Book review: Mod: A Very British Style by Richard Weight
IN THIS impressive but faintly comical study of the mod movement, Richard Weight makes some extravagant claims.
Mod: A Very British Style
Bodley Head, £25
He insists, for instance, that mod was “the first distinctively British youth cult”, even though its roots lay in jazz, Italian fashion and French attitudinising. Also, that a movement begun by “around 200 founding ‘faces’ who emerged in Soho around the summer of 1958” had an influence far beyond its supposed death in around 1967.
It’s fair enough to claim the Two Tone, skinhead and casual upswells as the bastard offspring of mod. But according to Weight, punk was mod too. And glam rock. And Kraftwerk. And acid house. Mod was a working-class movement co-opted by aristocratic dandies. It could be fascistic and explicitly anti-racist, camp and macho and misogynist.
It shared a theoretical kinship with 20th-century modernism in art, architecture and design (Habitat was mod), but mod bands like The Who and the Kinks constantly harked back to music hall and Victoriana. If everything is mod, surely nothing is.
“Youth culture,” Weight tells us, “has usually been taken either too seriously or not seriously enough by scholars.” It is also, one might add, often lumbered with values and definitions that it is far too fragmentary to support.
Anyway, Weight – whose career has been nothing if not eclectic, from helping to draft Ted Heath’s memoirs while working as his principal researcher to writing a well received study of British national identity – clearly knows his music, although I can’t help picturing him smoking a pipe and tapping a brogue to the Small Faces. His research into post-war popular culture is impeccable (as one would expect from someone who has already written a book on the topic) even if his style is dry.
He is particularly good on how the shopping habits of the British male changed over the decades and the way technology and more accessible foreign travel spread fashion. The magazines Rave and Boyfriend, as well as past mod tomes, have been mined for obscure, tantalising observations (German mods were called “exis”, after the existentialists).
Weight plays down the significance of the 1960s seaside battles with the Rockers and dismisses the “mod revival” spurred by The Who’s 1979 film Quadrophenia. Shrewdly, he notes that the 1970s were the last decade when parents had no idea what their children were listening to: the collapse of generational barriers further undermines the idea of “authentic” youth culture.
Ultimately, you wonder if this book tells us anything more about mod than the angry yowl of The Who’s debut album or the quip by their first manager, Peter Meaden, that it stands for “clean living under difficult circumstances”.
Weight squeezes in the obligatory reference to mod’s current poster boy, Bradley Wiggins, but makes no mention of actor Martin Freeman, star of The Hobbit and Sherlock. Freeman told Shortlist last year that, yes, he identified with the “m” word, “but only me and about ten people I know know what we mean by that”.
He added: “If everyone became a mod I would probably become a rocker. Because that’s the mod thing to do. It’s about being an individual.” Quite. «