The opening years of the 1960s were bland, bland, bland.
Rock and roll was dead: Elvis was driving a tank in the US Army, and the Teddy Boys had married and taken up junior management positions in light industry. Everything else had withered into a pappy, sappy mess of crooning nonsense; high kitsch and high camp waffle delivered by earnest young men in fluffy cardigans. There were no alternatives: British youth culture had effectively been emasculated, and the nation pursued a dreary Blyton-esque existence.
Liverpool vs London
In the northern provinces kids still clung to rock and roll. Liverpool was at the forefront, driven by the illegal import of rare vinyl through its sea trade with the US, and boasting a massive scene that would eventually spawn The Beatles. However, while northern kids still spent the weekends be-bopping, their sharper London counterparts were discovering new sounds: rhythm and blues, blue beat and ska - rich exotic sounds brought over with Caribbean immigrants. On the London scene, the emphasis was more on dancing than performing, more inclined to style than output. London was top-heavy with sassy kids looking to move on to the Next Big Thing. Many of the cognoscenti of this nascent scene were involved in the media, and would be the architects of swinging London half a decade later. This leant a crucial sartorial slant: fashion and style became vitally important. Where the streets of Liverpool were still decked out with leather, in London you'd find Pierre Cardin.
When modern jazz hit the scene, this elite set were labelled 'Modernists', or within a short space of time, 'Mods'.
Pow - it's the Mods!
Like most phenomena, the Mod movement happened at exactly the right moment. By the time the media noticed them in 1962, a social, demographic and economic crossroads had been reached: national service had been abolished, the economy had begun to boom and hire purchase arrangements allowed people vastly increased spending power. A better time to be a teenager will almost certainly never occur. The Mod scene went bananas.
From being a scattering of ultra hip subterranean club dwellers, the Mod movement had quickly evolved to take on a definitive culture and structure of its own. At the top, there were the Aces, still on the cutting edge, still setting the pace, still listening to the hippest tunes. The individuals changed, but the attitude did not. It was perfectly possible, while grooving to obscure ska tracks in some Shepherd's Bush basement club, to bump into David Bailey, Twiggy and Mary Quant in the same evening.
The next strata were the instantly recognisable and much maligned 'Tickets' or 'Numbers'. They were first noticed in East London, when gangs of arrogant, strutting kids began to descend upon dancehalls and nightclubs, causing inevitable confrontation. Their look generally followed where the Aces led, although with a more working class flavour. The shapeless army surplus parka coat became iconic as well as practical. It protected the wearer's expensive weekend suits from the vagaries of the London climate, and it also kept the cold out while weaving among the traffic on the regulation scooter. These scooters - predominantly Italian Vespa and Lambretta models - were spectacular. Bedecked with peacock fans of wing mirrors, and decorated with numerous headlights, crash bars, whip aerials, white wall tyres and high backed seats, they were possibly the coolest thing ever to hit the tarmac.
For everyday wear, turned-up Levis became de rigueur, often shrunk to size by being worn in the bath. Desert boots and Fred Perry tennis shirts were also enormously popular. For these kids, being a Mod really was a way of life. Every night, something would be happening somewhere, the entire scene fuelled by amphetamine, which was very much the Mod drug of choice. Although available, pot simply did not fit in with Mod ideology. Pot slowed you down. Speed kept you leaping for days. There was no competition. This strata of the scene began to produce its own bands, notably The Small Faces, The Yardbirds and an Acton outfit called The High Numbers, shortly to achieve fame as The Who.
For a brief while, The Who defined Mod. A string of classic singles: 'I Can't Explain', 'Anyhow Anywhere Anyway', 'The Kids Are Alright' and the frankly bonkers 'My Generation' propelled the Mod sound into every jukebox and radio in Britain. 'The Who are clearly a new form of crime' wrote The Daily Telegraph, 'anti social and armed against the bourgeoisie'. Combining the angry, spitting stance of the backstreet Mod with the Pop Art stylings of their manager, leading Ace Kit Lambert, The Who are still the first thing that comes to mind whenever Mods are mentioned, perhaps rather inaccurately.
You have to be a Mod or a Rocker to mean anything
- interview with a Mod girl in The Daily Mirror, 1964)
Not everybody was a Mod. Rockers, who were, loosely speaking, the last of the Teds, with leather and heavy motorcycles, poured scorn on the new movement. For them, Mods were weedy, effeminate snobs. Mods saw Rockers as out of touch, oafish and grubby. Mods were usually city dwellers (it was, by this time, a national phenomenon, although rooted in London), whereas Rockers tended to be more rural. Mods held down well paid office jobs, whereas Rockers were manual workers. Musically, there was no common ground, with the Rockers clinging to Elvis, Gene Vincent, et al. Rockers rebelled from without, whereas Mods rebelled from within. A Rocker looked like trouble, whereas to the uninitiated, most Mods looked like presentable if rather arrogant young chaps.
Scuffles occurred wherever territories overlapped or rival factions happened upon each other. Enterprising Mods sewed fishhooks into the backs of their lapels to shred the fingers of manhandling assailants. Weapons were often in evidence: coshes and flick knives being particularly favoured. To stray into the wrong part of town was to risk falling into very hot water indeed.
Things came to a head on the May Day Bank Holiday of 1964. Traditionally, Londoners head for the seaside resorts on bank holidays. That year was no exception. Thousands and thousands of Mods descended upon Margate, Broadstairs and Brighton with no particular lust for civil disturbance. However, an inordinately large number of Rockers had the same holiday plans. Within a short space of time, marauding gangs of Mods and Rockers were trampling sandcastles and overturning deckchairs all along the south coast. The worst violence was at Brighton, where the judge presiding over the cases of arrested protagonists famously labelled them 'Sawdust Caesers' and levied heavy fines. The Brighton riots were later immortalised as the centrepiece of the cult film Quadrophenia.
Skinheads and Hippies
The Mods were the products of a culture of constant change, and it was therefore inevitable that the scene would devour itself. By the time Bobby Moore waved the World Cup aloft in the summer of 1966, the Mod scene was in sharp decline.
Most Mods simply drifted away, lured by the burgeoning hippie counter-culture and the first 'happenings' that were taking place around this time. Hippie culture presented a passive outlook on life that was the total opposite of the Mod standpoint. The frenetic uptight-out-of-sight energy that had underpinned the Mod ethos had vanished.
There was a final stratum to the old Mod culture that rejected the new order absolutely. At the lowest end of the scale both in philosophy and appearance, the 'Hard' Mods were rougher all round than the rest of their comrades. Scruffier, and with cropped hair, they became the first Skinheads, keeping the original Mod music alive and retaining basic elements of the Mod look, including Fred Perry sportswear and Levis - but mixing them with exaggerated working class trappings such as braces and the ubiquitous Dr Marten boot. The Skinheads would write a colourful and controversial history of their own in the coming decades - but that's another story.