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In mod we trust: The ever-green subculture

Generations of musicians have been influenced by the many waves of mod, says broadcaster Eddie Piller
Paul Weller was the principal figure of the 1970s and 1980s mod revival.

The fluid concept of the mod subculture – or modernism – has been with us for a very long time.

First mentioned in a review in The Daily Sketch of a 1957 jazz concert, to delineate between fans of Traditional Jazz (New Orleans, striped waist-coated Acker Bilk devotees called ‘Trads’) from their opposite number; Modern Jazz devotees who dug blue beat and wore Ivy League clothes, the term ‘mods’ has meant different things to several different generations.

So often at the geographical centre of the cultural world, mod subculture thrived in Soho – initially in the back street jazz clubs of Ronnie Scott’s and the Flamingo in the late 1950s, where Tubby Hayes and the occasional set from Americans like Art Blakey or Horace Silver held sway or at early coffee shops like Bar Italia. By 1961 mod had changed. Same sharp Italian-styled tailoring and obsession with clothes, but the music had morphed into blues. Real, down-home Chicago blues by Big Bill Broonzy and his ilk – about as rootsy as you could get.

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Ever moving forward, by late ’62 the young Soho mod crowd had discovered the next generation of US sounds – called rhythm and blues, it was seen as revolutionary and was soon picked up by real, British bands pioneered by the likes of Alexis Korner and Chris Barber, who in turn influenced The Rolling Stones. Before long, R&B had been replaced by soul. And then soul in its turn by the growing wave of young, British mod-influenced groups. Suddenly mod was everywhere.

Often synonymous with the Swinging Sixties, British mod bands who had been influenced by nascent R&B sprung up overnight. The Kinks, Yardbirds, Brian Auger and The Trinity, Small Faces and The Who exploded and the mod scene was even given its own television show.

The ITV programme was called Ready Steady Go! and hosted by the ‘queen of the mods’, Cathy McGowan – it ensured that thousands of teenage mod enthusiasts checked out the latest and ever-changing fashions on a weekly basis.

The mod subculture spawned pirate radio stations and super-cool nightclubs like The Scene and The Bag O’ Nails, and for a while in the mid-Sixties was Britain’s biggest cultural export. But after a final flourish by unashamedly mod bands like The Love Affair – who hit the top in 1968 with Everlasting Love – mod floundered and went back underground.

By 1970, mod – in London at least– had become little more than a memory and the philosophical concept (for indeed, that was what it had become across the generations) remained dormant until the release in 1973 of The Who’s groundbreaking mod opera, Quadrophenia. A double-vinyl gatefold LP, it came with a 24-page black-and-white booklet of photos by Ethan Russell, which provided a snapshot of a young mod living the life on his scooter. While the music was certainly not mod, the photographs propelled the idea back into the public eye, where it proved to be an obsession for a young teenager from Woking by the name of Paul Weller.

Weller and his band The Jam burst on to the scene in 1976 and reinvigorated the entire concept of mod.

They wore three-button suits and played R&B-flavoured punk anthems, completely at odds with their contemporaries. By 1980, they had become the biggest British band, with sold-out tours and a whole host of hits. It was inevitable they would influence the next generation.

The mod subculture revival, which exploded on the scene in the early months of 1979 featured literally hundreds of bands that had been put together by Jam fans. First among equals were Secret Affair, The Purple Hearts, The Chords and The Merton Parkas, but they weren’t alone. The scene was destined to remain peripheral or certainly underground until, in August of 1979, the movie Quadrophenia was released.

Starring Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Sting and Mark Wingett, the film charted the life of a dysfunctional mod called Jimmy Cooper who battles with young love, drug addiction and total rejection before his world collapses around him. The film was a worldwide hit, amplifying the underground mod revival on to an international stage. It has entered the annals of cultural legend and inspired many of the mod bands who followed in its wake.

What became known as the mod revival went through a number of waves of popularity all through the 1980s until it was picked up as an influence by the London-based (and worldwide) scene which became known as Acid Jazz and then a year or so later by what became known as Britpop. After all, how much more mod could you get than Oasis?

The mod subculture is still with us now, an ever-present cultural marker that provides a constant influence to the generations of people who have been touched by it, be they 17 or 70. Just ask Paul Weller, who said: “You can bury me a mod!”

And I agree with him. Me too!

The 92-track compilation Eddie Piller presents The Mod Revival is out now on Demon Records