Editor’s Note: Thanks to Dan Covell for yet another great essay. It reminded me of our playlist on Spotify. Always feel free to request additions. Without further ado…
Thanks to some of the seminal contributors to this site, we regular readers have been made aware of the many connections between Ivy Style and music, starting with jazz titans Chet Baker and Miles Davis, through Richard Press’s dalliances outfitting Frank Sinatra. “Richie,” as Press was known to the Chairman of the Board, told us in Threading the needle that Sinatra, who was a size 38 Regular, moved on from Ivy Style when Ol’ Blue Eyes moved full time to California. “I love doing Ivy,” Sinatra told Press’s son Ben some time later, “but I felt it was time to move on.” Frank’s loss, say I. Still, we should cut Sinatra some slack based on his acknowledging the salutary effects of New Haven’s long-standing and world-famous apizza culture.
Richie tells us that Sinatra left J. Press in 1969, and his departure was symptomatic of what had been happening with the clothing choices of performers of popular music throughout the decade. When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones first took flight, they too were wearing suits and ties, albeit not of any specific Ivy Style cut or fabric, and with haircuts that were hardly Army regulation. David Bowie, style icon in his own right, tells a hilarious story about Mick Jagger’s style influence after seeing the Stones open for yet-another style icon Little Richard in 1963 (look it up on YouTube). By the time “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (May 1967) and “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request” (December 1967, from which comes one of my favorite Stones deep cuts, “She’s a rainbow”) bookended Jimi Hendrix’s “Are you experienced?” and “Axis Bold as Love” that year, phantasmagorical was the look de jour for rock, pop and R&B acts. Miles Davis had gone over to that as well, as video from a 1969 live gig in Copenhagen will attest, performed a few weeks after the shenanigans in the rain and mud at Woodstock smushed Ivy Style completely out of the popular music picture.
The style choices of many preeminent rock bands of the ‘70s were either rustic neo-cowboy (e.g., Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the cover of “Déjà vu,” which included the Joni Mitchell-penned homage to the doings at Max Yasgur’s farm) or Bowie-influenced glam rock (e.g., Bowie on the cover of “The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the spiders from Mars”; my favorite cut is “Starman,” which borrows a guitar riff from “You keep me hangin’ on” by the Supremes, a #1 hit on the U.S. Billboard singles charts in 1966). But the influences of Ivy Style would reemerge towards the end of the decade with the revival of ska in the U.K., and later, certain “new wave” acts in the U.S. and the U.K.
It feels that now maybe an organizational flow chart might be of some use, and what comes to mind is the chalkboard-based version used by substitute teacher/aspiring rocker Dewey Finn, played by Jack Black, in the popular 2003 film, “School of Rock,” directed by Richard Linklater. As you likely know, Finn cadges a post as a long-term substitute teacher for a class of third graders at a private day school, and, as fortune would have it, the class includes many gifted musicians and singers. Finn, whose classroom wardrobe is a punk-rockier version of Paul Hunham’s from “The Holdovers” (discussed on this space a few weeks back), then seeks to enlist surreptitiously the kids into a band that can win the prize at a local rock live showcase. In one of the film’s many spot-on rock references, Finn’s on-stage outfit is an homage to the Australian schoolboy inspired togs worn by legendary AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. Since the kids know nothing of popular music (they perform only classical works in the school’s orchestra), Finn goes about teaching them the basics elements of American popular music since 1900, including its historical evolution. Starting with the three pillars of jazz, blues and country, the chart shows paths diverging into folk, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, to soul, funk, and the British Invasion, morphing into psychedelic rock and disco, branching into hard, rock, prog rock, glam rock, and ultimately to punk, grunge, new wave and hip-hop.
Connected to each chart box identifying these movements are a handful of acts that exemplified each subgenre. Ska didn’t make this chart, as it is an offshoot of jazz and American R&B which grew up in Jamaica and would then serve to influence the emergence of reggae, and it may have been a bridge too far (or the chalkboard too small) to trace this branch. While that’s about as far as I can go as a musicologist, I can say that some of ska’s foundational performers, including Desmond Dekker, the Skatalites and Toots and the Maytals, followed the lead of their American influences when putting together their stage looks, combining slim-cut suits, narrow ties, and v-neck and cardigan sweaters. Reggae left those sensibilities behind and embraced ‘70s rock fashion imbued with the aesthetic of the African diaspora.
The birth of punk in the late ‘70s produced practitioners who donned leather jackets and combat boots along with t-shirts and jeans torn and perforated to varying degrees of severity. On this side of the Atlantic, New York City’s the Ramones sported the archetypical look, while across the pond it was the Sex Pistols. Which did it better is up for debate. But while punk grabbed most of the limelight at the time, a ska revival grew alongside it in the U.K., thanks the descendants and members of the Commonwealth’s so-called “Windrush Generation” – coined as such because the first large passel from the Caribbean arrived on a ship named the HMT Empire Windrush – who were allowed to migrate from the Caribbean and work in Britain thanks to the 1948 British Nationality Act; by 1971, almost half a million had come to the U.K. from around the Commonwealth, and those connected to Jamaica and its culture and music brought ska influences with them.
The ska revival, which was infused with the ethos and timbres of punk, birthed such bands such as the Selecter, Madness and the Beat (known in the U.S. as the English Beat due to issues with a domestic band with the same name), but the most celebrated practitioners were the Specials. Formed in Coventry, band members were both black and white, some native born and some emigres. The Specials were fronted by recently deceased lead vocalist Terry Hall, with a sound driven by keyboardist Jerry Dammers along with Neville Staple, Lynval Golding and Roderick Byers (aka Roddy Radiation) and a small but strong horn section that featured Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez, a Cuban-born Windrusher trombonist of repute who later received the MBE. The band’s discography is short, but their first album, an eponymously titled released in the U.K. in October 1979, was produced by Elvis Costello, another seminal performer who broke through at about the same time. It is unquestionably one of my top ten favorite albums of all time, and I enjoy listening to it today as much as I did when I first bought it, most likely at a record store in my hometown for $4.99. I had never heard of the band until I saw them perform on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in April of 1980 after an evening of beery revelry in the basement rec room of a friend. To describe my reaction as being blown away is as big an understatement as one can make, thanks to the on-stage energy that erupted after Staple walked out with a tommy gun as an intro to their song “Gangsters,” along with the beat and the lyrics depicting the angst and grime of a down-at-the-heels, early-time Margaret Thatcher-run Britain. And for me, no small part of their allure was the band’s on-stage apparel: ensembles of slim-cut suits, narrow ties (and occasionally bow ties!), skinny brim hats and sunglasses, all in a pallet of mostly black, grey and white. I had never seen anything like it, and I have never forgotten it. Soon thereafter, I went to a local thrift clothing shop run buy the Servants of the Blessed Sacrement and found a black sport coat (which probably had belonged to a deceased male clergy member), and started rummaging for narrow ties.
The Specials and other ska performers weren’t the only bands that had eschewed the looks of punk and early ‘70s rock. Other U.K. acts such as Buzzcocks, the Jam and Costello (who stated once that he never felt fully dressed without a sports jacket and tie, in part to honor the professional garb of his father, a trumpeter who toured with bands in the U.K. in the ‘50s and ‘60s) and American acts such as the Cars were riffing on the ska look and adding their own twist. Many of these were categorized as so-called “New Wave” bands on Dewey Finn’s chalkboard chart, along with the B-52’s, Blondie, Devo, Talking Heads, the Pretenders and the Police. In terms of clothing, Devo was off doing its own thing entirely, with an on-stage persona fully enmeshed with its rock-robotics sound, one that was articulated with bright yellow anti-radioactivity jumpsuits and later with “energy dome” hats (which looked like an inverted version of one of those old collapsible travel drinking cups colored bright red). Meanwhile, the B-52’s had become prep school and college darlings thanks to their hipster party vibe and retro ‘60s personae. However, the members of Blondie, other than lead singer and former Playboy bunny Debbie Harry, were on to the “new wave” look closer to the Specials, as evidenced in the cover picture on their third LP, the excellent “Parallel Lines” (best known for the disco-influence, #1 single “Heart of glass,” but I’d say my favorite cut is “Picture this”). The boys wore black suits, white shirts and skinny ties, augmented with footwear such as rocker chic Chuck Taylors and heavily scuffed white loafers.
Perhaps my own biggest “new wave” clothing experience was one that charged headlong into the nascent but still potent headwinds of Ivy Style. As readers of this site might recall, I attended the Northfield Mount Hermon School for a postgraduate year of study beginning in the Fall of 1981. While I brought my love for the Cars, Devo, the Specials, the Police and Elvis Costello with me, I gained a larger affinity for the genre through my new pal Claude, who had a good ear and had grown up in LA and on Long Island, and thus brought to light for me other important acts such as Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Jam and XTC, as well as reinforcing the soul and R&B groundings my sisters had given me with Grandmaster Flash, Rick James, Prince and the Sugar Hill Gang. And as noted, since NMH was a not a heavily peppy place and had no dress code, one could dress Ivy Style, “new wave,” hippie, jock, or some combination thereof.
It was with this sartorial mindset that I put together my ensembles to meet with admissions representatives from the various colleges and universities when they came to campus. For the Harvard interview, I put on my Blessed Sacrement dead priest sport coat, a white shirt with thin red stripes made by my mother, borrowed from Claude a narrow, black-and-crimson stiped tie – Harvard colors, after all – and showed up on time as scheduled. As soon as I sat down, the interviewer, a 30-something guy with a vaguely Ivy Style look, took note of my “new wave” tie and said with unguarded snark, “That’s quite a tie choice there.” While young and naïve, I could still glean that based on that five-second interchange, I was probably going to be getting a thin envelope with a Cambridge postmark come March, and right I was. Maybe the rejection had more to do with my less-than-stellar academic record prior to NMH, but as to my clothing choice, I regret nothing. I dressed appropriately for the moment, in a way that expressed who I was.
David Byrne, the driving force of Talking Heads, another seminar act of the era, once commented that in its early days, the band intentionally wore what we would now call “normcore”: polo shirts, khakis, etc., implemented in such as way as to subvert their sound and language of their very different music. “The first few years with Talking Heads,” recalled Byrne in an interview, “we didn’t ‘need’ uniforms – because new bands become identified by their members and it’s assumed they are unified as a ‘team’. However, when I went out on my own with new players it became more important to at least give the impression that the new band was all working together and that their personalities and individual fashion senses were apart from the band. That they were there for the music and not for their individual egos.” Byrne knew then what we all know now: Clothing choices, whether for work, play, art or commerce, scream out the messages we wish to be received.
Byrne’s most iconic stage costume is undoubtably the “big suit,” a light grey, linen-looking, substantially oversized three-button number with patch front pockets he wore to perform “Girlfriend is better,” an upbeat yet not easily danceable song from the “Speaking in Tongues” album on the band’s “Stop Making Sense” tour which spanned the latter half of 1983. “Our previous tour ended in Japan, and I stayed on to stay with friends to visit and look around a little bit,” Byrne said of the background idea for the suit. “I went to a fair amount of traditional Japanese theatre like Kabuki and Noh … And I was talking with a designer who lived there and I said, ‘I’m thinking about what we could wear on our next tour? … And he said sort of facetiously, ‘Well, you know, David, in the theatre, everything has to be bigger.’ And I think he [was] referring to gesture and your voice and all that. And I thought, ‘Oh, so my suit should just be big!’” I can attest to the bigness of the suit (maybe a size 56?), as I saw the band perform in Portland, Maine, that August, standing just a few rows from the stage. The rest of the world got to meet the suit when the award-winning tour film, directed by Jonathan Demme, was released the next year.
As we all know, and as I referenced a few months back, Paul Winston, whose family owned the well-regarded Ivy Style purveyor Chipp, offered this take: “That old saying that clothes make the man? Not really. I think the man makes the clothing.” Byrne – a slender and somewhat awkward looking man who emigrated with his family from Scotland first to Canada and then to the U.S. when he was a child, made the big suit work because of how he moved in it: Angular and jerky at times, but also fully in synch with how the suit moved when he did. As the song begins with its groovy bass synth line – it was one of the final songs of the show – Byrne approaches the darkened stage from behind the band. He was illuminated by a single bright light held in front of him by a stage hand, which allowed for the big suit’s profile, which was a larger version of the one he had been wearing throughout the performance – to cast an even larger shadow on the screen behind the band. For the first three minutes of the five-minute song, Byrne pretty much delivers the song from a traditional stance, singing into a standing mic on center stage. But as the song hits a break to allow a solo from famed keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Byrne moves away from the mic and stands in a full spotlight, swishing and swaying, lurching and head-bobbing, the fabric moving around him, somewhat in synch, but also sometimes independently. It was clownish and exaggerated, twitchy but not nervous. All great physical performers have to know their bodies and how to articulate their movements to look awkward and still keep to the script, and Byrne turned in bravura performance on this score. Noted New York Times film critic Pauline Kael called the big suit “a perfect psychological fit,” but Byrne’s reason for donning it is a bit more logistical: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.”
Clothes may not make the man, but they do make the man feel something; something great, sometimes perfect, but always something real. Music can do the same thing, in much the same way. Recently, while I still love the bands I discovered back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and still listen to those I discovered while the music director for the Bowdoin College radio station and since (e.g., Robyn Hitchcock, Kraftwerk, the Minutemen, New Order, Pixies, R.E.M., the Replacements, Run-DMC, the Smiths), I have come to appreciate the shows and songs from the Golden Age of American musical theater, I think in large part because several iconic cast albums (“Camelot,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Funny Girl”) were imprinted on me during childhood, and apparently had been incubating within for decades, waiting for my ear to come around to them. In Jack Viertel’s The secret life of the American musical , a fun and informative examination of the nuts, bolts and constructions of the genre, the author notes that “there are no inviolable rules for the creation of enduring popular musicals, possibly except this one: The hero has to want something that’s hard to get, and go after it come what may.” You might recall from my last post that my first purchase at J. Press in Cambridge was a black-and-crimson silk tie with emblematic thistles, as I thought it was something I could wear as I worked as a PA announcer at Harvard men’s basketball games. When I bought it, my head wasn’t thinking about that disappointing prep school interchange two decades prior, but the body knew something when I made the purchase of that tie, an Ivy Stylized version of the one I wore in the interview. When I think back to that simple purchase, I’m reminded of “Something’s Coming,” the song from “West Side Story,” the iconic 1957 collaboration forged by musical titans Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. Larry Kert, playing the role of Tony, who has just resigned from his street gang, the Jets, delivered these Sondheim’s lyrics: “there’s somethin’ due any day … I will know right away, soon as it shows … somethin’s comin’, I don’t know what it is … But it’s gonna be great.” Of the song, Viertel observes, “this is a hard kind of I Want song to write, because Tony doesn’t actually know what he wants – he just knows it will be superior to what he has, more valuable, more human, more poetic.” Little did Sondheim know he was also writing about a guy not yet born making an Ivy Style tie purchase that wasn’t going to happen for another four decades. But music can do that. Clothes too.
- Daniel J. Covell