Faces: ton-up boys & rockers

In the early 1950s in the outskirt of London, a transport cafe called ‘The Ace Cafe’, became the hang out for a newly emergent British youth subculture, better known as the Ton-Up Boys, Cafe Racers, Leather Boys  or Coffee Bar Cowboys - and latterly Rockers


By Marianne Petersen (MarpLondon) In the early 1950s in the outskirt of London, a transport cafe called ‘The Ace Cafe’, became the hang out for a newly emergent British youth subculture, better known as the Ton-Up Boys, Cafe Racers, Leather Boys  or Coffee Bar Cowboys - and latterly Rockers. THE OUTSIDERS On the other side of the pond in a post-war America, many young people, especially servicemen of the American Army found it difficult adapting to a life of standards. These men had still adrenalin in their fresh memories of experienced ‘life and death’ situations during the war, and blandness as such as standards, was hard to accept; A standard suit, a standard haircut, a standard home full of the standard appliances, a standard car, kids and dog. One way of escaping was motorbikes and black leather jacket, as they were a close resemblance to planes/pilot jackets, that could take these servicemen with a speed away from standardisation that had found its way into the new American style. They were outsiders. They became known as the Bikers; The outlaws. They were living beyond social convention. These bikers of the late 40s and early 50s America represented a radical departure from mainstream society, and had absolutely no interest in becoming ‘insiders’. You could say, that they were the kick-starters of “alternativeness” and “badness”, which nowadays are keys elements of street styles and in pop and rock music.

LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG At the same time in the UK the British motorcyclists were patiently forced to wait for petrol rationing to end, which first happened in 1950 and therefore would take a few more years before a British counterpart emerged. The Ton-Ups boys emerged alongside the Teddy Boys with a shared taste for American Rock’n’Roll and the Biker’s nihilistic rebellion. However, this is also were the comparison ends, both with the Teddy Boys and the American Bikers. The British ‘bikers’ focus was racing. They modified standard motorcycles and made them into racing bikes. They would race on public roads and as a result of their passion for speed. Hence their name. A term taken from ‘doing the ton’, slang for driving at a speed of 100mph (160km/h) The Ton Up Boys were not exactly welcomed by venues such as pubs and dance halls, largely due to their clothing styles and dirtiness, so they would instead hang out at transport cafes and listen to Rock’n’Roll whilst drinking sweet beige teas at places like ‘The Ace Cafe’, ‘Chelsea Bridges tea stall, Ace of Spaces, Busy Bee and Johnson's, hence the term ‘caff racer’. STYLE The their style was primarily born out of necessity and practicality, though still heavily influenced by the style of Marlon Brandon in “The Wild One” and the uniforms of Royal Air Force pilots during the WW2. They wore: a black leather jacket, a pair of jeans, chunky boots, (often made by Lewis Leather) or Brothel Creepers. Jet helmets and aviator goggles for night riding. The look was accentuated with a silk scarf and long wool socks pulled over the top of the boots, both of these looks were borrowed from the Royal Air Force. Other common items were: T-shirts, leather caps and leather trousers.

The few Ton-Up Girls that there were, would wear leather jacket, jeans and boots, just like their male counterparts during the day, but at night they wore pencil skirt, a bullet bra and a pair of spike heels. Their relaxed view around unisex equality outlook was a shocker to society then. It was an outlook that found inspiration in the future, rather than in the past. It was not competing with the upper class; it was more interesting in moving forward, which was in sharp contrast to the outlook of the Teddy Boys and Girls. Their style (The Teds) was about showing both emphasis on visual differentiation between the sexes, but also an eagerness to mirror an old-fashioned upper class style with alterations. MUSIC Ton Up Boys and Rockers would listen to Elvis, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, Johnny Burnette, Wanda Jackson and Link Wray. THE 1960s: ROCKERS’ THE-DEVIL-MAY-CARE ATTITUDE The Ton-Up Boys of 1950s were indeed forward thinking and very modern. Therefore ironically their successors Rockers in the 1960s would form the opposition to the Mods. Rockers were at first out there on their own, a very pre-Swinging Sixties phenomenon. During the early sixties many Teddy Boys turned into Ton-Up Boys, which by then had evolved into Rockers. The main difference between Ton-Up Boys of the 1950s and the rockers of the 1960s was the legendary leather jacket. The preferred leather jacket of the Ton-Up Boys was clean, sometimes seen with a painted motifs on the back (adopted from World War II pilots), whereas the Rockers liked their leather jacket heavily studded, patched and pinned. The chunky creepers were replace with razor sharp Winkle-pickers leaving no doubt about the Rockers were al about Rock’n’Roll, every aspects of it as defined by the likes of Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, Gene Vincent, VInce Taylor and Johnny Kidd. Whereas the original Ton-Up Boys had been about burn-ups (races) and their devil machines with rather plain and practical style, The Rockers wanted to be singled out as a tribal identity, whose religion was Rock’n’Roll. They were on a mission to safe the Rock’n’Roll authenticity as the last savior. Elvis had become mainstream ‘pop’ or as the rockers saw it: pap! (dead)

CULTURAL LEGACY The rockers' look and attitude influenced pop groups from The Beatles in 1960 to punk rock bands and their fans in the late 1970s. The look of the Ton Up boy and rocker was accurately portrayed in the 1964 film The Leather Boys by Sidney Furie. In the mid-1960s Rockers began to crumble as their beloved bike became hijacked by hippies who liked motorbikes, e.g. Hell’s Angels. Released in 1969, Easy Rider was anathema to Rockers and a 90 minutes praise of bearded hippies. After 2000, the rocker subculture became an influence on the rockabilly revival and Psychobilly scenes. Many rockers still wear engineer boots or full-length motorcycle boots, but Winkle-pickers (sharp pointed shoes) are no longer common. Some rockers in the 2000s wear Dr. Martens boots, brothel creepers (originally worn by Teddy Boys) or military combat boots. Rockers have continued to wear motorcycle jackets, leather trousers and white silk scarves while riding their bikes. Leather caps adorned with metal studs and chains, common among rockers in the 1950s and 1960s, are rarely seen any more. Instead, some contemporary rockers wear a classic wool English driving cap.