THE Mods, one of the most influential youth movements of the 20th century, were given a boost by an enterprising Scot, the authors of a new book tell Lee Randall
IS IT a way of life? Is it a style of dressing? What is Mod, exactly, and does it still exist? In a new book, The A to Z of Mod, authors Paolo Hewitt and Mark Baxter (aided by a foreword from actor Martin Freeman, who merits an entry in their too-cool-for-school alphabet), explore the sartorial, societal, and cultural aspects of Mod. You’ll find everything here from Vespa scooters, Northern soul and Twiggy, to amphetamines, jazz, parkas and Fred Perry shirts.
Baxter says: “Mod means a lot of things to different people. It’s such a complicated story, it’s not straightforward. It’s not just scooters and Mary Quant. It’s a lifestyle choice. Mod can mean a really sharp, late 1950s Miles Davis look, or almost going toward the more flamboyant Austin Powers look. There’s no political agenda, and no accompanying philosophy. It’s about looking good, your taste in clothes and music, interior design, books, theatre – a big cross-section of interests.”
Co-author Hewitt, who runs his own Mod-influenced knitwear label, considers Mod to be Britain’s greatest youth movement. For him, it began in 1958 and ended in 1963. He, too, admits that Mod is so hard to define, if you ask a dozen people, you’re likely to harvest a dozen answers.
That’s partly because Mod continuously reinvented itself. A bit of research unearthed theories that began with “working-class dandies descended from devotees of the Italianite fashion style”, paid a call on the Jewish upper-working or middle-class East End, and finally alighted at the feet of the existential Beatniks. It’s also said that Mods inherited their obsession with fashion from the Teddy Boys, who made it acceptable for straight men to take an interest in fashion.
One of the key retailers of this largely London-based movement, was Glasgow-born John Stephen, who ran 15 shops on Carnaby Street in his heyday. He grew up in Govan, and originally trained as a welder, but Stephen had a burning ambition: “If my work means a young man can walk down the street in a pink shirt one day and not be called a queer, then I will have succeeded.”
And did he ever succeed! Baxter says: “I think he’s the father of all retail today. He made the high street what it is and made it accessible. The fast turnaround of fashionable clothing is all down to him. He was doing small runs and once they sold out, he moved on to something else. Stephen knew kids would want something for a limited time and then it’s out of date.”
Stephen was the first to import Levi’s to Britain, and sold so many pairs that he was driving a Rolls Royce before he even came of age. He began designing trendy menswear, then opened shops to sell it. His first Carnaby Street venue, with its bright yellow façade, imaginative windows, and blaring pop music, drew in scenesters with money to spend. Before long he and his business partner had a raft of addresses on that trendiest of streets, and franchises springing up elsewhere. But by 1970 Stephen – and the scene – had moved on. He retired in 2002 and died two years later.
The term “Mod” may have been coined by Colin MacInnes, in his novel Absolute Beginners, published in 1959. It’s one of the first entries in the A-Z, and the first novel focusing on the Mod lifestyle. MacInnes lived in the heart of Soho at the time, so his story about a freelance photographer living in a world of coffee bars, scooters and Modern jazz is reckoned to be about as authentic as it gets.
Mod began as an underground movement, with as few as 20 adherents passing the word each night about what they would wear to hit the clubs. Baxter says: “You can always track these cultures back to about a dozen people. The best way of finding out about film, music and clothing is word-of-mouth; there’s always someone a bit more clued up than the others. You never read about it. It would never make newspapers or record papers. If you’ve got a curious mind you’ll track these things down. The entry point is quite interesting. Lots of them are curious people who wanted to move away from their backgrounds. They were aspirational and wanted the nice things in life. How do you do that? You start doing some research and find out what’s happening.”
Most of a Mod’s disposable income was spent on clothing. It wasn’t unusual to find a working-class kid investing his entire pay packet in a bespoke suit on Savile Row. Speaking to the BBC, Wayne Kirven, a former Mod, explained that the look was cool, streamlined and smart. Kids wanted to look grown up, but quite unlike their parents. The style derives from the USA, mimicking a look Americans call Preppy or Collegiate. Baxter tells me that Mods were “heavily influenced by US servicemen, who would get their clothes from PX stores [Post Exchange shops on US army bases] and sell them in clubs. These were clothes you couldn’t get easily in the UK.”
Suits were close-fitting and tailored; the Harrington jacket was king, worn on top of Sta-Prest trousers in a rainbow of colours. Footwear was penny loafers, desert boots, or Chelsea boots. Your shirt was Ben Sherman, and you kept the chill off with a rollneck jumper. To stay warm – and clean – while riding a scooter, you wore a US army fishtail parka, though off the bike, Crombie coats were popular. Jeans, when worn, had to be Levi’s 501s, with red stitching and a turn-up hem.
For the girls, cropped hair and men’s clothes were popular – even better if those shirts were borrowed from a boyfriend. Skirts climbed higher and higher as the 1960s progressed and Mod emerged from the underground and entered the mainstream.
That said, Baxter admits there weren’t that many women making the scene: “We were quite keen to get women in the book, because it was mainly peacocks – guys showing off to other guys. Mary Quant started in the 1950s. She comes from a posh background and was targeting a different customer. It was expensive for working-class girls, so they’d copy and dilute it.”
Whatever your costume of choice, says Baxter, you had to look your best. “So, polished shoes, pressed trousers, clean shirt – all the time. Whatever, wherever, you had to look pristine. There was no room for tracksuits and trainers. If you wanted to be considered a top Mod, a Face, you had to look immaculate at all times, and that’s hard to do in a day-to-day environment. I heard about guys taking sheets of brown paper on buses or trains not to get a speck of dirt on their trousers, and some who wouldn’t sit down and crease their trousers.”
Mods embraced European culture via film, art, or architecture, and – again thanks to the influence of American servicemen, and also from the influx of West Indian and Jamaican immigrants – they celebrated black musical culture as well. Ska, jazz, soul and reggae were the furthest thing from the sappy pop tunes of the 1950s. They were sexy and streetwise – and therefore appealing.
Nevertheless, if we exclude pictures of musicians, virtually none of the photos in this book contain black faces, reflecting the racism that was still rampant during the movement’s heyday.
“There weren’t as many black faces on the streets then,” Baxter acknowledges. “There were one or two black Mods, but they didn’t do the trips down to the coast. It was more underground, in the clubs, and there aren’t that many photos of the interiors of clubs. One of the reasons we wanted to do the book, was to celebrate the black culture as much as anything else. It is a massive influence, especially musically.”
Mod was a mash-up, he says. “Miles Davis wore Brooks Brothers suits just to confuse and confront the whites in the US, and that’s the same thing Mods did, to confuse people looking at them. They’d think, ‘Oh, he’s one of us,’ but you dressed one way and thought another way – you were not from that [straight-laced] world.
“I knew guys who were 16 back then and spent every cent on clothes, drugs and records. A job was just a means to an end to get money to go out. It was entirely about looking good and having fun. They were living on a week-to-week basis, working all week for the weekend. This is the baby-boom generation. They didn’t have the responsibilities of their fathers and had a lot more freedom. And they had a lot of pharmaceutical help, from amphetamines. Going out at eight, and keeping going for 20 hours – it’s a hard lifestyle to live up to, and was only for the young, in those days.”
It may be worth pointing out that prior to 1964, amphetamines were still legal in Britain, and it’s been said that staying awake, rather than intoxication, was the reason for the pills’ popularity among Mods.
These days Mod is alive and well in Scotland. In 2008 the popular fanzine, Double Breasted, was launched. Founded by Jennie and Colin Baillie and Sharon Wood, based in Perth, it was launched to document the Mod scene in Scotland, but its appeal spread further still. As a result, their editorial now includes Mod guides to other cities, such as Rome and New York. In 2009 they released a CD of Mod-influenced music by Scottish bands.
Finally, what does Martin Freeman have to say? “Each new wave of people who identify themselves with Modernism have had something new to bring to the party,” he writes. “As with belief of any kind, it requires and engenders commitment… Above all, I think Mod is a rejection of the obvious.”
“As soon as you’ve seen Quadrophenia, you’re hooked”
WHEN Pete Townshend penned the line “hope I die before I get old” in The Who’s 1965 Mod anthem My Generation, it’s unlikely he was concerned whether his lyric would have passed the test of time 47 years later. The first wave of Mods are now in their sixties and seventies, but while evidence of the original culture becomes more distant every year, it has not died off, partly because of the Mod revival that began in the late 1970s.
Steve Murphy, 40, is part of that second wave, having become involved with Edinburgh Blues Scooter Club in the late 1980s. He says: “I love the music side of things through the 1960s with the Small Faces, The Who … and obviously the love of the scooters and the way they dress as well.”
Murphy’s older brother, Kevin, introduced him to the culture, listening to his elder sibling’s records when they shared a bedroom. “I was always going on short trips on the back of my big brother’s scooter, and always wanted to eventually have enough money to buy my own.”
The 1979 film Quadrophenia reflected what it was like to be in that culture, he says: “It’s very, very accurate. As soon as you’ve seen that, you’re hooked.”
Murphy, originally from Penicuik, now lives in Rosyth with his fiancée, Gill. Their three-year-old daughter, Brooke, has been a regular at the annual Kelso scooter rally – the headline act in 2011 were Secret Affair – and with a new addition to the family, 16-month-old Daniel, Murphy hopes the Mod flame will keep burning with future generations.
He says: “It’s about getting the young people involved and just to make sure the scene lasts forever.”
• The A to Z of Mod, by Paolo Hewitt and Mark Baxter, is out on 23 April, from Prestel, £16.99.