In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s tender cinematic homage to mid-Seventies rock, the film’s fictional band Stillwater bond with their entourage in a tour bus sing-along.
After the disorientation of a night’s heavy partying, all the tensions and permanently altered consciousness of life on the road are redeemed by a communal run through of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. For a film rich in rock’n’roll mythology the use of an Elton John song is considered by the experts – the kind of people who like to think the film is actually about them – to be something of an anomaly.
The thought of the Allman Brothers Band, The Doobie Brothers, or whichever hairy and self-consciously authentic band Crowe had in mind for Stillwater, allowing Elton John, rather than Aretha Franklin, Al Green or Etta James onto the tape deck is rock’n’roll heresy. Putting the more trenchant views of the musicologists aside, the film certainly gets one period detail meticulously right: denim. There is hardly a single frame in Almost Famous without a denim jacket, a denim shirt or an artfully and tenderly patched up pair of blue jeans. If you were playing music in the 1970s you were wearing denim.
On the inner gatefold sleeve of Neil Young’s After The Goldrush (1970) is a picture of Neil looking typically self-absorbed in a remarkable pair of jeans. The strides (I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Neil, at the time, would have called them strides) have been patched up and mended with a motley selection of fabrics that feature paisley, rustic and Latin American patterns and designs. On the record’s back cover is a rear view of Neil’s jeans in close up; there are more centimetres of carefully stitched patches than denim. So much care had gone into the on-going repair of the jeans that their tailor is credited on the record sleeve. Next to ‘HARMONICA AND VIBES: Neil Young’ the cast list reads ‘PATCHES: Susan Young.’ Jeans then and now were about identity.
Although very much his own man, Neil Young was representative of the seventies rockers’ love of denim. Blue jeans held a collective folk memory of cowboys, rustlers and frontiersmen. For a rock star at the time, identifying yourself with such a lineage projected an outlaw image. As the decade progressed it was an image that became synonymous with the hippyish emphasis on flared jeans and unbuttoned cowboy shirts, with flaccid over-indulgence and loose thinking, something that the next generation wanted to put a stop to. In 1976 as well as stripping rock’n’roll back to its two-and-a-half minute basics, The Ramones stripped back its trouser width. On their debut album the band are wearing ripped denim drainpipes that, along with their leather jackets, present the group as a gang of streetwise hustlers – a gang that stood around on corners and didn’t have any time to think about care and repair and patches.
In America, putting on a pair of jeans might have made you feel like James Dean, but in Britain things were a little more mundane. In the same year as The Ramones debut Status Quo released their sixth album, Blue For You (1976), a record that might technically be called a denim-based concept album. The band were the UK’s leading denim ambassadors and Levi’s sponsored Blue For You’s accompanying tour. Even though this was a period when brand awareness was in its infancy, you’d have to say that The Quo Army, the band’s loyal denim wearing fans, for all their purchase power, were a demograph unto themselves. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Levi’s started having a rethink a few years later.
By the early 80s denim, along with everything else, was streamlined and effortlessly stylised for the
video age. In America GAP sold the baby-boomers jeans to feel good in at the weekend, while in the UK the red stitching in authentic American 501s became a hallmark of the photo shoots in new style magazines like i-D and The Face. Denim also underwent a more street level renaissance. The youth cults of Perry Boys and Casuals, with their tribal eye for detail, meant that terrace dress codes were informed by small shifts in jeans styling. Denim giants like Levi’s and Wrangler were passed over for the more idiosyncratic cuts and dyes of Lois, Fiorucci, FU’s and Inega, which all found themselves in favour for a season, before being replaced by a different style, or even, (whisper it) a pair of cords.
In 80s Manchester, the heritage of Cottonopolis ensured that small clothing companies co-existed and often co-habited with the city’s musical trends. Two small Northern companies in particular had a symbiotic relationship with the city’s bands. The Smiths first appeared on Top Of The Pops in Crazyface jeans. As well as wearing them on stage and in their photo shoots, the band rehearsed on the top floor of the Crazyface warehouse. The band’s first manger Joe Moss was the company’s proprietor, someone with an inherent understanding of the relationship between popular culture and a pair of jeans.
A few years later Manchester became Madchester and trouser lengths ballooned once more. Joe Bloggs, a local jeans company, cut their trousers wide, which meant the city’s baggy sounds could be replicated sartorially. Madchester was associated with loose fitting styles, appropriately ventilated for raving. Purists would always maintain that the trousers were not flares but parallels; whose inspiration had come from the fashion for football firms to unpick the seams of their jeans and insert a few centimetres of fabric, ensuring a voluminous cut for the whole trouser, not just the bottom leg. The 90s were something of a low for the relationship between music and denim. Before the renewed interest in selvedge, looms and long form dying processes, all that the New Lad required from their jeans was that they were anonymous, lager-spillage absorbent and ignored the sweatshop economics of globalised brands.
Today we value detail, craftsmanship, history and a sense of ethical know- how in almost anything we buy. When David and Clare told me about their plans for Hiut denim, I started thinking about Cardigan and summer holidays spent near there as a child, when the town produced nearly every pair of jeans worn in Wales and the post offices and pubs of the villages nearby all sold seconds. The Welsh language movement was at its height and there were doubtless many pairs of jeans that walked, sang, fought and loved in Welsh. Welsh music certainly had a relationship with denim. Heather Jones, Geraint Jarman and Meic Stevens revitalised Welsh language music with their legendary trio Bara Menyn, which celebrated the country’s poetic sense of history while trying to ensure the survival of its mother tongue. This was Welsh language folk music sung in Welsh jeans. On her solo album Jiawl (Devil), Heather Jones sings about The White Peninsular, Penhryn Gwyn and of “Walking to the shore in blue denim.” On the album’s sleeve she is clothed head to toe in the fabric. While it’s difficult to prove, the romantic in me is convinced her clothes had all been made in Cardigan. Meic Stevens, her colleague in Bara Menyn is certainly a jeans man, and I can vouch for the fact he was (and still is) a customer in the pubs that sold seconds.
Now denim is being made again in Cardigan I wonder which will be the first pair of Hiut jeans to sing Elton John on a tour bus? Which will be the first pair to play Glastonbury or Green Man? And which one will be the first to write a song that will be sung in years to come, in the pubs along the Teifi or out on the road, where a band, real or imagined, are always playing music and feeling the eternal connection between denim and rock’n’roll.