One of the most intriguing books about popular culture in a while went on sale last month. Richard Weight’s Mod: A Very British Style is not a rose-tinted, nostalgic romp through the history of a movement that has had profound impact on British culture, but a serious academic (yet still very readable) study of what Mod is and was and how the 60s Mods have influenced British society.
It scope – which goes way beyond most books about Mods -has already attracted criticism from hardcore Mods who may or may not have a point that the author talks too much about the influence of German art school Bauhaus at the expense of say, how Makin Time and The Prisoners took Mod in a new direction in the 80s.
It doesn’t help Weight’s case that there is the odd detail too that isn’t quite right. Nevertheless even if he has Blur coming from Chelmsford rather than Colchester, he still makes some fascinating observations
For me the pivotal part is Weight’s dissection of how the 60s Mods – not the original late 50s/early 60s ones who were a different tribe altogether – changed the way Britons live, think and most of all shop.
But the one connection he only loosely makes is how the mid-60s Mods influenced British politics. Which is a shame because there is a lot of evidence to suggest when those youngsters hit adult life they became the foot soldiers of the politics we now know as Thatcherism.
The parallels really are quiet scary.
When Mod was at its mainstream peak – between 1963-66 – it was a movement that had the following traits.
1 Hierarchical – the scene was dominated by Faces – think Sting in Quadrophenia – who had the best gear, the classiest scooters etc. Mods who couldn’t match the sartorial eloquence of their superiors were known by the A List as Tickets.
2 Individualistic – although there were, for want of a better word, uniforms, for most Mods the devil was in the detail. Your suit had to tick the right boxes in say number of buttons, but choosing the right material and colour to make it your own was just as important As Paul Smith, a tailor who was an original Mod, would become known for – Mod clothes were all about classics with a twist.
3 Conservative – Mods weren’t trying to change society in a outwardly political way. In fact according to Weight and others many Mods respected and admired their elders and parents and wanted to not just emulate them but better them.
4 Aspirational and acquisitive – Much of Weight’s book focuses on the Mods obsession with shopping, not just for clothes but for other items too. He attributes much of the success of Habitat in the 70s and Ikea more recently to the way that style and design were passed on from the Mods to subsequent generations.
5 Southern and class-based – Mod was also more of southern England tribe than a northern one and most of its adherents came from, what in old money would be referred to as the more aspirational sector of the working class. In other words these were youngsters whose parents had manual jobs, but thanks to improving post-war educational standards they were able to take on skilled work or white collar jobs in offices.
Ultimately these were youngsters who had seen the deprivation that their parents had endured through the war years and before and wanted better.
Take a look then at the demographic which propelled the Conservatives to power in 1979 and kept them there for the best part of two decades. They were young-ish, based in the south and were drawn from upper working class and lower middle class groups. They were clearly aspirational and wanted their own homes (to buy their own council houses?) yet not seeking big changes in British society. Sound familiar?
If you look too at the end of the Callaghan government – Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies is a great re-telling of the story – Sunny Jim was largely betrayed by Union leaders whose workers were constantly pushing for more money to maintain standards of living that they had accrued in the earlier part of the decade. Just take a look at the groups who went on strike during the winter of discontent – public sector employees, nurses, train drivers – these are all arguably comprised of individuals who fit the class profile of the 60s Mods.
The irony is that while the old school union leaders unwittingly ushered in their worst nightmare – a government that would destroy much of their power base – their younger members got a government that was far more in keeping with the values that Mod had endowed in them in the 60s. It was a government that they voted for time and time again because its shared the same visions and enacted legislation like the buying of council houses – that fitted their aspirations. Bear in mind too that the unemployment that characterised much of the 80s was more prevalent in the north than the south.
One 70s Mod who said he would vote Tory in 1979 was Paul Weller. He now says it was a publicity stunt but it must have made sense at the time. And there’s a good chunk of the mid-60s Mod aristocracy who are either Conservatives – including Kenny Jones, Bill Wyman, Phil Collins and Bryan Ferry – or are largely ambivalent about politics.
Ultimately though the changes that Margaret Thatcher made to Britain were because a society had emerged which made her world view more acceptable. And I wonder if that society had been shaped by a youth culture that defined Britain a decade earlier.