Black Mods

by John Leo Waters

The question is often raised that in so many photographs from the mod years there are no black faces? Were there no black mods and if not why not?

The answer is complicated in that there is no definitive answer. Black Mods certainly existed but not as ‘members’ of the mainstream movement.

It is difficult to explain to those that were not there just how different attitudes to the black population were back in the early to mid sixties in the UK. Inherent racial intolerance was endemic within the British Isles and in London particularly. We are lucky that these days we live in a generally tolerant multi cultural society but back in the late fifties and early sixties things were very different

To understand this mind-set we have to go back to the years when immigration from the West Indies first took hold. Before the war there were very few black citizens in the UK. That is not to say that racial problems had not existed. As early as 1919 there had been riots in Liverpool and Cardiff directed against black seamen. During the war years Britain had become a temporary home to thousands of US troops both black and white. Inevitably there were frictions between the two races. The USA was still a deeply segregated country. There were many violent clashes in dancehalls around the country and indeed many murders. The troubles were invariably caused by the white troops who could not understand the relative freedom to socialize allowed to their black troops. There were many wartime liaisons between the black GI’s and English girls which offended the propriety of ‘middle England’. Mixed relationships were deemed to be shocking and a white girl getting involved with a black man was considered to show a complete lack of morals.

It was 1948 that the start of what became known as ‘the Windrush years’ officially started. The Empire Windrush first docked at Tilbury disgorging is payload of 493 West Indian Immigrants. The trend to recruit from the colonies had begun during the war years when the British Government signed up many thousands to serve in the armed forces. At one time the Royal Air Force had ten thousand West Indians in its ranks. The war had depleted the UK labour force greatly. Post war the forces were still required to be at full strength carrying out policing duties in Europe and so the decision was made. The British Government decided to recruit from the colonies to help fill the gap. Major organizations such as the Health Service, London Transport and the Railways recruited for workers. They came to work as nurses and auxiliaries, bus conductors and railway porters in the capital or to help in the many industrial plants springing up around the country. In 1950 there were a total of 30,000 immigrants in the UK. In 1960 there were 58,000 immigrants from Jamaica alone!

They came in their ‘Sunday suits’ full of hopes and optimism. They were ‘coming home’ to the mother country where there were opportunities galore and a better way of life. How deluded they were. The reality was very different. It is hard for us to understand the rosy coloured perception they had of the UK. It reminded me of an incident some years ago when I was working in a Himalayan school. One of the young children asked me ‘Sir, is it true that in England you have rooms that have carpets going right across from one wall to the other?’. I replied that this was often the case and the whole class was in agreement that we must be ‘very rich indeed!’ What we consider to be everyday necessities are signs of wealth to many who have little.

I can only imagine the shock that awaited those original immigrants as they arrived in our cold, smog ridden cities. They were met with suspicion and hostility by the British population. They were forced into the ghettoes that sprang up in our major cities. In London they were housed in squalid conditions in areas such as Notting Hill where they were exploited by Rachmann and his like. The New Statesman at the time reported that ‘distinctively Negro quarters’ were springing up all over the capital. These were the days when there was no such thing as a Race Relations Act or Equal Opportunities Commissions. They found a society that treated them as inferior and the only work available was menial and poorly paid. The situation was not helped when the thousands of wartime volunteers were demobbed. Four out of five elected to stay in the UK adding to an ever increasing problem.

The post war years in London were very different from what exists today in terms of demographics. Immigrant populations strictly adhered to boundaries hence areas of London became synonymous with different cultures. There were distinct Irish areas such as Camden Town, Kilburn and Holloway and black areas such as Notting Hill and latterly Brixton.

Colin McInnes ‘City of Spades’ written in 1957 describes a world in London that many people did not know existed. The Paramount Dancehall and The Club Contemporian are thinly disguised. Places where black men and white women could meet and mix. But the story is played out against a background of drugs and violence which did not help the situation.

The noted writer Esme Wynne Tyson railed against any intermingling of white and black which ‘threatens our nation’s youth’

‘the hot music ,primitive dances and other practices of the coloured races have permeated with their devolutionary influences every corner of a once proud civilization, debasing and obstructing the process of an originally highly ethical people’

Then, as now, there were plenty of right wingers who jumped on the bandwagon espousing racist rhetoric. The Mau Mau crisis in Kenya had been ongoing for some years and the insurgents were depicted by the media as violent savages (the fact that the British dropped 6 million bombs was not considered savage!!). To many of this country’s population the only perception of black people was gleaned from Tarzan chasing ‘savages’ around the African jungle in films or else the Stepin Fetchit stereotype depicted in films as lazy, wide eyed simpletons (the fact that the originator of Stepin Fetchit – actor Lincoln Perry became the acting profession’s first black millionaire was lost on the general populace).

Matters came to something of a head when riots broke out in Notting Hill in 1958. Large group of Tedddyboys incited by the likes of Oswald Mosley attacked West Indians indiscriminately. There was retaliation and all in all 140 were arrested. This may seem relatively minor in relation to some of the riots we have witnessed in later years but we have to remember these were primarily white on black riots as opposed to general youth uprisings.

So what of the children born of black immigrant parents in this country during the immediate post war years? What did they make of the general attitude towards them? They lived in poor accommodation and their parents were usually employed in menial jobs with little or no chance of promotion. How many West Indian Inspectors were employed by London Transport? Were there any black sisters or matrons within the NHS? Their early years were filled with images of cards displayed in newsagent’s windows informing those seeking lodgings that ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ were allowed or ‘blacks need not apply’. Walls were covered in slogans – ‘KBW’ – Keep Britain White – a phrase which had been coined by the far right National Labour Party in 1959 ( A forerunner of the National Front which had some very dubious connections including links to gangster Albert Dimes). Insults would be shouted at them in the street on a regular basis. It has to be remembered they had little recourse for retaliation through the law. Epithets such as ‘Nig Nog’, ‘Sambo’ and ‘Gollywog’ were in common usage. My wife grew up in Newcastle and only ever saw one black person in her formative years. He was a ‘tally’ man known to one and all as ‘Darkie John’. When she asked why one day she was told it was because ‘he was black and all blacks are darkies’.

They had no role models. Sport was almost exclusively ‘white’. Football was strictly ‘white working class’. It would be 1969 before the first high profile black footballer graced our pitches – Clyde Best of West Ham who endured years of racist abuse (bananas and peanuts thrown on to the pitch) even from his own West ham fans. In fact it was 1977 before Laurie Cunningham became the first black player to don a full England jersey. Athletics and boxing in this country were almost exclusively white. There were one or two exceptions such as Randolph Turpin who briefly held the world title before Sugar Ray Robinson decided to take back what was rightfully his.

The same applied to music. There was no UK black music ‘scene’ as such. It would be 1964 before Ezz Reco and the Launchers took the first Ska record into the charts with ‘King of Kings’ closely followed by Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. There were a few early black artists such as Shirley Bassey, Winifred Atwell and The Southlanders who had chart hits and we must not forget Emile Ford and the Checkmates who were the first UK black act to sell a million records. But their brand of music was strictly ‘white’ in origin and owed little or nothing to the black experience.

Magazines only featured white models. This was long before the days of Iman, Karen Alexander and Naomi Campbell. The media fared no better. It was 1967 before the likes of Sidney Poitier brought the race issue to cinemagoers attention with the likes of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘To Sir With Love’ although in fairness Hollywood did try to address the matter earlier with the excellent ‘The Defiant Ones’ starring Poitier and Tony Curtis. The UK film industry fared even worse. The only exception perhaps being ‘Sapphire’ made in 1958 which focused on the race issue although this was set against a background of crime and prostitution which in itself did not help the overall black image.

Television was very ‘safe’ and strictly ‘white’. The only black faces to be seen on TV were the hideous ‘blacked up’ faces on the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. Although not overtly racist in itself the portrayal of black people in such a fashion was demeaning and insulting. What is even worse is that the show did not finish until 1978! The mid sixties did see racism addressed to some degree with the likes of Johnny Speight’s ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ and programmes such as ‘Z Cars’ addressed the issues in several episodes. Speight’s creation of Alf Garnett was meant to ridicule racism and bigotry in all its ugly guises. Alarmingly there were many who, much to the dismay of Speight, looked to Garnett as some sort of anti establishment hero.

It was against such a background that the young black teenagers of the sixties had grown up. It is all too easy to forget that the Race Relations Act only came into being in 1965 and initially it only covered issues through the civil courts and it was only when amended in 1968 that employment and housing were included.

It is no wonder that these teenagers ‘stuck with their own’ when it came to seeking entertainment. As the fifties moved into the sixties many teenagers were frequenting dancehalls around the capital. Live bands and/or records supplied the music for jiving or showing their prowess at the ‘twist’ rage that was sweeping the world. But black teenagers were not welcome in the dancehalls. How ironic that whilst thousands of white teenagers were dancing to a ‘black’ recording the UK’s black teenagers were ‘shown the door’.

The black population developed their own entertainment by way of ‘blues parties’ but the teenagers were not overly enamoured at sharing their free time with parents and family! Some things are common to teenagers all over the world!

The one place that did cater for this burgeoning black population was the Flamingo in Wardour St. The Flamingo had started out as an upmarket jazz niterie and had gradually changed its clientele becoming a magnet for black GI’s and West Indians alike. The club eventually became ‘off limits’ to US servicemen but by the early sixties the club was known as a ‘black club’. The club’s unique mix of R&B, Soul, Ska and Jazz coupled with the best in visiting live acts from the USA and West Indies was a magnet for black clubgoers. There were other clubs in the West End of course but the Flamingo was the place for black teenagers to be seen. The young black clubgoers always ‘dressed up’. Mohair suits were very much the order of the day. They often sported a ‘blue beat hat’ (trilby with a narrow brim) and the hat became almost synonymous with the club. The Mod movement had really moved into full gear by 1963 and the commercial world had moved in. ‘Ready Steady Go’ came onto our TV sets and the pirate radio stations were in full swing but the target of all the commercial enterprises was the young ‘white’ teenage population.

The black teenagers were left ostracized. There were very few shops stocking Ska music outside the areas they lived in. Integration was not an option and it was very much a case of ‘them and us’. But by 1966 the climate had changed somewhat. The Flamingo had become more of a melting pot. Count Suckle had opened The Roaring Twenties which catered specifically for black teenagers. The Gunnell’s opened The Ram Jam in Brixton which pulled in a lot of black customers due its location. Across London other clubs such The Club Four Aces and The New All Star were aimed at the black population. Integrated groups had sprung up. Georgie Fame had fronted an integrated group in The Blue Flames for some time and groups such as The Ram Jam Band and The Nightimers were white bands fronted by black singers from the US. Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, The Ramony Sound (later the Foundations) and The Equals were all multi racial in membership. Things were definitely looking up.

But back to the question ‘were there any black Mods’. The answer has to be yes there were but only as far as they were Mods in style and musical tastes. They were never part of the mainstream Mod movement simply because the door had not yet opened to racial integration. Thankfully, times and attitudes have changed and these days we can accept people for who they are rather than what they are.

On a personal note;

I grew up in Archway, North London. There was a high immigrant population consisting mainly of Irish with a good proportion of Greek Cypriots and a few Maltese and Italian for good measure. I only knew of one black family in the area. They were generally accepted as one of the two sons in the family was an excellent footballer and the older son was a big guy! Both my junior and senior schools were exclusively white and the gang I ran with after school was again white only. We knew little about London’s black population and many of the members of our group were extremely racist! I can remember black people that occasionally passed through being subjected to abuse and derision. I always felt that it was somewhat ironic that many of these sons of immigrants were subjecting black people to abuse when their own parents had themselves often been discriminated against. In the same vein it was quite acceptable to champion the music of black America and Jamaica but completely unacceptable to mix with black people! I feel it was much the same with other youth gangs. I can only remember two other black youths associated with gangs, one from Highbury and one from the Elephant and Castle. The only reason they were ‘accepted’ is that they had a reputation as ‘hard guys’. As I grew a little older (and wiser) I began to question the racist opinions of many of my mates. I went to a few blues parties (much to the disgust of some!) and found that I was made welcome. The Flamingo was the club for live music and although I felt a little bit of an atmosphere at times this was probably due to our manner as much as anything else and indeed, I got to know one or two black guys who frequented the club.

It is easy to sit in judgement these days on the appalling attitudes displayed by many back in the fifties and sixties but they were very different times and people’s perceptions were clouded by ignorance.

We still have problems and probably always will have as long as there are bigots and extremists in the world but thankfully in the UK we have progressed and can see past the colour of a persons skin or the God he chooses to believe in.

John Leo Waters

I 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.