n’ roll, there was the teds. After rock ‘n’ roll, there was the teds. Chris Steele-Perkins captured them all.
Summer of Fifty-four. A night train from Southend comes to a halt when someone pulls the emergency cord. Light bulbs are smashed in and, as the train eventually rolls into Barking and a gang of youths in Edwardian suits are arrested, the teddy boy story begins. Britain's first post-war display of restlessness. Stop the train, they want to get off.
"Teds were Britain's first mass-market existentialists," said Richard Smith in 1979's seminal photobook The Teds, co-authored by photographer Chris Steele-Perkins and recently republished by Dewi Lewis. "Their outlaw image was reinforced by the tattoo, the Mark of Cain. They became the focus of male fashion, albeit a disreputable one."
That fashion was a magpie mix of American westerns (the bolo tie), the London gay scene (the Edwardian "Teddy" drape that spawned the name) and a liberal amount of Brylcreem, all facilitated by an increase in purchasing power and desire for something more than their parents had: be it rock 'n' roll music or the kind of switch-blade street violence that had laid largely dormant as the continent was ravaged by war.
While the fast-paced nature of the teds meant they had largely died out by the early 60s - many trading their drapes in for the leather jackets of the rockers - by the time they had teenage children of their own, a resurgent rock 'n' roll revival was in full swing. Acts like Alvin Stardust and Showaddywaddy filled the charts and original heroes such as Bill Haley and his cinema-seat-ripping Comets commenced nostalgia tours across the UK, performing to seas of luminously jacketed revivalists. As punk rock gripped London, a new generation of Teds found something in the innocence of the 50s, and Chris Steele-Perkins was there to document it all.
What was your first experience of the teds?
I suppose my first memory was as a kid growing up and the first generation of 50s teds. I would have been about ten and each sort of small town village seemed to have a little group of teds. They were kind of the bugbears, you know, because parents would all be terrified that their kids would turn into the same thing and I do remember being sort of threatened by my father as it were, saying, "we'll have to get the teds to sort you out". Not that they would have done. So that was the first memory. And then the period that I dealt with was the big nationwide, almost Europe wide, ted revival. And there were indeed some of the original teds there, but it was another generation who had been attracted by the pomp of it all.
And what attracted you?
Well, it was was very simple. I got an assignment for a magazine with a friend of mine who was a writer, Richard Smith, and we were just assigned a one day little job, do something on the teds revival. And we went sort of out to some of the pubs and places and at the end of the night we both sort of said to each other, this is really interesting. So it wasn't a choice of mine initially, but I got enthralled by it and then it became a sort of personal project if you like.
How important was it to visit the pubs and places? You really documented the environment as well as the style…
I kind of enjoyed it! I wasn't one, I didn't try to get a quiff. I was kind of like a marginal hippie, so I didn't really fit in, in that sense at all. But I got in with this guy Sunglasses Ron, he's no longer with us unfortunately, and he kind of got me into places to work. He styled himself King of the Teds and he'd say to people if they started making a bit of trouble, leave him alone, you know, he's alright. So, they might not have known what my name was, but I became the photographer who just turned up. I had very little trouble actually, after the first sort of few encounters. At the end of the day, you're not a Ted because you want to be ignored.
What did the Originals make of the younger lot?
Well, it's interesting how the sort of radicals of one generation become the reactionaries of the next. The older teds were very disapproving of some of the dress codes of the kids. They called them "Plastics" because they melted when the heat was on. And they very much disapproved of luminous coloured collars on their drapes. And drapes going lower than your fingertips when you had your arms hanging at the sides. But at the same time they were, I suppose, flattered that another generation wanted to copy them.
Picking up on the style, it's interesting how influential these images have become in fashion. Did you anticipate that when you were shooting them?
It certainly wasn't something I anticipated when I was doing it. I was just curious about the phenomenon. I just wanted to make a record of it. But when you think about, the way that British fashion has developed has almost been blueprinted by the teds. They took the underclass Edwardian jacket, the drape coat, they mixed it with sort of bootlace ties from the States and the tight trousers, which were very much a working class thing., because they were expensive and so you wore them as long as you possible until they just became too small. That's exactly what happened with skinheads. They didn't go down to your ankles and they were really tight. So they had this sort of magpie thing, we like that, we like that, we'll put that together with that, we'll add that in. And that's exactly what everyone's done ever since.
Do you think of your teds work as a stand alone piece or is it a part of all your work on Britain?
It's definitely a part of that. Britain, England in particular, has been half of my working life. It's only realised itself in a fully articulated form, like a book, in a few cases and The Teds was the first one. It's had this longevity that's been surprising. I'm absolutely delighted, of course. I didn't anticipate when I was doing The Teds that they'd be reprinting it in 2016.
What is it about British subcultures that makes them such great subjects?
Well, I think it's that magpie thing. It's creative. And it's creative by people who aren't supposed to be creative. You know, you're supposed to be the butcher's boy or you're supposed to be down the pit. And that's why is British music the dominant form, other than American. There seems to have been this acceptance of eccentricity, which British society has always been tolerant of and even nurtured in some cases. And post working class there have been so many sources to look at and draw down on. Each generation is looking for its own particular form of expression.
Chris Steele-Perkins and Richard Smith's The Teds is out now, by by Dewi Lewis. Images from the book will be exhibited at Magnum Print Room, London between 21 September - 28 October.
Text Matthew Whitehouse