Sawdust Caesars

Roger Ames, Brighton 1964
Sawdust Caesars:
Original Mod Voices 
Review by Roger Ames, 1960's Modernist.  

Whilst reading Tony Beesley’s comprehensive account of the development and subsequent revivals and later rebirths of the cult of Mod, my interest was reawakened and it has invigorated me to revisit my time as a teenager of fifteen, who, discovering Modernism, was set on the path of enlightenment.

The title of the book is taken from the sentencing speech of a Margate magistrate in 1964, his remarks were thus - “It is not likely that the air of this town has ever been polluted by the hordes of hooligans, male and female, such as we have seen this weekend. These long haired, mentally unstable, petty little hoodlums. These Sawdust Caesars, who can only find courage like rats hunting in packs, came to Margate with the avowed intent on interfering with the life and properties of its inhabitants.” Magistrate Dr. George Simpson  

How times have changed
Different from the many other books written and purporting to give account and analyse the Mod movement, mostly written by journalists and people who “weren’t there", who assembled archive material into a passable read. Sawdust Caesars, is full of first-hand accounts from original Mods and Modernists who candidly recount their experiences and activities, with no holds barred or punches pulled, from fashion statements to full blown fights. Amusing and informative, these accounts, truly help to make sense of the times and places that were influential in the creation of the religion of Mod.

If you weren’t there at the time, you can get a real feeling for the excitement and of the new horizons opening up, if you were there, you can revel in the shared experiences and relive all that it meant and may still mean to you. Liberally illustrated with period photos and archive memorabilia, many previously unpublished, the book should become a must have addition for any Mod acolyte or soon to be convert.

Why have I been asked to review the book? Well for me, I was a 1960's Mod who's path to modernism was acted out in clubs like the Chez Don in Dalston and many others that are referred to in the book, in fact my Mod friends and I frequented at least once, many of the locations of the London scene described in Tony's book.

My Dad and His brother Jim,
sporting their Charkham suits, It
may be me in the pram behind them
My parents and I lived with my Nan near The Angel, Islington. I remember, tailors like Charkham where my Dad and his flash friends had their three piece suits made. Charkham was in Cambridge Circus and later in the mid-60's moved to Oxford Street. I discovered a tailor via my Dad's mate who had a record shop in Middleton Road in Palmer’s Green; Eric Farr, who used to make suits for Roger Moore, when he was in The Saint. My first suit in 1963 cost me £17.00, using some cabbage material (left over bunce from another job) in dark green pin stripe. It was probably a bit over the top as I specified a 14” inverted pleat, fly front, with double-breasted lapels, jetted slant pockets, with a ticket pocket, straight 18” trousers with pegged bottoms to show my blue Annello and Davide Chelsea boots which cost 75 bob.

Teamed with a shirt which had a home made high cardboard collar and silk tie with tiny knot (pre-dating Karl Lagafeld) I used to wear it at the Chez Don, which I think it was above a Burton's store. The club seemed very upmarket to me back then, with phones on the table, where you could ring another table of likely looking girls. The club had regular gigs by the Downliner Sect, a great blues band who are still performing today. One Saturday night, the Swinging Blue Jeans were booked. I remember they only did a few numbers before they were booed off, so we could get back to some serious moves to Prince Buster records. One song, Wet Dream, by Max Romeo, contained the lyrics – “lie down girl, let me push it up, push it up,” I must have been pretty naive, not to get the thrust of the lyrics, but we were just absorbed by the rhythm.
My mother always liked me to look
smart, here I am at 12 in Petticoat
Lane, in coat made by my mum

Eric Farr's suit jackets were great. He really got the flared shape and cut a mean set of 16” vents. I had a few suits made by him, including the silver three-piece Tonik that I used to wear on Ready Steady Go. One time I had to do a set with Sandy, who by then was famous, and we were no longer going together, but she needed me to help out with some crazy idea of doing a ballroom step, the foxtrot, to a Wilson Picket number, I had to teach her the steps and as it went out live, I never saw the mess we made, probably for the best!

I first met Sandy Sarjeant at a dance hall in Archway, where ATV were holding a mass audition for dancers for Ready Steady Go, we didn't get picked then, but later on, got accepted and soon received our RSG passports. Sandy at the time, lived with her Irish mother in Kensal Green, her dad was a West Indian sea captain. Sandy and I used to go to a lot of clubs and dance halls, even down to Southend bowling alley in my Issetta bubble car, she certainly stood out back then, with her ski pants, polo neck jumper and red hair in a beehive.

Pre Mod days, a school
photo taken in 1961, note
the customised school tie
I had given up my GS by then and the Issetta helped my social life, as I had somewhere dry to crash out, if we were out on an all-nighter. A few times I would be parked in Wardour St, opposite the Flamingo, having been to the Disc, and not wanting to take up space on the old mattresses that were dotted around in the warren of back rooms, I could grab half an hour in the car, in the dry, before going down to Petticoat Lane for Sunday morning.

The Issetta soon had racing stripes up over the front door and down the back, with white roundels on the sides, I even fitted it with a large rear mud flap, a link to my scooting past. Just like the GS, the bubble car seemed to be a magnet for the local fuzz, I already had a few endorsements for no L
plates, carrying someone on the back whilst a learner, etc., but I had passed the driving test, in spite of all my mates walking endlessly across the zebra crossings at Southgate, where I took my test, after borrowing a skid lid helmet from a motorcycling acquaintance. No more 'L' plates and with a bike licence I could drive the Issetta three wheeler anywhere.

One day I was stopped by a copper in Wood Green High St. He leaned over and said through the sun roof “I don’t, know how you’ve got the nerve to drive this motorised polythene bag and your hand brake doesn’t appear to work!” At that he instructed me to apply the brake, he and his sidekick lifted up the back , pushed it a few feet. “There, your brake's no good,” so I received an endorsement and another one for modifying the exhaust, I had fitted a chrome up-swept motorcycle silencer, which went alongside the rear wheel. Thanks copper!

Anyway I could go on with anecdotes all night, all brought back to me after reading Tony's book. It a great piece of work that surely took many hours of research and patience tracking down the numerous nefarious early Mods and I recommend it to any one who has an interest in Mods and Modernism through the years.

The book gives comprehensive insights into the culture of Mods and the many stories told first hand from the boys and girls who were actually there, gives a honest and forthright experience of what these grass roots Mods, brought to and took from the movement, from the first generation and later incarnations through the decades, right up to 2014.
Another 1961 photo, just before
my conversion, with then girl
friend Linda. We really look good
together! The relationship didn't
last long, wonder if it was my hair?

Sawdust Caesars features many original mods, Lloyd Johnson, Irish Jack, Alfredo Marcantonio, John Leo Waters, John Hellier, Geoff Green, Dennis Munday, Don Hughes, Rob Nicholls, Mike Tenner, Steve Austin, Adrian Stern, and mod females Jackie Bain, Pat Beckett, Carol McFee. Gill Evans and Ella Donnor.

A quote from Alfredo Marcantonio's memories, has him recalling - “People take youth culture as a given, with its many cliques, all with their own dress code, clubs and magazines. When the Modernist movement arrived none of these things existed. There were no decent clothes shops, no music stations and television barely acknowledged young people's existence. Until the sixties swung in, you’d have trouble telling postwar Britain and pre-war Britain apart. Everything was so grey. For most of us, the phrase 'fashion victim’ had an unintended accuracy; from toddler to teenager, we were kitted out like miniature adults. You were forced to wear scaled-down, short trousered, grey wool worsted suits. If you were lucky! For most of us, going out in your ‘best clothes’ meant donning the dreaded school blazer. Little wonder we seized the chance to express a bit of individuality.”

Likewise Rob Nicholls remembers - My brylcreemed hair was swept back at the sides with a rollover quiff at the front. I wore a Teddy boy drape jacket and a homemade bootlace tie. Pat ( his then girlfriend) had a bouffant and she wore a short white plastic mac worn with matching high heels. My change of attitude began in autumn 1961 when I went to lunchtime dances at the Lyceum with day-release classmates Alan Cowell and Terry Bunyan. Richard Barnes reminds us that ‘in the fifties, girls were still corseted and strapped up in suspender belts, pantie girdles and all that corrective brassiere stuff.’ With her suspender belt, stockings and lace petticoat, Pat seemed to belong to an earlier generation. I felt that there must be more to life than this. I felt confined by going steady and my future seemed to be closing in....I envisioned a light grey double-breasted suit with the royal-blue lining that I would have made as a badge of my new identity. My break-up with Pat in August 1962 precipitated my virtual immediate transition to Mod and I began to develop a new sense of style. I wanted my life to be exciting and I planned to make it so!”

John Leo Walters, Irish Jack, and Don Hughes give especially thorough accounts, and they each focus on differing aspects of Mod life in the 60's. Rob Nicholls, well know to Mod Generation aficionados from his thoughtful essays published on their web site, supplies many an insight into the early Mods obsessions in clothes, music and hairstyles, highlighting some of the interesting aspects of Mod culture.

Alfredo Marcantonio,
demonstrating the correct GS
riding pose, elbows and feet in
the extended position
John Leo Walters recalling early exposure to Jazz - “MOD JAZZ? Let me start by saying that I could not be considered a fan of Jazz music! Growing up in the fifties and early sixties the term 'Jazz' immediately conjured up pictures of a bunch of white musicians clad in striped waistcoats and straw boaters playing something called 'trad' …. Then there was the 'other' type of Jazz, which was labelled 'modern'. This usually seemed to be represented by a trio of very miserable looking black musicians playing some form of music that seemed to comprise of a number of random notes played in any sequence that came to mind! …. I was listening to Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Nevertheless, as the 50’s became the 60’s subtle changes in the music coming out of the USA became apparent – R&B/Soul music became the listening choice of the emerging Mod population....

By 1963, this revolution in popular music had really taken hold. London was home to countless ‘R&B’ groups and many had started to make some headway into the British charts. The Rolling Stones, Animals, Kinks and the Beatles were all making news and relied heavily on R&B and the infant ‘Soul’ music for most of their repertoire. The Archway mob embraced this new form of music totally.

Raised on a diet of 50’s music this new musical form was like manna from heaven. Listening to the Stones and Animals versions of American R&B was fine but it did not take long before we were hunting out the original versions of their covers. Our eyes were opened to a whole new world of exciting music – Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, exotic names playing raw Blues. We pestered staff in the local Broadmeads or Co-op to order in this new music....[H]ere was a new market waiting to be tapped into. Almost overnight the West End of London was awash with clubs catering to this new audience.”

Not all Mods were London based, Tony Beesley has sought out Mods from all parts of the UK, such as Maurice Moore a early Mod from Nottingham, - “In the early 60s, as a young boy growing up, I started listening to music. The choice on the radio was very limited: chart hits or middle of the road stuff. At night-time, I would snuggle under the bedclothes to listen to Radio Luxembourg.... We had little chance of hearing the original versions ...and it was not possible to buy them in the record shops.”

Gill Evans from Birminham, back in 1962 states - “I was at art school in Birmingham, doing Dress Design and Pattern Cutting and I used to go to a coffee bar off the High Street called the Stage Door and meet other art school friends and also a pub, the Old Stone Cross, this would be around 1961. The pub used to have trad Jazz bands playing at that time....Even before this period, I was already interested in the continental style, a distinct French and Italian influence on clothes, simplistic styling. I was into designing my own clothes, something I had always done right from my childhood....

Covering fashions and music, the obsession with mobility must not be undervalued and there is plenty in the book about scooters and travelling to the coast. - Steve Austin, who is featured in the front cover, was a Vespa aficionado. He recalls, -“There was only one scooter to have and that was the Vespa 160. It was more stylish than the Lambretta, and a little bit faster, because it had a slightly bigger engine. Rockers used to laugh at us because they could do the ton and we could only squeeze 50-60 mph out of our little machines. But that didn’t matter, we had the style and as much chrome as we could afford.

Derek Glover on his Lambretta, in 1965
note the downward positioned boot
Derek Glover , A Lambretta man, - “I purchased my Lambretta 150 series 3 'on the knock'. My Mom signed as guarantor and I was given a little card to make my monthly payments. The scooter was a beige colour but after two weeks and some spray cans it changed to blue and red. My girlfriend (now my wife) bought me a spare wheel rack and I purchased a fly screen. I went down to the scrapyard and picked up a spare wheel, I then stopped off by a green Austin Mini parked in a quiet side road and 'borrowed' a hubcap off the car, which fitted perfectly into the centre of the spare wheel. Then came a tin of white wall tyre paint and some RAF transfers from the model shop. With a hammer and a six-inch nail, I banged some holes into the exhaust box to get the sound of a powerful roar when I revved up the engine. The transformation was complete. The next step was to get down to the Army and Navy store for an American parka. I had not got a helmet so I got myself a nice little Beret, which seemed trendy at the time.

Reggie Webster - “There were always scooters around when I was a kid; ridden by the conformist guys.... I was 14 in 1965 and was always destined to be like the kids that had shown some spirit at Margate and Brighton. I'd already worked weekends in service stations, some of my mates had even left school early to work. I dealt a moped, a T100 scooter and a Triumph 500 Speed twin to raise enough cash to get my first Lambretta on the road: 25 quid from a respectable Nigel who wasn't that pleased to sell it to me and another few quid customising it with anything I could find at the scrappers or swap with the other odd guy with the same intention. I passed my test at 1pm on my 16th birthday, after spending over a year on the road underage on L-plates, something that didn't seem that important to anybody back then and certainly not uncommon. I'd even done my first Brighton Bank Holiday on a ‘64’ Sportique with chrome panels - 35 quid from Reading, paid for by the profit on the Lambretta after I'd finished with it. I'd enjoyed something we'd all dreamed of, the V formation drive in on the Prom and then the line-up waiting for the next crew.

Sandy Sarjeant making some
moves on the German TV show
Beat Club
Sawdust Cearsars moves through the years with reflections on the changing times and styles of modernism and how original mods changed, for example- Maurice Moore muses on - “The Mod subculture did not last very long, perhaps a couple of years. Some people continued to wear the clothes, listen to the music and Northern Soul was born, others became ’skinheads’. Many evolved into the hippie subculture, which had developed in the States. My hair grew longer; I listened to and saw more rock and psychedelic bands – Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band....My band, The Salty Dogs added a keyboard player, changed their name to the Velvet Explosion and added more psychedelia to their set.”

Rob Nicholls - “Although at the time I didn't call it anything, in retrospect, I call it my Afro-glam rock era—the sweater was an African textile—I was teaching in Nigeria by that time, but returning to UK during the summer holidays. Funk and Soul was flourishing by then and the club scene was racially well-integrated. After that, young blacks and whites diverged again as the music scene splintered into diverse genres. Disco often gets a bad rap, but in a way, the Disco era was a sensationalized version of the Mod lifestyle. In fact, Pete Meaden boasted that John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever was based on him.”

There is plenty of coverage on the 70's so called Mod revival, spearheaded by the Jam and TwoTone Bands and for fans of the only true original Mod band ( in my opinion) 'The Small Faces' there is a featured interview with the remaining members.

Charles Murphy a Glasgow Mod says "By 1979 I had been a Mod for a year or so, I was 15 year sold and was totally knee deep in music - I bought every record I could get my hands on, Madness, The Selecter, The Beat, and Bad Manners.

Moving through the years up to today, I leave this review with a final quote from Kristopher Dunn a present day Mod from Sheffield - “It’s hard to say how and when Mod took over my life. I was born in ’84 so grew up during Brit Pop and just about caught the tail end of [the later spin-offs of] Acid House (to which the connection to Northern Soul now seems so obvious). Weller, Mani and Johnny Marr are obvious influences, although at the time I didn’t consciously associate myself with Mod. I didn’t really think of myself as a Mod until my 20s, which I suppose is unusual.

My dad is a big Blues fan and I grew up around John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins so I’ve always had an interest in black music in general. Exploring the influences of the likes of Weller was a natural continuation of this interest. The House music that we danced to in clubs soon lead me to Soul. I also lived in Brixton for a few years and got turned on to Reggae. I suppose a range of influences converged to bring me to Mod....At the core of its appeal is the fact that Mod allows you to differentiate yourself - to stand out from the crowd - whilst also feeling that you belong to something. Mod is about self-expression, within certain boundaries, which I love...

My final thoughts are that, what this book makes clear, is that we all live with the same hopes and aspirations, irrespective of whatever decade, town or city or social strata, from where we originate!

Tony Beesley, the author, is a regular contributor to Vive Le Rock magazine and has previously written several books on modern culture, including his “Our Generation” trilogy

£19.99 and available from August 21st at Foyles, Amazon, etc; it can be pre-ordered now. at http://www.tonybeesleymodworld.co.uk/sawdust-caesars