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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.