In the latest LRB, Ian Penman has a review of Richard Weight’s Mod: a very British style. It’s a critical review (as sharp in places as a mod’s pressed creases), but it’s also a smart essay on music, clothes, and style more generally in modern British culture, then and now. It’s not behind the paywall, and it also gives us the useful neologism ‘tellyology’: ‘shaping history with both eyes on a potential TV series’.
A representative extract:
Early Mods could ‘pass’ between work and play without changing their suits, which is perhaps one of the reasons they were never sent up in the culture at large. Think back to 1960s and 1970s low comedy: no TV sketch show or sitcom or kitschy horror film was complete without its parade of subcult Aunt Sallies – hippies, ton-up boys, skinheads, punks. Rockers had shivs, skinheads had bovver boots, hippies might dose you – what was a Mod going to do? Make you listen to Otis Redding? Force you to buy a decent pair of trousers? Mods posed a far less obvious threat. They flew the Union Jack, after all, and most of them had jobs; they were clean, well turned-out and had nice haircuts. In 1964 there was a brief spasm of tabloid outrage over some rather tame skirmishes between Mods and Rockers, mostly conducted in bracing seaside ozone. Talk of scooter-borne ‘vermin’ aside, the real fear may have had less to do with physical aggro and more to do with the difficulty of slotting Mod into any obvious class or subcult genealogy. (Even the word ‘subculture’ suggests soil, shadow, dirt; airless oubliettes; greasy rungs leading down into a Harry Lime exile.)
Class plays through this story in sighing counterpoint, but Weight has the pop sociological equivalent of a tin ear. He relies entirely on secondary research, on other people’s now exaggerated accounts of already faded memories, and has zero feeling for real lives, real voices, real flight and fall. There is a dusty old pub-table anecdote about some Mod who would only have bunk-up sex if there was a trouser press to hand for his strides – which is presumably meant as a dig at Mod’s twisted priorities. (Full disclosure: no trouser press, but I do own two pairs of antique shoe trees.) Another way to see this tale: having saved for months to afford a gorgeous suit, and probably unable to afford a replacement any time soon, you’re going to make damned sure it lasts. Maybe this guy was on a 48-hour weekender and didn’t want to roll into work on Monday morning looking like an undignified mess?
Ray Davies, naturally, makes an appearance. Here’s one of the songs Penman writes about:
Click image for source. To understand Penman’s point about the bastardization of mod, consider the results of this google image search for mod hairstyles…