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Rocker (subculture)

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Title: Rocker (subculture)  
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Subject: Mod (subculture), Ace Cafe London, Duck's ass, Bōsōzoku, Greaser (subculture)
Collection: Motorcycling Subculture, Social Groups, Youth Culture in the United Kingdom
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Rocker (subculture)

1960s Rockers under canopy outside Busy Bee Café, Watford, England, UK.

Rockers, leather boys[1] or ton-up boys[2][3] are members of a biker subculture that originated in the United Kingdom during the 1950s. It was mainly centred on British café racer motorcycles and rock 'n' roll music. By 1965, the term greaser had also been introduced to Great Britain[4][5][6] and, since then, the terms greaser and rocker have become synonymous within the British Isles although used differently in North America and elsewhere. Rockers were also derisively known as Coffee Bar Cowboys.[7] Their Japanese equivalent was called the Kaminari-zoku (Thunder Tribe).[8]


  • Origins 1
  • Café racers 2
  • Characteristics 3
  • Cultural legacy 4
  • Rocker reunions 5
  • Films and documentaries 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • External links 10


Hattie and other original rockers on Chelsea Bridge, London

Until the post-war period motorcycling held a prestigious position and enjoyed a positive image in British society, being associated with wealth and glamour. Starting in the 1950s, the middle classes were able to buy inexpensive motorcars so that motorcycles became transport for the poor.[9]

The rocker subculture came about due to factors such as: the end of post-war rationing in the UK, a general rise in prosperity for working class youths, the recent availability of credit and financing for young people, the influence of American popular music and films, the construction of race track-like arterial roads around British cities, the development of transport cafes and a peak in British motorcycle engineering.

During the 1950s,[10] they were known as "Ton-Up boys" because doing a ton was English slang for driving at a speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) or over. The Teddy boys were considered their "spiritual ancestors".[10] The rockers or ton-up boys took what was essentially a sport and turned it into a lifestyle, dropping out of mainstream society[11] and "rebelling at the points where their will crossed society's".[12] This damaged the public image of motorcycling in the UK and led to the politicisation of the motorcycling community.[9]

The mass media started targeting these socially powerless youths and cast them as "folk devils", creating a moral panic[13] through highly exaggerated and ill-founded portrayals.[14][15] From the 1960s on, due to the media fury surrounding the mods and rockers, motorcycling youths became more commonly known as rockers, a term previously little known outside small groups.[16] The public came to consider rockers as hopelessly naive, loutish, scruffy, motorized cowboys, loners or outsiders.[16]

The Rocker subculture was associated with 1950s and early-1960s [15]

Café racers

A vintage Triton motorcycle consisting of a Triumph twin-cylinder engine in a Norton Featherbed frame built in a street legal racer style with single seat, clip-on low handlebars and megaphone exhausts.

The term café racer originated in the 1950s,[17] when bikers often frequented transport cafés, using them as starting and finishing points for road races. A café racer is a motorcycle that has been modified for speed and good handling rather than for comfort.[18] Features include: a single racing seat, low handlebars (such as ace bars or one-sided clip-ons mounted directly onto the front forks for control and aerodynamics), large racing petrol tanks (aluminium ones were often polished and left unpainted), swept-back exhaust pipes, rear-set footpegs (to give better clearance while cornering at high speeds) with or without half or full race fairings.[19]

These motorcycles were lean, light and handled various road surfaces well. The most defining machine of the rocker heyday was the Triton, which was a custom motorcycle made of a Norton Featherbed frame and a Triumph Bonneville engine. It used the most common and fastest racing engine combined with the best handling frame of its day.[20][21] Other popular motorcycle brands included BSA, Royal Enfield and Matchless.

The term café racers is now also used to describe motorcycle riders who prefer vintage British, Italian or Japanese motorbikes from the 1950s to late 1970s. These individuals don't resemble the rockers of earlier decades, and they dress in a more modern and comfortable style; with only a hint of likeness to the rocker style. These café racers have taken elements of American greaser, British rocker and modern motorcycle rider styles to create a look of their own.[22][23] Rockers in the 2000s tend still to ride classic British motorcycles, however, classically styled European café racers are now also seen, such as Moto Guzzi or Ducati, as well as classic Japanese bikes, some with British-made frames such as those made by Rickman.


Aviakit Pudding basin helmet

Rockers bought standard factory-made motorcycles and stripped them down, tuning them up and modifying them to appear like racing bikes. Their bikes were not merely transport, but were used as an object of intimidation and masculinity projecting them uneasily close to death,[15] an element exaggerated by their use of skull and crossbone-type symbolism. They raced on public roads and hung out at transport cafes such as The Ace Cafe, Chelsea Bridge tea stall, Ace of Spades, Busy Bee and Johnsons.[16] Hence the term cafe racer, (pronounced caff racer).

First seen in the United States and then England,[16] the rocker fashion style was born out of necessity and practicality. Rockers wore heavily-decorated leather motorcycle jackets, often adorned with metal studs, patches, pin badges and sometimes an motorcycle club with members all over the world. The rocker hairstyle, kept in place with Brylcreem, was usually a tame or exaggerated pompadour hairstyle, as was popular with some 1950s rock and roll musicians.

Customised Lewis Leathers motorcycle jacket with Ace Cafe details

Largely due to their clothing styles and dirtiness, the rockers were not widely welcomed by venues such as pubs and dance halls. Rockers also transformed rock and roll dancing into a more violent, individualistic form beyond the control of dance hall management.[15] They were generally reviled by the British motorcycle industry and general enthusiasts as being as an embarrassment and bad for the industry and the sport.[25]

Originally, many rockers opposed recreational drug use, and according to Johnny Stuart:

They had no knowledge of the different sorts of drugs. To them amphetamines, cannabis, heroin were all drugs - something to be hated. Their ritual hatred of Mods and other sub-cultures was based in part on the fact that these people were believed to take drugs and were therefore regarded as sissies. Their dislike of anyone connected with drugs was intense.[26]

Cultural legacy

Len Paterson, founder of the Rocker Reunion movement, left, Father Graham Hullet of the 59 Club, seated on motorcycle, original 59 Club member Stu Wester, right, and others at Enfield Motorcycles factory, UK.

The rockers' look and attitude influenced pop groups in the 1960s, such as The Beatles,[10] as well as hard rock and punk rock bands and fans in the late 1970s. The look of the ton-up boy and rocker was accurately portrayed in the 1964 film The Leather Boys. The rocker subculture has also influenced the rockabilly revival and the psychobilly subculture.

Many contemporary rockers still wear engineer boots or full-length motorcycle boots, but Winklepickers (sharp pointed shoes) are no longer common. Some wear brothel creepers (originally worn by Teddy Boys), or military combat boots. Rockers have continued to wear leather motorcycle jackets, often adorned with patches, studs, spikes and painted artwork; jeans or leather trousers; and white silk scarves. Leather caps adorned with metal studs and chains, common among rockers in the 1950s and 1960s, are rarely seen any more. Instead, some contemporary rockers wear a classic woollen flat cap.

Rocker reunions

In the early 1970s, the British rocker and hardcore motorcycle scene fractured and evolved under new influences coming from California: the hippies and the Hells Angels.[27] The remaining rockers became known as greasers, and the scene had all but died out in form, but not in spirit.

In the early 1980s, a Rockers revival [28] was started by Lennie Paterson (an original 59 Club member) [29] and a handful of original rockers[28] who were "

  • The 59 Club: London's outlaws article on Visor Down

External links

  • Stanley Cohen; (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics; The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Routledge. ISBN 0-85965-125-8.
  • Johnny Stuart; (1987). Rockers!. Plexus Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-85965-125-8
  • Danny Lyons; (2003). The Bikeriders. Wild Palms 1968, Chronicle Books ISBN 0-8118-4160-X
  • Winston Ramsey; (2002). The Ace Cafe then and now. After the Battle, ISBN 1870067436
  • Ted Polhemus; (1994). Street Style. Thames and Hudson / V&A museum ISBN 0-500-27794-X
  • Steve Wilson; (2000). Down the Road. Haynes ISBN 1-85960-651-2
  • Alastair Walker; (2009) The Café Racer Phenomenon. Veloce Publishing ISBN 978-1-84584-264-2
  • Horst A. Friedrichs (2010): Or Glory: 21st Century Rockers. Prestel ISBN 978-3-7913-4469-0


  1. ^ Stuart, John, Rockers! Kings of the Road (Plexus Publishing, 1996). ISBN 0-85965-125-8.
  2. ^ 14 February 1961, The Daily Express (London).
  3. ^ Partridge, Eric and Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (MacMillan Publishing Company, 1985) ISBN 0-02-594980-2, p. 962.
  4. ^ Motor Cycle, 24 June 1965. p.836. On the Four Winds by 'Nitor'. "It was, I have it on good authority, as much a surprise to the so-called rockers to find they are now "greasers" as it was to the general public...The people in question—greasy rockers?—are expected to sit back uncomplainingly while learned gentlemen in such papers as the Guardian discuss the pros and cons...I would suggest to the Guardian's correspondent, and to any other erudite commentators who feel duty bound to join in, that the subject should be allowed to die a natural death." Accessed 2014-02-20
  5. ^ greaser, n. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. (1989); online version December 2011. ; accessed 5 January 2012.
  6. ^ The Sun newspaper wrote, "you can call rockers Greasers if you like. ... Greasers just means they have to put a lot of work into bikes."
  7. ^ Fame, Pete, The Restless Generation: How Rock Music Changed the Face of 1950s Britain (Rogan House, 2007) ISBN 0-9529540-7-9.
  8. ^ Bailey, Don C.A., Glossary of Japanese Neologisms (Arizona Press, 1962).
  9. ^ a b Suzanne McDonald-Walker, 'Bikers: Culture, Politics and Power' Berg Publishers, 2000. ISBN 1-85973-356-5
  10. ^ a b c Mods, rockers, and the music of the British invasion. James E. Perone. Praeger, 2008. ISBN 0-275-99860-6. pp. 3, 65, etc.
  11. ^ Skateboarding, Space and the City, Borden, Iain. Berg Publishers, (2003). ISBN 1-85973-493-6 p. 137
  12. ^ Dancin' in the streets!: anarchists, IWWs, surrealists, Situationists, Franklin Rosemont, Charles Radcliffe. Charles H Kerr 2005 ISBN 0-88286-302-9
  13. ^ Stanley Cohen; (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics; The Creation of the Mods and Rockers Routledge. ISBN 0-85965-125-8.
  14. ^ Resistance through rituals: youth subcultures in post-war Britain By Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson. Routledge, 1990. ISBN 0-415-09916-1
  15. ^ a b c d The sociology of youth culture and youth subcultures: Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll by Mike Brake 1980 Routledge & Kegan Paul, ISBN 0-7100-0364-1
  16. ^ a b c d Nuttall, Jeff. Bomb Culture Paladin, London 1969. pp. 27-29
  17. ^ McCallum, Duncan (8 February 2014). "The return of motorcycling's cafe racers". Herald Scotland (Herald & Times Group). Retrieved 29 December 2014. British motorcycle customisation stretches back to the 1950s, when the term cafe racer was coined. They were stripped-down machines, lighter than stock with dropped clip-on handlebars to make the riding position more aerodynamic, and were the low-cost mode of transport for the growing band of post-war rockers who would race ton-up (100mph) between transport cafes, such as the famous Ace Cafe on London's North Circular Road, along the then quiet motorway network. 
  18. ^ The Café Racer Phenomenon (Those were the days...), Alastair Walker. Veloce Publishing 2009. ISBN 1-84584-264-2
  19. ^ Reg Everett and Mick Walker. Rocker to Racer. Breedon Books. 2010. ISBN 1-85983-679-8
  20. ^ Seate, Mike. Café Racer The Motorcycle: Featherbeds, Clip-ons, Rear-sets and the Making of a Ton-up Boy. Parker House (2008). ISBN 0-9796891-9-8
  21. ^ Welte, Sabine, Cafe Racer. Bruckmann Verlag GmbH, 2008. ISBN 3-7654-7694-3
  22. ^ Clay, Mike. (1988) Cafe Racers: Rockers, Rock 'n' Roll and the Coffee-bar Cult. London: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 0-85045-677-0
  23. ^ Café racers of the 1960s: machines, riders and lifestyle, Mick Walker. Crowood (1994)
  24. ^ Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon, James Sullivan, Gotham, 2006. ISBN 1-59240-214-3
  25. ^ The Bsa Gold Star, Mick Walker. Redline Books, 2004 ISBN 0-9544357-3-7
  26. ^ Rockers! Kings of the Road by John Stuart, Plexus Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-85965-125-8
  27. ^ Cookson, Brian (2006), Crossing the River, Edinburgh: Mainstream, ISBN 1-84018-976-2, OCLC 63400905
  28. ^ a b c d New Society magazine (Volume 69, Issues 1127-1136) 1984. Page 165 - 167
  29. ^ The Times, May 23, 2009. 'The Rev William Shergold: biker priest' (registration required)
  30. ^ Pyke, Rod. Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Feb 1998
  31. ^ Bike Magazine, July 1986. Rocker Resurrection by Peter Nielsen. p76 to p81
  32. ^ Missy D. Interview mit Marc Wilsmore Ace Café, London (deutsche Übersetzung). Speeding E-magazine, July 2007
  33. ^ [3] Brighton and Hove City Council. Ace Cafe Reunion, Madeira Drive (scroll down page) Retrieved 2014-01-26
  34. ^ Motorcycle News (MCN), UK. September 17, 2008
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ Writer: Driscoll, Frank. Rank Organisation Special Features Division, 1964.[4]


See also

Films and documentaries

In 1994 Mark Wilsmore, his brother Robert and Chris Church organized the first Ace Cafe Reunion to mark the 25th anniversary of the closure of this famous Rocker venue. Subsequently Mark Wilsmore purchased then re-opened the cafe and established a series of reunion ride-out events.[32] These events (such as the Brighton Burnup, Margate Meltdown and Southend Shakedown now attract up to 40,000 riders.[33][34]

, Southend and Southsea which, in 1988, attracted over 7,000 bikes. They established a model which has become a worldwide movement. Within a few years, these events attracted 10,000 to 12,000 revivalists, gaining widespread media attention and new converts. Brighton Following runs went to other destinations with historic relevance to Rockers such as [28].Pitsea The first rocker reunion motorcycle run of 70 classic British motorcycles rode to [31] and runs to nostalgic locations.[30]

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