MOD: lonesome american memoirs

chapters: 1, 2, more to come…

Chapter 2

What the hell is a Mod and why would anyone want to be one?

Mod is short for modernist, and it was a youth movement in the early 1960’s. Like most youth movements, it began with the gay community, drugs and music. British kids were sick and tired of Elvis and the Big Bopper, and wanted something they could call their own. So they got heavily into American rhythm and blues music, Italian suits, scooters, and speed. This built a basic urban style which would actually shape the entire 1960’s… London was on in the early 60’s, it was the place to make movies, produce plays, start a band, design clothes, paint, write, or anything creative. The 50’s had been a clamp down, and things were uptight, closed off, and deeply censored in other parts of the western world, but somehow in London the undercurrents of what was going on in the American south, and the city’s ghettos was embraced by young people, and undertaken as their own.

You could call it the birth of the British invasion, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. It’s true that Mod style, was such a powerful impact on bands like the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, and everyone else who came across the Atlantic to storm the US charts, tossing Pat Boone out on his ear, and be correct. The mods brought us “long hair” which was really just an un greased bowl cut, tight suits, the entire look and feel of Motown’s sophisticated elegance was the product of the Mod movement. Pop art, white lipstick, cuban heeled elastic boots, go-go dancing, the TAMI show, Ready Steady, Go, and expressions like Groovy, Hipster, mini skirts, bell bottoms, big belts, long sideburns, and the reintroduction of paisley and the ascot were all the gifts of the Mod movement in the 60’s. But it isn’t really like that… There was no movement of kids who dressed up in parkas, three button suits with side vents, skinny ties, and a stack of rare American 45’s, ripping down Oxford Street chanting “We are the mods!” in 1963. The actually happened in the late 1970’s as a response to Pete Townsend’s masterpiece of an album and film ‘Quadrophenia.’ Townsend wrote, omitting the homosexuality, about his life as a kid in the early 60’s before the Who formed, and his life changed forever. His songs about that era were an effort at bridging the gap, and possibly a beginning of coming out of the closet, but it was the film that really blew the doors off the whole thing.

The Mod scene, and style of the 60’s was a precursor to the movements of the 60’s in America. Just after the beatniks, and way before the hippies, there were the Mods. They were simply british kids who wanted something better for themselves. They were into anything modern, anything progressive, and anything stylish. So for a little window of time, the Mods of England’s tower blocks, and council houses, the failing working class, took up pills, the blues, and began to design clothes, start bands, open clubs, and ended up forging the entire look and feel of the next 20 years all over the world.

Back to Pete Townsend. The song ‘My Generation’ was the tombstone of the Modernist movement. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even born yet, but having been associated with movements which have risen from obscurity into the public eye, and then faded, or lost their way I can completely empathize with why the fulcrum of the movement was the end. By the time the Who were on television, outraging parents, and delighting their children with the idea of singing about how the current generation of kids are misunderstood, and restless, smashing their instruments at the end of the song, and trying to appear as blank and disaffected as possible the Mod movement was a household word, subject to commerce, and a huge influx of people. It simply wasn’t “mod” anymore. So the Modernists went the way of the futurist, the anarchist, the nihilist, and the communist. They were flooded with bands, designers, and other people’s children, and is dissolved into the fabric of the era.

Fifteen years later, while everyone was laying on their backs listening to Led Zeppelin and smoking hash, Pete Townsend was making a film. Quadrophenia took the blink of a moment in time, and created an icon which kids all over the world could relate to. The story is about Jimmy, a mod, who rode a Lambretta, wore a parka, and lived the typical underclass British life. He was trying to do the right thing, working a crappy office job, living with his parents, trying to score with the birds and hang out with the cool kids, but it wasn’t working out. It’s essentially a fairly raw, but typical coming of age story, nothing we haven’t seen over and over again, but what’s different, what makes Quadrophenia a timeless cult classic, an icon, and the essential motive behind the second Mod movement is how beautifully it depicts this brief period in time where the greaser, motorcycle riding hooligan was overtaken by the long haired, vespa riding little twerp. When we exchanged beer for pills, hair dressing for hair spray, rock and roll for rhythm and blues. It showed us pictures, and played us a sound track, and despite the film’s message, youth movements are bullshit, you simply couldn’t be under 21 and walk out of the theater without wanting to be a mod. At least if you were like me.

Believe it or not, the latter day Mod movement was born about the time the Punk movement started. Art school bands like the Jam, and maybe only the Jam, sort of capitalized off the Punk look, and essentially started up bands where they exploited the look of the mods. The blues based music forged an entirely parallel scene. Soon after bands like the Specials and Madness, the Selector, and Bad Manners did exactly the same thing. Though the later bands were different, in that they were Ska bands. They were not Mod bands per se, but because no Mod band ever made much of themselves apart from the Jam (who actually triumphed in the pop charts in the UK, but sadly couldn’t usurp Lynard Skynard or Def Leopard in the American charts) all eyes turned to Ska.

Ska was the sound of Jamaica’s early 60’s. Studio One and other production houses were paying attention to what was going on in America, and the do it yourself spirit ignited a movement in Jamaica where rock steady beats were used to bring a sound together which entirely delighted the kids of the early 60’s. The music was amazing actually, I still love the sound of early reggae roots, but the infusion is what’s most interesting here. The influx of Caribbean, and african empirical refugees into the British working class, along side a culture of joblessness, and boredom brought these people together in the 60’s and again at the end of the 70’s. The same economic and political, cultural conditions existed to forge a new movement of unity, and creativity.

As the result of this synthesis, labels started, scooters started, and something completely new was born. This was the Mod scene you’ve seen pictures of.

How it came to America, I’m not entirely sure. We had a bad case of Anglophilia at the end of the 70’s and so anything happening in the UK was bound to make its way into our lives at some point, but there was a delay back then. Without the internet, radio support, or anything close to a magazine which represented what was going on in cities, sometimes it took half a decade for a song to make its was from the UK streets to the US college radio. This is not such a bad thing. Actually, it gave us time to be Mods. Without the delay between the Specials and Madness appearance on the pages of Rolling Stone, and Paul Weller’s complete inability to charm the US press corps, we would never have poured over the little magazines, the NME, Melody Maker, and found these bands, copied how they looked, and developed a scene of our own.

Mod was, for a couple of years, a vehicle. It was a way in, and a way out of whatever you had been doing before. For example, Orlando was a Mod. He and James would stand around in front of a cafe on Durant Avenue in Berkeley. They were the only Mods. James looked like Roger McGuinn from the Birds, and Orlando looked like a seven foot tall Rude Boy. But we didn’t know what a Rude Boy was, and none of us understood why anyone would want to look like a guy from the Birds. See, in the late 70’s San Francisco was a sea of hippies. Holdouts from the radical era which had passed. We were confronted all the time by long haired people with bubbles and beards trying to “rap” with us, and feel youthful and present. No one I knew wanted to hear anything these old dust bins had to say, so James was particularly confusing to us. James’ hair got longer, and eventually he got a scooter, while Orlando got a mohawk, and came out as a raging Punk rocker. The same thing was true for Harald and Polly. They were mods, totally into the Specials, and soon they were Punks. It was a go-between, a parallel scene, and while the two didn’t get along any better in the USA than they did in the UK (fights in clubs, lots of jeering and spitting) they somehow managed to coexist and co populate. Punk was a lot louder, and dirtier, so it got a lot of attention at first. But like its predecessor in the 60’s, Mod was more stylish, based on commerce, buying the right things, and staying up on it, so Mod outlasted Punk at its epicenter, and together with New Romantic, Post Punk, Goth, and a lot of other new ideas forged what would become New Wave and define the 1980’s and beyond.


  1. Laura W:

    The water is dripping off my hair and mud is splashed across my face. How did I end up standing on the field with you and Mike? It’s not cold enough to see your breath but your noses are red and running.

  2. Laura W:

    I’m going to be picky here and hope you can take it : ). There actually were parka wearing, chanting mods in the 1960s in Brighton. There are photos in the Brighton Museum. And you were born when My Generation was released in 1965 so don’t you try to pretend!

  3. I’m going to be picky here and hope you can take it : ). There actually were parka wearing, chanting mods in the 1960s in Brighton. There are photos in the Brighton Museum. And you were born when My Generation was released in 1965 so don’t you try to pretend!

    a.) It’s true, but it wasn’t the same thing as the modern clich?©
    b.) i was certainly born 1965 it’s true, but when the single of ‘My Generation’ came out, I had not yet been birthed into the world.

    I can take it, is that all you got? bring it!

  4. gino:

    i’ve been waiting for this,
    thank you sunshine.

    i love your writeing.

    looking forward to more.


  5. paul:

    can we have more please ?

  6. Elaine:

    So great – more please!

  7. Jaya:

    Nicely crafted overview. I like how you switched up talking about the early mods with the context of your own stories. But darlin’ –where’s our music? I was hoping there’d be some sound at the end of the chapter….Although I’ve got ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ in my head now anyways. : )

  8. I’m just getting it together now…

    take it easy on me. More to come. More to come.

  9. Kristen:

    Love it. Loved Punk. Can’t wait for this one. I have to be careful though. Punk kept me up for a few nights. Couldn’t put it down. Your writing has got better by the way.

  10. well, the spelling errors not withstanding, the text of Punk is intentional. The lack of clarity, the confusion of the time line, the stories spinning out of control, the narration abandoning you quickly, leaving you on your own with the mind and actions of the voice telling the story.

    Mod is a different voice. Same person, still no name, very different story.

    I can’t wait to see what happens!