My Swinging Sixties

The author of this piece, Clare Colbran, pictured as a 17-year-old model in London in 1963.

By Clare Colbran 

I woke fresh on a beautiful May morning, the sort of morning when the birds are singing and the air promises that summer is one day closer. I looked around me and saw I was the first awake, the first of twelve. I was in the YWCA in Bayswater, London. The year was 1963. 

My parents had sent me to London to do a modeling course at Lucy Clayton’s in Bond Street and that’s all I knew—and how to get to the dining hall to get some breakfast. I dressed carefully and didn’t speak to anyone else. To this day, I have no idea of their stories or why these other teenage girls were in London alone. I didn’t actually care. I was going to be a model—in London—in the Swinging Sixties. 

Some periods in history—social history at least—are not defined until much later, but I don’t think there was anyone in England at that time who was not aware of the phenomenon that was Swinging London. The magazines were full of the fashions and the celebrities who wore them, not least of whom was Twiggy, the beautiful, skinny, sixteen-year-old model whose style epitomized what the decade was all about. 

The glamorous world of fashion was also the theme of one of the most iconic films of that era, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. It was a darkly beautiful film and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967. It tells the story of a fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who, whilst wandering in Maryon Park, takes some photos of two lovers. When he comes to develop the film, however, he notices a grainy image of a body lying in the bushes. If you’re lucky enough to get a copy of this film watch out for several cameo appearances.  You might spot Michael Palin of Monty Python fame in the nightclub scene and a poster on the door of the nightclub with a cryptic epitaph for Bob Dylan. Watch out too, toward the end of the film, for a glimpse of The Yardbirds. Keith Relf sings while Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck play on either side of him.

For serious musos and blues aficionados, The Yardbirds were one of the trailblazer bands (groups, as they were known in those days). At a time when music was making a huge shift into the new blues/rock, The Yardbirds were the name on everybody’s lips. Pure, great musicianship that came easily and effortlessly to those future musical heroes. The band played regularly at a venue called Klooks Kleek which was simply a room upstairs in the Railway Hotel on West End Lane in West Hampstead. Decorated with flock wallpaper, heavy velvet curtains, and carpet on the floor, the acoustics were great, even if the feel of the place was like your granny’s front room. The band stood in the corner and played on a Tuesday evening. Little did I realize that musical history was being made—I was just a little girl in a minidress with a stamp on my hand, loving every minute of it.

So many musicians who have stood the test of time were just starting out back then. The Rolling Stones opened for Long John Baldry at the Marquee in Wardour Street and The Kinks, who I saw in my home town of Chippenham, had their first hit with “You Really Got Me.” Ray Davies has since been credited with writing the first heavy-metal piece ever in this song. All these great bands and more were so accessible at the time, playing in small venues just for the love of it, just for pennies. For me, a teenage girl, the sights, sounds, and smells of the time were almost overwhelming. Everything seemed to be more than it was—the music was completely amazing, the clothes were too wonderful and exciting, and the smells (petrol mixed with those strong Gitanes cigarettes and expensive perfume, I particularly remember) were tantalizing. I felt pure, unadulterated joy at simply being alive and amongst it all. 

All that was Swinging London, the clothes, the music, the films, the art (let’s not forget Andy Warhol and David Hockney) seemed to culminate and express itself on a Saturday morning in the King’s Road. The King’s Road in Chelsea was the epicenter.  A wide road leading down from the very smart Sloane Square in Knightsbridge to the not-so-salubrious World’s End in Fulham, it was a mecca for everyone who was a part of and wanted to be a part of the London Scene and the Chelsea Set. Brimming with glorious independent boutiques and coffee houses and pubs and antique shops—everyone dressed to the nines watching everybody else and waiting for the parade of flashy cars piled full of outrageously dressed young people to begin. Everybody was out for a good time—including a lion. 

Christian, the lion cub, bought from Harrods by two Australians, John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke, lived with his owners above an antique shop and was a familiar sight in the King’s Road. Be prepared to shed a happy tear if you watch the YouTube clips of Christian’s ultimate return to the wild. 

Writing about the ‘60s music scene in London has presented me with somewhat of a dilemma—not so much what to put in, as you might imagine, but what to leave out. There were so many great artists around, it’s been difficult to choose a few of them to talk about here. I suppose I shouldn’t go without mentioning the loudest band of all time, Deep Purple. I saw them once, on the South Coast somewhere I think, in 1968, and my ears were ringing for several days afterwards. Too loud to enjoy actually but they certain deserve their place in the archives. And, of course, what musings about the ‘60s would be complete without mention of The Beatles? 

I was lucky enough to see them live at the Pavilion, Bath—quite a big venue compared to the other ones I went to (standing capacity 1400). This was in 1963 when they released “Please Please Me.” The buzz around the room while we were waiting for them to come on was electric. People were standing on tables and chairs around the edge of the hall—I’d never seen or felt anything like it—and then the place erupted when the curtain was drawn back to reveal the lads with the funny haircuts . . . and the beginning of Beatlemania. 

Before I go I need to maybe put something straight, or at least put it out there for discussion—and it’s this.  The film, Quadrophenia, stoked the flames of what some believe now is an urban myth—that the ‘riots’ of 1964 and 1965 on the South Coast between Mods and Rockers never actually happened. There’s a lot of stuff on the Internet about different newspapers paying Mods to stage fights and vandalism for the cameras. I was in Brighton for the whole of the May Bank Holiday weekend in 1964 and I can honestly say that although I saw quite a lot of Mods on scooters and wandering around I didn’t see real violence of any kind—and I was in the area by the Palace Pier where it was all supposed to have kicked off. Admittedly there may have been the odd scuffle; but I suspect, nothing of the scale that was reported. Generations that came after refer to these supposed violent clashes as an important part of our social history but were they fact—or were they fiction? 

As time went on my love of music remained as strong as ever and since, by the late ‘60s my modelling career had dwindled I got a job at United Artists Records in Soho. A couple of things stick in my mind about my time there: one was that the popular Radio 1 DJ, Stuart Henry, used to come in to visit my female boss a lot, wearing his usual kaftan and beads and the other thing was a situation that threw the whole office into a complete panic. We’d just got the promo version of Bobby Goldsboro’s single, “Honey” All the copies were packed up and ready to go out to various radio stations when someone thought to play it. Unfortunately, at this point, discovered that the factory had put the labels on back to front and so “Honey” was on the B side. We were there until midnight packing up the new version that had been hurriedly sent across. A few did get through, however, and I thought it was quite funny when on the following Sunday I was at home with my parents and the DJ I was listening to played the wrong track. Ironically, this song, although it was a huge hit, has often been referred to since as the worst record of all time. 

Well, it’s almost time for me to go and I’ve really enjoyed this short trip down memory lane. For company, I‘ve had the soundtrack of The Boat That Rocked playing in the background. Working Title made this unashamedly nostalgic film recently about the infamous pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, aboard the ship, Mi Amigo, which eventually sank. All the songs of the period are there and it’s been pure joy to listen to them all again while I write.  

Finally, it wouldn’t be right not to mention The Who, one of the most important bands of the decade. I never did go to see them live but their songs were very much part of the music scene then. They were banner carriers for a lot of young disadvantaged people at the time and their songs gave voice to a lot of things young people were feeling. What stuck in my mind about the band, though, apart from their powerful music, was the fact that Keith Moon died in the same flat in Curzon Place, Mayfair that Mama Cass Elliott had died in four years before. Strange the things you remember. 

Peace, love, and light, my friends.

The Railway Hotel on West End Lane in West Hampstead, London as it appears today. The Yardbirds and other legendary bands performed there in the 1960s. (Photo is copyright of Ewan Munro.)

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