Music

Eddie Piller's electrifying trip back to Mod's second wave

Ace face Eddie Piller's memoir evokes the vitality of '80s London, says Deb Grant

Eddie Piller book

About halfway through his new memoir, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, Eddie Piller recalls a report card he received from his headmaster at age 13. “If he continues like this, I fear Edward will waste his not inconsiderable talents…” it reads. “Edward is at a crossroads, and at this rate I can see him becoming either Head Boy or being expelled.” Although he predictably didn’t choose the former path, instead zeroing in on what he calls “the important things in life: clothes, music, fanzines and scooters”, Piller’s not inconsiderable talents directed his life in what would be a far more entertaining direction. 

Since that foreboding prediction, Eddie Piller has accumulated many hats. He is a DJ, music producer, fashion designer, journalist, club founder and radio presenter, and is perhaps known best for co-founding the Acid Jazz record label with Gilles Peterson in 1987. Acid Jazz was so influential that it now lends its name to an entire musical genre; a fusion of jazz, funk and soul music, spearheaded originally by bands like The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and Young Disciples, perpetuated still by the James Taylor Quartet, Secret Night Gang and The Filthy Six.

In anticipation of the book’s release, Piller remarked, “It’s funny, but every time I mention that I have my memoirs coming out, people think it must be about Acid Jazz. This is much more exciting. It’s about real life.” As its subtitle, From the Revival to Acid Jazz, suggests, the years beyond the record label’s fortuitous beginnings are not covered here, although a glimmering treasure chest of stories from that era feels tantalisingly close. Instead, it focuses primarily on the writer’s childhood, teenage years and, most crucially, his discovery of the mod way of life, to which he’s still committed today. Piller credits meeting other young mods at punk gigs in the late 1970s with his conversion to the mod lifestyle, but he also describes his childhood home as an influence – his dad was a jazz obsessive, and his mother ran the Small Faces’ fan club (Piller recalls being “bounced on Steve Marriott’s knee” as a child). When he brought his first scooter home, expecting his parents to castigate him, his father congratulated him warmly. 

At its core the book is a choppy, audacious love letter to the UK’s mod revival as it began to emerge in the late 1970s; a throwback to the subculture that had originated in the early 1960s, characterised by an obsession with sharp fashion, music and scooters. In the introduction Piller firmly ascribes mod’s origins to The Who’s original band manager Peter Meaden. Later on he attributes the second wave as being instigated entirely by one man, Paul Weller – “Like Dr Frankenstein,” Piller says, “[Weller] created a monster that made a life for itself.” 

As Eddie Piller’s interest in mod culture transmutes from a curiosity to an obsession, he places the reader in the headwind of an electrifying moment in British history, when fashion choices were demonstrative, even tribal, and music preferences were even more so. Somewhere between hedonism and nihilism, a tempest of drugs, gigs, all-nighters, scooter rallies and an image of London buzzing with youthful galvanism, convening at tea rooms that stayed open all night. The advent of punk during this era is well documented, but the second wave of mod is perhaps less well understood, despite having its own strictly defined social and cultural architecture which still represents a large part of Britain’s music scene and sartorial aesthetic. This book feels vital in that regard. 

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Eddie Piller is great company. A charismatic storyteller, witty and unpretentious, he is at once an engaging protagonist and an indisputable authority, giving a live-wire, visceral perspective on mod life in that short flash of time. He manages to create a welcoming space in this rather exclusive world while never losing his formidable edge as a narrator. By the mid 1980s, as Piller had become a well-known DJ, the scene had all but fizzled out and at this point the story gives way to the origins of Acid Jazz and the opening of the fabled Blue Note club in Hoxton. Seductive anecdotes, chance celebrity encounters and moments of wild serendipity abound, laying foundations, hopefully, for a sequel. For now, what this book delivers is enough; as satiating as a ‘cowboy’ sandwich after a West End all-nighter.

Eddie Piller book

Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances: A Life In Mod From The Revival To Acid Jazz by Eddie Piller is out now (Octopus Publishing, £25)

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic @djdebgrant

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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