Things Are Going To Get Better: Chasing Mod’s Tail

mod_bookIn an interview I did about a year ago on Severn FM, I talked a bit about Steve Marriott and the Small Faces. In the context of a discussion about my musical influences, this might have seemed strange: given the unapologetic Americana bent my songs tend to exhibit, the blue-eyed soul of those cheeky cockney Mods doesn’t seem quite to fit. But the Small Faces wrote and played songs that channeled the best of the American soul and jazz which first inspired the Mod movement whilst refracting it fairly radically through an English sensibility. If I don’t always achieve quite the same trick, it’s not because I not-so-secretly want to be a Texan, but because I don’t have the facility Richard Weight describes in my Christmas book this year, Mod: A very British Style:

A childlike awe is visible in the facial expressions of the Small Faces when they met Diana Ross and the Supremes on the set of Read, Steady, Go, the TV show on which soul stars from across the Atlantic regularly performed. [... But] Steve Marriot [...] insisted that the Small Faces were not just mimicking their black American heroes: “Everyone’s got soul, but as far as Negro soul singing goes only they can do it. But white artists can interpret coloured soul into their own. You don’t have to be born on the wrong side of the tracks. [pp. 82-3]

Marriot’s clumsy language is indicative of the ‘race music’ tourism of which some Mods were guilty, and which eventually curdled into the shape of the Skins. But Weight sets out to show how his ‘big three Mod bands’ – in this version of Mod history, the Small Faces, The Kinks and The Who – as well as other artists of the time, principal amongst them of course The Beatles, weaved music hall and other English accents into the American sounds with which they first fell into love.

Not least because of its inclusion of the Beatles and music hall in a discussion of Mod, Weight’s book is not without its critics. (Amongst Mods as amongst so many other cliques and cults, no single summative statement is ever without its critics; there will always be a self-appointed Face willing to question its purity.) Most excoriating of all has been Paul Hooper-Keeley‘s response:

Any book that has the final phrase, “We’re all modernists now”, is always going to be a broad brush generalisation of misinformation, quotes taken out of context, and another outsiders [sic] version of the truth to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and this latest book on our scene is no exception. Quite what the fascination is for non-Mods to spout on about our scene when they are neither part of it, nor even fully understand it, is beyond me.

What, then, should I make (other than my perennial status as a third-class ticket), of the fact that Weight’s book spoke rather clearly to my own experience of Mod – and suggested surprising ways in which an affiliation no longer particularly conscious still influences not just how I dress, but also how I think? You might turn to a more considered, and conciliatory, response to the book from within the Mod fraternity, such as Mark Raison’s:

The first thing to say is Mod: A Very British Style is not directly about the Mod Scene, so the events, bands, people, politics and intricacies of what could be called the core Mod Scene are of little interest here and largely ignored. What Weight’s book is, is an exploration into how the original Mod movement drew their influences from American, European and Afro-American styles in music, art, fashion, architecture and design and how those strands have been absorbed into the British mainstream. It examines attitudes towards class, consumerism, race, sexuality and countless other topics. It is a story of how a cult became a culture.

This is just right, I think. As Ian Penman wrote in the one of the most thoughtful – although not always, for instance in its erroneous supposition that A Very British Style fails to mention the Situationists, the closest – readings of the book, Weight spends little thought or time on the early, critical phase of Mod, in the bifurcated jazz clubs of Trad-vs-Mod Soho. Not a history of the movement per se, then, A Very British Style is more properly a social history of youth culture which takes as its founding premise the idea that Mod has been the most visible and enduring influence on the way in which young British people, and particularly young working-class British people, have attempted to express and shape a distinctive identity within a broader culture that either forcefully or quietly denies them agency or advancement. This makes it not a book to be consulted before a trip to a Brighton boutique in order to understand the optimum length and point of a shirt’s collar; but it makes it something rather more interesting. A Very British Style may be a little rushed and even – gasp, fellow Mods! – a little populist; but it’s also about the subculture’s radical social, rather than sartorial, aspects. To illustrate this point (and it is true of his book that it turns to this device rather too readily), Weight quotes someone else:

By the early 1960s the Mods had evolved into a kind of living parody of the expectations and aspirations of post-war British life. Finding jobs in shops and offices, they adopted a mode of dress that satisfied the white-collar requirements to ‘make a good impression’ with a vehemence that turned the markers of class identity upside down. Away from the workplace they cultivated a demeanour as preoccupied and self-important as a City financier. [...] The special privilege of parody is that it allows its authors to participate in the very set of conventions they mean to debunk or transcend. [Jonathan Gould, Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America, pp. 130-5]

As an ignorant sixteen year-old A-Level student from a council house my parents had purchased on the strength of a brewery worker’s salary, I was initially interested in Mods because I liked paisley and Ocean Colour Scene. But I think there was also precisely something about the sharper-than-thou, ambiguously gendered, fierce pride of Mods which attracted me to, and then provided the tools to access, a means of being both socially fluid, doubly contrary, and true to my roots. Mods refused to accept that drinking espresso, reading literature or wearing tailored clothing were somehow the preserve of the middle class (the Skins missed this point when rejecting their forebears as class traitors during the 1970s). Their enthusiasm for the stuff of modernity was also not a capitulation to blind consumerism – the exercise of taste and discernment, that famous Mod attention to detail, was in fact a rejection of the indiscriminate materialism for which we all now seem so trained.

Weight spends some time on how the gatekeepers of Mod asked rather more of women than of men. This irony isn’t lost on his central thesis that Mod was a way of working class kids beating at their own assumed game the slumming hippie scions of doctors and lawyers, in order merely to have the chance of a toehold in the world of tomorrow (or, indeed, just of Roman Holiday). This aspirational vision of theirs was self-confessedly over-optimistically envisaged – but it was also often contradicted by their own practice. There is in this scepticism, of course, a further factor in the hostility of contemporary Mods to Weight’s book: it is both critical and revisionist. Mods of the 1970-80s revival were, for Weight, reactionary nostalgics; Britpop’s rejuvenation of Mod failed to have the international impact of the 1960s version; yet iterations of Modernism more alien to Adam of London‘s particular vision of its style – Glam Rock, for instance, or 90s dance culture – managed, in Weight’s ecumenical and sometimes willfully broad-church definition of Modernism (Tinie Tempah is a Mod?), to be progressive and impactful in the way the culture originally intended.

For all the dangers of generalisation and faulty logic this approach involves, it gives fellow travelers like me a frisson of freedom: in the same way that my membership of the Labour Party is a passive one, any full allegiance to the Modernist club founders on my knee-jerk distrust of gangs (Weight attributes this characteristic to the earliest Mods, too); but, by loosening Modernism just a little from the constraints of sta-prests and penny loafers, Weight gives it room to breathe in contemporary life (not least, he argues, in the market halls of IKEA stores). Look at it in this light, and away from the book’s slightly dubious citations, index and illustrations, and Mod still seems not just useful but maybe even vital – and certainly, surprisingly, still keeping the faith in the back of at least this particular ersatz cowboy’s subconscious.

As I said last year to the gentleman that is Alex Huskisson, whose Mystery Train show is now at Stroud FM and to which you should listen regularly: what would Steve Marriott do?

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One thought on “Things Are Going To Get Better: Chasing Mod’s Tail

  1. Pingback: Things Are Going To Get Better: Chasing Mod’s Tail | @Number 71 | The Mod Generation

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