Rob the London Mod - part 3

This is the third part of Robert Nicholl's memoirs of the London Mod scene which he is kindly sharing with other aged Mods (like himself) or younger people who find Mod styles interesting. The first part of his story can be found here.

London Mods
Robert Nicholls
"If you’re old enough, people will say you’ll always remember what you were doing when you heard John Kennedy was assassinated (November 22, 1963). My mum broke the news, I was cutting my mate Allan B’s hair in my bedroom in preparation for going to the Scene Club (Soho) on my scooter, we went anyway, but it was closed, as was most of the West End. From my mid-teens until the present I cut my own hair, and at that time many of my mates as well. As we became Mods, we needed to avoid the shears of the old-time “short-back-and-sides” barbers. Instead I was able to provide a layered look with a fringed edge."



Faces, Tickets and Mods

The terms “Face” and “Ticket” were part of the Mod lexicon. While "Mods" were any adherents to the style, a Face denoted a top Mod and a fashion setter, while Tickets, who were in the majority, were imitators of Faces and followers of trends. I was categorized as a Face. I am not sure when the term “Mod” began to be applied; probably about the time Rod Stewart adopted the designation “Rod the Mod.” I remember a Jazznik guy in Studio 51 waylaying me in the men’s room, probably in August 1963 or shortly before, and bemoaning how these young guys with short hair (he described Mods but didn’t use the term), were showing up in numbers and spoiling the blues clubs and generally messing up the scene. Although I withheld my council I was secretly miffed because he didn’t identify me as one of those guys, but it underscores that at that time we were getting a distinct Mod identity. But, whatever the case, it seems the term Face may have predated the term Mod. A 1962 Town article about Mark Feld (Marc Bolan) is titled, “Faces without Shadows,” and establishes the use of the term Face to describe young clothes-conscious, club going, trend-setting and innovative Londoners, such as Marc Felds was in those days. Interestingly, the article does not use the term Mod, nor even Modernist, which reinforces the idea that the term Faces was being used before the term Mod. That there were Mods in 1962 is unquestioned, I myself became a Mod (or pre-Mod as I term it) about September 1962, which is when I first saw squads of scooter boys wearing parkas with bell bottoms, and I joined a fashion that was already underway, but I don’t remember anyone using the term Mod at that time.

By early 1964, the terms Face and Ticket became more widely used when Peter Meaden who was managing the High Numbers was trying to formalize the Mod idiom. “I’m the Face” composed by Meaden and sung by the High Numbers has the chorus:
I'm the Face baby is that clear, I'm the Face baby is that clear,
All the others are third class Tickets by me, baby is that clear.
London ModsBut, me and my mates didn’t use the terms much. We could see who were setting the trends but didn’t feel the need to adopt a hierarchy to denigrate the others. Yes, we had a certain arrogance, the whole ethic of Mod, being based on style in clothes, hair, and dancing, is inherently narcissistic. But we anticipated a degree of respect and could afford to be magnanimous because we felt secure in our ascendancy.

As a footnote, I wasn’t aware of Marc Bolan (Feld) until the psychedelic era (1966-67), when I gradually came to appreciate him. Apart from the 1962 Town article and his subsequent modeling for John Temple menswear, it seems he kept a low profile during 1963-64, when Mods and the Scene club were at their height. In 1964 he was apparently a guitar-playing folk singer with a denim cap.

Mod Violence (or lack of)

Regarding violence, or in my memory, lack of it. In the London Mod clubs that I went to I didn’t witness any violence. Apart from a rocker enclave at “Alley Palley,” there were hardly any rockers in London. Alexandra Palace was a roller-skating rink housed in a monumental building on top of a hill in north London that also served as a broadcast tower. I was told about a bunch of Rockers from the provinces who came into town for a night out and somehow wound up at The Scene where they proceeded to poke fun at the “prissy” Mods. The Mods rose up en masse and I was told “pushed them through the walls.” My group didn’t ride all around the country on our scooters; we were mostly interested in clubs and dancing. I didn’t go to Clacton, Margate, Brighton or the other seaside resorts where Mods and Rockers clashes occurred. I believe the first one was probably spontaneous high jinks, but the others (and they faded out quickly) were more contrived. The feeling was that the media hyped it up--asking, "Where's the next confrontation going to be?" With the implication that, “We'll be there!" I was impacted indirectly though. On the workday following the first confrontation, I was buzzing along on my Vespa to my workplace in Upper Wimpole Street in the West End as usual, but cars and other vehicles were behaving very aggressively, they kept cutting me off and making my ride difficult (it was a damp day and the roads were slippery). On another occasion, a Sunday, we rode out to (so-called) High Beach - an open heath area near Epping where scooter boy’s gathered to socialize - and a messenger rode in from a remote village saying that they were about to be invaded by Rockers. He was trying to persuade the Mods to ride out to face them. But our group at least wasn’t interested and we avoided the fracas.

I've read reports about punch-ups in Ham Yard and Mods being mugged in Soho for their leather coats, but I neither saw nor heard about such things. For a contrasting view you may want to read what John Water’s remembers. John Waters, a north London Mod in the early-mid sixties, differentiates between scooter boys and “Hard Mods” and identifies himself with the latter. Hard Mods, according to John Waters, “would not be seen dead on a scooter, their preferred mode of transport being a car.” They belonged to Mod “firms” or “street gangs each with their own manor e.g. The Highbury mob, the Archway, Somers Town, Elephant and Castle, Mile End, etc.” He states, “Turfs were strictly patrolled and borders laid down. Gang members intruding on other’s turf risked a severe beating if caught.” Waters lived in Upper Holloway and therefore was a member of the Archway mob (modculture.co.uk). This is his memory and I cannot dispute it, but gangs were not part of my experience and I rode around Holloway with Pat B on my scooter with impunity and we were never harassed or molested.

Pills

Purple hearts (Drinamyl) are combined amphetamine/barbiturate that was formerly prescribed to adult women for anxiety and as a diet aid. In the early-mid sixties they could be bought from dealers at West End clubs and were used by some Mods as a stimulant to keep them alert though all-night sessions. Following the violence in seaside towns, newspaper reports described dancers emerging from clubs at 5:00 am with dilated pupils and associated the Mods’ use of amphetamines with the violence, and in 1964 the UK government criminalized its use. There were a couple of records that Mods at The Scene used to associate with taking purple hearts. One was Bo Diddley’s “Pills” (1961) which was played on a regular basis. A worthy local version by Mickey Finn and the Blue Men is performed on stage in Blue Beat style in the BBC Panorama Mod interviews that was filmed in 1964. Another popular track on the same topic was Willie Mabon’s “Got To Have Some,” a moody R&B record in which Mabon’s baritone voice intones “I must get some, I gotta have some, I really need some.” The record was so successful that Mabon then issued, “I Just Got Some,” which was covered by Rod Stewart in 1966 as the b-side of his much sought after 45 “Shake” on Columbia (pers. comm. Alvaro Rubio Romo, 3 July, 2009).

On Saturday nights, the West End was just too much of a melee and we preferred to go to parties. A sixties Mod, “Sceneman,” remembers, “At around 3am Wardour Street was chockablock, like seriously crowded with ‘blocked’ teenagers … all chewing away and yapping like mad” (modculture.co.uk). This brings us back to Peter Meaden, who chose to overlook the negative aspect of purple hearts and asserted that Mods got blocked for stimulation and alertness. In 1942, the British Army provided amphetamine to soldiers to combat fatigue and reduce their sex drive. Purple Hearts had the same effect on Mods and the purple heart high may be what Meaden is referring to when he talks of “people who were not emotionally involved with other people.” Purple Hearts would provide a lift but there was the inescapable “come down” when they wear off and some Mods would swallow handfuls of pills in an attempt to forestall the inevitable.

Mods: Middle or Working Classes

I have been asked to consider the Mod phenomenon of the sixties in terms of “middle and working classes,” and whether the cost of staying in fashion required certain affluence, specifically “did it start with the middle class and filter its way down into the mainstream youth”? I can say categorically that I was not affluent. Although the following amounts sound ridiculous by today’s standards, remember that in 1966 a secretary might earn about £20.00 per week. As an apprentice Dental Technician in July 1963, I earned £4. 17s. per week, while by 1965 I earned ₤8.00. When my apprenticeship at Upper Wimpole Street finished in October 1965, I transferred to Islington where I earned £13.10s per week; and then in March 1966 I switched to a sales position with Century 21 Toys, in the Coliseum building in St. Martins Lane, where I earned £15. 10s. Believe me I was not well off, I lived at home but contributed to my upkeep. What little spare cash I had left over went on clothes, mobility, club entrance and a treat on payday in the form of a 45 rpm record. No, you did not have to be affluent to be a Mod. However, earlier in the paper I described my pals Jerry and Mel as pre-Mod or Modernists who never became Mods; a designation that I described as “a distinctive youth faction more closely identified with working classes.” Jerry and Mel were essLondon Modsentially middle class, smartly dressed and upwardly mobile. Mel replaced his Vespa scooter with a Mini-Cooper and had a good job. Jerry went to San Francisco at the end of 1963 where he gained some popularity by resembling the Beatles who were just hitting it big in the US

I witnessed shifts over time. The clubs, predominantly jazz clubs, in the West End had a patronage before the rise of Rhythm & Blues. When I started going to Studio 51, The Scene, and other clubs at the beginning of the R&B era, I encountered quite a diverse clientele; jazz enthusiasts, bohemians and beatniks, modernists like Jerry and Mel, as well as college students and just regular music fans. But as time passed the Mods tended to crowd out the others and the Mod ethos dominated. There was some resentment among the old-timers who developed a siege mentality, but it was good for business. The decline of the sixties Mod era is discussed by Jordana Robinson and she distinguishes between the “Art school Mod” who became “swinging London” and later, hippies; and “Hard Mods” who rediscovered their working-class roots and became skinheads (www.geocities.com). I think all along some identification existed along these lines, but for a while it was cool to be working class, at least in the form of a Mod. These divisions were not immutable and the wonderful thing about Mod is one could become who one wanted to be, at least for a while. However, some of the more staid inner city youth couldn’t gravitate to the Victorian Kitsch of 1966-1967 and become “swinging London.” I think the movie “Performance” released in 1970 and starring Mick Jagger (Victorian Kitsch) and James Fox (Hard Mod - and then some!) deals with this dilemma on one level. Not being able to make the metamorphosis the Hard Mods instead reverted to a tough working class demeanor and reinvested in Ska and soccer, while their up-and-coming younger brothers became skinheads or suede-heads.

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

Photo 1: Portrait taken in 1964.

Photo 2: A sixties Mod, “Sceneman,” states, “A weird fashion piece was a top of a rollneck jumper worn under the shirt so just the neck was visible” (modculture.co.uk). Rob wears such a white rollneck top under a Fred Perry shirt, ca. early 1965.

Photo 3: Rob sits between Mel U (left) and Duke at the Margarita café, Swiss Cottage, London N.W. 6, in early 1965.

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.