Mods and Their Music

What do you mean by MOD?

Where does the word “Mod” come from?

How did Mod emerge?

Who were the original Mods?

What is the Mod mindset?

What were some of the characteristics of early Mods?

How did these qualities distinguish Mod from other subcultures?

What makes music Mod?

Were the Beatles Mod?

What is this one hears about battles between Mods and Rockers?

Are there still Mods today?

I’m going to read just one book about this. What should it be?

OK, I’ll check out more than just one book.

Where can I get the clothes?
Mods on Scooters

What do you mean by MOD?
“Mod” is the name of a community or subculture originating in Great Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The word can refer to the subculture itself or to a person within it. It can also be used as an adjective—that jacket is Mod.

Where does the word MOD come from?
Like many things about Mod, this is disputed. One prime candidate: It’s a nickname for modern jazz (like that of Miles Davis), often the favoured genre of the first-generation Mods. Other informed sources say the term is just short for “Modernist,” meaning someone looking forward in style, fashion, and culture. This might or might not intersect with Modernism in literature, architecture, and philosophy, depending on the Mod.

How did Mod emerge?
1950s Britain was successful in providing its citizens a decent living, education, and healthcare, but its culture was somewhat limited. Certain consumer goods had been rationed back in 1939 and remained difficult to obtain into the early 50s. The British Broadcasting Corporation controlled almost all the radio and television options. Young men were required to perform two years of National Service in the armed forces through the end of 1959. While the decade produced many excellent writers, playwrights, actors, and musicians, the general culture was seen to lag behind the United States, where the famous post-war economic boom permitted the explosion of rock & roll, among other things.

Young people who were born during or immediately after World War II grew up through this solid but drab period and were anxious to escape it as they grew into their teens. The wide availability of entry-level jobs also meant that teenagers suddenly had their own spending money. The result was a delightful range of social activities and subcultures, each with its own style of clothing, favourite genres of music, and selected pastimes. Mod is perhaps the most striking and enduring of these subcultures.

Who were the original Mods?
The original Mods were most visibly young people in their late teens and early twenties, usually urban, often with entry-level jobs. They were both men and women, though the classic stereotype is a lad. Mods could come from a range of social classes, but early Mod was particularly an opportunity for working-class kids to define new ways of life for themselves and to be local leaders of style and culture.

It’s somewhat unclear when the word “Mod” became widespread. The very first late-50s Mods referred to themselves with a variety of words including “Continentalists.” By 1963, the word was fairly common both inside and outside the community.

What is the Mod mindset?
One definition of Mod (a quote attributed to Peter Meaden) is “clean living in difficult circumstances.” This suggests a well-dressed, tidy appearance and a cool and streamlined style of behavior—despite likely needs to live with one’s parents, hold a not-very-glamourous job, or do National Service.

Mod reflected a desire to define oneself by one’s own personal and cultural choices rather than by one’s day job or origins. In some ways early Mod is a precursor of contemporary self-aware consumer culture. But it also built community and encouraged good taste among young people.

Perhaps the most important Mod philosophy involves selectivity and critique. Be well informed, a 1960s Mod might lecture you. Don’t just wear any clothes that fit; build your own style. Seek out good well-produced music rather than passively listening to the latest hits. Instead of the mainstream multiplex, look for an art-house cinema showing something interesting. Actually save the money and buy a top-of-the-line item that will last rather than settling for a knockoff that won’t. Here’s New Musical Express journalist and author Paul du Noyer’s excellent summary of the idea.

What were some of the characteristics of early Mods?
The first generation of Mods in the late 1950s tended to be devotees of French or Italian fashions and American modern jazz. A tiny generation later, in the early 1960s, someone who might be called the “classic” Mod emerged. He (or she) wore well-tailored (preferably bespoke) clothing in an up-to-the-minute Italian-inspired style featuring clean lines, good fit, and seasonal fabrics. “He” got about town on an Italian scooter, preferably a Vespa or Lambretta, sometimes featuring extra mirrors or other personal modifications. He probably chose coffee over tea—particularly Italian-style espresso. He may have used under-the-counter pills, most likely amphetamines. He listened primarily to American music, especially rhythm & blues and early soul, and Caribbean music, called bluebeat or ska. He spent weekends dancing to these kinds of music at Mod-oriented clubs. If he could afford it, his fashions would change every week or two, keeping ahead or abreast of his peers. By the mid-1960s, his signature garment would be a military-surplus fishtail parka. “Classic” Mods defined themselves by their social position: “Faces” set the trends that “Numbers” and “Tickets” tried to follow.

Some classic-style Mods
Some classic-style Mods

That said, while it’s things like signature garments that make for successful subcultures, there was an enormous range of style and taste among people who considered themselves Mods. Plenty of young people dressed well and loved American R&B without much fuss as to whether they were “Faces” or not.

Very much worth pointing out: All this was happening at the same time as many people from all over England’s Commonwealth and former colonies moved to the U.K. A lot of Mods were Anglo (i.e., white) kids, but they were often dancing all night right alongside the young Black people whose styles they admired. The Flamingo, one of the most famous Mod music venues, was fully integrated. It and other locations saw a certain amount of tension, but most sources attest that relations among races were, if not close, generally cordial.

Kids of many backgrounds join in love of the music
Kids of many backgrounds join in love of the music

How did these qualities distinguish Mod from other subcultures?
Among young people in the late 50s and early 60s, there were many options for finding one’s in-group and defining others as out-groups. Among them were Teds (a.k.a. Teddy Boys, more or less short for “Edwardians”), tough kids whose style hearkened back to the dandies of the early twentieth century; trad (“traditional”) jazz fanatics, whose style hearkened back to the ragtime and New Orleans jazz of the teens and 20s; and Rockers, leather-jacketed motorcycle riders whose style hearkened back to Elvis Presley in his prime.

The early Mods distinguished themselves by not hearkening back to anything, but rather looking toward new trendsetters in arts and design (often continental European) and new boundary-breakers in music (often American or Caribbean).

The historic Mods were successful partly because they fit in well with adult society, being active people, snappy dressers, and likely to seek employment. Whereas the Rocker with his greased duck’s-arse haircut immediately stood out in a conservative crowd, the wilder side of Mod could fly somewhat under the radar.

What makes music Mod?
As mentioned, the very first generation of Mods loved modern jazz most. Those who followed a few years later upheld rhythm & blues, Motown, soul and bluebeat (ska) as the height of creation. They might collect 45s and LPs or attend clubs where music was played live.

The Who do their own thing, but with a Mod influence
The Who do their own thing, but with a Mod influence

These folk intersected in taste with Brits who studied and played the sounds of the Mississippi Delta to create what’s sometimes referred to as the British Blues Boom. A very small sampling of British groups identified with the blues, rhythm & blues, or other styles sought by Mods: the Yardbirds (with or without Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, or Jeff Beck), Georgie Fame, the Small Faces, Manfred Mann, Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, perhaps most of all, the Who. The relationship of the Who to Mod or to rhythm & blues is complex; the Who were really only given a brief Mod makeover by a short-lived manager. Yet their charisma and defiant attitude (“hope I die before I get old”) are often considered definitively Mod.

Mod is broad, a “big umbrella,” as one authoritative Mod puts it. Rhythm & blues, soul, and bluebeat might be front and center at dance halls, but individual taste is all as long as it’s educated and well chosen. Which leads to the question—

Were the Beatles Mod?
Everyone’s favourite band beautifully combined elements from almost every genre that surrounded them, from Western classical music to Indian classical music, from the Delta blues to fifties novelty pop. The Beatles themselves overlapped heavily in taste with many Mods, listening as they did to Muddy Waters or James Brown in their spare time and often covering hits by R&B groups like the Isley Brothers.

In some communities appreciation of the Beatles was a sort of litmus test, enduring to this day in books like Beatles vs. Stones. The only sane answer to that is “both, please,” unless you’re a subculture working to define yourself against other subcultures, in which case it can get rather fraught.

There’s a case to be made that the Beatles were just too mainstream to be Mod. Some Mods resented them, in fact, because they borrowed some Mod elements— such as their iconic grey collarless jackets—and instantly made them ubiquitous and common. Some strict constructionists claim that the British Invasion and images of mid-60s “Swinging England” killed off Mod entirely. When everyone wants to dress like a British tastemaker, it loses its exclusivity and thus its point.

So: unlikely that the Beatles were heard in 60s Mod clubs—but on the other hand I’ve never encountered an individual Mod who didn’t love them just as everyone else does.

What is this one hears about battles between Mods and Rockers?
Upheavals took place in sectors of the Mod community in the spring of 1964 and again the following year. Teens with too much time on their hands took cheap trains or rode their scooters to seaside holiday spots, particuarly Brighton, where a certain amount of substance abuse, destruction of property, looting, and clashes between rival gangs took place. While pitched battles between subculture adherents clearly did occur, it also seems that the entire thing was blown out of proportion by media outlets that wanted to lead with bleeding and paint “today’s youth” as dangerous hooligans.

That’s not to discount the role of violence in Mod life. Mod crowds weren’t always gangs, but some Mods formed gangs and some gangs went Mod. Neighborhoods and clubs could be territorial and hostile to outsiders. And your typical 18-year-old lad hopped up on amphetamines will not have close control over his temper. Some Mods would say it wasn’t a good night of dancing unless it ended in a fistfight or two.

Are there still Mods today?
Emphatically yes, though they’re not the focus here. It might be more accurate to say that there are Mods again. Though some groups kept the faith while the rest of the culture turned psychedelic/hippie/disco/punk etc., British Mod went fairly underground between about 1966 and 1979, the year Frank Roddam’s Quadrophenia was released. Based on the groundbreaking 1973 rock opera by the Who, the film follows a dissatisfied young Mod in 1965 through his wild life of clubs, drugs, casual sex, and battles in Brighton—plus a couple of great suits, a shiny scooter, and an encounter with the young Sting. Quadrophenia caused a resurgence in Mod taste all over the English-speaking world.

Some Mods today base their personal choices very strongly on the lessons of the 60s. Others live completely contemporary lives by the basic principles of clean and stylish living and careful cultural selection. Film star Martin Freeman is one of many notable folk who avow their Mod influence.

I’m going to read just one book about this. What should it be?
Arguably, you should forget the book and just screen Quadrophenia.
However –

If you want fiction, read Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. Set in the very early days of Mod in a London neighborhood full of immigrants, the book tracks a frustrated young artist with a narrative voice I can only compare to a British Damon Runyon. No fishtail parkas or Pete Townshend, but a poetic portrait of a type before he had settled into being a subculture.

For nonfiction, I’d go for Mods: The New Religion by Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson. It’s a beautiful collage of images and documents from the era that combine to give a multifaceted view of why Mod matters.

OK, I’ll check out more than just one book.
The resources are many. Click here for a starter kit, and suss out your own.

Where can I get the clothes?
Good luck! Two places to start:

Everything recommended on this site, Modculture

The bespoke designs of Gill Evans, one of the original Mod trendsetters

Spot an inaccuracy in this article? It’s probably an honest mistake. Drop me a line and I’ll do my best to correct it.

One thought on “Mods and Their Music

  1. […] Admittedly, I have a weakness for any vocal line soaring over a chugging countermelody, no doubt a legacy of my showtune upbringing. And this is a showtune, if barely. It has very little to do with the plot or feel of the film it’s in, much (much) less the plot or feel of the book it’s “adapted” from, Colin MacInnes’ 1958 novel where, to some extent, Mod was born. […]

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