Life would be hell without some leather

The stars were due to shine at the Albert Hall last night in a concert to celebrate the life of Linda McCartney. The bill was impressive - the Pretenders were the house band behind George Michael, Elvis Costello, Sinead O'Connor and other big-name singers - with the profits destined for Lady Linda's favourite animal charities. But as the VIPs wolfed down veggiebangers and cooed over the plight of veal calves, I hope they raised a glass to the millions of cows who died so that rock'n'roll might live. Without that bovine sacrifice, and the leather it produced, Linda would only be remembered as an obscure American photographer, and the Western world as we know it would not exist.

Leather and rock music go together like Lennon and McCartney. Wearing cow hide says you're sexy, sassy, and wild, and taps into half a century of iconography. It is the ultimate symbol of youthful rebellion, an association that began with the young Jack Kerouac. Photographs of him wearing chinos, a white T-shirt and a leather jacket inspired Marlon Brando, who added a peaked cap, gloves and a Triumph motorcycle to the image for his 1953 film The Wild One. The jackets worn by Brando and Kerouac were adapted from those of Second World War fighter pilots, and carried all the heroic associations of airborne combat and leather-clad cowboys. They marked their owners out from the rest, who were slightly more colourful versions of their own parents.

Brando and James Dean - who wore leather in Rebel Without a Cause - were perfect heroes for a new generation of dissident youngsters, branded "teenagers" by gleeful marketing executives. Their music was rock'n'roll; its darkest prince, the mumbling Gene Vincent, dressed entirely in black leather. His image was ripped off by a drug-fuelled band from Liverpool called the Beatles as they learnt their trade in the strip-joints of Hamburg.

Back home, word of these wild men in leather suits reached a record shop owner called Brian Epstein. He changed their image and conquered the world, but it was the sight of the cherubic McCartney and his mates shaking their limbs in tight, shiny black on the stage of the sweaty Cavern club that first attracted Epstein.

The same cow voodoo worked for Elvis Presley in his 1968 Comeback Special. He hadn't had a big hit in five years, and the kids thought he was past it - until the jet-haired, lean and mean Elvis appeared looking gorgeous and dangerous in a tailored black leather outfit. In the same year, the cult movie Girl On a Motorcycle was released, and established its star, Marianne Faithfull, as a femme fatale. Some of the schoolboys who fantasised about unzipping her leathers may have been in the audience last night.

Pulling on the skin of a dead animal was a quick and easy way for shy types to become wild rock gods. Jim Morrison and Keith Richards were the real thing, but Suzi Quatro and Alvin Stardust (whose act was a parody of Gene Vincent) were having a laugh. The studs and chains of heavy metal were an elaboration of the Brando look. Punk threw out the old guard but couldn't resist their trousers. So they just added bondage straps or - in the case of Sid Vicious singing "My Way" - a white tuxedo and self-inflicted scars.

Chrissie Hynde was the Princess of Punk back then, but she organised the McCartney tribute, and her management confirms that she no longer wears leather. The alternative, PVC, may be meat-free, but it is also leather-lite, an attempt to appropriate the myth and mystique of the skin without feeling guilty about the slaughter involved. Stella McCartney refuses to use animal skins in her collections, but she really should bear in mind how awful a world of no leather would have been.

Without the potent image of Brando in his leathers, the teenager might never have become an adolescent. Rock'n'roll might have been a flash in the pan, and without its kindling, the fire of youthful rebellion would have died. We would all still be wearing our dad's suits and eating meat with two veg. American troops would have gone into battle in Vietnam to the sound of Mantovani, not the Doors. If easy-listening records had been smuggled into the Soviet Union, its pacified youth would not have bothered to overthrow the system. The Beatles would have worn cardigans, and Brian Epstein would have left the Cavern early. There would have been no Revolver, no Sergeant Pepper, no Wings, no "Mull of Kintyre" and no Linda McCartney meat-free pies. Frightening, isn't it? For the sake of the Free World, kill a cow today.

Robert Winder returns next week.