The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Mod Vespa

Punk exploded into our lives around 1976 but in reality surged and ebbed in just over a year. However, it was the musical re-boot that the mid-1970s music scene badly needed. But then the Sex Pistols fell apart and we were all left wondering – where does the revolution go next? From 1978 to 1983, one British youth cult after another sought to fill the vacuum left behind by punk’s implosion. Some music fans wanted to keep moving forward in line with punk’s professed hatred of nostalgia. But other youth strands were unashamedly nostalgic – and so we got the early late 1970s/early 1980s Mod revival.

So – what was Mod and why did it make a comeback?

The original Mods – or Modernists

The very first Mods, as early as the late 1950s, were quite eclectic in their musical tastes. Mod was short for Modernist. These were young working-class and petit-bourgeois, fashion-conscious, music loving individuals who liked “modern” American jazz and dressed very sharp. Rather like the dandies of Georgian England, they would vex about the number of buttons on their cuffs and the cut of their jacket and trousers. It was the very antithesis of middle class youth trends then and later that made a virtue of slovenliness.

These youth, often living in run down industrial areas or boring suburbs wanted to elevate themselves through music and dress. They were part of a post-war generation that had spending power and an awareness of being somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Before becoming fully-blown adults, with all the responsibility and tedium that entailed, they wanted to live their dreams.

DISCOVER: Irish skinheads, Rudeboys and punks

‘Peacock’ mods and skinheads

From the outset, they were open to music by black artists and championed soul, R&B and the Jamaican sound of ska. The latter, to put it crudely, was like a speeded up reggae. So, mod music and fashion was an amalgamation of black American and Jamaican sounds and style. The influx of a large number of immigrants into Britain in the 1950s and 1960s from the Caribbean – especially Jamaica – undoubtedly influenced Mod. And later in the 60s, many Mods would embrace the Northern Soul sound. That was a peculiarly British genre that embraced poorly selling, faster tempo Motown records.

Throughout the 1960s, the ‘peacock’ mods, obsessing with their sartorial appearance, parted company from a tougher element in the Mod community who became the early skinhead movement. These skins had no time for the emerging hippy movement – neither in terms of fashion, music or the drugs they might take. Getting mellow was not the objective. Their look diverged from the peacock mods to something that would become almost a uniform of pork-pie hats, braces, very tight jeans and ‘bovver’ boots – normally Dr Martens. Although even that still borrowed from Jamaican ‘rudeboys’ – the original champions of ska.

Mods versus Rockers

So then we have peak Mod in the early 1960s with the famous seaside clashes between Mods and Rockers that gripped the tabloids newspapers and terrorised Britain. Who were the Rockers? Like the Mods, a product of post-war Britain and a generation of young people who weren’t interested in the militarised, deferential attitudes of their parents. They emerged in part from the very early 1950s ‘Teddy Boys’ – against working-class youth who obsessed with style.

But this time, a very street-based take on the Edwardian (the years 1901-1910) look with knee-length jackets and greased back hair with big quiffs. Again this was influenced by black American fashion – in this case, the Zoot suits of the 1940s. But as with the Mods, a sub-set either drifted into a harder look or were already borderline violent from the outset. Motorbike gangs emerged from this scene clad increasing in leather and driving big bikes. In contrast to the Mods who preferred Italian made Vespa or Lambretta scooters.

The much reported bust ups on Bank Holidays between Mods and Rockers were undeniably hyped up. And from the mid-60s, it pretty much died out. More importantly, amazing bands arguably emerged from the Mod scene like The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Small Faces. The snarling attitude of The Who and the punchy, short songs of all these bands with thrashing guitars and an aching cool look would influence punk. Some of the artists in those bands went on to be mega rock stars in the 1970s leaving their Mod roots behind – like Jimmy Page of The Yardbirds who would be a mainstay of global rock sensation, Led Zeppelin.

From Punk to the Mod Revival

Then along came the 1970s. These subcultures bubbled under the surface in the early to mid-70s. In 1973, The Who celebrated the previous decade’s Mod scene with the album Quadrophenia – a kind of rock opera homage to the musical genre. There were still Mods, skinheads, rockers and Teddy Boys but for a while they were drowned out by glam, heavy metal and prog rock. All that changed with the Punk Rock eruption in 1976. This reboot of British pop teased out the Teddy Boys but for all the wrong reasons. They decided to revive the Mods versus Rockers fun of the 1960s – only this time they were taking on the newly emergent punks.

The epicentre of punk fashion was the shop Sex, on the King’s Road in west London where designer Vivienne Westwood developed the classic look. That led to the area becoming a magnet for punks. Unfortunately, it also led to a new generation of Teddy Boys descending on the King’s Road and between 1976 and 1978, the old-style battles of the Mods and Rockers became the new Punks versus Teds bust ups. Apparently, the Teddy Boys were mortally offended by punks putting rips, safety pins and slogans on to their sacred drainpipes.

That fighting died down soon enough. But it foreshadowed a feature of the British music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A sometimes violent sectarianism between a growing number of youth cults. This was a period of amazing musical creativity. But also economic crisis, youth unemployment and neo-Nazi political activity. Pop music wasn’t immune from what was happening to the fans.

The 1980s Mod Revival

In January 1978 Johnny Rotten threw in the towel with the Sex Pistols and while that heralded the end of the British punk explosion – a vacuum was left behind that needed filling. Looking back as I was a teen back then – we were all scrabbling around looking for THAT sound to define our lives.

It was an incredibly exciting time. Plenty of musical experimentation but also revivals. And one of those revivals was Mod. A whole slew of Mod revival bands were formed in the late 70s like Secret Affair, The Chords, Purple Hearts, The Lambrettas, and The Merton Parkas. They zoomed into the pop charts at the start of the 1980s.

In the same way that Mod and Ska had co-existed in the 1960s – so the Mod Revival coincided with the so-called ‘second wave’ of ska on the newly formed 2Tone label. Bands like Madness, The Specials and The Selecter managed to attract Mods, Rudeboys and Skinheads. Both the Mod Revival and 2Tone sucked in disillusioned punks looking for something new.

1979 saw the movie Quadrophenia hit the cinema screens, loosely based on The Who’s 1973 album. Starring Phil Daniels, Sting and Ray Winstone – it took viewers back to the Mods and Rockers fights of the 1960s. It was massively popular with our age group. And it helped popularise the Mod sound.

Now it would be very remiss of me not to mention those punk era standard bearers for the Mod sound – The Jam. But The Jam, formed in 1972, are in a whole different league to the late 70s Mod revival combos. As they chalked up hits in the late 70s, they were seen as part of the punk wave or post-punk or ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’. Alongside the Sex Pistols and afterwards, they were like a breath of fresh air in British pop – channelling 60s Mod but way more than a pastiche or tribute band.

The Mod Revival extended into the start of the 1980s. As mentioned, Teddy Boys were already on the scene fighting punks in the mid-70s. As many punks joined the Mod Revival, they carried on running into the Teddies. And then there was also a skinhead revival in the late 70s only this time time infiltrated by the neo-Nazi right. That is not too say all skins were neo-Nazis but it’s also to point out that some were. Needless to say, all these youth factions and more squared up to each other in what were very fractious times.

Really by 1982, the Mod Revival had shot its bolt.

I remember being on a political demo around 1979 and met a rocker who at some point went off to get a sandwich.

He then returned with a Mod fishtail parka in his hand. I asked where he got it from.

“Trophy”.

In other words he’d either had a fight or just mugged a Mod Revival guy. I didn’t ask any further questions.

The classified ads section of the music papers were full of mod gear you could buy. Here’s a shopping list from 1980 with prices of mod gear on sale at a shop in the Midlands.

Union Jack Fabric Belt – £1.75

The Who belt buckles – £2.90

Target Straight Ties – £2.90

Badges were 40p each or 5 for £1.75 with Lambrettas, Merton Parkas, Specials, Selecter, etc.

5 thoughts on “The 1980s Mod Revival

  1. Rab says:

    Pile of pish, in Glasgow the Mods were the epicentre of youth cult til 86, fought the punks, skins, Ted/bikers and casuals, usually 50 strong every weekend, we liked Soul, jazz funk, 60s UK bands, & mod revival, including the Jam, we rode Scooters, (still do) and we havnt gone away, Glasgow still has Mod weekenders, clubs and Dos, get the facts straight!

    1. Well – I’ve heard the argument that Scotland dominated the Mod revival and the south was a pale imitation. Should you wish to write a guest post on the Scottish Mod Revival – I’m always up for publishing a dissenting view on the blog 🙂

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