More coats

It occurred to me yesterday, while writing about formal coats, how essential an item of clothing a coat was to a teenage boy in the 1960s: not just any old coat, not a formal overcoat, but, very specifically, an army or navy greatcoat, obtained for a cheap price from either a Salvation Army store, or an army and navy surplus store (I cannot tell you if these are still going, but it would have been interesting to see the profit graphs of such shops in 1969-1970. Someone somewhere must have been scratching their head).

I cannot be sure who started this, but I associate it very strongly with the four-piece band Free, who were at the height of their popularity at that time (the hit song “All Right Now” was everywhere – nobody disliked it. In fact, Tony Blair frequently admitted that, if he hadn’t been born into his own body, he’d have liked most of all to have been Paul Rodgers, their singer). Their bass-player, Andy Fraser – and it was his loud and clear bass-lines, quite unlike the more common, modestly background rhythm-section bass-lines, which made their sound distinctive – wore an army greatcoat. Free were very popular in Sunderland, where, beneath the bowling alley in which I had worked as a cleaner, there was a ‘nightclub’ called, very preposterously, the Fillmore North. (If this means nothing to you, The Fillmores East and West were the New York and San Francisco venues most famous at the time for any electric music. Sunderland’s Fillmore had some plastic palm trees, and was very small.)

In fact, Free even recorded a live album (or most of it) in Sunderland. I remember being unable to go, but seeing the long lines of navy-blue, greatcoated young men, very occasionally with a girl in tow, stretching a long way back from the entrance. It may be that they were dressed this way because they all owned the very cheap Island record sampler ‘You Can All Join In”, which made a large number of reputations. It was 13/11, as I remember, or even 13/6 – i.e. 70p. Here’s the cover:

The cover of 'You Can All Join In'

The cover of 'You Can All Join In'

At the front are Andy Fraser (second from right) and Paul Rodgers (second from left). Theirs was the look we aspired to. I wonder if the ‘surplus’ shops actually had to put in orders for more surplus, as it were.

There was only one other coat you had to have, and that was an Afghan. Whether the Afghan coats had actually been made in Afghanistan, I have my doubts, but there were always vans selling them at open-air events. The only requirement for an Afghan was that it (a) looked a bit tatty, and (b) smelled as if the goat was still going off.

I am not sure what became of either my greatcoat or my Afghan, which is odd, because I am very, very poor at getting rid of any articles at all, and the greatcoat was made to last at least two hundred years. I doubt I gave them away. Most probably they were surgically removed by a partner, from a wardrobe or a hook, and, just to show that a hoarding instinct is not necessary, I don’t think I’ve noticed that I haven’t got them till now (which raises the awful thought that they might still be stashed in my loft).

The Afghan probably made its own unapologetic exit – it certainly gave the impression that it was still capable of some movement.


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