Sunday, September 11, 2022

The appeal and the limits of Mod

I recently finished The Sharper Word: A Mod Anthology, a gathering of writing devoted to the history of the Mod lifestyle edited by Paolo Hewitt. With a few exceptions, Hewitt selected of-the-era pieces about the 1960s—he ignores the Mod Revival of the late-70s/early-80s—presenting looks, takes, and reminiscences of a unique and short-lived era that continues to resonate. "Modernism has longevity because it recognises two absolute facts," Hewiit writes in the introduction. "True style and quality never ever dates and that as long as there’s a money-go-round, there will always be someone wanting to dress up to fuck off a world that constantly wants to put you down." Nik Cohn, Richard Barnes, Colin MacInness, Alan Fletcher, Tom Wolfe, Pete Meaden, and others write in tones varying from adoring to skeptical, and in styles from personal to sociological. Their approaches are enlivened with details, reportage, and interviews from the era. 

The Sharper Word was first published in 1999; I'm glad that I couldn't have read this book in my late-teens, as I would've suffered some measure of anxiety. As I wrote about at length a few years ago, my teenage infatuation with Mod was deep and intense but limited by my own skepticism and unwillingness to commit to an ideology (an expensive one, at that). I never felt as if I could belong with the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. Mods in the 1980s in part because I was stoking a native, stubborn resistance to joining; I didn't dislike belonging to a group or community, but I resented having to follow certain explicit, unbending rules to maintain membership. I grudgingly admired those in the area who fully committed to the right clothes, the right Scooters, the Right Look, but I also found them slightly ridiculous in their slavish devotion. (Or was it jealousy? Envy of their dedication, which I knew took work I wasn't ready to do?) 

Pete Meaden, early Who manager and major Mod scenester, who's probably most famous for defining Mod as "clean living under difficult circumstances," was asked by NME writer Steve Turner to explain the 60's Mod revolution. "My Mod revolution was an undefined revolution against commodities and people," he insisted (emphasis added). "That is people were commodities, my parents treated me as a commodity, and Modism to me was a release, sweet release, relief." Later he's asked:

The mod thing was style as opposed to content, wasn't it?

Yeah, in as much as you can dismiss life as having no substance, there was no substance. But if you can put life together as having substance, a reason to believe, then you have Modism, which is where it was, which was via having a pill, having a few drinks, via having music to listen to, and a style of your own, so succinctly beautiful and self-contained, where privacy was everything, and no-one ever disturbed your privacy, because you are all the same...

Appealingly, Meaden also remarks that nurses can be "the best Mods of all." What if they're on night duty, Turner wonders, unable to reconcile all-night pill popping with all-night care giving. "Well, they'll come out in the daytime," Meaden enthuses, "go shopping with you, and they'll have the short haircuts, and nurses are about the best Mods of all, because they're actual practical people," adding, "Can't you understand, that's what Mods are all about." Meaden logic. What an interesting if tragic character he was.

Mods dancing

One of my favorite passages, excerpted from Parallel Lives, a memoir by Peter Burton, a queer Mod and journalist, nails what I found so moving about Mod: its timeless appeal to youth, energy, and sensation. "As we danced along to Motown’s idealistic songs, we fell in love." Burton wrote. "We fell in love every weekend. Often affairs were brief—started on Sunday morning, over by Monday night. But the high obtained from the speed, the music and the companionship meant that these transitory flings were passionate and intense. And who is to say they were any less valid than romances which last for weeks, months, years?"

Great stuff. A common thread through many of the pieces in The Sharper Word is the thrilling liberation many original Mods felt while speeding on pharmaceuticals, delivered, however recklessly and finitely, from the rigors of dour class expectations and middle-class fear disguised as complacency. Many Mods who danced and, foaming at the mouth, sped all weekend from clubs to diners to clothes stores and back again were acting out freedoms that they felt society had denied them. They endured, indeed accepted with a kind of stoic pride the dreary day jobs that allowed them their purchase on The Weekend. Hewlitt reveals that there was an intellectual and philosophical underpinning to many of the more thoughtful Mods' weekends: they strove to look good (and to stay looking good) as a way of distancing themselves from their gray parents' gray lives, those who'd seemingly settled for what life meagerly offered, an all-too possible future. There was indeed something culturally revolutionary in many of the Mods' ways of behaving: the gobbled-by-the-handful Purple Hearts just got them there quicker, even as the infamous Sunday come-downs brutally reinstated the realties they were zooming from.

"Mod has been much misunderstood. Mod is always seen as this working-class, scooter-riding precursor of skinheads, and that’s a false point of view." This is Steve Sparks, a 60s Mod quoted in an excerpt from Jonathon Green's Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971. Sparks adds, "Mod before it was commercialised was essentially an extension of the beatniks. It comes from ‘modernist’, it was to do with modern jazz and to do with Sartre. It was to do with existentialism, the working-class reaction to existentialism."
Marc Feld (who became Marc Bolan) was an early example of what was the downfall of mod, which was the attraction of people who didn’t understand what it was about to the clothes. Marc Feld was only interested in the clothes, he was not involved in thinking. 
He added with a wink: "Mind you, it’s quite hard to think on twenty Smith Kline and French Drinamyl [both infamous Mod-era pharmaceuticals]."

And yet. The pursuit of liberty paradoxically came at the cost of individuality, that absurdist riddle that I had trouble accepting, or was afraid to try and tackle, when I was younger. Hewlitt, to his credit, included several pieces that aren't shy about taking aim at the Mods' obsessive attention to the shallowness of fashion. (In his brief intro to Nik Cohn's contribution, Hewlitt dryly observes, "I don't think [Cohn] particularly liked Mods.") Though he reverently describes Richard Barnes' 1979 book Mods! as "the bible," Hewlitt's smart to excerpt this passage from Barnes's book about the the light foolishness of some overly-striving, Continental-worshipping Mods:
Another of Willie and Johnny’s friends took it all a bit too seriously. "We never smoked but would light up a Gauloise just to be seen with it. We all got into the French films and magazines, but Les went berserk. He used to wear a striped jumper and a beret and eat garlic and everything. He started to learn French. 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 between the middle pages. It was all a pose. There was even a time when we saw him walking along wearing his beret and striped jumper and carrying a loaf of French bread under his arm."
Here's Alan Fletcher (whose novelization of the Quadrophenia film, by the way, is surprisingly good), in an excerpt from his novel The Blue Millionaire, perfectly capturing the consuming attention to manner and look endured by many Mods. "In pursuit of the true Mod style of riding the bike Dazz sat at the front edge of the seat and tucked himself in closely behind the front leg shields, his knees touching the gentle curves of Piaggio’s carefully sculpted panel lines. The side of his shoes rested against the point where the running boards met the front panels’ upward sweep. His toes hung out to the side of the bike. The geometrical relationship twixt tip of shoe and running board was of particular significance (it followed the lines laid down before). The shoe could be positioned at whatever angle you wished, providing it was exactly 45° to the horizontal! Jed knew that to conform with the decreed way of riding pillion he should be leaning well back over the rear wheel of the scooter, arms folded or behind his head; the snag was that the bike didn’t have a back rest—yet. In a flagrant contravention of all the interests of safety he refused point blank to put his arms around Dazz’s waist—so he gripped the bottom of the seat and was thus whisked white knuckled, around Nottingham."

And poet Andrew Motion, in an excerpt from his memoir The Lamberts, succinctly defines a certain "version of Mods—a suddenly coherent section of young England which was, in [The Who singer Roger] Daltrey’s phrase, 'the first generation to have a lot of money after the war’, and were using it to have good clean fun" that was "strikingly at odds with the original flavour of the Goldhawk Social Club." Motion adds, quoting Cohn, that "the Mods’ rebellion had a more threatening aspect too."
"The archetypal Mod," said Nik Cohn, the rock and roll commentator and entrepreneur, "was male, sixteen years old, rode a scooter, swallowed pep pills by the hundred, thought of women as a completely inferior race, was obsessed by cool and dug it. He was also one hundred per cent hung up on himself. On his clothes and hair and image; in every way, he was a miserable narcissistic little runt."
I guess Cohn didn't particularly like Mods.

Photo of dancing Mods via Pinterest; images of target from the 1999 edition of The Sharper Word

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