Don’t look, Ethel!
It’s over 40 years since Ray Stevens topped the charts with The Streak. Paul Rouse looks back at the history of the craze.
If you discount Lady Godiva, the record books show the first streaker as being the man who, in 1799, was arrested at the Mansion House in London after he accepted a wager of 10 guineas to run naked from Cornhill to Cheapside.
Streaking continued intermittently through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was not until the 1970s however that the phenomenon really started to take off, sparked by college students in the USA before being exported to this side of the Atlantic. And undoubtedly its high point was in 1974, when American singer-songwriter Ray Stevens penned his comedy classic ‘The Streak.’
For those of us who were around at the time, it’s hard to believe that it was 40 years ago since its release. A phenomenon of its own, the record was something of a slow burn, but following several weeks of air play, it took America - and then the UK - by storm, topping the US Billboard charts for three weeks in May before becoming a British Number 1 in June. In all, ‘The Streak’ sold over five million copies worldwide, and is ranked eighth on Billboard‘s Top Hits of 1974, making it one of the best-selling novelty records of all time.
So what was it about streaking that so captured the imagination, especially in the UK? Historical context is a good starting point. The Sixties might have been Swinging, but some cultural commentators would argue that the Permissive Society was an invention of the media and the marketing industry, and in truth barely spread beyond a few blocks of the King’s Road.
For the most part, Britain even in the early Seventies was still a fairly drab place, epitomised by miners’ strikes, the three-day week, naff cars and even naffer fashions, so anything that could brighten up our TV screens or newspapers was to be welcomed.
Enter the streaker.
Streaking could of course be said to be a world away from naturism, in the sense that most streakers are/were exhibitionists, publicity seekers or simply tanked up (presumably on that other curse of the 1970s, naff lager). But it did at least bring nudity, and discussions on the topic, into the nation’s living rooms, and in the case of my granny, it was probably the first time she’d seen a naked man since the Armistice.
In the States, streaking had been witnessed at a wide range of televised occasions, from political protests to the Oscars, but had become particularly popular at sports events, and the UK seemed to take its lead from there. Whilst most streakers have barely clocked up 15 seconds of fame, let alone 15 minutes, several have stuck in the public consciousness, and you could put together a whole pub quiz session based on the exploits of the more memorable ones. Who, for instance, could forget...
April 1974: Michael O’Brien became the first known streaker at a major UK sporting event when he appeared at an England v. France Rugby Union match at Twickenham. The photograph of his capture, and cover-up, by a quick-thinking policeman has become iconic, and the helmet (the policeman’s that is) is now on display in the World Rugby Museum at the home of the game.
August 1975: The fourth day's play of the Ashes Test at Lord’s was disrupted when Michael Angelow shed his clothes and made a dash across the pitch, vaulting the bails, and raising his fist in triumph at the Nursery End, before being led away by police. Obviously not quite up with current trends, the immortal John Arlott, commentating on Test Match Special, remarked: "We have got a freaker [sic] down the wicket now.” Thankfully, Brian Johnston wasn’t at the microphone at the time, so we were spared another Johnners classic involving references to balls, Holding or Willey.
January 1982: Erica Roe’s famous streak, also at Twickenham, is fondly remembered for two main reasons. What people tend to forget of course was that technically it wasn’t a streak, as she was merely topless, not fully naked. But who’s counting?
July 1996: Melissa Johnson livened up the 1996 Wimbledon final between Richard Krajicek and Malivai Washington by racing onto Centre Court, shedding her clothing as she did. If Dan Maskell had still been with us, he would doubtless have had something to say about that.
February 1997: Lianne Croft made life interesting for snooker player Steve Davis - and his opponent Ronnie O'Sullivan - when she invaded the final of the Masters tournament at Wembley.
Since then, we’ve had all manner of streakers, of all shapes, sizes and degrees of attractiveness, at virtually every type of sporting event, from football and rugby league games to Formula One and the Grand National. The most bizarre however seems to be the occasion when a naked female spectator gate-crashed a nude rugby tournament in New Zealand. A case of coals to Newcastle, surely?
The novelty seems to have worn off of late however - a combination no doubt of changing social conventions, stricter fines and lack of media interest. After all, there’s already enough ‘bikini bodies’ and ‘hasn’t she grown?’ stories to fill the Daily Mail several times a day. And these days, you have to pixelate anything so much as resembling a bare nipple or a flash of buttock in the mainstream media or on social networks like Facebook.
If there is an even sadder postscript to the social history of streaking, it’s the recent case about the US teenager who streaked at a local football game, and later committed suicide when he learned that he faced being put on the sex offenders’ register for indecent exposure.
These days, the majority of public nudity outside of naturist beaches, clubs or holiday venues tends to involve charity skinny dips or events like last year’s Streak for Tigers at London Zoo. Of course, as long as alcohol continues to be consumed at sports events, there will always be somebody who decides to take on the police, the stewards and in some cases even the players in a brief bid for tabloid fame, but the craze’s heyday seems long gone.
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and one wonders what the great Ray Stevens would make of it all now. Whoa, yes, they called him The Streak.