Mod (Issue 1) – The Roots of a Sub-Culture

Written by LDS, Feb 2015

Without the Modernist subculture and the spark it generated, Britain’s soul would today remain a conservative grey; sterile in expression, decisively bland in flavour, humbled by a collapsed Empire. The curious and hungry spirit for something new amongst the earliest Mods eventually presented Britain’s stiff upper lip a new bosom to caress. This is the first part of a small series where we will take you through the back story of what Mod really is and how it developed into the coolest subculture in Britain and beyond.

(Authors Note – LDS, Feb 15)

‘Modernism has no birthday’; a sentence that if I made a quid for every time I heard it, I’d be sat here; the Ace Face and my tailor would be sipping cocktails in Bemuda. It is however quite true. There is no one event that symbolises the start of Mod. No awakening of the messiah, no parting of the English Channel to Peter Meaden riding a Vespa GS scooter onto Margate sands. There were however a series of events and factors that coming together introduced the UK to something fresh and exciting.

The birth of the first generation Mods or GEN-1 Mods as we’ll refer to them hereafter is a heavily debated subject with many claiming that the earliest Mods emerged in the late Forties. Regardless, what is a fact is that Britain following the Second World War was a bleak place, a once Super-Power nation that became bankrupt by the price of protecting a huge Empire under threat. Here was a generation so deprived and down-beaten by the war years that they craved something new and exciting in their lives.

Mods meet in London's West End
Mods meet in London’s West End

The many international allied forces stationed in Britain during the war were planting cultural seeds and left a remarkable impression on the younger generations. Though reasonably unaffected by the War, American lifestyle was on the up and their growing jazz and soon rock’n’roll culture became a real focal point in the years that followed the conflict. Exposure to new clothing styles and music from America revolutionised the traditional outlook and sparked an underground youth movement, one which would develop into an obsession.

The Jazz Years:

Music was the backbone, the biggest contributing factor to shake things up. Some growing Jazz musicians of the US were breaking the boundaries of traditional style with an alternative form known as bebop and were creating a whole cultural movement of their own. The GI’s had brought records across with them and told stories of this new after-dark and underground scene. The bands were publicly known for their drug fuelled sessions, they would play this new free-form style all night, looking sharp in their Zoot suits and cravats. The scene differed so greatly from the big band music and traditional jazz style popular in Britain at the time and simply oozed cool.

At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis. And as I sat there listening to that sound of the light which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about.

(‘On the Road’ – Jack Kerouac, 1957)

Miles Davis and French actress Juliette Greco (1949)
Miles Davis and French actress Juliette Greco (1949)

Off of the back of this new wave of music the British scene started to simmer and bands formed emulating their American idols. This saw the popular birth of skiffle, a form of music similar to Bebop in the UK, where often instruments (due to their price) would be home-made. By the mid to late Fifties there were thousands of skiffle bands including The Quarrymen (featuring John Lennon) and the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group who even had chart success over in America. Skiffle was the cornerstone for many of the successful bands of the Sixties. Sadly though the most original music was being syphoned rather than exposed in what was still at this time a race-separated industry. The London Decca label had a deal in America for one reason only; to poach songs off of the blacks without crediting the original artist. Mods were true to the origins though and disregarded this racial stigma.

“… black records just weren’t played on the BBC, I can assure you of that. Occasionally you’d hear something on Radio Luxembourg or the pirate radio stations when they started up. Black hits were covered by British white bands. There was never such a thing as English Rock’n’Roll…”

(Drummer Tony Meehan reflects inStoned‘)

These British bebop (skiffle) outfits needed venues to play and upon the import of the Gaggia espresso machine from Italy, coffee shops and small bars started springing up all over Soho in London’s West End. Places like The French, Sam Widges, The BastilleAct I/Scene I and perhaps most famously the 2I’s coffee bar became a home from home for the bands (who were mostly under the legal drinking age) and likewise became institutions for the young followers of cool.

Producer Micky Most reflects “… the 2I’s was a trip from about ’56 to ’59…” The club was open all day and you could just get up and have a jam hoping to get noticed. The place breathed music and over its short 10 year existence the likes of Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin manager) could be found as the bouncer, Hank Marvin (The Shadows) could be found serving coffees and sweeping floors and Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones manager) was a regular. The coffee bar itself was small catering for only 20 people upstairs and not many more downstairs in the basement where the bands would perform. Regardless of size this was THE place to be seen, dressed to the nines, sipping an espresso and mingling with like-minded sorts. A real vibe was born in Soho but it was all becoming so… hipster.

2 I's Coffee Bar (1959)
2 I’s Coffee Bar (1959)

It’s important to realise that this was just the beginning and Mods were already two-steps ahead of this scene from the outset. From bebop came Modern Jazz (or otherwise known as ‘hard-bop‘), a refined and seriously cool rhythm and blues variation for the really serious musical ear which as Graham Lentz notes in ‘The Influential Factor’ “…separated the Mods from the bandwagon Hipsters by the mid-Fifties… It is infact from Modern Jazz that the term ‘Modernists’ was born…”

Meet the original GEN-1 Mods, a small number at first who were at the forefront of the emerging scene, they dug the real music that was being masked by the industry and ripped off by the skiffle craze. They sought out with extreme difficulty but built record collections of the real deal; black jazz often put out on Blue Note Records. 

Blue Note Records - These were without doubt the coolest sleeves put out in the Fifties and styled a generation.
Blue Note Records – These were without doubt the coolest sleeves put out in the Fifties and styled a generation.

In 1948 Club Eleven opened its doors at 41 Great Windmill Street, Soho catering specifically to the Modern Jazz crowd. In-fact this was a club that was owned by 10 jazz musicians, out of the need for somewhere to play, in a cooperative with businessman Harry Morris. One of the house bands was actually led by legendary sax player Ronnie Scott. Sadly the club was closed in 1950 when the Drugs Squad raided it. Six of the musicians were charged with possession of cannabis. Ronnie Scott recalled that when they appeared the next day at Marlborough St. Magistrates Court, ‘a police Chief Inspector informed the bench that the Club was a bebop club. ‘What,’ asked the magistrate solemnly, ‘is bebop?’  ‘A queer form of modern dancing – a Negro jive’ the policeman answered with brisk authority.’

Thelonious Monk at the Piano

In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his own club (Ronnie Scott’s, still going strong today) with Pete King, another successful jazz musician. At Ronnie’s they managed to get around strong union rulings and have American artists perform who up until that time were not allowed to play in England. To get a drinks license the venue had to serve food, a minor detail once a relationship was made with an Indian restaurant across the road. Pete King recalls that the club originally opened so that Ronnie and he could study their bebop heroes and learn how to adapt their own playing into this new style. What they had created however was a venue of cult status with young Mods at the time. So slick was the club that Andrew Loog Oldham (working at the time for Mary Quant) took an evening job to wait tables just to get deep inside the scene.

Andrew Loog Oldham (Early Face and yet to become Rolling Stone Manager)

Remember this was just the beginning of the Modernist movement, the roots. Jazz paved the way with its style, though music was ever evolving and soon true R&B opened a much larger door.  The early Faces were yet to fully establish themselves but already had a fire in their belly hungry for influencing what was to come next.

 LDS – Feb 2015