Break out the blue suede shoes...the 1950s are back in style

Put on your circle skirts and tease up those quiffs – the music and style of the 1950s is enjoying its first revival since the days of Shakin' Stevens...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The clock has just struck two in the morning, and Buddy Holly, or someone very much like him, has just elbowed his way to the bar. Behind him, every square foot has been colonised for dancing by stylish couples sporting trilbies or Betty Page fringes and pencil skirts. A flailing arm has just sent a pint down the front of one girl's pussy cat-bow blouse and a sack of ice has somehow been emptied on to the floor, making dancing more hazardous than ever, but no one seems to care. There are shouts of approval at the opening bars of rockabilly favourite "My Girl is Red Hot".

It's all just part of a Saturday night at Ye Olde Axe, an unlikely venue in London's East End, transformed from a seedy strip-pub into an ordinary (or really rather extraordinary) nightclub between midnight and 6am at weekends.

Tonight is "Rock-A-Billy Rebels", a weekly DJ night specialising in 1950s rock'n'roll. It's one of a clutch of similar nights to have sprung up around London and, judging by the crowd of trendy young urbanites still gathering outside at 3am, hoping to make it in, it has captured imaginations.

Of course, the 1960s and 1970s have never really been out of fashion – hence the enthusiasm with which the nation has taken Amy Winehouse and her beehive to its heart. Even the 1940s have enjoyed a moment in the sun with the recent burlesque revival. But it has been a long time since the 1950s were last considered cool. Revived in the early-1970s by groups such as Mud and Showaddywaddy, then again in the early-1980s by the Stray Cats and Shakin' Stevens, perhaps it's no wonder the decade has languished unloved for so long.

Since then the hardcore of balding teddy boys and poodle-skirted women who make up the "rockin' scene" have been alone in ferociously staking their claim to the era, keeping it very much within a peripheral subculture.

Now, however, from the music to the clothes, a whole new generation is breathing life into its culture. The emergence of a crop of nights at London clubs such as Soho's The Black Gardenia and Crouch End's Music Palace is an indicator of a wider movement, as a host of musicians find inspiration in good old-fashioned rock'n'roll, from the revivalist covers of Kitty, Daisy & Lewis to the skiffley pop of Jack Peñate.

Hoping to put a modern spin on all this are EMI-signed four-piece Vincent Vincent and the Villains, who have been steadily garnering a faithful following with their debut album Gospel Bombs. The fact that they are signed to a major label is in itself indicative of the era's renewed appeal.

Frontman Vincent is keen to stress that the Villains are not merely a revival act: "We're interested in lots of styles, ' from Cuban and flamenco to African music," he says, though he concedes that "we are rooted in rock'n'roll. We definitely want to bring that energy and feel to the music."

"We have had our wrist slapped on a few occasions by the rockabilly lot for stuff like not playing an upright bass, but we've actively tried not to belong to a particular scene," adds drummer Alex. "We started off touring the indie-club circuit, not specific rock'n'roll nights."

The band are unsure whether they have helped to reawaken interest in 1950s music or whether they have simply coincided with a shift in the collective consciousness. "A lot more 1950s DJ nights are cropping up and I don't know whether we are part of that because we've been playing as a band for quite a few years now," says Vincent. "If it sparks a resurgence of interest in rock'n'roll, that can only be a good thing. At the moment I think it's still pretty underground, though."

At Ye Olde Axe, the diversity of the crowd suggests it might not stay that way for too long. There are Hoxton trendies in vintage ensembles, teen Peaches Geldof-alikes in retro Topshop, a few banker types who seem to have turned the wrong way out of the City and lots of... well, normal people. Max Mitchele, the promoter of the night, which started just over a year ago, explains that although it has devoted regulars, each week brings a new crowd. "About 70 per cent of people here tonight are new faces," he says. "It built up slowly but recently it exploded. Other parts of the scene are so anal, all about guys collecting records, but this night is a lot more fun. It's not about what you wear, it's about your attitude."

It's certainly true that everyone at the Axe is enjoying themselves. The place is packed with people dancing as frenetically as space allows and the mood is overwhelmingly good-natured. A quick straw poll suggests these frolickers are just as likely to be found at an indie or electro night as a 1950s event, but everyone I speak to says it's a breath of fresh air to find a late-night venue that plays proper rock'n'roll. "It's nice to be able to come out and hear the records I used to just play in my bedroom," says Paul Genders, a 28-year-old web editor with a James Dean quiff and leather jacket.

Although many of the Axe's punters are dressed in retro or vintage clothes, most are adamant that there is more to this than fashion; that there is a nostalgia for the music their parents used to play at home, and that they are here for the unpretentious nature of the night. Most confess to being bored by the cynicism and postmodern irony of over-produced indie or electro. It's hard to look achingly cool when singing along to "Stupid Cupid", after all.

But what do the original revivalists make of all this? Before heading to the Axe I visited original biker café and regular rockers' venue The Ace in the suburban hinterland just off London's North Circular, where a small crowd were watching rockabilly outfit Bill Fadden and the Rhythmbusters. What separates this crowd from the Axe is the level of dedication. Fadden's wife, Lori, a 25-year-old medical secretary with more than a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, explains: "I've been part of the scene for ages – I met my husband here six years ago. It's the music, the clothes, the cars. We don't just do it at the weekend; it's a way of life."

Mark Wilsmore, The Ace's resident promoter, attributes the increase in interest from "outsiders" to a desire for an authenticity that modern music and, by extension, society lacks. He also links the trend to a search for stability in today's anxious, credit-crunched climate: "They say that when people have worries about the future, they turn to the certainty of values of the past. It's ironic that people now see 1950s music as reassuring, because rock'n'roll was the rap of its time. Slim Jim ties and drape jackets were the hoodies of their age."

Jon Savage, author of Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, says all ages have a chance of a comeback sooner or later: "We live in a time when the nature of pop culture is to revive other periods." His theory on the appeal of the 1950s is uncomplicated: "Number one, the music is simple, direct and exciting. Number two, it captures the first-time innocence and vitality of pop culture. Something really was being created. Whether this new interest will mean much in the long-term is another thing. The only way to develop classic rock'n'roll creatively is to make it 2008. That's the problem."

For Vincent Vincent and the Villains, it's a challenge they are more than happy to meet. As Vincent himself explains, "Rock'n'roll doesn't belong to one particular era, it's more a feeling than anything else."

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