Fringes and flat tops – men’s hairstyles of the 80s

80s hair styles

Just for the record – I never had a mullet in the 80s and neither did 90% of my friends.

I don’t believe I circulated in a particularly mullet-free environment. Most mates had heavy fringes or 50s style flat tops at one stage of the decade but the idea we were all sporting mullets is one I’d like to kill right now. No. Mullet. Ever.

Unless you count that Phil Oakey attempt in the photo below on the far right. But I don’t. That was not a mullet. It was circa 1983 should you wish to date it.

The photo above goes pretty much in date order starting with 1980 then 1981 then 1982 and finally 1983. The 1981 look I’d call sort of New Wave with the fluffy punk-style jumper bought on Carnaby Street. The 1982 fringe – third from the left – was going a bit soul boy. And finally Phil Oakey on the far right with a NATO army jacket.

Some time around 1984 I embraced the flat top. Twas all the rage at the time as we entered the era of The Smiths. And the sartorial look went very 1940s with us raiding vintage and second hand shops for long coats and pleated suit trousers that old geezers had thrown away. We basically dressed like our Granddads for a while.

My flat top – see below – was cut by the legendary (I like to think) Syd Strong in Camden. Note the wooden escalator on the London Underground there – all of them ripped out after the 1987 Kings Cross fire.

Then the mid-80s seemed to herald what I call ‘baroque’ hairstyles for men – the blonde dyed monstrosities popularised by certain pop stars and DJs whose blushes I’ll spare.

I succumbed to hydrogen peroxide at the start of my student union sabbatical year in 1984. From memory, it involved having a bathing cap with holes stuck on my head and then tufts of hair pulled through to be given the treatment. My landlord called me Limahl.

As in – “where’s the bloody rent Limahl?”

Kajagoogoo lead singer – not

The horror of 1970s school dinners!

school dinner

Spam fritters, stringy beef, scoops of mash potato shaped like an igloo and vegetables boiled until any vestige of vitamins was removed. Chocolate pudding with matching chocolate custard. Tapioca that looked like frog spawn.

Metal water jugs and Duralex glasses with a different number at the bottom of each glass signifying who knew what? Not a sign of fresh fruit anywhere. And discipline maintained by stern dinner ladies who’d seen off Hitler and the Luftwaffe and weren’t going to put up with nonsense from a bunch of nine-year-olds.

The canteen was a Nissan hut extension of the school thrown up after the Second World War. More than likely we were getting a constant light dusting of asbestos throughout our meals – which were eaten on long benches. Each table was supervised by a monitor, normally a physically bigger kid with a penchant for bullying.

A skinny guy called John seemed to have an eating disorder or maybe just had a discerning palate. Either way, he used to stuff the stringy beef into his trouser pockets when the dinner ladies weren’t watching. Because we were expected to eat everything slapped in front of us. And if we had difficulty cutting the aforementioned beef, a dinner lady would hover over us and hack at it with our knife. “There,” she’d snarl, “you can eat it now!”

Spam fritters were so dire that we used to chuck them on to the ground in the hope some hapless kid would slip up with his tray and send his school dinner flying. That was the only decent use for them. They’d obviously been one of those wartime staples that lingered inexplicably into the 1970s.

All that said, at the end of the decade, school dinners took a fast food turn under the Tories. Out went the stringy beef and igloo-shaped mash potato and in came sub-Wimpy burgers and oven fries. Maybe more appetising but not more nutritious. I’m struggling to find the fond memories. Just memories…

Your 1970s sister – a David or Donny fan?

David Cassidy

In the 1960s, you divided between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. In the 1990s, you either liked Blur or Oasis. But in 1972 – your sister was either screaming at David Cassidy or Donny Osmond. And how they screamed…

David Cassidy came to prominence as the older son in a fictional TV sitcom called The Partridge Family. This was normally broadcast on a Saturday morning – on ITV if I recall correctly. The Partridges, led by their widowed mother, embark on a musical career managed by the affable Reuben Kincaid. Erm….and that’s the plot basically. It was enough to keep it going from 1970 to 1974.

While Donny was the second youngest son in a group of brothers called The Osmonds who performed as barbershop singers on The Andy Williams Show in the 1960s. Then in 1972, Donny had a hit with a cover of Puppy Love and Britain was gripped by the weirdest pop hysteria I’ve ever seen. He was clean cut, not quite out of puberty and voice still breaking. And girls just went wild.

David Cassidy
David Cassidy – credit: Hans Peters / Anefo / CC0

To this day, I have middle-aged female friends who still define themselves by which side of the David/Donny divide they sat on. It split sisters and it split my eardrums as my sister hollered at the TV whenever Donny appeared. In 1973, thousands of girls descended on Heathrow Airport as the Osmonds landed from the United States and part of a balcony on a roof garden collapsed causing serious injuries.

Sadly, David Cassidy had alcohol problems later in life and gave permission for his own struggle with dementia to be filmed prior to his death in 2017. Donny is still around with a loyal fanbase to this day. So – was your sister a David or Donny aficionado?

Donny Osmond launches Osmond mania with Puppy Love
David and The Partridge Family

When I met “Mad” Frankie Fraser

Just over ten years ago, I co-wrote the biography of the 1980s middleweight boxer Errol Christie. To promote the book, we did a series of films on issues around boxing and racism plus recorded meetings with people of interest in Errol’s life. One of those was Frankie Fraser – the diminutive ‘enforcer’ for the Richardson gang in the 1960s.

Frankie Fraser
Frankie Fraser (left), me and Errol Christie

The Richardson brothers – Charlie and Eddie – were south London gangsters over fifty years ago. They faced off against the Kray twins in east London. And like all gangsters, they were big supporters of the boxing scene. I got to meet Eddie Richardson a couple of times at boxing reunions and he featured in the book I co-wrote with Errol.

Then the opportunity arose to meet Frankie Fraser. He was notorious for the methods used to terrorise anybody who crossed the Richardsons. This famously included pulling teeth with pliers and alleged removal of toes. Frankie spent half his life in prison, a total of about 42 years behind bars. So to say he was a hardened criminal would be putting it mildly.

I organised a day of filming with him and Errol at the office I was based in at that time. On the morning, he wised up to the fact that I hadn’t offered him any money. “I don’t get out of bed for nothing,” I was informed. So I waved £100 in front of him but that was turned down quickly. Realising that £200 would get me nowhere, I jumped straight up to £300 – out of my own pocket I hasten to add. I then got his final demand:

“Three hundred and two pounds and twenty pence.”

Well, I didn’t refuse. The result of our filming is down below. When we’d finished, I was a little tardy putting my hand in my pocket and he sidled over, looking up at me with what I can only describe as very dark, lifeless eyes. “You got my charitable donation?” That is actually what he said. And I meekly forked it out for him.

There was then an amusing taxi ride back to Camberwell with him and Errol – as we all lived in south London. The taxi driver recognised my two accomplices and for once, a London cabbie said nothing. Amazing!

Frankie Fraser died in 2014 at the age of 90. Sadly, my boxing buddy and subject of the book Errol Christie succumbed to cancer in 2017. He was the same age as me – just three weeks younger – and it was a terrible blow. Such a nice guy and we’d become close friends before then. But I often look back at the very odd day I spend with a great boxer and a legend of the British gangster scene.

Here’s the film I produced that day with Jermaine Allen and Adam Evans on camera.

Pubs – how different were they 40 years ago?

British pub

Cigarette machines, jukeboxes, beer mats, soggy red carpets and terrible wine. Pubs divided up into snugs with dark conspiratorial corners. You daren’t nudge a bloke with a drink in his hand unless you wanted your face rearranged. And closing time was 10.40pm with the lights switched off and chairs stacked around you to encourage you to leave.

When I started going to pubs around 1979, that was the world you entered. Pubs opened at 11am and closed again at 3pm – re-opening around 7pm. The curious afternoon closing rule was only lifted in 1987. It was a practice dating back to the First World War allegedly to encourage munitions workers to return to the factories – presumably plastered by that stage.

There were pubs that could carry on serving if they had cooked food available. The bar at a polytechnic in Liverpool opened all afternoon by having a chip frier fizzing in the background. I don’t remember seeing anybody eat a single chip! Or pubs just had a “lock in” either in the afternoon or after closing time at 10.40pm. Those pubs were normally frequented by off-duty cops so they didn’t get raided.

If you needed to phone a mate who hadn’t turned up, there might be a coin-operated public phone box in the pub or you could ask the landlord to use his phone. This was normally produced from under the bar and might have a padlock on it or a coin slot or you just paid an agreed sum. The world before smartphones!

Ordering anything other than beer was a leap into the unknown. I once asked for an orange juice at a pub in northern England and was given half a pint of bitter by a disgusted landlord. Clearly the idea of drinking a fruit juice in a pub was entirely unacceptable. And you could forget tea or coffee!

Wine was a place you didn’t want to go. I remember one pub with the white wine on the spirits rack and a dispensing tap fixed at the bottom. I dared myself to try this beverage and it was warm, rancid vinegar. There was no selection of wines. Forget asking for a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc – it was either red or white and rose if you were lucky. Seem to remember Hirondelle was the brand of choice in the 70s.

You could do “off-sales” in some pubs. My local in east London had a special door that led to a counter where you could buy beer to take home. There was a plastic flagon you were given that was filled up with three pints – and was then reusable. Interestingly, with the current Coronavirus, pubs have been lobbying to be allowed to do takeaway service for both drink and food again.

Regarding food, there were no gastro-pubs in the 70s or very much in the 80s. Posh nosh tended to mean a Ploughman’s lunch – cheese and pickle sandwich with some trimmings. A Ploughman could be quite nice in a country boozer but in the city, it was soggy and tasteless fare. Snacks were the usual dry roasted peanuts and Scampi Fries. Oh – and pork scratchings if you wanted to loose some silver fillings in your mouth.

Paying by credit card in the pub was difficult until the 2000s. Either it wasn’t accepted or there was a high minimum spending limit. I’m still amazed that I can now buy a single pint and just tap my card. Believe me, there was time – not very long ago – when that was the stuff of science fiction in the British pub.

Growing up with the films of Stanley Kubrik

Clockwork Orange

For film-loving Baby Boomers there was one director who made iconic and yet very different films from the 1950s until his death in 1999. That was the brilliant Stanley Kubrik.

Costume from Clockwork Orange at the 2019 London exhibition on Stanley Kubrik (image: Tony McMahon)

In 2019, I went to an exhibition in London celebrating his decades of cinematic achievement and some of my iPhone snaps are here for you to peruse. A curious mix of Roman togas; eighteenth century courtly costumes and fashion from a space age future. All reflecting the very broad palette of his movies.

As a kid I watched the epic Roman slave revolt movie Spartacus with the late Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis plus a supremely malevolent Laurence Olivier. There were always sword and sandals moves on TV in the 70s like Cecil B DeMille’s 1949 classic Samson and Delilah or the Mervyn LeRoy directed Quo Vadis from 1951. But Spartacus was different – superior – and gripping from start to finish.

That was how Kubrik began the 1960s before giving us entirely different offerings such as the seedy tale of Lolita, the darkly comic Dr Strangelove parodying our fears over nuclear war, and then the overblown sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I hope this doesn’t sound callous because it isn’t intended to be but watching my mother’s gradual mental decline as a result of vascular dementia often made me recall the fate of the ship’s super-intelligent computer in Space Odyssey.

The scene, if you recall, is where the astronaut David Bowman removes one-by-one the “modules” that make up the mega-brain of HAL9000. And as he does so, the computer initially pleads for him to stop then its speech becomes more slurred until it stops to function. Any of you who have watched the effect of dementia will know what I mean.

Kubrik then gave us the nihilistic and very controversial A Clockwork Orange – a movie that was banned for years. The first time I saw it, in the sixth form, was at a friend’s house on a pirate video with Spanish subtitles. The grim, relentless violence carried out by its main protagonist, Alex, was believed to have inspired copy-cat incidents. Though I suspect the tabloids hyped this beyond any measure of reality.

Into the 1980s and we had this slew of Vietnam movies in 1987 with Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill jostling for position at the box office. At the time, I think most of us plumped for Platoon as the best of the lot. But it’s Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket that has stood the test of time. Apparently, I’ve read, Vietnam veterans thought Hamburger Hill was the most realistic but who remembers that movie – apart from me?

What Laurence Olivier wore in Spartacus (image: Tony McMahon)

Meeting people from the 19th century

Many younger colleagues and friends find it completely crazy to think that people of our generation – and we’re not ancient yet – met people born in the 19th century.

When I was six years old, I met my great-grandmother in Portugal who was born in … 1884. That is mind blowing even to me now. There was also my grandmother’s second husband who was basically my grandfather as a child – born in 1899. He used to have a joint birthday every year in the 1970s and 1980s with a woman born in the same year. Sadly they have obviously both gone.

In my road as a kid there was a First World War veteran – also born in the 19th century. Part of his face had been burnt very badly and the greater part of one ear had gone. Upsetting to think back that he was referred to be crueller children as the “lizard man”.

Did you know people born in the 19th century?

My step-grandfather born in 1899 – impersonating Hitler in the 1940s

Anybody use a calculator like this in the 1970s?

Texas Instruments

This was the first calculator I ever owned. Made by Texas Instruments and possibly the last thing I ever got from that company.

Think this wizard piece of technology was from around 1978 and could do everything from long division to logarithms. But – we weren’t allowed to take them into exams. Infuriatingly, we still had to use “log books” to calculate logarithms and slides rules.

Anybody who remembers slide rules will know how fiendishly difficult to use they were. I hated them. Still shudder when I see one.

Appearing on BBC Question Time in 1980

1980 television

In 1979, the BBC launched a new political discussion show called Question Time – presented by Sir Robin Day. Somehow, a friend of mine got tickets to be in the audience and so, aged 16, we went along to the studio. Robin Day was elsewhere that day and the programme was hosted by the veteran Canadian broadcaster Bob McKenzie.

At that time, I’d started to get involved in left-wing politics and had developed a curious and unconvincing cockney accent – ditching the cut-glass posh voice my mother had instilled in me. I also still had the Irish Republican convictions that my Irish Republican grandmother had indoctrinated me with from an early age. I later became a lot more nuanced on that issue.

During the show, I stuck my hand up and got to make a point about the vote being taken away from Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom. This was a typical piece of Margaret Thatcher spite aimed at Irish people.

Me on Question Time in 1980

The British Nationality Act (passed in 1981) was being discussed in parliament and she was clearly keen on trimming the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. Subsequent analysis has suggested she thought they all voted Labour and so needed to be disenfranchised. Being half-Irish – I was not impressed.

Anyway, with my newly found cockney accent, I made my contribution and was roundly put down by Bob McKenzie. Should mention that the poor man died a year later. I hope the stress caused by my angry teenage words didn’t contribute to his demise!

World Trade Center – a year before 9/11

World Trade Center 2000

In 2000, I went to New York for a short holiday meeting up with friends and paying my first visit to the World Trade Center. I sat with a buddy underneath the looming towers and gazed up at them. They almost seemed to touch the heavens – no wonder buildings like that were called ‘skyscrapers’.

Me and a buddy with the World Trade Center behind in 2000

We went up the South Tower to what was called the Top of the World observation area. I remember the lift was like being in a wind tunnel – it really clanked and moved around the shaft as we shot up. Quite unlike the Empire State Building.

The cafe at the top was very 1970s beige. And there were smoked-glass windows with a slight curve that let you look down to the ground. In some ways, being inside and not able to venture out on to a balcony diminished the sense of awe. But it was still pretty steep.

That would have been in early June 2000. I can confirm that because we attended the Puerto Rican Pride parade in the centre of New York, which was huge. The musician Tito Puente had just died and there were lots of tributes to him. I’m not Puerto Rican myself but the parade was something amazing to see. Unfortunately it was marred by a series of assaults in Central Park but we didn’t mercifully see that. My sympathies to the victims however.

And then just over a year later – the horror of the Al Qaeda attacks, which ushered in a new political era. I think of the period from 1991 (collapse of the Soviet Union) to 2001 (the 9/11 attacks) as a time when big politics died. But actually, new and often dangerous ideas were growing under the surface. As we know only too well today.

World Trade Center in 2000
Gazing up at the World Trade Center – photo with my digital camera in 2000