Ready, steady, go!

I COULD tell you about the details. About the punch-holes across the toes of a pair of five-guinea elastic-sided Raoul boots, or about the way a soft conga drum cushioned Mary Wells as she crooned "Two Lovers", a Motown classic from the days when their greatest records sold only a few hundred copies in Britain to people who felt that they were receiving samizdat messages from a parallel universe. About hanging around a West Indian record shop on the bad side of town, hoping for an invitation to a shebeen. About a girl turning up for a summer date in a long black skirt and chunky shoes: so crazy, so cool. About the texture of a long, suede coat, or the smell of a box of blue-label Stax 45s at Transat Imports above a Chinese wholesaler on Lisle Street. About the week when a plain, medium-grey, six-button cardigan was the only thing to have, and it wasn't worth going out if you didn't.

For some, it was already over by 1964. For the people who were Mods then, the whole deal had to be a secret or it was nothing. And by 1964, too many people were in on it. Too many people watching Ready Steady Go! on Friday nights. Too many people spending their Saturdays staring at the shop windows in Carnaby Street. The ones who didn't want to share it, who didn't want anything to change, who wanted to preserve their secret, turned out to be conservatives after all.

You couldn't blame them, in a way. As moments go, it had more than its share of perfection. For other people, the world was moving too fast for them to want to jump off. Life-changing events were practically tripping over each other. But since none of the participants dreamt that any of it could possibly have any significance beyond the moment, nobody stopped to reflect. There were no social anthropologists to get in the way, and so no self-consciousness (and no irony, either). Eventually there was Tom Wolfe, with an essay called "The Noonday Underground", about the kids who spent their lunch times dancing at Tiles on Oxford Street, followed by Nik Cohn, who never really liked the Mod thing, and Time magazine's Swinging London cover. By that time things definitely were sliding downhill. But until then things just happened, one after another, with an ecstatic inevitability - a chain of cultural change, from A to Z, from innocence to decadence, happening because people wanted it to, and because that was the way their imaginations took them. And it happened with astonishing, exhilarating speed.

The fun was in the details, in the things that could be controlled, such as the depth of a pocket flap. But two of the bigger and more generally consequential things took place over the Easter weekend 35 years ago. On Easter Saturday, 28 March 1964, Radio Caroline began transmitting pop music from a ship in the North Sea, feeding an appetite starved on the one hand by the BBC's Light Programme, which treated pop with a Reithian loftiness, and on the other by the affectless, pay-for-play pabulum of Radio Luxembourg, the despised "Fabulous 208", which made you twiddle your thumbs through a dozen Helen Shapiros or Frank Ifields for every Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs. Caroline not only played better music; its illegitimacy made it feel as though it really belonged to its listeners. Its existence was more important than its output.

Two days later, the Easter Monday tranquillity of the Clacton seafront was disturbed by running battles between gangs of Mods and Rockers. There had been sporadic outbreaks of street violence in Britain since the war - between gangs of razor-toting south-London Teddy boys in the early-Fifties, between white racists and Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots of 1958, and between black-shirted Mosleyites and anti-Fascists in 1962. But the hundreds of kids who confronted each other at an Essex seaside resort over the Easter weekend of 1964 were inaugurating an inter-tribal ritual that was to take its place among the defining phenomena of mid-Sixties Britain.

"The Wild Ones invaded a seaside town yesterday," The Daily Mirror gasped on its front page the next day, "1,000 fighting, drinking, roaring, rampaging teenagers on scooters and motorcycles. A desperate SOS went out from police at Clacton, Essex, as leather-jacketed youths and girls attacked people in the streets, turned over parked cars, broke into beach huts, smashed windows, and fought with rival gangs. Police reinforcements from other Essex towns raced to the shattered resort, where fearful residents had locked themselves indoors. By last night, after a day of riots and battles with police, 97 of them had been arrested."

By Whitsun, the riots had spread to Southend, Bournemouth, Brighton and Margate, where two people were stabbed and a magistrate described the perpetrators of the affray as "little sawdust Caesars". The prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home, asked his home secretary, Henry Brooke, whether there was anything that could be done. Among the suggestions were Bills to outlaw the unauthorised possession of purple hearts, to suspend the driving licences of offenders, and, mysteriously, to crack down on obscene publications.

Rockers, with their greased-up hair and motorcycle leathers, represented a thorough commitment to the past - albeit a past that dated back barely a decade to Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones and the prototype rock'n'roll of Elvis's Sun records. Mods, "modernists", were the future: neat, clean, cool, and aspiring to an air of affluence and Continental sophistication. Rockers were the Ace Cafe on the North Circular, with Eddie Cochran on the jukebox; Mods were the Scene Club in Ham Yard, where a young, would- be pop manager called Peter Meaden took his band, The High Numbers, later renamed The Who, to hear the DJ, Guy Stevens, play Derek Martin's "Daddy Rolling Stone" and Inez and Charlie Foxx's "Mockingbird". There are no prizes, as you stroll around the cappuccino-culture streets of today's Soho, looking at kids with neat razor-cuts and clean-line clothes, for guessing who won.

Mod culture was rather more various than subsequent revivals and analyses might suggest. It was clothes and music, of course, but it was also about a shift of attitude. It was both exclusive and inclusive. It was kids in fur-hooded parkas on Vespas with racoon tails on the dummy aerials, buzzing down to the coast for a Bank Holiday rumble with a bunch of blues and bombers in one pocket and a hammer in the other. Yet for others, it was also impeccably cut mohair suits in sober hues, andthe perfect button-down shirt, and French New-Wave movies, and Miles Davis, and dope bought from the Jamaican boys who fringed the crowd.

Whether the Mods were aware of it or not, they adopted the pose of refined alienation proposed in 1942 by Meursault, the protagonist of Camus's l'Etranger, and refined 17 years later by Alain Delon's portrayal of the amoral Tom Ripley in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil. Maybe it was no coincidence that in 1961 Penguin published the first paperback edition of l'Etranger; it was a set book for those sitting O-level French the following year, and few compulsory texts can have exerted such a powerful effect on the imaginations of a generation of students. Everybody has a reason for joining their adolescent tribe, and, looking back, I guess that Camus must have provided mine.

Meursault, of course, killed an Arab in Camus's story in an act of dispassionate racism that might, at a stretch, provide a link with the meaningless violence of the scooter-borne mods and the more clearly motivated version enacted by their direct successors, the skinheads and suedeheads who provided the foot soldiers for various putrid little neo-Nazi mobs.

But no one spent much time wondering what it all meant. There were clothes and music to worry about. The clothes were ditched even before they fell apart, which would rarely be more than a few weeks unless you were one of those who, like the 15-year-old Mark Feld, featured in the pages of Town magazine in 1962 (and later to re-emerge as Marc Bolan), ordered suits from Mr Bilgorri of Bishopsgate - in which case you probably wore them for a couple of weeks longer. The music changed every Friday, as each batch of new releases revealed a nugget or two of previously unimagined truth.

And I'm grateful for that in a way that has never dimmed. To live through that time with any intensity of appreciation was to understand, and never to forget, the exact degree of musical evolution involved in the relationship between the records released by, let's say, Martha and the Vandellas between the spring of 1962 and the autumn of 1965. The list comes straight from the memory: "Come and Get These Memories", "Heatwave", "Quicksand", "Live Wire", "In My Lonely Room", "Dancing in the Street", "Wild One", "Nowhere to Run" and "You've Been in Love Too Long". Any listener with sympathetic ears would respond to the emotional and musical dynamism of each of these marvellous examples of early soul music; but if you weren't there, you'll never be able to understand how one grew out of another, and what that evolution represented, or be able to replicate the thrill of hearing each one for the first time in its own time

Mod didn't last long, and in the concrete sense it didn't produce much. It was something you felt, and when you turned round it had gone. Suddenly the whole culture had gone overground. The Beatles got their MBEs, Jean Shrimpton wore a mini-dress at the Melbourne Gold Cup, Time magazine came along, Ready Steady Go! was starting its last series, and the cinemas were showing Darling and The Knack and Blow-Up. Labour were back in power, and Harold Wilson was in Downing Street, being nice to pop stars. The last bank holiday riot seems to have taken place on Easter Sunday 1965 in Brighton, where 51 arrests were made. It must have been time to move on.

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