Mod Heroes...or villains

(by John Leo Waters)

The WhoSmallFaces
As a living ‘golden oldie’ who was present during the formative years of the Mod revolution I feel it is perhaps time to question the relevance of the Small Faces and The Who with regard to the Mod movement. Both these groups are generally regarded as being figureheads of sixties mod culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let's start with an overviSunday Night at the London Palladiumew of sixties mod musical preferences. Throughout the fifties and early sixties we had been weaned on a diet of American shmaltz. The sounds of Pat Boone, Perry Como, Guy Mitchell and Kay Starr filling the British airwaves. British contributions to the music world were not much better with David Whitfield, Dickie Valentine and Ruby Murray all huge sellers. Radio consisted of Two Way family Favourites and Workers Playtime and TV was in its infancy with the Perry Como Show and Sunday Night at the London Palladium being at the forefront of musical entertainment!

Towards the turn of the decade Rock and Roll had reared its Six-Five Specialugly head. Presley, Little Richard, Bill Haley and Frankie Lymon all made inroads into the British Charts. Britain responded with Cliff, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde et al. Radio Luxembourg began playing popular music and TV featured 6.5 Special, Oh Boy and later Thank Your Lucky Stars.

To a spotty little teenager growing up in the back streets of Islington these were heady times. There was something indefatigable about some of the music that was reaching the airwaves. In particular many of Presleys recordings, Little Richards wailings and Ray Charles and Sam Cooke’s music evoked something in our psyche. What we were relating to was in fact R&B. The time was right for revolution!

The drab post war years of the fifties with rationing, conscription and regimented lifestyle was about to explode and the teenagers of Britain would lead from the front. The early sixties saw a proliferation of new groups opening our eyes and ears initially to the music of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. R&B based groups such as the Stones, Animals and Yardbirds were introducing an enthusiastic youth audience to the music of black America. Soon, the more enlightened audience began to search out the original sources of this new music. In London this new music could be heard in clubs and dancehalls all over the capital.

Over a short period Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirdsof time these groups started to assimilate newer sounds into their repertoire. The music of Stax, Atlantic, Chess and Motown became an essential part of the show. The clubs of Soho soon reverberated to the likes of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, Herbie Goins and the Nightimers, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds and countless others.

The Hammond based jazz grooves of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff blended with the Blue Beat sound of Prince Buster and early Motown to create a musical pot pourri which blended perfectly with sweaty all nighters and amphetamines.

The media wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon. The ‘Mod’ phenomenon was given acres of coverage in the popular press.

TV was quick to respond to demand from a potentially enormous teenage audience and Ready, Steady, Go was created. Wildly touted as being a seminal influence on Mod culture, nothing could be further from the truth, in fact. Presented by a crew of stilted, gushing presenters;- Keith (what am I doing here?) Fordyce, Kathy ‘Queen of the Mods’ (don’t make me laugh!) McGowan and Patrick ‘Twinkletoes’ Kerr, the programme was naff in the extreme .Ridiculous items (Mick Jagger lookalike competions!) interspersed with excruciating interviews and new dance steps (copied from punters in Soho clubs) made up the bulk of the show. The show was so far removed from what is now labelled ‘street cred’ as to be laughable.

However, what made Ready, Steady, Go essential viewing was the music. Interspersed with the usual UK fodder we were treated to performances by the likes of Otis Redding, James Brown, Sonny Boy Williamson, Prince Buster, Marvin Gaye and numerous other ‘names’ that the Mod population had never seen before.

Into this mix came both the Who and Small Faces. Both bands started their careers playing in the pubs and clubs of West and East London respectively. Both, like many other groups, were turning out cover versions of American R&B and Soul hits of the day. There is no doubt that both units contained talented musicians, songwriters and both in turn had a huge influence on British popular music.

What I would raise issue with is their influence on the sixties Mod movement.

The Mod movement kicked in around 1963 and peaked between 1965 – 1967 before folding. Both the Who and Small faces achieved their first chart success in 1965 well after the formative Mod years. Undoubtedly both had strong affiliations with Mod. The Small Faces were essentially a group of East End Mods who played in an R&B band. The Who were also rooted in R&B but not perhaps as fashion conscious. Early product by both bands were R&B derivative –‘What’cha Gonna Do Bout It’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ but illustrate that they were following the influence of the Mod populace rather than the other way round.

It is well documented that the whole Who The High Numbersphenomenon was a calculated promotion instigated by Pete Meaden to put the group into the spotlight. Outlandish clothes aligned with the contrived stage antics of smashing guitars into amps worked brilliantly and the media hailed them as the voice of the youth movement. This was absolute rubbish, of course. Whilst many teenagers, especially in rural areas, went along with this, the Mod elite saw through the hype and quickly ditched them. Grass roots Mods would not have been seen dead in ‘union jack’ jackets or Pop art designed tee shirts. These ‘fashions’ were touted to a gullible public as being essential Mod clothing and displayed in the windows of Carnaby St for eager mini celebs and tourists. True Mods of the day would never shop in Carnaby St. Preferring to set trends rather than follow them.

Perhaps the one saving grace relating to the Who was ‘My Generation’. The song may have been contrived to cash in on the youth movement but it perfectly encapsulated the feelings of teenagers throughout Britain at the time. An everlasting paean to youth angst, it is as relevant today as when released in 1965.

The Small Faces were slightly different in that SmallFacesthey emerged from a Mod background in the East end of London. They certainly ‘walked the walk and talked the talk’. Their early waxings relayed a true empathy with R&B and in Steve Marriot they possessed a singer with a truly Soulful edge to his voice. Their early promise was short lived and they quickly degenerated into an early prototype ‘boy band’ churning out trite slices of pop e.g ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’

Once both bands had achieved a modicum of success they quickly cast off their Mod persona and sold out to the mighty dollar. The Who took the road to ‘Rock’ megastars whilst the Small faces split with Marriot and then morphed into a backing group for another ex Mod, Rod Stewart..

They were not the only ones of course. Stalwart R&B groups such as the Animals, Spencer Davis, Yardbirds etc had all split and embraced Rock/Psychedelia in one form or another. Other true blue Mod heroes such as Chris Farlowe and Georgie Fame had forsaken their roots – Farlowe with the short lived Colisseum and Fame with insipid pop songs such as ‘Bonnie and Clyde and some ghastly duets with Alan Price. Even the late Long John Baldry sold his soul to sing of the delights of the world cup with ‘Mexico’.

The Mod movement in the latter sixties was caught between a rock and a hard place. The R&B scene had expired and live R&B had vanished to be replaced by long haired psychedelic rock bands fronted by gaudily painted ex mods(?) such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan (Feld). Some Mods fell by the wayside to be swallowed by the rock movement. Others moved into the new emerging forms of Soul music that had emerged with the sounds of Philly or the Funk of James Brown, The Ohio Players et al. Further North the ‘Northern Soul’ movement came into its own loosely based around the sixties club Soul of London’s Scene and Manchester’s Twisted Wheel.

The sixties Mod movement had always been a grass roots movement. Regardless of what many pundits may spout the Mods were never influenced by the so called Mod icons created by the media – The Who, Small Faces, Bowie, Ready Steady Go etc. The truth is that Mods created their own style albeit borrowed from the USA college circuit and French /Italian styles. Their fashion savvy was captured and expanded upon by the designers and pop media circus. Once their street level credibility had become de rigeur for the masses the Mod movement was doomed. Where once a Mod felt part of the In crowd he found he was suddenly part of the general population. The singular most important part of the Mod make up – his individuality – was gone. Mod was dead and groups such as the Who and Small Faces had played their part in hastening its departure – using Mod culture as a bandwagon to further their careers then abandoning the cause once success was forthcoming.

John Leo WatersI know John 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.

John is also very kindly sharing this tale of his very eventfull Mod years. The first part of his story can be found here.

The work is the copyright of John Leo Waters. The views expressed are purely those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or institution.