People who lived and loved modern jazz music about fifty years back—around 1960, just before the Beatles changed the landscape of the music world—came to identify themselves as Mods.
The Modculture has been revived about every ten to fifteen years, in the U.K. in the late 1970s and again in Southern California in the 1980s.
Even in this decade, in the United States and in Britain, there has been a renewed fascination with the music and style of this cultural scene.
Photo by archangeldeb on Flickr
It may have evolved from the Beatniks, but it enjoyed a brief revival recently with people again fascinated by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Dizzy Gillespie and the Who’s Quadrophenia.
It all revolved around three angles—fashion, music, and motor scooters.
Fashion was always very much a part of the scene: It could be the Edwardian suits, neat, jackets without collars but still tailored, or with long narrow collars.
Some men and most women preferred androgynous suits. Wearing scarves with emblems of the Union Jack or the Royal Air Force roundel became popular.
For women the look was also in the make-up, with eyes drawn in stark dark liner and soft pale lips. Haircuts could be angular and asymmetrical but they were stylised.
Part of the fashion was mode of travel—good-looking bikes or scooters like Vespas or Lambrettas.
Photo by Jon Pinder on Flickr
The music of the Mod culture evolved from the traditional jazz to include soul, rhythm and blues, and ska music. All of these genres were characterised by a strong beat and rhythms and a walking bass. Mod jazz was very much more about the bebop with a stepped-up tempo and quick improvisations. It also included scat singing, just letting the voice express a noise that embodied the emotion of the music rather than traditional sung lyrics.
Charlie Christian was the first to popularise this, just a feel, humming with the music because it would be too much for words.
But it was a look, a feel, a style, that a group of people shared to express their common love of music and fashion. It was the working class who began earning enough money to buy better clothes and records. In the post-war years, these young men and women could afford to experiment with fashion, and this cool look was their own mark.
It was the young moderns who loved Italian art and the look of the Vespas.
It was the hip, hep, hopped-up youths who populated night clubs energised by amphetamines to dance all night long.
The Beatles before 1960 very much had the look of the Mod. John Lennon had at one time called himself a Teddy Boy, wearing slicked back hair and long coats, long before the Beatles became famous. The Mod look in some ways combined the style of the Teddy Boys and the Beatniks, with their turtlenecks and berets.
Their music was inspired more from soul and R&B but turned into something much different than the popular mod jazz tempos. As they progressed the Beatles veered off into their own style. There’s a famous line in A Hard Day’s Night in which a reporter asks Ringo, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” His reply: “Um, no, I’m a mocker.” Ultimately, the Mods preferred the music of the Rolling Stones and the Who over the Beatles.
What made Vespas the vehicle of choice?
They were affordable—leaving money in the pocket for fashion and accessories—they travelled equally well over crowded city streets or out on the road, and they had the crisp, clean look that the mods loved. Mirrors were added to the handlebars, the more the better. They also equated to the mobility of the new culture: No longer were young adults tied to home and hearth. They could really be the free spirits that they felt they were inside.
The culture synchronised well with the women’s movement. Women no longer were seen as only wives and mothers.
They could have careers and belongings of their own and embraced the fact that they could own importance without being attached to a man.
The down side of the culture, of course, was that the mods wanted to spend their time dancing, buying clothes, and socialising. It took work to afford the lifestyle, but doing the work was contrary to the lifestyle. By the summer of 1966, the Mods were a dying breed. Detractors began decrying the style as artificial and criticised Mods for wearing clothes chosen for them by clothing companies—ran by the Establishment.
The Swinging London scene began to dominate, with films like Alfie—a handsome, stylised guy who wasn’t very nice—and Georgy Girl—a non-traditional girl who was.
Most Mods eventually left the culture because they took their place in an adult society that left much less time for fun and shopping—getting a job in a place that paid more than a clothing shop or art gallery, having kids, and buying homes with white picket fences.
It was a time that came and went, but it would leave its mark on the decades ahead.