The Online Mod/ern/ist Archive

archive of original modernist recollections and information .
we are glad to hear from anyone with memories of the time, but we do not rewrite history .

1 Feb 2008

It was a tribal thing

This writer, a pioneering mod, recalls a world of clubs, cliques and fearless tailoring

IN THE FIFTIES, everybody grew up looking like their parents. It was just so grey. There was no music, no clothes and you didn’t have that many places to go. My sister Gloria, who was four years older than me, was a bit of a Beat, as they were called at the time, and she used to go to London for the coffee bars. The Two I’s was the famous one but there was a whole load of others — the Macabre, the Bastille, Les Enfants Terrible.

This was round about 1959. Then she really got into R’n’B music, people like LaVern Baker, Joe Turner, Ray Charles, the Drifters. Her big favourites were the Shirelles and she actually got to run their fan club, which unlocked a whole lot of things because then she started taking me to the clubs where all this music was going on. I guess I was about 14 and we used to go along with her pal and her brother, Geoff Lewis. So my sister was the one who told me: “Get some pointed shoes,” and got my mother to take up all the turn-ups on my trousers and put buttons on my shirt collar.

I was now a Mod. I used to come up to London and buy clothes but an awful lot of stuff you got made or you made it yourself or you found things in bizarre places. We used to buy cricket whites, cheap cotton ones from C&A, and dye them ourselves — bright yellow, orange — because you couldn’t buy bright coloured clothes.

We would have them shortened by two inches so you could show off your socks. I remember buying a scarlet shirt and my dad saying to me, “Where are you going? Bullfighting?” He’d never seen a scarlet shirt before. My mother was brilliant because she was a dressmaker and she used to make stuff. At the time, we used to go to the Scene club in Ham Yard (Soho) and try and wear something new each week. I would get my mother to make tartan shirts, polka-dot shirts, or maybe one guy down the Scene would have something on and we’d think, “That’s nice” and get it made for the following week. Once I saw something on TV with these American kids’ initials on their shirts. At the time the most sought-after things were these Italian lambswool tops which had a little button at the back of the collar. I got my mother to make some felt letters and she sewed an F for Freddy (my English name) on to one and a C for my mate Cliff on to the other. We wore them down the Scene club and the next week everybody had them. I loved a shop called Austins, that was a real favourite, and we also went to Cecil Gee and Annello and Davide, the shoe people in Covent Garden.

All they made were dancing shoes but they had these shoes with a Cuban heel and a seam down the middle, which was very unusual. I think they were flamenco shoes and somebody saw them and said: “Right, I’ll have those.” This was well before the Beatles.

We used to go to Heathrow airport on our scooters. There was a bowling alley there and the shoes were fantastic, three colours and with your size written on the back. So we would put on our sy shoes and walk out in a pair of these bowling shoes, cost you nothing. Then you would get a coffee late at night in the airport.

Mods were not that interested in groups. We were into records. Monday nights we used to go to the Lyceum in Streatham and the Orchid in Purley, sometimes both on the same night. Tuesday we stayed in. Wednesdays was the Wimbledon Palais, Thursdays it was the Locarno in Streatham. At the weekend the Scene was the big club and then there was the Flamingo where we went to see Georgie Fame whom we really loved. You’d go and see Georgie and you’d think: “What’s this music he’s playing?” So you would go and check out Mose Allison or whoever and that’s how you got put on to various artists. I still see Mose Allison when he’s in town, he’s brilliant. At some of these clubs you would take records along and you’d go up to the DJ and say: “I’ve got the new Maxine Brown single.” They would have a separate deck to preview new tunes and then they’d play your record, which was really cool. The Lyceum in London was a Sunday afternoon dance and that was a big Mod club.

You had to watch it a little bit if you went to clubs in different parts of town that were not your own. You tended not to chat birds up at those places although there weren’t that many good-looking Mod birds to go round.

It was a very male thing. It was also a tribal thing. There was a period when all the East London boys wore blue suits and all the South London boys had grey suits. You had your little teams and you were very stuck up, you were very proud. Fraternising with others was a bit like lowering yourself. It was very insular that way. You wanted to be the one who wore things first, not the one who wore it three weeks later.

In my team there was Denzil (who appeared on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine, August 2, 1964 – See “Changing Faces” elsewhere on the blog) and Pete Saunders who later became a DJ. The other one who was a pal was Mickey Finn, who got pally with the DJ Guy Stevens and later on teamed up with Marc Bolan in T. Rex.

There were a few fights but unlike what Stan Cohen, the sociologist, says about it all being speed orientated, it wasn’t. People only really took speed at the weekends and they did so to keep awake. Then they started thinking, “This pill isn’t bad,” and stepped up the dosage until they got right out of their boxes.

The end of it was Brighton in 1964 and the riots. Those guys weren’t right. It was all watered down. They’d bought a parka but that was it.

What broke your heart was that it all got so big, plus it didn’t help when the papers blew up the stories about the pills. The centre of gravity moved from Carnaby Street, which was now exploiting people, to the Kings Road, and that became the new scene. For me it was all over. I pulled out.

From July 28, 2003


J. D. King said...

Very cool. And articulate.

Johhnny B said...

A fantastic insight to the early modernists...brilliant

Nicole J. Burton said...

I'm trying to find info on Vittorio/Viktor, a 23-year-old Italian who used to go to Les Enfants Terrible in 1964. (He's a friend's dad; we're looking for him but don't have the last name - a mission of mercy!)
Would you email me?
Thank you,
Nicole Burton

Steve Skinner said...

I think I knew Pete Saunders, mentioned in this article.

If I remember correctly he lived in Ewell (I know that Frederico Marcantonio did because I knew his siter)and if it's the same guy, he worked at George Newnes, publishers of woman's Own, Flair, Nova etc. at the same time I did. He was a clothes fanatic (and soul fan, like me)and went off to the USA, returning at the time that Donovan's first electric album came out