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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor