Sideburns and scooters: why the mod endures

Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

WHEN HE triumphed in the Tour de France last month, Bradley Wiggins not only joined the select band who have won the famed yellow jersey, but secured his place among another group of famous figures.

The English cyclist found himself bracketed alongside such diverse individuals as the star of the forthcoming movie version of The Hobbit; the last British tennis player to win Wimbledon; a fashion model whose career has spanned decades; and a long-serving survivor of the punk explosion. With his distinctive sideburns, sharp taste in tailoring and penchant for scooters, Wiggins joined the likes of Martin Freeman, Fred Perry, Twiggy and Paul Weller as a mod icon.

More than 50 years after a new breed of crisply attired, musically discerning youths began frequenting the jazz clubs and coffee bars of London, the mod movement still wields a lasting fascination in the popular imagination, a point underlined by the widespread press coverage of Wiggins’s sartorial preferences. For what initially appeared to be a passing fad, it has displayed a remarkable staying power.

Mod remains an influential strand in popular culture, regularly reappearing to insinuate itself with new waves of music and fashion. And, for some, it never went away.

Mods may forever be associated in the public mind with a handful of cliches – parkas, scooters, rivalry with rockers – but beneath the media shorthand lies a disparate scene with a capacity for reinvention that has attracted successive generations of devotees.

As suggested by even the most cursory list of the movement’s stylistic idols – Freeman, actor and lifelong mod; Perry, who lent his name to the uber-mod polo shirt; Twiggy, the face of Swinging-Sixties London; and Weller, former frontman with The Jam, long dubbed “the Modfather” – it is a subculture that defies easy categorisation.

From the beginning, there has been significant, if often overlooked, Irish input into mod’s development. Despite the use of Union Jack imagery and the default soundtrack of vintage English acts such as The Who, The Small Faces and The Jam, mod is much more than the nostalgic Anglocentric throwback of popular stereotype.

“I don’t think it’s a retro movement,” saysDublin-based DJ and mod fanzine publisher Joe Moran. “Mod has been always the search for something different, be it fashion, music or even the scooters.

“Being a DJ, I’m always looking for new tunes that no one else has, but it could be a different cut to a suit, or a good-looking bike. Certainly, there’s a lot of looking back at music and style, but now you see young kids coming in and adapting the mod ideal to the time they’re living in. And I think that spirit feeds into its endurance.”

Just what constitutes the “mod ideal” is an elusive matter. The late Pete Meaden, the first manager of The Who and the nearest thing to mod’s patron saint, famously defined it as “clean living under difficult circumstances”.

For dedicated followers such as Moran, it is “a way of life, about having a pride in how you present yourself in the world”.

For the less committed, who may not even call themselves mods any more, it can just come down to a lingering preference for button-down shirts or a yen for 1960s music. (Full disclosure: this writer, a teenage mod in the 1980s, falls into the latter category.) This broad spectrum makes mod a difficult subculture to pigeonhole – there are plenty of Who-loathing purists who wouldn’t be seen dead in a parka – but equally it has enabled it to spread far beyond the time and place it began.

In terms of its origins and obsessions, mod may well be “a very British phenomenon”, to borrow the subtitle of Terry Rawlings’s 2001 book on the subject, but these days fanatical local scenes are dotted throughout the world.

The latest issue of Sussed, Moran’s fanzine, underlines the movement’s current worldwide reach, containing articles on Spanish record labels, French bands and American films.

“We’re getting requests for the magazine from people in the US, Mexico, Scandinavia, Spain and, of course, the UK,” Moran says.

It is not only Irish publications feeding into this global community. Irish bands have become a fixture of the garage-rock clubs, vintage-music nights and boutique 1960s-themed festivals that make up the international mod circuit.

They may be little known in their hometown, but Dublin group The Urges are hardy veterans of this scene, their punchy garage rock and soul earning them regular tours across Europe and the US.

Cavan teenagers The Strypes have also become a presence, their beat-group energy and vintage RB covers belying their youth: after a striking appearance on The Late Late Show a year ago, the quartet now perform at mod events in the UK, Italy and Spain.

Meanwhile, Irish mods congregate at clubs such as Sleepless Nights and Sunday Social in Dublin, the Nitty Gritty in Galway and For Dancers Only in Wexford, to hear local and international DJs spin old soul, early RB, Latin boogaloo and cult 1960s groups, as well as new releases from the current crop of groups.

THIS VIBRANT GLOBAL activity, ably spurred by a number of influential online portals, seems a long way from the arcane and distinctively British image of teenage mods rumbling with rockers in drab seaside resorts nearly half a century ago. But it chimes with the cosmopolitan instincts of the earliest mods.

Starting in the late 1950s, these mainly male youngsters, who called themselves modernists, gravitated towards French films, Italian suits, colourful Ivy League clothing and American jazz as a way of standing out from the uniformity of post-war Britain.

As the 1960s progressed, the movement grew. New dress codes emerged and American RB and soul were embraced, as were home-grown performers such as Georgie Fame. (Fame was managed by the Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, who also ran the Scene Club, an influential early venue; O’Rahilly then founded pirate radio station Radio Caroline, thus bringing many mod sounds to the wider public.)

By 1964, when masses of unruly mods rioted in Brighton and Margate and The Who released their first single, most of the pioneering modernists had moved on. But the mod myth had been born. Even as mods apparently disappeared from the streets, the legend was fanned by The Who’s 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia (inspired by the Cork-born London mod “Irish Jack” Lyons) and the subsequent movie adaptation in 1979.

“I think mod still exists because of the strength of the original mod scene and the influence of groups such as The Who and The Small Faces,” says Garry O’Neill, the author of Where Were You? Dublin Youth Culture and Street Style, 1950-2000.

“That music fed into the mod revival of the late 1970s. And Britpop was definitely influenced that way. A lot of those bands gave a nod to the 1960s, in terms of music and attitude.”

The post-punk revival spearheaded by The Jam and the Britpop explosion, which saw Oasis recycle classic 1960s sounds and Blur work with Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels, are the most obvious examples of mod’s enduring appeal.

But the movement also endured through a series of other sub-cults, be it “hard mods” evolving into skinheads in the late 1960s, the dance and music obsessions of northern soul in the 1970s, the Vespa and Lambretta fetishes of scooterists in the 1980s and even the acid jazz genre of the 1990s.

“Mod is in a constant state of regeneration, but underpinning it is attention to detail, not being one of the herd,” says Moran.

“In the grand scheme of things it means nothing, but at a personal level it’s who you are. It’s probably narcissistic in that way, but you want to put your best face forward and don’t really care what others think.”

On the surface, mod’s peacock tendencies can seem flippant beside, say, the supposed gritty authenticity of punk, one of the few subcultures to rival it in terms of durability and reach. But while few mods or punks would admit it, such movements share common traits that have allowed them to survive where others such as the new romantic movement have failed.

Showy and preening but streetwise, both simultaneously appeal to cult elitism and collective solidarity while casting an implicitly suspicious eye on contemporary mores. “Youth cultures in general are like that,” says O’Neill. “Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out, and even then it’s hard to let go.”

For mods, an immaculately chosen wardrobe and a meticulously sourced record collection represent a certainty missing from the age of fleeting online crazes and hipster trends.

“The mod movement was about participation in something that was greater than its parts,” says Moran. “Nowadays, youth culture seems to be all about the parts.”

Even to outside observers, mod’s appeal lies in its paradoxical values of exclusivity and communality. “It’s hard to see anything like that appearing again,” says O’Neill. “Everything now is so instant, especially with the internet, where you can find anything easily. Back then, if you found something, you shared it with mates but kept it to yourselves. That made it feel special.”

Casual trendiness and mainstream acceptance may be the antithesis of the mod movement, but the ultimate testament to its strength lies in the influence it still exerts on broader popular culture.

From Liam Gallagher’s parka-clad strut to Imelda May singing cult mod favourite It’s Your Voodoo Working and, yes, to Bradley Wiggins’s sideburns, it’s still a mod world.

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