Rocker (subculture)  

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"Mods and Rockers were the first post-war style-based subcultures of Europe. The Mod lifestyle was based around fashion and music that developed in London in the late 1950s. Mods showed an affinity for scooters, such as the Italian Vespas. Rockers favoured American rock and roll music by artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and early Elvis Presley. Dress style was dominated by leather jackets, Levi's jeans, biker boots and the ubiquitous James Dean quiff. Motorbikes were also integral to the scene, with British brands Triumph and Norton being favourites."--Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Rockers was a term originally applied in a derogatory manner to British motorcycle-riding youths in the 1960s, but was later adopted by those same youths.

Rockers became defined as the antitheses of their scooter-riding contemporaries, the mods. Before this time, young motorcyclists had not been grouped together and labelled in such a manner. Mods and Rockers attracted attention in 1964 because of sensationalistic media coverage of fights between the two groups. Mods and rockers became known for Bank Holiday clashes in the southern English holiday resorts of Clacton, Margate and Brighton.


Fashion & Music

Rockers are generally associated with being a music/fashion subculture in England and favored 1950s and early 1960s-era Rock'n'Roll by artists like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and the early Elvis Presley. However the English Rockers of the 1950s were motorcyclists first and foremost, not a fashion or music focused subculture. These early Rockers were actually referred to as Ton Up Boys, 'ton-up' being English slang for doing 100 mph (160 km/h) along North London's Circular roads around the area of the famous Ace Cafe, which was one of their most popular hangouts.

The rocker style was born out of necessity and practicality. They wore heavily-decorated leather motorcycle jackets often adorned with studs, patches, pins, and sometimes an ESSO Petroleum gas man trinket. They often wore popular leather caps called "Kagneys". They were generally seen riding their motorcycles wearing a classic open-face helmet, aviator goggles, and a white silk scarf (to protect from the cold and cover their mouths). Other common items included: Levi's jeans, leather trousers, tall motorcycle boots made by Lewis Leathers, engineer boots, brothel creepers, T-shirts and Daddy-O-style shirts. Also popular was a patch declaring membership to the 59 Club of England, a church-based, youth organization that later formed into a genuine motorcycle club with members all over the world. The Rocker hairstyle, kept in place with dubious amounts of Brylcreem pomade, was usually a tame or exaggerated pompadour hairstyle, as was popular with some 1950s rock 'n' roll musicians.

Although Rockers existed in the 1950s as the original Ton Up Boys, it wasn't until the 1960s that these Rockers immersed themselves into the Rockabilly music/fashion subculture and began to be known as much for their devotion to Rock 'n Roll music as they were for their motorcycle lifestyle. Some say that the marriage of the two was a perfect match of American rebel music and an English hooligan biker image.

The image that epitomises the look and spirit of the rocker, is Marlon Brando portraying "Johnny" in the 1954 Columbia Pictures movie The Wild One.

Cultural Background

The Rocker Movement came about through a number of unique influences; the end of Post-WWII rationing in the UK and a general rise in prosperity for working class youth, the availability of credit and finance for young people, the influence of American popular music & cinema, the building of race track-like new arterial ring roads about British cities and the transport cafes which became their natural haunts. These factors coincided with British motor engineering at its zenith, and British motorcycles were considered amongst the best in the world. Indeed, 1959 was the year that the most British motorcycles were ever made.

Whilst the Rockers' attitude may have been born from Cowboy movies and Rock and Roll heroes, as far as their motorcycles were concerned, they associated themselves with their European race track heroes and the trend of motorcycles known as Cafe Racers were born. Standard factory designed motorcycles stripped down, tuned up and modified to appear like a racing bike but used only to race on public roads between cafes (pronounced "caffs"), the Rockers were known to frequent, such as The Ace Cafe, Chelsea Bridge tea stall, Ace of Spades, Busy Bee, Johnsons and others.

Largely due to their sense of dress and dirtiness, in an age when conservative public decorum still existed, the Rockers were not widely welcomed by other venues such as pubs and dance halls. This attitude remained prevalent in the UK until the early 1990s when a notable change in the demographics of motorcycle riders occurred in the country. Rockers were also reviled by the British Motorcycle industry and general enthusiasts as being bad for the industry and the sport. Cafe Racers were a particularly European style of motorcycle, common also in Italy - the then other great motorcycle manufacturer and racing nation - in contrast to American cruiser style.

Cafe Racers

The term Cafe racer is still used to describe motorcycles of a certain style and some motorcyclists still use this term in self-description. A cafe racer is a motorcycle that has been modified for speed and good handling rather than comfort; single racing seats, low handle bars such as ace bars or even one-sided "clip-ons" mounted directly onto the front forks for control and aerodynamics, half or full race fairings, large racing petrol tanks often left unpainted, swept back exhausts and rearset footpegs in order to give better clearance whilst cornering at speed. These motorcycles were lean, light and handled road surfaces well. The most defining machine of the Rocker heyday was the homemade Norton Featherbed framed and Triumph Bonneville engined machine called " The Triton ". It used the most common and fastest racing engine combined with the best handling frame of its day.

Worthy of mentioning here is that an entire new sub-culture has evolved since the heyday of the Rockers. The 'Cafe Racers', a term that existed in the 1950s and 1960s to refer to bike riders of the race track, but is used now to describe motorcycle riders who choose classic/vintage British, Italian or Japanese motorbikes from the 50's to late 1970s as their bike of choice, over other styles of bikes. These Cafe Racers do not follow the fashion/music subculture of the Rockers, old or new, but dress in a more modern and comfortable appearance with only a hint of likeness to the Rockers style. Common Levi jeans, generic motorcycle jackets, boots and/or shoes with modern helmets being the norm, instead of the very specific brand names, styles and look established by the Rockers. These Cafe Racers have taken elements of the American Greaser, British Rocker and modern motorcycle rider look to create a style all their own.

Rocker Reunion

In the early 70s, as the British Rocker and hardcore motorcycle scene fractured and evolved under new influences coming in from California, both Hippy and Hells Angels. The remaining Rockers became known as Greasers, not to be confused with the American usage of "greaser", and the scene had all but died out in form but not spirit. However, in the early 1980s, The Rocker Reunion Club was started by Len Paterson and a handful of original Chelsea Bridge Boys who held nostalgic Rocker Reunion Pissups (dances) and Rocker Reunion Runs to historic destinations such as Brighton Beach. Within a few years these attracted 10,000-12,000 like minded revivalists, widespread media attention and neo-converts until Paterson sold his rights to the name.

The Rocker's look was later adopted by many Punk bands, in fact Punk style as it originally emerged in 1976-77 in England was based on the Rocker fashion of the 1960s, with heavily decorated motorcycle jackets and turned up Levi jeans. Also the term 'Punk Rocker' came from the Rocker origins as well. Today it is an influence on the Rockabilly revival and Punkabilly scenes. Today, the revival continues to grow, the modern day Rocker-style having followings all over the world, especially in Japan where it was originally lead by Koji Baba who attended the original Rocker Reunions, but also in the USA and Australia. Now as a cafe racer riding scene, it often exists as a counterpoint to the Harley-Davidson club biking scene.

The emphasis of the Rocker fashion is rooted in a simple nostalgic look, born of practicality, that began in the 1950s and 1960s; turned-up Levi Jeans and leather motorcycle jacket, often featuring handpainted brands or personal logos. This fashion has minute details such as the wearing of Esso Man key chain, 59 club and other motorcycle brand patches adorning the motorcycle jacket, the use of motorcycle tank badges as belt buckles, white silk scarf and long white socks folded over the top of motorcycle boots which have all been adopted by Fashion designers on a regular basis for their collection. Indeed the leather jacket has been accepted as a Fashion classic and original models are highly collectible and prized.

Modern Day

The Rocker of the 21st century has evolved from its humble working-class British beginnings more than 40 years ago and so has the fashion ; Full length motorcycle boots such as the classic Lewis Leather styles are still used, but Winkle Pickers, sharp pointed shoes are no longer so common. Engineer boots and occasionally Doc Martens being the norm. Brothel Creepers, thick crepe soled shoes, have worked themselves back into fashion, as originally worn by the " Teds " or Teddy Boys. Rockers continue to wear motorcycle jackets with leather trousers and the ubiquitous white silk scarf while riding their bikes. Also the use of Levi 501 or 505's has always maintained as part of Rocker fashion. Leather caps, all the rage with Rockers during the 1950s and 1960s adorned with studs and chains, are rarely ever seen anymore, but in its place you might see Rockers of today wearing a classic wool English 'driving cap'.

To complete the look, Rockers would tend to ride a classic British motorcycle, preferably but not exclusively a Cafe racer, usually Triumph or Norton or the Triton motorcycle hybrid of the two, but sometimes a BSA, Royal Enfield or Matchless from the 1960s, as this was the heyday of the British motorcycle industry. Many of these bikes have been lovingly restored. Classically styled European cafe racers are now also seen, interpretations of the theme but using Moto Guzzi or Ducati, and also Classic Japanese engines albeit in British made frames such as those by Rickman.

Sub-cultural references

Rockers are a sub-culture, even within motorcycling, that persists to this day and should not be confused with similar looking Greasers, as in the American usage of the term, Rockabillies, Teddy Boys, Psychobillys or Punks such as The Clash, The Ramones, etc., who have taken style elements from the Rockers. Today the British use of the terms Greasers/Rockers are fairly interchangeable, but historically speaking, British Greasers were a short-lived development in the early 1970s somewhere between the original Rockers and the long haired bikers of the Hippy or Hells Angels era, although Rockers in the 1960s were commonly referred to as Greasers as an insult by the Mods.

Laterally, the term 'Rocker' is also used more generically in the USA to describe long-haired fans of Rock or Heavy Metal music, the term is also synonymous in Hollywood for 'rock star' or music celebrity in the United States. In Jamaica the term 'Rocker' is used to describe followers and musicians of Reggae. In Germany it is used to define a completely different type of motorcyclist. Namely those in cult-like backpatch motorcycle clubs, as in "Rockerbanden", with which they should not be confused. "Wot no bike?" and "N.C.N.R." (No Cunt, No Ride) were mottos famously painted onto jackets of Rockers reflecting an important Rocker cultural goal, namely, sex on motorcycle. Rocker was also the code name of widescale investigation by Interpol into outlaw biker gang activity. Interestingly, many of the original Punk Rocker generation also rode motorcycles. For example, Dave Vanian of The Damned attended the 59 Club / Fifty Nine Club.


Particularly unique, Rockers as a group found drugs of any kind totally abhorrent. This was because they valued physical prowess so highly. In their view, taking drugs - which by this time was widespread amongst Mods and Beatniks- was unmanly. It was cheating. In a kind of street Bushido spirit, if you had to resort to drugs to give you nerves or confidence then you couldn't be much of a man. According to Johnny Stuart in Rockers! Kings of the Road,

[t]hey had no knowledge of the different sorts of drugs. To them amphetamines, cannabis, heroin were all drugs - something to be hated. Their ritual hatred of Mods and other sub-cultures was based in part on the fact that these people were believed to take drugs and were therefore regarded as sissies. Their dislike of anyone connected with drugs was intense.

As pop culture developed into the late 1960s, and lost its focus on reality, the rockers provided a counterpoint with their allegiance to a purer, more basic musical and lifestyle tradition. Until the explosion of Punk in the mid 1970s, it was the leather boys that kept this style of music alive. Rising out of a largely underground scene, the Rocker revival scene gathers worldwide media attention which has brought in an influx of both new younger converts as well as returning original middle aged riders, internationally. Finally, it has also gained the acceptance of the motorcycling industry who have started to make Retro or Cafe Racer bikes for individuals to buy - especially in Japan where the market leaders have their factories - thereby ensured that as a motorcycling tradition, Rocker Movement was not going to die. It might just have to suffer being re-marketed as a Paul " Mod " Smith designed handbag by Triumph motorcycles instead.



See also

Café racer
Teddy Boy
Mods and Rockers
Motorcycle gang
Outlaw motorcycle club
Rock and roll
59 Club
The Ace Cafe

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Rocker (subculture)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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