Doesn’t it all seem a long time ago? For years, the 1960s remained a key cultural reference, universally understood. But then, at some point, probably around the turn of the millennium, the Eighties took over and the Sixties began to fade into a psychedelic version of 1920s sepia.
The two periods, separated by the shame and loon pants of the Seventies, were both about being young and “cool”. They were also about being bang up-to-date and liberated from “old” thinking. And, in the way of things, both have aged badly.
The Mods of 1960s Britain were a social movement wrapped up in a fashion statement. Modernism, by contrast, is timeless. In this book, Richard Weight sets himself the task of elevating a phenomenon rooted in the London of the Beatles, the Kinks and the Small Faces into a revolution whose echoes can still be heard today and – rather like a populist version of the Enlightenment – will resonate with scholars for centuries to come.
But don’t take my word for it. Here is what Weight himself has to say:
‘Mod! is a book about the distinctively British youth cult and the artistic and social influence it has had. What became known as Mod was an amalgam of American and European music, fashion and design that has left its mark not only on a variety of subsequent youth cults but also on British culture as a whole. At its peak, in the mid-1960s, Mod became shorthand for what it meant to be a modern Briton; it helped to shape popular ideas about social relationships, taste, lifestyle and national identity at a time when the British Empire was being dismantled and American consumerism was changing British society.’
And there was me thinking Mods were the ones dressed like Austin Powers who fought the Rockers, dressed like James Dean, on Margate pier.
Weight is right, though. There was a moment when everything changed forever. It must have been a bit like Dr Who regenerating. Frankie Vaughan, in his top hat and tails, morphed into Cliff Richard, then – to gasps from blue-rinse matrons up and down the land – into the pouting, strutting figure of Mick Jagger.
A new age, presided over by the sinister figure of Jimmy Savile, was born. Top of the Pops, on the BBC on Thursday night, was where the Mods paraded themselves, whether on stage or on the dance floor. Clive James, himself a brilliant creature out of the Sixties, once described the show as soft porn for armchair caliphs, correctly identifying its combination of voyeurism and self-conscious exuberance. He could not have known that Savile, away from the cameras, was getting ready to work his way through that week’s intake of under-age girls. At the other end of the continuum, Late Night Line-up, presented by Joan Bakewell – ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’ – and the immaculate Tony Bilbow, explored not only cool music, but cool ideas and cool politics.
But, as Weight reminds us in this elegant and thoughtful compendium, there was more to youthful revolt than Beatlemania and The Who. Not everyone wore flowers in their hair. Indeed, not everyone under 25 had hair. Skinheads, memorably prefigured by Anthony Burgess as the “Droogs” of A Clockwork Orange, were a real and present danger throughout the era of Swinging London. Originally a Mod heresy – the “hard” mods as distinct from the “smooth” or “peacock” strain – they were hell-bent on violence: punks without art, fashionistas in bovver boots.
Which brings us to Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, and Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, and the realisation that Weight is ready to go all the way with his thesis, that Mods aren’t of any one time, but of all times, on a journey of discovery and re-discovery that never ends.
I don’t know about that. Weight admits the conundrum that youth culture, inextricably linked to the new, inevitably ends up bound to the past. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s old sods. The same mods – even the same rockers – who trooped in their thousands to The Clash, the Jam or, more recently, Oasis, are now sat on their sofas with a six-pack watching Top Gear.
It is also the case, I would argue, that music is no longer the defining factor in youth culture. Guitar bands are becoming an endangered species. The average age of those attending stadium gigs, to listen to Muse, or Coldplay or Radiohead, is upwards of 40. Singers and musicians, have ceased to be household names. Adele – a throwback to the age of Helen Shapiro and Dusty Springfield – is probably the only current British pop star who could walk down any high street and expect to get mobbed. My mother knew who Pete Townsend was. My sister wouldn’t have a clue who Alex Turner (of the Arctic Monkeys) is.
Weight doesn’t hang about. To a soundtrack of Bob Marley and Dizzie Rascal, he observes that many young Britons born in the 1980s and ‘90s are hostile to the idea of a multicultural Britain. But he also notes the sharp rise in recent years in bi-racial marriages. Along the way, he records the rise and fall of Habitat (definitely Mod) and the subsequent dominance of IKEA (musically tone-deaf, unless you count Abba). There are nods, too, to Italian coffee machines, Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar, Carnaby Street, Britpop and Cool Britannia.
But you see what I’m getting at. I hope it won’t offend the author if I say that Mod! is best understood as a history of popular culture in Britain since Larkin first had sex and the Beatles went to number one with Please Please Me. What matters is that he has done his job well. As we age, we need to be reminded that our youth was special and that nostalgia is good for the soul. As for what is now unfolding, the analogue age has given way to digital and the internet and social media have once again changed everything. I wonder what future cultural historians will make of the youth of today, hard-wired as they are to their smartphones, iPads and Xboxes. I’m not sure any of these could be described as Mod. Nor could their users. You have to be alive for that.
Mod! A Very British Style, by Richard Weight, is published by The Bodley Head.
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