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4 Sep 2007

Hard Nut Mods (Jamie Rave speaks Charlie Steel a mod from Pimlico, thanx to and the old police cells museum)

The Sawdust Caesar's of 1964

Jamie Rave has a chat with Charlie Steel, a mod from Pimlico who was present at some of the festivities that fateful weekend
It’s the time of the season when a lot of young citizens thoughts turn to weekends away in the company of their mates, impressing each other with their gleaming Italian chariots, strutting about in peacock suits, looking for a suitably adorned partner to pussyfoot with and take in a change of scenery. These days the occasions are usually termed "Mod rallies" and are held in many countries throughout the appropriate seasons, from Germany to Sweden, France to England, Australia to Japan. Veritable cultural exchanges that owe very little to the original weekend excursions of yesteryear that gave us the term "Sawdust Caesar’s".

I wish it could be 1964 again...
Rallies! A quaint word that evokes images of jump-suited, turbo-charged nutters flying around a forest in Finland. Except the sort of rallies I’m thinking of usually consist of some young hipsters congregating in a seaside town showing off their blue mohair threads and occasionally dancing to a mooonster Mod sound in one of the specially-selected-for-their-Mod-friendly-bouncer type clubs.

Apparently our history lesson begins in 1964. Although the term ‘rallies’ was not heard of then (and the lucky sods didn’t have to put up with the word ‘retro’ either) large groups of youths made their way to resorts like Brighton, Hastings, Margate and Clacton. All snooty little seaside towns with a rabid judiciary and an endless supply of reasons to endorse euthanasia.

Convoys of Lambrettas, Vespas, Triumphs and assorted oily motorcycles scuttled their way to the coast with the intentions of having an ice cream and to make a sandcastle, sorry; to pose, dance, take a few pills and hopefully get laid. Oh, yeah, and apparently have a bit of aggro!

It’s better by ‘bretta
In 1964 a £20 down-payment meant you could drive away a new Vespa or Lambretta. With a kickstart that didn’t break your leg, minimum grease, a polish of those smooth lines and your hipsters stayed as crisp and your DB’s as clean as when picked out of the wardrobe. Besides the sensible extras for your scooter like luggage racks and panniers the Mods found they could also act as an extension of their peacock nature by decking them out in fog-lamps, Jaguar mascots, pennants, all-sorts of chrome accessories, and, quite befitting for the Mods vanity obsessed mind, their reflection in a dozen mirrors.

These elegantly contoured Italian stallions got you out of Hicksville and into the land of bright lights, coffee bars, and girlfriends. Not to mention the coast and it’s piers, crashing seas and salty seafront parades. They weren’t fast, but bloody nippy for the city, and whilst go-faster goodies were available, the Mods preferred their speed in the form of Drinamyl and Purple Hearts.

The quiffed and the coiffed
Legend has it that Mod types set about leather clad motorcyclists and kicked the dinner out of them (and vice versa) in between enjoying a frothy coffee and the odd dance on the pier. These gatherings of the quiffed and coiffed resulted in plenty of overtime for the police and casualty departments not to mention a promising career in fiction for the flock of journalists - who were often not even present - who managed to create a whole new meaning to the term "weekend breaks". Mods may have been the epitome of style and cool and having a nice bookshelf is one thing, but you had to be able to throw a punch.

"Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone" said some long haired hippy type. He must have said it on Brighton beach in 1964 ‘cos the pebbles were certainly flying that day!

I spoke to a sensible chap who was present at some of the festivities that fateful weekend. Charlie Steel, a Mod from Pimlico, who’s now something of a south coast property developer, and asked him to recall a few of the more light-hearted recreational activities they engaged in whilst on a weekend away.

"Well yeah, we were up for adapting the rockers wardrobe and often made them wear deckchairs, when you managed to grab hold of one another fave was checking if his leather jacket was waterproof - while he’s still in it - all that was par for the course, tit for tat like, they’d kick us, we’d return the favour, oh yeah, we didn’t bung him in the sea, there’s enough effluent bobbing up and down our coastline, once we came across some hiding in the aquarium and as it was way past the sharks feeding time..., well, being animal lovers we obliged."

So the media was right, it was just a gang of thugs popping down the coast on a weekend for a mass fight? "I was joking Mr Rave. That stuff did happen, but I was interested in more than chasing some greaser about. Of course aggro kicked off, we weren’t going to turn our backs on somebody having a pop at us. Aggro plays a major part of life for kids then as now, but we were older, the main point of going away was to have a chuckle with your mates, we never dreamed that when we went to the seaside we’d end up decking rockers and getting charged by the police, the whole thing was sent way out of control by the press. For us it was just a weekend away from London, actually some of the south coast disco’s were really good."

So how did the idea of groups of Mods going away for a weekend come about? "As far as me and my mates were concerned, we used this old boy barbers in Wardour Street, Antonio’s; he knew his way round a head of hair, and we got what we wanted, which was quite an achievement then, 5 bob for a smart French crew, incidentally, at the same time, my bird was paying 25 bob for a cut at Vidal Sassoon, as he’d take the money off you he’d look you in the eye and say "anyting fora de weekend sir?" We just laughed and occasionally had some johnnies off him, even though he was a catholic he did his bit to stop unwanted pregnancies! Then in the cafe’s... actually, I think the first time we really discussed it was in Heaven and Hell, in Old Compton Street -they did the best cappuccino there- it was like, yeah that’s a great idea, why don’t we pissoff for the weekend? Head for the coast on our scooters, catch a last bit of summer sun, and maybe get rid of some of these bloody johnnies we’d accumulated from Antonio."

So with all the newspaper stories and the general mood of the public towards Mods, didn’t you have a problem finding somewhere to stay for the weekend? "Not at all, this was September ‘63, nobody, least of all us, had an inkling of what was to come. And Danny Golding had an aunt who ran a B&B in Brighton, in the beginning there were a few others besides our crew, just 6 of us were going down, then it grew and come our first weekend there about 20 ended up going, all on scooters, some of the lads took their birds, we couldn’t all stay at Danny’s aunt’s place, she sorted them with a rooming house further up the coast road near Hove."

"It was in ‘64 that loads of day-tripper Mods started to arrive, and those that stayed over usually ended up on a beach."

So what was the catalyst that tempted kids to visit the seaside en masse? London sounds as though it was a pure buzz at that time, with stuff happening all over club, gig, clothes and Mod wise, wasn’t it difficult to tear yourself away from that for a weekend in the country? "Why not take a break to the seaside, a break from those hectic weekends at home? Loads of people did it, our parents did it, when we were old enough to go on our own we did.. We ate whelks and ice-cream and pissed about on the pier. It was a different buzz to the smoke. To be honest we downed so many pills and were full on so often that going away was a welcome break, not that I want to sound old before my time. Even getting there was a chuckle.

We saw rockers there that first weekend, but apart from a few sneers and the occasional banter it was nothing, we were busy poncing about on the beach, the sound of the waves rolling up and the taste, the smell of that salt air filling your lungs, lovely! It was the first time most of us had done anything like that since we were kids, and then it was with our parents, now we could do what we wanted, go where we wanted, and have it all on our own terms.

It was real easy to pull down there, we knew all the latest sounds from the Scene, Discotheque, Last Chance, the local Mods thought we were well way out, which, compared to them I suppose we were. Some of their crew were well handy in a ruck, their club was called the Brighton Scooters."

So tell us something about your mates, we get the impression there were ‘gangs’ of Mods in different areas. "Yeah, that’s true, there were the Ealing, the Croydon, the Stamford Hill, the Ilford, the Tottenham, get the picture? Every area of London had a crew, there were the Cockney Scooter Club, who were from all over East London and Essex and even a few lads from Lambeth sided with them and a crew called the Streatham Scooters, some of them got on, some of them didn’t, I was from Pimlico, but my stomping ground was around Soho, my firm were from all over, I suppose our allegiances were a bit difficult to define, like, our lads may live in Chelsea, Brixton, Leyton or wherever but our work and main club haunts were Soho so that’s where our allegiances lay.

We were up for aggro, it wasn’t the prime mover in our lives, but we got a lot of grief and you had to make a stand. Pete and Ade ended up with The Firm, a group of hard-nut Mods who rarely paid when they went out, but that was to ponced up west end clubs. They started in the days of the Flamingo, they’d do stuff like take all the chairs and tables from the front of a cafe in Soho when they left, just put them in the back of a van! Then when they did a bit of vandalism it was quite arty, like cementing a Hoover to a bath, or burning down the Speakeasy, you had to understand how it worked, like, all the posers who went to that place really pissed us off, so they got some petrol, added calcium carbide, which when you throw it on water forms acetylene, that was great, watching the posers coming out, tears streaming, watching the fire engines, the police, The Firm thought the prices were bad. I must admit, I fancied myself as a bit of a gangster but luckily didn’t get that involved in it, when we were out and about, only a few times at the coast, and we got involved in aggro with some rockers, we were quite vicious, make no mistake, the lines were drawn, them and us you know, it became kind of like of a war, only for a while."

These weekends away became notorious, could you explain for the novice, what happened? "Well, in the space of 6 months of our first scooter trips to Brighton came that Easter weekend, the one where it all went off in Clacton, we were in Brighton at the time, but then surprisingly it didn’t really happen like they said it did, some mates of ours went there, and a lot of others besides, but we’d already booked up with Danny’s aunt and she’d arranged the Hove B&B so we didn’t want to piss her about you know? It was funny how it went, although there would be Mods at most of the coastal towns on a holiday weekend, it was kind of organised in word-of-mouth way, you just knew where everyone was going, I was going steady at the time and, a few of us who were that touch older, decided to miss Clacton. On the Monday we saw the papers, it was mainly about Clacton, where some of our firm had gone, the Daily Mirror had this "Wild ones invade seaside town" headline, comparing it to that Brando movie in which some outlaw bikers take over a town for the weekend. Something that I remember well was how Danny flew into a rage about that headline, he was really pissed off that Mods were being called "Wild Ones", I mean it was alright for the rockers, but how demeaning, comparing us to some poxy scruff.

Somehow all the hysteria was like the Twilight Zone, quite unreal you know? It was the coldest Easter weekend in Clacton since 1884, when we spoke to Stevie, Sawn-off and Mitch afterwards they told us how there were hardly any holidaymakers there, the shops shut early, Stevie, Johnny, and a load of other Mods from London got kicked out of a cafe and had a punch-up with some rockers, who were locals, some kids jumped the turnstile to get on the pier for free, so here was the town refusing to serve food or drink to anyone over 14 or under 25, what do you do when you’re cold and hungry? Hit back! That was it really, then the Monday papers carried the story of riots between Mods and rockers, some of the Cockney scooter club left on the Sunday and word had already spread around the street and it was on the news, so come Monday loads of Mods and rockers from all over went to Clacton, not us though!"

I told Charlie of some of my own research I’d done via archives. I found a piece in a Clacton paper where a council spokesman estimated damage at £500, ten times less than many newspapers were reporting, and he added the press had grossly exaggerated the whole incident and "there was nothing like gang warfare - Clacton was not ransacked". I asked him what he felt when hearing something like that. "Well, I saw a lot of crap in the papers, just like now, they don’t always print the truth, which isn’t surprising. I suppose that hearing something like that now, 33 years after the event, makes me a bit angry. I mean the whole history of Mod was changed after that, life was still good but we had a lot more crap to put up with."

So the aggro that came out of those coastal excursions, it was a real negative thing for Mod? "Definitely, the publicity was very much a defining moment, all of a sudden the beach fights and the crap that started to spring up around Carnaby Street started to drag the Mod thing down, there we were surrounded by a lot of pratts jumping up and down in tacky clothes shouting out they were Mods, they didn’t know anything about the Mod ethos, they just bought some clothes and got a haircut, it was fashionable, much the same way you must feel about it now, I understand all things Mod have become somewhat fashionable again. Although it was still exciting for years after that, the boundaries were blurred, Mod became fairly mainstream, the media and business started to dictate what they wanted to market as Mod, luckily there were still enough creative kids on the edge, not going with the flow, you saw that a couple of years later in bands like The Eyes with their purple parkas and The Creation, what they were doing, playing with pop-art imagery, wearing lary clothes and making feedback, was not at all new, they just played with it in different ways, it was progression and they exaggerated the thing. But I did used to wander how much more creative energy the Mod thing could have produced if it wasn’t tarnished with the fighting." The damage was done. The media expected and desired violence at Bank holidays. At the next Bank holiday, Margate, the police used dogs and horses to keep the Mods and rockers moving up and down the beach.

Mod Squad to the coppers: Didn’t work did it copper?

That Clacton weekend saw 44 arrests, 37 of whom were accused of using threatening words and behaviour, a catch-all the police use when they pick someone out of a crowd, and only one with assault. Yeah, like Mods really committed offences against the law of the land.

Mod Squad to the media: What pitched battle Mr Editor?

That same weekend cars killed 90 people, caused grievous bodily harm to 400 others. Without taking into account the medical or personal loss, the damage to cars and property was over £100,000. It received a helluva lot less coverage than a few kids breaking windows and being violent to deckchairs. The Daily Mirrors reporter was not even in Clacton on that Sunday, Wax lyrical Mr Reporter.

Coppers & Media to the Mod Squad: "What disparity in your treatment Mr Mod?"

So what was important to you at that time Charlie? "Most important to me was my mates, being Mod was important to me. We had a crew, all the stuff we did together, the clubs, the whole scene, the music, the R&B, the soul and some of the jazz, it was real exciting, I’m starting to remember that! We’d spend money on gear and having a real good time out, buying the latest records, even the occasional book! When this stuff with the coast runs started being purely an excuse for a punch-up we let it go. I also really enjoyed the scooters, I wasn’t averse to Vespa or Lambretta, I liked ‘em both, I guess I had my last bike the longest, that was an SX200 with a Supertune set-up, but before I didn’t hang on to them for more than a few months, we’d swap ‘em or trade ‘em in, once I had a GS with coppered panels and all the foglamps were yellowed out, like on the continent, no other accessories on that one, no mirrors, when the panels started going green I swapped it for a GT, that was all mirrored up, but I think Vespa’s looked better with all the accessories, Lambrettas looked better with just a few pieces on.

They were well handy for buzzing around the west end on, gadding about to the clubs and coffee bars, but there were real problems with them getting nicked, some people seemed to spend their waking hours stealing and selling scooters."

If you weren’t going to the coast for a weekend, what clubs did you visit, how did you get your pills and stuff? "London and clubland, most of us popped a few pills, you could get pills nearly anywhere, from people on the street, in the cafes you’d buy a cup of tea either ’with or without’, you’d get some hemp from the spades in Tiles or wherever. It was easy to get hold of drugs, and being Mods, we took loads of them, there wasn’t even a drug squad around until 1967. Sometimes we’d even be checking out the birds!

Saturday morning we’d mosey on down to Carnaby Street or Portobello, The Scene was supposed to shut at 3 on Sunday morning, it didn’t always, if it did we hopped it to the Flamingo or Discotheque and come chuck out time it was off to get a fresh shirt in Petticoat Lane, intersperse that with a bit of pie and mash and the occasional dolly bird and bob’s your uncle. D’you get the picture?"

I reckon I do Charlie. I thanked Charlie for his time and he went off to his quite luxurious house in Hastings.

© Jamie Rave 1997 - 2007

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additional pictures from 18 may 1964 :

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