Ian Penman on Mod: A Very British Style by Richard Weight
In a lovely 1963 piece on Miles Davis, Kenneth Tynan quoted Cocteau to illuminate the art of his ‘discreet, elliptical’ subject: Davis was one of those 20th-century artists who had found ‘a simple way of saying very complicated things’. Jump to 1966 and the meatier, beatier sound of a UK Top 20 hit, the Who’s ‘Substitute’, a vexed, stuttering anti-manifesto, with its self-accusatory boast: ‘The simple things you see are all complicated!’ You couldn’t find two more different musical cries: Davis’s liquid tone is hurt, steely, recessive, where Townshend’s is upfront, impatient, hectoring. One arrow points in, the other out. But somewhere in the journey from one to the other, from cool, cruel blue to Townshend’s three-minute psychodrama – ‘I look all white/but my dad was black’ – was the brief, paradoxical flare of Mod: the story of how a small cabal of British jazz obsessives conducting a besotted affair with the style arcana of Europe and America somehow became an army of scooter-borne rock fans, draped in the ambiguous insignia of RAF targets and Union Jacks.
What Richard Weight calls the ‘very British style’ of Mod found its initial foothold in late 1950s Soho with the arrival of the jazz ‘modernists’, who defined themselves in strict opposition to the reigning gatekeepers of Trad. Modernists were wilfully brittle, stylish, working-class Cains, different in every way from the whoop-it-up trad jazz Abels. Trad – hugely and improbably popular in its day – had a predominantly middle to upper-class and purposively vulgar fanbase. In its ranks were Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and George Melly, who all later wrote of this time as of a lost Eden. Larkin’s jazz column for the Telegraph ran from 1961 to 1968, a period roughly coextensive with Mod’s quiet rise and noisy fall.
Trads embraced a louche, boho scruffiness (silly hats, sloppy jumpers, duffle coats), where Mods dressed with considered exactness. Trads were British to a fault (real ale, CND, the Goons) while the Mods had a magpie eye for European style, from the Tour de France to the Nouvelle Vague. Trads followed Acker Bilk, Mods worshipped Thelonious Monk: even at fifty years’ remove, you can see how sharing the same club, city or country might have been problematic. If the Oxbridgey Trads had a philosophical pin-up it was Bertrand Russell, with Freddie Ayer for real deep kicks; Mods backed the darker horse of existentialism. How much the Mod crush on continental philosophy was a pose, and how much serious engagement, is a moot point. Even as ‘mere’ pose it’s a very interesting one. In the dourly socialist cinema of the British New Wave, working-class characters are portrayed as sooty beasts of burden, life-force bruisers, 12 pints a night men; Camus-rifling aesthetes are thin on the cobbled ground.
Trad appealed to folk who were more or less content with the way things were along a certain squeaky corridor of Englishness. Mods felt an obscure pinch of agita at the thought of what their future promised. American jazz and European movies weren’t just crib sheets for how to wear loafers and a cravat, they were permission slips that allowed their audiences to pause and reflect. Trad reactionaries and Mod wideboys? Doubtless it was never quite so cut and dried. Skim the sub rosa lit of the time (Robin Cook, Alexander Baron, Colin MacInnes) and you’re plunged into a lost river with discrete but commingled tributaries: gay, criminal, East End Jewish, upper-class drop-out, lower-class dandy; the ‘morries’ of Cook’s dodgy Chelsea set, and Baron’s Harryboy Boas, a proto-Mod. ‘One thing about me, I always dress smartly,’ Boas declares. ‘A good suit, midnight blue mohair, this year’s cut. Dazzling white shirt, quiet tie of silk, rust-colour. Buy your clothes good if you have to starve afterwards.’
The early Mods were navigators, Magellans of the postwar field of leisure time, which had to be imagined, cast in this or that shape. Everything was up for grabs: music and clothes, sex and sexuality; the speech and language of put-down and put-on and pop fandom; transport and travel; nights out and nights in. Everything, in fact, we now take for granted as ‘youth culture’. It was a heady time of redefinition; but we also get the first migraine flash of a paradox that would split Mod, and define other subcultures: what began as a principled refusal of the nine-to-five wage-slave grind found its most vivid street-level expression in avid consumerism. As Peter Gay put it, paraphrasing Walter Gropius: ‘The cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind, of modernity.’ This could be Mod speaking.
Gay’s reflection is from his 1968 book Weimar Culture, and its subtitle is also applicable here: The Outsider as Insider. The tension between wanting to be unique but needing to belong underlies all subcultures. For the Mods, as with the Situationists (awol from Weight’s index), there was a conflict between rowdy group identity and individual slant. They mixed outdoor jaunt with indoor dissipation, group jamboree with sombre reflection, and they took very small things very seriously indeed, things other people wrongly perceived as frivolous. The Mod obsession with Blue Note album sleeves and Italian fashion had the quality of fetish, in both the Marxist and ritual senses. It required near-fanatical commitment to ‘source’ the materials required for a makeover. Early Mod shared with Bauhaus an almost puritan obsession with clean style and correct design. Early Mods had a deserved rep for sartorial aloofness, which shaded into a kind of radiant anonymity. Like the ‘man of the crowd’ in Baudelaire (and Benjamin) they were in the crowd but not of it, tracking sociability like spooks instead of being haplessly caught up in it like everyone else.
Still, Weight’s basic thesis seems unexceptionable: Mod as the beginning of everything we now take for granted in style culture, the ‘DNA of British youth culture, leaving its mark on glam and Northern Soul, punk and Two Tone, Britpop and rave’. But DNA is one thing, ‘leaving a mark’ quite another. Was Mod central and catalytic, or peripheral and intermittent? Because Mod itself came to signify so many different things to so many different people, and because Weight fails to separate out and clearly define words like ‘dandy’ and ‘modern’ and ‘modernist’, following his argument can be like trying to see a line of pebbles under a bank of fog. He treats wildly dissimilar phenomena – Mods, dandies, dandy Mods and modernist dandies – as though they were the same thing. (Even at the time, many original modernists spurned Mod as a moody knock-off, a Carnaby Street caricature – wayward ideas replaced by winking insignia and a price tag on everything.)
Weight is so stuck on his through-line map that he never stays long enough to see the strangeness of the scenes he’s passing through. I suspect the book he really wanted to write was a social history of Britain as seen through its subcultures, but these days books need hooks, and that’s where Mod comes in. Or rather, where Mod goes out… By stressing fashion over ideas, Weight sacrifices an important thread: he makes young working-class Mods sound like boys who will cross an entire continent for the right pair of socks, but don’t have an idea in their heads.
But where Mod once gave off a jumpy static of something arcane, unstable, unreadable, it now betrays an air of fussy self-satisfaction: neat alphabetical rows of old 45s on the Immediate label; original pre-loved bowling shoes in polythene; repro vintage guitars and rebranded clothes lines. Sex and drugs and rock and soul, minus the crucial Dionysian spark. Mod has become something to collect, a subcult first edition.
At this year’s Glastonbury festival, young students danced to the seventy-year-old pied piper Mick Jagger, while their parents ‘had it large’ with shouty grime acts. For sure, there were odd pockets of tribal homogeneity, but you’d have been hard-pushed to identify any of them as ‘Mod-inflected’. You could argue we’ve never been less ‘Mod-inflected’. We’re all about the casual tracksuit and the ripped denim shorts, rather than suits and ties; we’re shamelessly confessional rather than broodingly cool; we’re ad hoc tattooed rather than buttoned-up tight. ‘We are all modernists now,’ Weight says. (I don’t think he means we’re all Charlie Parker fans, though it’s a nice thought.) One problem with this is that he’s celebrating the continuity of something that no longer exists. As a result of Mod, he says, ‘it is true to say that more British people came to see themselves as modern than ever before.’ Sure, fine, maybe, even if that ‘ever before’ feels a bit fudgy. As a result of Mod (and the newly hot postwar electric media), a group like the Who could reach millions of people in one lightning-flash TV appearance. A kind of modernity was also what cool 1950s jazz and jittery 1960s rock had in common: they dared their audiences to measure themselves and their world against the music’s stark or playful, soft or apocalyptic new tones. But what exactly was being illuminated here? What were the strange codes passing back and forth between audience and stage? And why was there such disappointment and introspection and withdrawal later on? Doesn’t the more basic point concern not so much this or that movement or scene, as the very idea of ‘seeing ourselves’? Wasn’t this the real modernist key change?
At the end of a numb day spent with Weight’s snap-happy Lego of statistics, I put on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue in an attempt to really hear it again, to catch the original lure through all the intervening time-fuzz. I say ‘original’, but by the time I came to it Kind of Blue was already 15 years old – it’s harder still to imagine how it signified in 1959. How can something so feathery and frosty and rapt still cause such deep shock? It may be hard to believe, now that it’s become an everywhere gastropub soundtrack, but hearing music like this for the first time could be a dizzying, even upsetting experience. Yes, it contains a sense of hard-won joy – but also sharp overtones of siege and fear, loss and regret. If Kind of Blue was a specifically modern achievement, it’s in part because the players were unafraid of the deafening silence at the edge of their sound. There were darker, more jagged emotions under the elegant façade, something beyond hot trends and cool shades. I instinctively distrust any over-reliance on the word ‘soul’ in music criticism, but it’s the only word that comes to mind here, a code word for all sorts of dreams and difficulties. For anyone back then, 1959 or 1974, raised in a UK household where neither introspection nor exuberance were madly encouraged, where home life was a cramped, stifling affair, and where you didn’t have a readymade language for certain unruly feelings, music like this could really melt the inherited chip of ice in the heart. It still can.
Interviewed after he’d left the Kind of Blue line-up, the pianist Bill Evans said: ‘The simple things, the essences, are the great things, but our way of expressing them can be incredibly complex.’ Evans was a neurasthenic-looking white boy in an all-black band, a man with a bruised, lyrical sensibility in a world that could be blithe, even brutish. You could spend years exploring Evans’s sublime solo work, trying to work out why his playing – which can seem gossamer-light, one register away from rosy banality – is so haunting. Evans looked at times like an algebra professor who’d walked onto the wrong stage. He had the classy Ivy League suit and never a hair out of place, but his private life was a hurtling fugue, a circular to-and-fro of self-cancelling feints and narcotic stratagems. The arrows here all point inward, after the manner of St Sebastian. ‘The simple things you see …’
It may be unrealistic to expect a zippy book like Weight’s to delve into such areas, but the complete absence of any depth or surprise feels wearyingly familiar from recent TV. There, bland retrospectives suck on past lives and leach all the contrary gristle and blood from their hard-won victories. ‘From the boutiques of Brighton to the aisles of Ikea … modernism strutted its stuff.’ Weight’s spayed, odourless jargonese is to real analysis what a TV makeover or a ‘scooters only’ weekender in Margate in 2013 are to the original modernist dare: a perfectly glossy simulation, with all risky elements stowed.
Just as empty shipyards now house ‘themed’ museums – press icon for ‘Virtual Wage Packet Experience’ – so the insane over-ambition of mid-1960s pop and rock has been repackaged as a tidily groovy heritage resource. In the British Music Experience, for example, installed (where else?) in the former Millennium Dome and created ‘to fill a gap in the UK Heritage Sector for rock and pop music’, what did they choose as a logo? Right first time: the ‘classic’, ‘iconic’ RAF/Mod target emblem. Among the artefacts on show is Noel Gallagher’s ‘trademark’ Union Jack guitar. To be sure, rock groups themselves are often complicit in this process – it’s probably hard not to be these days. ‘Perhaps, in that sense, we are all modernists now,’ Weight (sort of) concludes. Really? How do the intense ardour and idealism of all those modernist dreams live on in the freeze-dried clamour of postmodernism? Are we really all modernists now? Sometimes we look more like the bloodless archivists of a real gone time.