Dedicated followers of fashion

Bank Holidays are synonymous with seaside Mod gatherings. But in 1964, after scuffles had broken out with Rockers in Margate, a young Mod was sentenced to three months in prison. True Mods knew that the game was up. But was it? Paolo Hewitt investigates the reinvention of the soul stylists

Monday 01 May 2000 00:00

The magistrate, George Simpson, was beside himself with rage. He looked at the young Mod standing in front of him, cleared his throat and - with one eye making sure that the journalists present in his courtroom were listening - he spat out his judgment. "It is not likely that the air of this town has ever been polluted by the hordes of hooligans, male and female, such as we have seen this weekend and of whom you are an example. These long haired, mentally unstable, petty little hoodlums, these sawdust Caesars who can only find courage like rats hunting in packs, came to Margate with the avowed intent of interfering with the life and property of its inhabitants."

Easter Bank Holiday, 1964. Scuffles had broken out between Mods and Rockers who had converged on the town of Margate. A few shop owners had witnessed their front windows being smashed. A few leather clad rockers had walked away with bruises and cuts. About eighty deckchairs lay splintered on the beach. No one had died. No one's lives had been dramatically altered.

But George Simpson was to make a point. "In so far as the law gives us power, this court will not fail to use the prescribed penalties. It will, perhaps, discourage you and others of your kidney who are infected with this vicious virus, that you will go to prison for three months." Gasps echoed around his court. It seemed a terribly harsh sentence but in effect Simpson was punishing more than some unlucky kid to a detention centre. He was sentencing the idea of Mod itself, consigning it to the dustbin. And by that stage, perhaps he was right to do so.

The original Mods were self obsessed, arrogant narcissists who appeared in London at the start of the Sixties with a sneer on their lips and an unsurpassed passion for clothes, music, drugs and mobility. It was their all or nothing attitude which laid down the blueprint for every youth cult to come. Yes, there had been Teddy Boys before them but they only really existed at the weekends. Mod was a complete way of life. It permeated everything you did, from the job you acquired to the words you used.

Even its beginnings were almost mystical. No one knows where the first Mod came from or who he was. But suddenly there he was amongst us; in Soho, buying clothes like they were going out of fashion, hunting down rare American r'n'b singles, inventing fancy new dances and inserting huge amounts of amphetamine into his nervous system. Mods customised everything that came their way. They drove their tailors mad by insisting on minute changes to their suits, and altered their hairstyle by the day. They were exclusive and snobbish. "Little runts", the writer Nik Cohn called them. He had a point. "We weren't nice at all," Ian R Hebditch an original 1963 Mod told me. "We were horrible little creatures."

George Simpson wasn't sentencing a true Mod. that rainy Bank Holiday weekend. He was sentencing a young lad who enjoyed running in a mob and fighting on a dirty beach. But where's the style in that kind of behaviour? By that point, the masses had taken over the cause and the true Mod knew his time was up. Mod was dead, end of story.

Except that some people - including my mate Paul Weller, the leader of The Jam, one of the greatest pop groups ever - didn't see it that way. Obsessed by the clothes, the music and the dignity, Paul claimed instead that Mod kept coming back under different guises. It was he who suggested in 1983 that I should write a book about it.

Seventeen years later and The Soul Stylists, is nearly finished. It is a story which began with another writer, Val Wilmer - who covered the jazz waterfront like no other in her biography entitled Mama Said There'll be Days Like These. She pushed several phone numbers into my grateful hands. One of these was for Eddie Harvey. He used to play traditional jazz music until one night he heard, fittingly enough, 'Things To Come' by Dizzy Gillespie. "I thought the world had gone mad," he told me. But it hadn't. It had just played him his first be-bop record and he was hooked.

As were a few other musicians who frequented Soho at the time. Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth, desperate for somewhere to practise their be-bop, started a club in Archer Street called Club 11; then came The Flamingo (now The Wag club on Wardour Street). The "Modernists" who habituated these places ruled the roost until 1956. Then disaster. Rock 'n' roll hit and blew their complex music out of the water. Young people could dance to Bill Haley but they couldn't to Charlie Parker.

One thing about the Modernists is that they knew when to get out. In 1959, Ronnie Scott opened his famous club and it was there that they ran for cover. Their place was taken by the Mods. Young, upwardly mobile, working class kids who came from a background of liberation - from the War, from rations, and crucially from financial restrictions with the advent of hire purchase. Britain was a black and white country but by the time they had finished with it, it glowed with pop art colours. The Flamingo saw them coming. Out went jazz, and in came r'n'b. Other clubs opened. The Scene in Ham Street, Kooks Kleeque in West Hampstead. Initially, they shopped at John Stephens in Carnaby Street but then the papers called the street a "Mecca for Mods" so the smarter ones left leaving it to the "seven and sixers" (who never spent more than seven and six on their clothes).

The Mods in turn spawned two very influential scenes. In the North, the Northern Soul scene was created; down South they got the Skinhead instead. Again, both scenes flourished as a secret society with their own codes and signals. Again, when the media discovered them it was like being given a lethal injection. They were dead within a year. This same process occurred again in the seventies when the Skinhead grew his hair out and became a Soulboy before turning into a Casual. Each disparate group had its similarities. Each spent a fortune on clothes. Each adored black American music but was always open to new influences.

Accordingly, during my researches, I met some great people and true characters. There was Big Jim, who once wrecked a record stall "because they didn't have a decent enough reggae section". And Brian who robbed chemists and still keeps his 1965 white Ben Sherman in pristine condition. I found Gilly and Tats, Northern Soul veterans, who on their workman's wages flew to Detroit to seek out Dave Hamilton, their all time favourite record producer, and discovered a singer called Little Ann whose rare records had been huge on the scene. Within six months, Little Ann, an anonymous worker at Chrysler, was performing at the Cleethorpes soul weekender in front of a rapt audience and Gilly was down the front, tears streaming down his face.

The book is nearly finished now. But there is always room for more anecdotes, photos and memorabilia from the decades and cults mentioned. If you would like them included in The Soul Stylists, mark them accordingly and send them to Monkey Business PR, 57D Hatton House, Hatton Garden, London EC1N 8HP. If you don't have any that's fine. I just ask one thing. Next time you think Bank Holiday, don't think of all the mods'n'rockers clichés. The Soul Stylists deserve far better than that.

Paolo Hewitt's most recent book, entitled 'The Sharper Word', is an anthology of writing on the mod phenomenon, which is published by Helter Skelter

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