Thursday, 6 December 2012


Photo source: The Scooterist

Q.  What were David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Marc Bolan (teen idol frontman of T Rex) before they eventually found fame as era-defining 1970s rockstars?  

A.  1960s Mods.

What was a Mod?  In the eyes of the popular British press –– and Mod, or 'Modernism' to give it its full title, was an almost exclusively British phenomenon (see below) during the first, pre-psychedelic half of the 1960s –– it was young hooligans dressed in war-surplus khaki anoraks, riding round on Vespa or Lambretta motor scooters, causing riots in peaceful English seaside towns like Brighton where they gathered in large quantities to brawl with their ideological enemies, the Rockers.  They were smart-mouthed, sharply dressed zealots who allegedly had their hearts set on disrupting the prevailing social order by going on benzedrine-fuelled binges that resulted in all kinds of nasty and just plain frightening behaviour.  Mods were dangerous!  Mods were pilled-up drug addicts!  Mods were a threat to the peace-loving, royalty-revering British way of life!

For the most part this had very little to do with what it meant to be a true Mod.  Being a Mod, to quote legendary 'Ace Face' Pete Meaden, was all about 'clean living under difficult circumstances.'  Modernism was (and remains) a youth movement which stressed individuality over conformity, preferred what was new and exciting (modern American jazz and Motown music, Jamaican Blue Beat Ska, sharp Italian suits, Continental hairstyles) to what was old and conservative ('safe' 1950s British rock and roll and trad jazz, male and female fashions which hearkened back to 1939 for inspiration, the long sideburns and greasy ducktails worn by Rockers), and sought to break completely with Britain's grubby, socially-divisive, war-obsessed past.  It was an inclusive, rather than an exclusive movement, open to anyone –– white, black or otherwise –– who could afford to buy a smartly-tailored suit and preferred the sounds being made by the Modern Jazz Quartet or Georgie Fame & His Blue Flames to those being made by Cuddly Duddley or Cliff Richard & The Shadows.

But why take my word for it?  Check out these books (and songs!) and discover for yourself why Mod remains a valid worldwide phenomenon that continues to influence everything from art and fashion to music and motoring up to the present day.  

How many other so-called 'youth movements' can you still say that about and mean it?

I'll Keep Holding On
The Action, 1966
Too Hot
Prince Buster and All Stars, 1967
Can't Help Thinking About Me
David Bowie & The Lower Third, 1966
I'm A Boy
The Who, 1967


Plexus Publishing UK, 1991
RICHARD BARNES Mods! (1991)     

This is regularly cited as being the definitive book on the original 1960s Mod scene –– a gritty, first-hand look at what it meant to be young, progressive and constantly on the alert for whatever was new and interesting while you stylishly displayed your contempt for what constituted 'everyday life' in drab post-war Britain with aggressive bonhomie.  Its author Richard Barnes was a young 'Face' himself, granting him unlimited access to places –– sweaty London nightclubs, the streets and piers of Brighton –– that were inaccessible to journalists and other unhip representatives of the prevailing adult Establishment.   Be warned, however, that Mods! consists almost entirely of candid, sometimes hastily-snapped black and white photographs.  If you're looking for explanations, style tips or in-depth socio-historical analysis, this book is not the place to find them.  (It does, on the other hand, contain a long essay by Barnes which is well worth reading, describing life in the London clubs, the city's thriving early 1960s R ’n B scene and his friendship with all four members of The Who.)  It nevertheless remains an essential purchase for anyone interested in moving beyond the clichés (the over-exploited Target symbol, designer anoraks, Ben Sherman theme stores) to discover what made the movement so vibrant, so interesting and ultimately so important to the development of what writer Colin MacInnes described, in his inspirational 1959 novel Absolute Beginners, as 'the whole teenage epic.'  

Although it's reputed to be out of print, copies of Mods! are still available via your local bookstore or from ABE Books (which is where I bought mine) at fairly reasonable prices.  It's also available HERE with free international shipping.

Helter Skelter Publishing UK, 2009
PAOLO HEWITT (ed) The Sharper Word: A Mod Anthology (2009)    

This is a revised edition of a collection of Mod-inspired pieces originally published by the UK's Helter Skelter Press in 1999.  The selections are diverse and, for the most part, interesting, casting much-needed light on the beliefs, opinions and fashion obsessions of the original Mods and helping to explain why so much of what they stood for has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and grossly over-simplified by the mass media since the movement first emerged as a genuine cultural force during the early 1960s.    

Some of the highlights include a piece about the 14 year old Marc Bolan (yes, the T Rex guy in his Mark Feld/Jewish youth group days), a Mary Quant article about why 'the new feminine styles' were important (there were, of course, just as many female Mods as male Mods whose stories, sadly, remain largely untold) and brief excerpts from Mod-related novels like Absolute Beginners (1959), Tony Parsons's Limelight Blues (1987) and Alan Fletcher's The Blue Millionaire (1998)(The latter forms Part 3 of Fletcher's Mod Crop Trilogy, now considered the definitive novel about the original 1960s Mods but unfortunately long out of print.)  There's also plenty of material from 'youth culture' experts like journalists Nik Cohn and Tom Wolfe, plus some illuminating insights offered by authentic 1960s participants including Richard Barnes, Pete Meaden and Irish Jack (who is said to have been the inspiration for Pete Townshend's 1973 masterpiece Quadrophenia and the 1979 film of the same name, effectively novelized by the aforementioned Alan Fletcher).  While some purists have criticized Hewitt for failing to draw his material from a broader cross section of Mod-related literature, The Sharper Word remains a useful introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the movement who seeks to understand what inspired, drove and ultimately defined it.    

The Sharper Word is still in print and should be easily obtainable via your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.  

Omnibus Press UK, 2000
TERRY RAWLINGS Mod: A Very British Phenomenon (2000)  

Books like this –– big, glossy and designed to be sold by corporate mega-retailers like Virgin and HMV –– are proof, if anyone still needs it, of the continuing international relevance of the Modernist aesthetic.  This is, to put it bluntly, a mass market coffee table book rather than a serious examination of the rise and rise of this 'very British phenomenon.'  That said, it's appealingly designed and a lot of fun to flick through on a wet afternoon.   

What makes the book worth owning, for the non-Mod non-purist like me, are its photographs.  There are quite a lot of them and they're generally in colour, with many being drawn from the contemporary advertising of the era, making the book, if nothing else, an interesting glimpse into the recent British past and a fascinating social document in its own right.  Unfortunately, the writing which accompanies the images lacks the punch and polish of what you'll find in the wider-ranging, more diligently researched The Sharper WordThis deficiency is partially compensated for by the inclusion of a final, frustratingly sketchy chapter devoted to the Quadrophenia-inspired Mod Revival movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Reading it may prompt you to want to explore that just-as-interesting scene and hear (or, in my case, revisit) the inspirational music made by what were then 'new' Mod bands like The Jam, The Chords and Nine Below Zero.  The Mod Revival was a legitimate extension of the original movement and is still going strong today in many parts of the world, inspiring its own specialized collections of books, blogs and lifestyle-based websites which continue to promote the Modernist ethos of 'clean living under difficult circumstances.'   

Mod: A Very British Phenomenon is still in print and should be easily obtainable via your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.


The Eton Rifles
The Jam, 1979 
So Far Away
The Chords, 1980
Eleven Plus Eleven
Nine Below Zero, 1982
Blur, 1992
Time For Truth 
The Riots (Russia), 2013   

Those interested in exploring the world of MODERNISM, past and present, may also like to visit the following blogs and websites:  

Anorak Thing     
Jack That Cat Was Clean    
La Vie Moderne    
Magic Mac     
The Mod Generation    
Mod Male    
Mod Radio UK     

Special thanks to those who take the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere. 

You might also enjoy:
ROCKERS & MODS #2: Jacques Dutronc
ROCKERS & MODS #4: The Action
WATCH THAT MAN Remembering David Bowie

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