Mod: a Very British Style
The Bodley Head, 496pp, £25
Last December was a good month for the cyclist Bradley Wiggins. The Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medallist was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year and awarded a knighthood. He also took time out to join his musical hero Paul Weller onstage, playing guitar on the old Jam classic “That’s Entertainment”.
That song was first released in the autumn of 1980, when Wiggins was just six months old. He was too late for the mod revival led by the Jam, let alone for the glory days of the movement back in the mid-1960s. So what is it about mod that can still exert such a powerful attraction over yet another new generation of enthusiasts?
Part of the answer can be found in Richard Weight’s splendid new book, which tells the tale of the movement. Born in the affluence of Harold Macmillan’s Britain, mod was a cross-class coalition of youth, bringing together the art school and the assembly line in a sharp-suited, pill-popping celebration of cosmopolitan taste, Continental attitudes and consumerist aspiration. It was, though, a mess of contradictions, a mass movement built in pursuit of individualism and elitism; it sought out new thrills while remaining essentially conservative in its values; it lived for the present but has provoked more revivals than any other youth cult. Surely it was too unstable a proposition to last?
Indeed, its moment seemed to have passed by 1967, the year of psychedelia and the TV series The Prisoner, when dwindling record sales and audience figures made it clear that the avant-garde pioneers who had dominated the scene were no longer being followed by the masses. New boutiques were still being launched but the price tags were now beyond the reach of most and a proletarian reaction, in the shape of the skinheads, was not long in emerging.
Weight argues that this was merely a temporary setback, that the ethos that underlay the movement was to resurface time and time again over the succeeding decades, that mod has been “the DNA of British youth culture for almost half a century”.
By the end of the 20th century, what had seemed a temporary phenomenon had become the mainstream. In the process, in “the long journey from cult to culture”, the country had been transformed. So although the heyday of Pete Townshend and Mary Quant is covered in detail, Weight doesn’t rest there, continuing the story as he teases out the influence of mod in cultural phenomena as diverse as 2 Tone, Factory Records and rave.
Nor is it music alone that falls within his remit. Everything from Habitat and 1960s road signs to gastro pubs and urban gentrification is included. Despite the title, this is closer to being a history of British popular culture in the years since 1960, in many of its more intriguing variations. It could almost be seen as a companion volume to Weight’s earlier book, the indispensable Patriots, which explored the development of national identities in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Where that centred on political concerns, this fills in the popcultural detail.
Mod shares all the strengths of that earlier work. The writing is witty (shopping malls are described as “the retailing equivalent of the grey squirrel”); the judgements are pinpoint accurate: the creed of the casuals who populated football grounds in the 1980s is summed up succinctly as “vanity and violence”. The research is formidable in its scope and detail, though one correction has to be made: Roxy Music never did play a gig at Biba, more’s the pity. (On the other hand, the Wombles did.)
The connections back to mod may seem strained at times, but for the most part Weight makes a convincing and persuasive case. Even when he argues that the smiley face, so ubiquitous during the era of acid house, was akin to the RAF roundel in the 1960s, he takes you with him.
The weakest link in the chain is the first: the explanation of how all this grew from a group of a few hundred self-proclaimed “modernists” in London in 1959. Taking their music from cool jazz, their fashions from France and their style from the Bauhaus, these were the hip young things chronicled in Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners. Yet the gulf between them and the Beatles’ triumphant invasion of America in February 1964 is so vast that the two scarcely seem to belong to the same world.
To understand the way in which that early incarnation of mod took over first Britain, then Europe, the US and the rest of the western world requires an even wider focus than is given here. Much of the groundwork had already been done. The foundations were laid in the early 1950s with the emergence of the Teddy boys; they may subsequently have evolved into the “rockers”, the sworn enemy of mods, but they were the first working-class dandies in Britain and they displayed a similar social conservatism.
Even more plausibly, the revolution can be dated to 1955, arguably the year that youth culture was born, with Quant opening her first boutique, the release of the film Rebel Without a Cause, the arrival of the Wimpy burger bar in Britain and the breaking of the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly by ITV. The following year, there was the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and the eruption of the Angry Young Men.
The ensuing cultural renaissance created the conditions for mod to break into the mainstream. By the time the Beatles arrived in America in 1964, the advance forces of the British invasion were already established, from the Oscar-winning films Lawrence of Arabia and Tom Jones to the Broadway musicals Oliver! and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and even to the satire boom: Beyond the Fringe was playing to rave reviews. Jonathan Miller, one of the stars of the latter, claimed a kinship: “The Beatles were satirical or, at least, sceptical.” In those early days, the irreverent humour of the band was just as important to their appeal as the music was, resonating with a world that had already been primed.
But even a book as wide-ranging as this has to draw the line somewhere. Weight’s account is undeniably in tune with the spirit of our times. When Wiggins rang the bell to signal the start of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, he was followed by a parade that, in essence, supported Weight’s central thesis. It, too, presented British popular culture as the flowering of the 1960s into glam, punk and beyond. And it, too, allowed little space for Britain before the Beatles.