Writing about mods in the Sixties, Nik Cohn, an early and astute observer of British youth culture and style, recounted the story of one Thomas Baines, whose teenage dedication to sartorial exactitude was such that he “refused to have sex at parties unless there was a shoe tree available and a press for his trousers”.
Baines’s quasi-religious fervour is deservedly noted in this highly entertaining and discursive mixture of social history and cultural theory, in which Richard Weight traces the legacy of Britain’s first proper youth cult, from its origins in the late Fifties to the present day.
Weight locates the birth of the movement in Soho, and a handful of fashion-conscious young men, who called themselves “modernists” after their love for modern jazz, and whose sharp suits and button-down shirts imitated the style of bebop stars such as Miles Davis.
The first mods were mostly art students or working-class teenagers in lowly clerical positions. They were narcissistic, hedonistic and avowedly consumerist. They had money to spend and challenged class strictures through dressing, dancing and having more fun than their elders and betters – as though style itself were a passport to upward mobility. They called themselves “faces”.
Their nemeses were the rockers: the grease-encrusted reactionaries, who looked to America – Marlon Brando and Jerry Lee Lewis – for their heroes. Mods looked to Europe, affecting the “French crew” haircut, a fringe and bouffant confection, and the slackened lower lip modelled by the film actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. This affectation was known to mods, Weight tells us, as “throwing a noodle”. The designer Johnny Moke, an early mod, remembers a fellow “face”, Les, habitually sporting a striped jumper and beret. “We saw him once sitting in Aldgate Wimpy holding up a copy of Le Soir. When we went in and joined him we saw that he was really reading the Sunday Pictorial which he had concealed in the middle pages.”
The rockers’ “ton-up” bike was macho, loud and dirty, and they were usually handy with a spanner. By comparison, the mods’ Italian scooter was an effete posing machine, with a limited speed that meant you were unlikely to ruffle your hair. Most mods were clueless about repairs and they didn’t want to mess up their clothes. Girls were largely peripheral: the average mod was too busy basking in the glow of his narcissism to bother.
Weight cites three bands as defining early mod style: the Who, the Small Faces and the Kinks. But the Kinks were never, in any sense, “mods”. The Small Faces certainly were. (The mother of the singer Steve Marriot would remember that “my Steve, the first time he wore white trousers he was beaten up”.) But it was the Who who came to define the movement in the popular imagination. Pete Townshend proved pithily accurate in 1968: “To be a mod you had to have short hair, money enough to buy a real smart suit, good shoes, good shirt; you had to be able to dance like a madman.” All true. Although my own recollection is that any mod venue playing the Who, the Small Faces and particularly the Kinks would be guaranteed to clear the dance floor in seconds. Incorrigible snobs in music, as all else, mods would dance only to American soul music, with a little Jamaican ska or bluebeat on the side.
The veneration accorded to black music and style led to an unusual mixing of races at mod venues, which so alarmed the Home Office that officials were despatched on undercover missions. “There is traffic in ‘pep-pills’ and there is a great deal of necking, especially with coloured people,” noted a report about activities at the Flamingo Club in Soho in 1964, a year before the first Race Relations Act was passed.
Mod fashions and music were carried to the nation by Ready Steady Go!, broadcast every Friday evening (“The weekend starts here”), with its studio audience of “faces”, cherry-picked from London mod venues, which had the effect of both spreading the style and diluting its cult appeal. Weight is very good on the essential elitism of any youth cult, and the contempt with which the original “faces” regarded the arriviste “tickets”.
By the mid-Sixties, “mod” had become an all-purpose adjective applied to anything young, fresh, unconventional and stylish – Mary Quant, Biba, the Beatles, Terence Conran and Habitat, Carnaby Street: the whole “Swinging London” cliché. Mod, argues Weight, was the DNA of youth culture, from which every youth movement – punk, glam-rock, Two-Tone and rave – has grown. Specific elements have been recycled countless times, from the off-the-peg “mod revival” of the late Seventies, to Damon Albarn.
This is pop style eating itself. Weight’s book loses some of its momentum as, seeking to find “mod” in all things, he stretches the definition to breaking point. Was the rise of Ikea really down to the mods?
None the less, as an analysis of Britain’s youth tribes of the past 50 years, and how the young have defined themselves through the clothes they wear, the music they listen to and the attitudes they assume, Mod: a Very British Style is definitive.