They wore their jackets cut slim and checked, maybe a touch of seersucker and an open neck. They rode Vespa GS scooters with their hair cut neat. They were British Mods. But what does that all mean?
To most of the world, not much – not much in the early 1960s (when Mods were a sharp-dressed gang happening) and not much now, 50 years on. Mods, though, are making their return this summer, triggering a revived fascination with an exotic, perpetually youthful cult movement.
Some of the millions of viewers who watched the Who close the London Olympic Games on Sunday would have noticed a parade of mirror-bedecked Italian motor scooters. Back in the day, that is how the Mods rolled.
The Who's bombastic medley was part a band revival that includes the comeback of Quadrophenia and, with it, the little known cultural phase of British Modism. The Who's generation, then, was the Mod generation.
Quadrophenia was an ambitious double album that the Who and its conceptualist Pete Townshend released in 1973. The double LP inspired a feature dramatic film from 1979, which later this month gets its Blu-ray/DVD re-release. The movie and album revolve around the character Jimmy, who is an angst-ridden youth and a Mod. What it is left of the Who – Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey and a troupe of hired hands – tours Quadrophenia in late 2012 and early 2013, performing the rock opera in its entirety across North America.
The Mod movement in the British 1960s was an obscure cultural phase, one that saw young English urbanites dressing meticulously, gobbling amphetamines and peacocking about on those stylish scooters. The coloured RAF roundels used by the Who as part of their pop-art stage apparel came to symbolize Mods.
Their counterparts were Rockers, who wore jeans and zipped leather jackets. Rockers greasily rode mannish motorcycles and were into Be-Bop-A-Lula music – think Marlon Brando, The Wild One vintage.
A confusing aspect of Quadrophenia, directed by Franc Roddam, was that Mods were practically incomprehensible to North American audiences. Not only did their rituals and peculiarities defy translation, but the thick accents and jargon almost required subtitles. (In fact, the English Mod was a cult figure not only in North America, but in Britain as well. In Richie Unterberger's book Won't Get Fooled Again, photographer Ethan Russell recalls a phone call he received from Townshend, who was frustrated with the progress of the album art. "I'm having ever so much trouble with the [cover] because everybody's got their own idea of what Mods were," Townshend explained.)
Someone who has precise ideas of what a Mod was is Irish Jack Lyons, a friend to Townshend and a typical Mod who at least partly inspired the Jimmy character. "A Mod was essentially a young boy or girl from the age, say, of 17 who dressed in neat-cut French or Italian clothes," recalls Lyons, who is referenced in the Who song Long Live Rock. "We wore French-cropped hair as well as a full head of hair, but with a parting in the middle. And the only acceptable mode of transport for a Mod was a Vespa GS or Lambretta LI 150 scooter. "
Asked about the adversarial relationship between the two gangs, which culminated in a sensational series of seaside brawls in 1964, Lyons plays down the rivalry. "This is one of the great myths about the Mods and Rockers," he says. "People have this kind of skewed received information that if you were a Mod, then your mortal enemy was a Rocker and vice versa. Nothing could be further from the truth."
If there was something a Mod and Rocker could agree on, it was an appreciation for the music of the Who. In the new documentary Quadrophenia: Can You See The Real Me?, a newscast from the era portrayed the dancehall scene as being shared by the gangs, describing the music's rhythm as "blue, and almost strong enough to lean against."
Lyons, reached at his home in Ireland, describes a typical Mod-Rocker interaction at the Goldhawk Social Club in West London, where the Who had a residency. "The place used to be jammed every Friday and Saturday night with Mods, along with maybe 20 or 30 Rockers, and there was never any trouble," he recalls. "A typical incident involved me dressed up to the nines in my Mod clothes and there'd be a group of Rockers sitting on a wall and I'd pass by. You'd get this kind of verbal slating, nothing obscene, just a few comments as to the origins of your gender. Mods dressed effeminately – clean-cut, stylish and smug."
That haughty flair was revived in England with the original release of the film in 1979. Teenagers again wore French crew cuts and rode scooters, but their musical heroes were new: the sharp-suited Paul Weller and the Jam, most famously.
In 1965, the Who had released I Can't Explain, which along with My Generation expressed the hormonal, angst-ridden concerns of that day's youth movement. "I'm gettin' funny dreams again and again," Townshend wrote and Daltry sang, expressing what the Mods felt but couldn't articulate – a frustration that is universal and evergreen.
The Who's generation
"I've got to move with the fashions, or be outcast," Pete Townshend sang on Cut My Hair from the 1973 album Quadrophenia. He sang from the point of view of Jimmy, who belonged to the sharp-dressed Mods, whose counterparts in the Britain's early 1960s were the Rockers. The rival gangs could agree on the music of the Who, but little else.
Music: Modern jazz (Dave Brubeck), Hammond B-3 soul (Booker T & the MGs) and girl-group pop (Ronettes).
Fashion: Hand-made Italian shoes, Sta-Prest jeans in high-toned colours, zoot suits, parkas and Fred Perry sweaters with a special insignia to denote the garment's authenticity.
Job: Entry-level white-collar, to pay for their pills and expensive taste in fashion.
Transportation: Vespa GS or Lambretta LI 150 scooters, highly accessorized.
Music: Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis – AmericanGraffiti-style rock.
Fashion: Jeans and zipped leather jackets.
Job: Blue-collar (truck drivers)
Transportation: Manly motorcycles, usually Triumphs or Nortons – nothing too flash.