Rob The London Mod

Robert Nicholls is one of the originals, a true face of the London Mod scene. Although he left Britain in the early '70s he has never forgotten his time as a London Mod in the 60's and wishes to share those memories with other aged Mods (like himself) or younger people who find Mod styles interesting. Here is part of his story (the second part is here):

robert nicholls
Robert Nicholls
Rob the London Mod

"I am in the process of writing about the time when I was a London Mod. I can claim with some justification to have been a Face. I saw musicians like Rod Stewart, the Stones, and the Who (High Numbers) in small West End clubs. Although these acts later came to fill arenas, in those days there were only a couple of dozen people in the audience. As a Mod, I focused on clothes, music and dancing as a means of socializing with peers. In April 1963 I bought my Vespa GS Scooter secondhand. It was silver grey and I kept it plain without the multiple mirrors and decals that some scooter boys added. Instead, I attached a large mud flap at the back which reached the road. My piece de resistance was the exhaust system which consisted of twin chrome pipes, 1 1/2 inches in diameter which provided a lovely throaty drone like a Second World War bomber. I was fined for excessive noise more than once. In November 1964 my scooter was stolen and although it was later recovered it had been repainted and stripped and was a right-off."

Clothes:

My pursuit of fashion began early. Like Rod Stewart I failed the "eleven plus" and left school at fifteen. At that time I emulated Teddy Boy fashions favouring a Mississippi gambler look with a drape jacket and a homemade bootlace tie. Around October 1962, I changed my style. Before the term "Mod" was used to describe a distinctive youth faction we went through a pre-mod or maybe a "Modernist" phase. This involved collarless Pierre Cardin style jackets and flared trousers. But by 1964, I was wearing "parallels," shorter length trousers which fell three inches or so short of the shoe. They hung straight and were neither flared nor pegged, hence the name. I often wore linen or tweed sports jackets with deep vents, and shirts with Nehru collars, light woollen Fred Perry shirts, and lightweight sweaters.

Compared to later Carnaby Street and flower power fashions, Mod styles were not particularly outrageous but usually consisted of minor adaptations to established styles. Because we were innovating it wasn't possible to find suitable clothes off the peg, instead we had them tailor made. The most exaggerated modification involved the collar style and the width or length of the trousers. At any given time we conformed to the overall Mod look of the era, but would express our individuality by incorporating variations on the theme. For example, while other scooter boys commonly wore long army Parkas, I wore a short black oilskin coat from Army Surplus with a black beret. By 1964, Mods liked chunky shoes and desert boots became popular. I had a pair of matte black shoes in soft leather with thick crepe souls; their shape was not dissimilar to the brothel creepers of the Teddy Boy era. Because black shoes become invisible in dimly lit clubs, I accentuated them by fitting them with white shoe laces; moreover the laces also drew attention to my dance steps. Before long I found other Mods were also wearing white laces. Furthermore, the Hush Puppy shoe brand who was marketing suede shoes to Mods at the time, started to sell them not only with laces in white, but in pink, green and other colours. For a while I had a great pair of red woollen socks that I found at a quaint shop that had the word "Rock 'n' Roll" woven into them in yellow and green.

The Scene Club in Soho:
Robert with GS
Rob with GS
Ronan O'Rahilly, Georgie Fame's and Graham Bond's manager opened the Scene Club in March 1963 and it closed in 1966, spanning the mod era. The d├ęcor left much to be desired. It was dimly lit with a low ceiling and an undersized stage. Along the far wall there were some cubicles with tables. A small bar offered Coca Cola and whisky and coke. In May 1963, O'Rahilly hired Guy Stevens to serve as an R&B deejay to liven-up poorly attended Monday nights. The fact that Chris Farlow, Georgie Fame, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Animals all played at the Scene, was not what secured its status as Mod central; it was Stevens' record sessions that attracted interest, he had an ear for music and his talent was knowing where to locate the most exciting American R&B around and sharing them. We knew what we liked when we heard it! In 1956, when I was twelve, nobody had to sell me on Little Richard's good points. When he sang "Long Tall Sally" in the movie Don't Knock the Rock it spoke directly to my soul and gave me goose bumps. Guy Stevens had a similar epiphany when he attended a Jerry Lee Lewis concert in 1958, and it was the same for others of our generation. For me, becoming a Mod was virtually synonymous with discovering great R&B, and later West Indian Bluebeat and Ska. At that time the imported R&B Guy Stevens played was the best, tightest, most soulful and most danceable music around; a motherload of music as yet unappreciated outside of the communities that produced it. Many British musicians, who performed, covered or copied Black American R&B got their material from him. In July 1964, Fontana released, "I'm the Face" by the High Numbers who Pete Meaden was promoting as the first authentic Mod band. Meaden simply put new words to Slim Harpo's, "Got Love If You Want It."

Night TrainMusic:

If I could pick two tracks which for me are emblematic of The Scene in its heyday they would be Ike & Tina Turner's "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" (release date 1961) and James Brown's instrumental "Night Train" (1962). Although neither are included on the 2004 CD compilation, The UK Sue Label Story: The World of Guy Stevens (2004, Ace Records, London, CHD 1001), the album nevertheless provides a worthy sample of records played at the Scene around 1964 and includes an informative booklet as well. Comparing the CD to Guy Stevens' The Sue Story! LP record album released in the mid-1960s (Sue ILP 925) which only has sixteen tracks in contrast to the CD's twenty-six, it can be noted that the LP includes "Night Train" and Bob and Earl's "Harlem Shuffle," another Scene favorite, but these are omitted from the CD. Both albums contain up-tempo and soul-leaning R&B, while Steven's early tenure at The Scene featured more blues oriented R&B and out-and-out R&R. This evidenced by a 1963 ad for a Monday evening "Rhythm & Blues Record Session," which states: "Listen or dance to records by - Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Larry Williams, The Coasters, and many other R and B artists." In addition to these, I also remember blues-oriented numbers such as Slim Harpo's "King Bee" (1957), Lazy Lester's "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter" (1958), Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae" (1959), and Louisiana Red's, "It was a Dream," (1965), a topical song that addressed the Cuban missile crisis. In addition, Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" (1963), was ultra-danceable as was Major Lance's brooding "Monkey Time" (1964). "You Beat Me to the Punch" was a sultry but punchy ballad by Mary Wells (1962) while Doris Troy's "Just One Look" (1963) had a soaring and majestic quality. Records popular in my later days at The Scene included Bobby Bland's "Turn on Your Love Light" (1961), Tommy Tucker's "Hi-Heel Sneakers" (1964) and Alvin Cash and the Crawlers' "Twine Time" (1963). Of course, this is just a representative sample and I have deliberately excluded "Smokestack Lightning" by Howlin' Wolf (original release date 1956), "Tell Him" by the Exciters (1962), "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen (1963); and "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MG's (1964) because they became pervasive club hits in the early-mid 1960s and entered the British charts.

Dances:

Although some of the dances we did at The Scene were individual expressions, many were adaptations of America dances that had caught on. Apart from the early Twist and the later Funky Chicken, few knew their names but they provided a structure within which to improvise and add freeform elements. Good dancing was appreciated and virtuoso dance steps might be imitated and become the vogue for weeks at a time. Whether it was The Scene's doing or simply the work of individuals, for a while, French chalk or talcum powder was dusted on the dance floor to make it more slippery and better for dancing because it gave less resistance to dancing feet. Later, swaying movements and soulful shrugs were incorporated into our dances, but in the early days dynamic dances with a lot of verve seemed to be the norm. Later, coinciding with the R&B acts that toured England, there was a more conscious adoption of Black American dances. During our visit to Norwich clubs in 1965 we learned the Jerk and the Swim from Black GI's who were stationed on nearby American bases and would visit Norwich for weekend amusement.

The Block, the Bang, and the Face Twist were home grown dances developed by the Mods at The Scene. The Bang had a sideways swaying movement with legs kicking out side-to-side. The "bang" part was when one leg shot straight out to the side while the other foot stamped on the floor providing a loud percussive accentuation of the rhythm it was performed by both males and females, but seemed to be favoured by girls, possible because their "granny shoes" had a solid heel which served this purpose well. I saw the Block on occasions at the Scene but never tried to dance it. It refers to the Mods' use of Purple Hearts which was known as getting "blocked." The Block was the dance of an intoxicated Mod "blocked" on Purple Hearts. I'm not suggesting that one had to be on speed to dance the Block, it was more in the form of a parody. I remember one young man giving an impromptu dance display and a space was cleared for him. The dance had a basically upright posture and consisted of a rhythmical but somewhat spasmodic movement of the legs and arms, crossing of the legs, twisting the torso and spinning around occasionally with lurches off to the side as if about to topple over, legs buckling but never collapsing. No announcement of the dance or its name was made, or if it was it was drowned out by the music, but we got the message loud and clear. The Face Twist was popular at the Scene and elsewhere around 1963-64. It was based on the regular Twist, but done much slower, leaning forward and with one arm extended forward with the hand in a thumbs up position, and swaying the rump from side to side. It was performed by both males and females and was very stylish and you had to have a lot of self-confidence to do it

(the second part of Rob's story can be found here)


Photo 1: Portrait taken in 1964.

Photo 2: What was left of my Vespa GS after it was recovered. I wanted a historical record before I discarded it. Although snapped in February 1965, for the photo I am wearing the clothes I wore soon after I bought it in April 1963. These consist of a short box-shaped, double-breasted jacket worn over a "Pedro" tee shirt with horizontal stripes, and Levi jeans. My hair is layered with long sideburns and the pompadour look of my Mod days.

This work is the copyright of Robert Nicholls, Ph.D. The views expressed are purely those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or institution.

I know Rob would love to hear any feedback on this article. You can discuss it with him in the forum here or I will pass on any messages to him using the contact address.

Rob is also interested in publishing his memoirs and would like to hear from anyone with any advice or with an interest in publishing them.