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Notes on Modernism

Ben Sherman 2The archetypal Mod was male, sixteen years old, rode a scooter, swallowed pep pills by the hundred, was obsessed by cool and dug it. He was also one hundred per cent hung up on himself, on his clothes, hair and image; he thought of women as a completely inferior race. In every way, he was a miserable narcissistic little runt.

Richard Weight uses those words by Nik Cohn, from a 1989 essay, as an epigraph to the final chapter of his book Mod: A Very British Style, just published by Bodley Head. There could hardly be a more authoritative source: Cohn was in London when it all happened, he became a close friend of Pete Townshend, and his books Awopbopaloobam Alopbamboom and I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo were arguably the first really credible works of literature to come from the pen of an author whose background was in writing about post-war pop music, long before Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, Stanley Booth or Greil Marcus could be found between hard covers. I’ve always loved his stuff. But in this case I disagree with almost every word.

Mod has passed into socio-cultural history as a set of codes, mostly to do with appearance and attitude: the scooters, the purple hearts, the mohair suits, the parkas, the roundel T-shirt, the blocked stare, the fights with rockers in Margate and Brighton. That was one dimension of the Mod world, for sure, and you’ll find it immortalised and exploited in any of the thirty-odd Ben Sherman stores currently doing business around the world, not to mention in the persons of such celebrated revivalists as Paul Weller and Brad Wiggins. But in reality that wasn’t more than a part of the story; it just happened to be the part that appealed to the media and won space for itself in the magazines, the tabloid newspapers and the TV news.

If I tried to tell you that from my perspective, living through it and feeling strongly as though I were a part of it, Mod had nothing to do with scooters or misogyny, and not much to do with pills, you probably wouldn’t want to believe me. You might be like the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who tells his companion: “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And I might respond by telling you about a conversation I had a few years ago with a man who figured in a book I’d written. Rather foolishly, I asked him if he’d read it. “No, Richard,” he said. “I haven’t. I don’t need to. I was there.”

Mod was certainly Sabre knitwear, boots from Raoul, hard-edged graphic design, trying to imitate Alain Delon’s haircut and perfecting the right kind of nonchalant dance, based on little more than the almost imperceptible oscillation of the right knee. But it was also L’Etranger and Kind of Blue. There was more to Mod than a class-based movement: it was much subtler and more various. And it was not, from where I was standing, remotely misogynistic; quite the opposite, since girls shared the obsessions on an equal footing.

Richard Weight’s book examines the era in question but also goes much further. It is an investigation into the various movements that dominated British youth style over the last 60 years, taking in glam, punk, new romanticism and Britpop as well as the Mod revival. To Weight, the attitudes that gave rise to Mod provide the connective tissue, and this is a work of social anthropology as much as a history of style. It may be merely a reflection of my limited outlook that I’d have preferred an authorial focus more clearly based on the promise of the book’s title, in other words concentrating on a period that began for me in 1962 — the first Chelsea boots — and ended in 1967, when the ominous tinkle of Tibetan prayer bells was heard in the land.

Since this blog is supposed to be about music, and since music was the most potent of all the factors that united the people who thought of themselves as Mods, here’s a list of 20 club records that, while not necessarily being my absolute favourites, summon the mood and the spirit of the era as I remember it. They are in no order.

1 Bobby Parker: “Watch Your Step” 2 John Lee Hooker: “Boom Boom” 3 Earl Van Dyke: “All For You” 4 Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers: “Sock It to ‘Em, J.B.” 5 Billy Preston: “Billy’s Bag” 6 The Drifters: “At the Club” 7 The Hit Pack: “Never Say No to Your Baby” 8 Solomon Burke: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” 9 Jimmy Hughes: “Goodbye My Love” 10 Jr Walker and the All Stars: “Road Runner” 11 The Astors: “Candy” 12 Jackie Ross: “Selfish One” 13 Marvin Gaye: “Take This Heart of Mine” 14 Jimmy McGriff: “The Last Minute” 15 James Brown: “Night Train” 16 Martha & the Vandellas: “In My Lonely Room” 17 Roy Head: “Treat Her Right” 18 Soul Sisters: “I Can’t Stand It” 19 Stevie Wonder: “Love A Go-Go” 20 Doris Troy: “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”.

* The Ben Sherman shirt pictured above, vintage 1966, belongs to the author.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Since Britpop, the modern concept of Mod seems to have become compressed and defined by a roll call of received imagery ranging from Lambrettas to Liam Gallagher with Weller heralded as the Modfather. An I-spy book of icons that has no nod, notion or mention of the Ivy League influence, Guy Stevens, Austin Reed, Georgie Fame or The Creation.

    For my pounds, shillings and pence – Weller is the new Clapton. A soul lover (guilty of white-bread cover versions), power trio background, wilderness solo years and loves a residency at the Albert Hall.

    Whereas Bowie is more suited to the title, always looking ahead and innovating, borrowing and blending from the best, with variations on the default settings of soul, art and the Lord John suit (from his Mod years to Lodger, Reality and the Tin Machine..)

    Who’d have thought when the past was looking to a silver new future, that future would actually be looking to a rose-tinted past.

    There’s more on my Bowie as the Mod Who Fell to Earth – here

    June 12, 2013
  2. Eddie Masher #

    I remember a newspaper article some years ago which included (I think) some photo booth shots of you Richard a la mode. What was the accompanying article about?

    June 12, 2013
  3. Paul Tickell #

    Thank you, Mondo, for situating Paul Weller, the Father of the Mod Revival perhaps but most certainly not the Modfather. Then there is the other ‘mondo’ because as the ’50s turned into the very early ’60s, the Italian Look, with its closer cut suits, had a big influence on the emergence of a distinctive Mod style – cue also the espresso, the Vespa and some great Italian films.

    June 14, 2013
  4. Phil Shaw #

    A distinction needs to be made between the mod scene in London in the early to mid-60s and the subculture that spread through the provinces in the second half of the decade.

    I recall writing a magazine feature about the ‘mod revival’ in 1979. A friend and colleague, the late, esteemed music writer Penny Valentine, was baffled as to how I knew about mod in the 60s. It was, she told me, all over by ’65 (when I was barely 14).

    In the North of England, where I came from, and the Midlands, to which our family had moved, it really took off around ’66 when clubs such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester – which had previously put on beat and R & B groups – became established as exclusively mod enclaves.

    I was one of the hangers-on, too young and hard-up to go to the Wheel. But I do remember how the lifestyle – the Ben Shermans, the brogues, the scooters, the pills and most of all the music – was embraced like a religion. And the guys who DID go from the Potteries to the Wheel were seen as almost revered figures.

    It was also, incidentally, a multi-racial scene, involving guys and girls of Caribbean descent. Women were definitely NOT, in my experience, seen as “an inferior race”. Mods were forward-looking; it was the rockers, or greasers/greabos, whose female participants took a submissive role.

    Inevitably, the mods I knew moved on; some just “settled down”, while others branched out musically and in terms of the drugs they took. Around 67-68 there was a schism, with those who “kept the faith” on one side and those who were suddenly growing out their hair and carrying around blues LPs where once it had been Motown Chartbusters on the other.

    It was all a far cry from the Graham Bond Organisation at Klooks Kleek, Migil 5 at the Manor House or whatever Penny had in mind when she talked about the mod culture she remembered, but no less valid for all that.

    June 16, 2013
  5. Hi Richard, totally agree with your comments about reclaiming modernism from revivalists like Weller and Wiggins (as good/cool as they are). I feel the spirit of modernism carries on until this day, but is at its best when it’s informed by the spirit of the classic first period, rather than just slavishly copying it. I’ve started my own blog to reflect this, coincidentally including a post about your book ‘Long Distance Call’ (my favourite book about music)! If you had a moment I’d love you to have a look:

    Anyway, I love your blog.


    July 2, 2013
    • I very much enjoyed reading your blog, in particular your choice of extract from Straight Life, and Peter Young’s top six — “Leaving Here” is a masterpiece of high-energy middle-period Motown. Good luck with it.

      July 2, 2013
      • Thanks Richard – much appreciated. And totally agree about the Eddie Holland – fantastic stuff!

        July 2, 2013

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