How Did I Get Here? A Journey Through The Decades
It all started in 1964. This was a pivotal year in the Mod history. The year that the whole movement broke out from being an underground cult led by mysterious stylists and faces who congregated in dingy basement night clubs in London’s West End, and hit the headlines of both fashion magazines and tabloid press. This was the year in which the iconic film Quadrophenia was set, which included a fictionalization of the legendary confrontations between Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach. It was also the year I was born.
This means that around the second half of the 1970’s I was a young teenager in a desperate rush to make the transition to adolescence, in that crazy conundrum of trying to figure out what’s cool and what will get the attention of the cute girls. What will be a good move that won’t be alienating, or something I’ll regret when the frenetically turning wheel of acceptability makes another revolution? It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Most kids I knew started getting record players for Christmas around that time. Their record collections consisted of albums by groups who had recently had catchy hits: ‘Dire Straits’ eponymous debut album; ‘Out of the Blue’ By E.L.O.; ‘Jazz’ by Queen … and just to complicate the issue further, there were American soft rock bands trying to break into the English charts, along with a 1950’s Teddy Boy revival spurred on first by Showaddywaddy and the enormously popular ‘Happy Days’ TV show, then the death of Elvis followed by the phenomenal success of the film ‘Grease’, with it’s seemingly never-ending string of hit singles on heavy rotation on Radio One. In the middle of all this the Punk explosion happened and ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ became the turd in the punch bowl of many kids’ otherwise middle-of-the-road record collections. My peers and I weren’t really old enough to ‘get’ Punk, and by the time stories of their abject rebellion and destructiveness had filtered up to northern England, the Sex Pistols had already disbanded, Sid Vicious had checked out on a descending spiral of drugs and legal issues, and the Punk scene had not only exploded but diluted into the wide-ranging and more palatable sounds of ‘New Wave’. Even Jonny Rotten himself was deriding the second wave of ‘Exploited’ style Punks, parading around the King’s Road with outsized Mohawk haircuts and bondage trousers, trapped in a time warp of recreating the past, no different from the Teds themselves. I was conflicted in my feelings towards Punk. The in-your-face rebellion and power-chords were fine, but I couldn’t get behind the ripped-up clothes and spitting.
I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point I became aware of what I thought was a Punk band, but they were dressed in sharp black suits and skinny ties. The Jam! Some older lads at school had either attended or claimed to have attended The Jam’s gig at Seaburn Hall and word was spreading that this was the band to be into. I was browsing in ‘The Spinning Disc’ record shop in the town centre and came across the single ‘In The City’ so smuggled it up inside my jacket (sorry Tony!) and ran all the way home, partly out of excitement to hear it and partly out of fear of getting caught. The descending power chord intro had me instantly hooked and before long I was immersing myself in this band. I had finally found a way out of the labyrinth, an answer to my question of what music, clothes and attitude were cool. It was all right there and so obvious. There were other bands emerging who also had an attractive youthful energy, like the Buzzcocks and the Undertones, but along with this palpable, powerful urgency in their music, The Jam had STYLE!
At this time I was sporting the ubiquitous haircut of the mid-seventies teen: collar length at the back, centre parting and ear-warmers. I had wondered for years how stars like Rod Stewart and Bowie had their hair spiked up, but a brief consult with Roy the barber at Fagin’s Clip Joint revealed that it was never going to be possible with an overgrown helmet cut and the simple answer was to cut it short. Hair will spike up easily when it’s less than two inches long and that’s exactly the cut I got.
A skinny satin tie was acquired from the Durham Book Centre, and a few badges for my school blazer helped establish my identity as a devotee of The Jam. The next step was a wardrobe overhaul. Out went any shirts with long collars, along with any strides with wide hems. I could blame all this on a growth spurt and replace said items with narrow-fitting trousers and shorter collared shirts. I’d long since grown out of the hideous brown broad-check jacket acquired in 1975 for my Nana’s Golden Wedding anniversary party, so had reason enough to beg some money off my Mam for a sports jacket with narrow lapels, short vents and three buttons. This trend continued for some time, as I acquired more records by The Jam and studied their look as they became more popular, I gained more ideas of how to dress, and I augmented my wardrobe conversion with money earned working for a milk man. It slowly dawned on me that The Jam weren’t really a Punk band at all, as they quickly matured beyond three chord power pop into playing more thoughtful, soulful and intricate music that was clearly influenced by early Beatles, early Stones, early Who, and The Kinks, so it was almost by default that I realized that I had gradually become a Mod – the first in my school.
Of course I got endless abuse for this at school, once the word ‘Mod’ had entered the limited lexicon of early-teen youth culture. Punks, Teds, Hippies, (yes, we had more than a few of them at school too), and hard rock fans all had their comments for me and on rare occasion there was a scuffle, but thankfully nothing too violent and these events just steeled my resolve that I must be on to something. In any event the clothes, the style, the music, the attitude all seemed to offer so much more than any of the other alternative bandwagons to which a lot of the kids seemed to be hitching themselves. There was some relief when my closest mate Phil announced that he was joining up too, and that Fletch and Russ were also on board. Fletch was a tough looking lad who had been into Punk, and Russ was a big fella who looked much older than the rest of us, so it seemed like in the gathering momentum we might not be quite so outcast. Mickey was a huge lad in the year ahead of us and he started wearing a parka to school. Some other older lads joined from his year, and in a school that was severely socially stratified by age, it was fun to get increasingly frequent nods of respect and recognition from these older lads, as there was no question that I had been the first Mod in the school.
By the time the Halloween school disco took place in October 1979, Mods were probably in the majority of attendees with an obvious youth-cult allegiance, and it was a bit of a vindication for me that lads from the year ahead of me were begging me for a badge and asking me where I’d got my black and white Jam shoes. Quadrophenia had been released, and even though most of us couldn’t get to see it at the cinema right then as it was rated ‘X’, the word quickly spread, and before long there was a sea of olive drab parkas around the school, worn by many lads who only a few months previously had given me a hard time for my sartorial leanings. Now here they were getting into conversations about clothes, music, scooters, vintage records and the relative merits of the revival bands. I finally got to see The Jam in concert at the Newcastle City Hall in December 1979 on the ‘Setting Sons’ tour. These were the days long before computers and the internet, so the only way to hear about gigs was either through perusing the weekly music press or making a weekly telephone call to the Newcastle City Hall box office to listen to the recorded message listing upcoming performers, which always ended with “ … Northern Symphonia and the wrestling”!
I was happy to ride the Mod bandwagon for the next few years. It gave me the direction I was seeking and the attention I probably subconsciously craved as being the youngest of four siblings. This was clearly more than just a passing phase for me. A lot of kids thought it was enough to get a cheap polyester two-tone ‘Mod suit’ and a parka, (still wearing ‘Pods’ or ‘Kickers’ on their feet!) and when the novelty wore off they moved on to some other interest, but for me and a handful of others it was much more serious.
The ‘Mods!’ Book by Richard Barnes opened up a vast new world to us as we read about the original stylists and wanted to be like them and each develop a more individual look to set us apart from the green-clad uniformed crowd. A couple of the lads got scooters and developed their dedication through customising their sets of wheels. I formed a band and we had some success on a local level. My band-mates weren’t Mods and we weren’t a Mod band. We had a keyboard player who had a Roland synthesizer so we were clearly a New Wave / Techno / Futuristic band, but photos exist of me sporting a short spikey haircut, wearing a skinny tie and playing a maple Rickenbacker 4001 bass guitar, just like Bruce Foxton. As the Mod revival bands started dropping out of sight one by one, I started to realize that I was in danger of becoming another relic from the past just like the Punks and Teds. When The Jam split at the end of 1982 I was taken aback and skipped school in order to see them on their farewell tour as they didn’t come anywhere near my town. I suppose I was ready for a change anyway. Phil had pointed out one of our mates named Rich who had started wearing more flamboyant clothes, listening to avant garde underground music and frequenting a club named ‘Hero’s’, where such music was played amongst an eclectic variety of other stuff. It’s hard to categorise exactly what he was: probably ‘post-punk’ or ‘proto-goth’ or some other such inadequate label, but Phil noted that with Rich’s interest in clothes, music and clubs, all of them underground and contemporary, he was really a ‘Mod of today’.
Being in a band with disparate members with varied musical tastes opened my mind to a lot of new music that might not have happened for me otherwise, and our first ever gig was in that same underground club frequented by Rich, so before long I was listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kraftwerk, New Order, Human League, Heaven 17, Talk Talk, Danse Society, Psychedelic Furs, Chameleons, Magazine, Japan, as well as rediscovering older music I’d previously thought passé by Bowie, Roxy Music, the Doors et al. I also liked some of the more funky sounds of that time (maybe due to loving the Jam track ‘Precious’?) by bands like Pigbag, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Shriekback, and Fashion. Just as with the original Mods of the sixties and the revivalists of my era, it was fun to be into a band that no-one else had heard of, but when none of these made a dent in the big time I started to seek out what influenced their sound and arrived at James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, GAP band, Zapp, Isley Brothers, Maze, Chic, George Benson, Chaka Khan, Cameo, Luther Vandross, and a whole host of other soul / funk / blues artists that were in my subconscious from all those years hearing them at discos while I was waiting for more traditional Mod music to be played.
I always wondered what had happened to the original Mods from the sixties. Did they become hippies, smoke dope, grow their hair and beards? Did they become skinheads? More likely most of them eventually just slipped back into mainstream society like Jimmy at the beginning/end of Quadrophenia, stripped of their mod regalia, got jobs, bought houses, got married, had children, grew beer bellies, wore jeans all day every day, and saved up to pay for mortgages and family holidays instead of clothes, nightclubs, gigs, records and scooters.
Me? I went to college, then moved to America. I got a white collar job and had modest disposable income, but my beloved three button suits could not be had for love nor money. This was the early nineties, so on my job I wore a suit and tie with a white shirt and white pocket square every day, but the suits were all double breasted big shouldered jackets with pleated trousers, and the ties were wider and louder.
Then came the dreaded advent of business-casual. Offices and airports the length and breadth of the country were populated by drones playing it safe in pleated khaki chinos, baggy polo shirts, Brooks Brothers button down shirts and burgundy loafers. Around the late nineties three button suits started being visible again, and I jumped on the trend not knowing for how long they would be available. Unfortunately I found out in time that these were not a desirable version. Big padded shoulders and no waist suppression made them look like shapeless tubes. Around this time I finally became aware that the aim of off-the-rack menswear is to create each size jacket in such a way as it fits as many men within that size range as possible, in order to leave nothing left unsold at the end of the season. This means that the likelihood of buying an off-the-rack jacket that will fit perfectly is slim to none, and I used to think I was an easy fit! Also, even though jackets are sized by chest, I learned that the shoulders are the most unique component of the jacket and as such should be the priority in seeking a good fit. Chests and waists can be altered with comparative ease, but jackets with poorly fitting shoulders are difficult, costly and sometimes impossible to fix.
So it was back to a wardrobe overhaul for me, with a smile at the memory of having done this over thirty years ago. From off-the-rack, eBay, made-to-measure and even a few bespoke items, in recent years I’ve slowly acquired a wardrobe which covers all the staples and then some, and after all these years the pieces are more than ever inspired by the fantastic early sixties Mod aesthetic. Every jacket has slim lapels, three buttons, and no vents. Every pair of trousers is medium to low rise, flat fronted with narrow bottoms. The hair has grown longer and been cut shorter over the years but to this day remains a one-inch spike with no sign of baldness (thanks Dad!).
The music all went to hell for me around 1990 with the dawn of the grunge scene, the objective of which seemed to me to be removing any trace of glamour. Performers were content to take the stage looking like construction-site workers and audiences didn’t seem to mind, as they looked the same. There was no showmanship on the stage, and no sense of a big occasion among the audience members. All a far cry from the Face-spotting we used to do as young teens. I have around seven hundred albums so there’s enough of a variety to keep me satisfied if I live another fifty years. I haven’t bought a new CD in years and the most recent ones I have bought have been mostly retrospective collections. Living in America I’ve been lucky to have seen many of the funk/soul artists mentioned above in concert who would have been unlikely to venture up to northern England if they ever crossed the Atlantic on tour. Their music may be firmly rooted in the distant past but they still know how to put on a show and give the audience their money’s worth. I’ve also seen The Who several times over the years. Purists may get snooty about this but I don’t care, its always a decent show.
I never did own a scooter but expect to have one some day. Living in a southern state where the winters are mild and you are guaranteed a ‘Long Hot Summer’ every year is conducive to scootering. Also, the kind of lightweight and brightly coloured clothing that always looked so good in the magazine adverts shot in Paris or Rome but would be ridiculously out of place in the cold wet industrial north of England is appropriate where I live now. I own linen suits in white, sand, dove gray and blue, and have several bright coloured boating blazers. I inherited my Dad’s genuine midnight blue Crombie but have never had to wear it unless I went out of state. I have a job with no particular dress code so I can dress as formally as I choose without offending anyone or looking out of place, and I have an understanding wife who also dresses well and likes the attention to detail I take, so she knows she never has to worry about my ability to match her level of formality when she dresses up.
So that’s my Mod journey. We all have a pathway and mine has been circuitous since I first got ‘the look’ back in 1978. They say older people get more set in their ways, so I doubt much will change from now on. A few tweaks and upgrades here and there, but no major change in style. The search for perfection continues!