Mods or Modernists? / from the archive / issue 1

The word ‘modernist’ has signified in a number of ways since it was first defined by Dr Johnson in 1737 as ‘deviation from the ancient or classical manner’. As well as its architectural usage, it came to describe those practitioners and their aficionados in art, writing, music and dance – Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky and the Ballet Russe – who rejected traditional forms in favour of the experimental, the avant-garde and a purer, more elitist aesthetic, especially in the key early 20th century period of ‘High Modernism’. It is surprising, then, that one of the more interesting appropriations of the word took place in the early 1960s among a distinctively British working-class youth movement. In Manchester and in other towns throughout the North West (despite the higher media profile – surprise, surprise! – of their London peers), this youthful modernist gang purloined the word from its ivory tower and brought it down to the streets.

The first use of ‘modernist’ for a stylistically separate youth sub-culture occurs in the late-1950s/early 1960s to describe European devotees of American Modern Jazz who cultivated a love of ‘difficult’ 1940s be-bop music from New York City: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk et al. In this period most of the world’s most accomplished improvising musicians came to play in Manchester’s concert halls and jazz clubs, including Club 43, the most important venue for modern jazz in the city. Youthful ‘modernists’, smart-suited and wearing Greenwich Village-style berets and Italian sunglasses, flocked to see such luminaries as Miles Davies, Sonny Rollins, Ronnie Scott and the singing triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, all of whom appeared at the Free Trade Hall. On Friday 8th November 1961, ‘members and guests’ paid 8/6d to attend a ‘Midnight Matinee’ until 3am at the Oasis Jazz Club, 53-57 Lloyd Street, at which American saxophonist Zoot Sims provoked much foot-tapping and thoughtful stroking of the goatee.

Exactly when ‘modernist’ gravitated into its sharper, abbreviated form ‘mod’ is in doubt, though by the time of the highly publicised Brighton and Clacton riots in 1963, the newspapers were having a field-day with the new word. Up in Manchester in the same year, rhythm-and-blues star Sonny Boy Williamson played to rapt audiences of young ‘mods’ at the legendary Twisted Wheel club on Brazenose Street (which later moved to Whitworth Street). Musical taste and fashion had gravitated away from jazz in this direction.  More so than in London, the Manchester mods followed American, black R and B and soul music, brought to their TV sets every week via the fantastic sets of Ready Steady Go. Northern mods traded rare American records brought to the area via Liverpool,  the port for incoming sailors, or via the USA Air Force base at Burtonwood, Warrington which since the War had delivered Black G.I.s and their record collections to the area.

Manchester’s 1960s mods drove GS Lambretta scooters from Italy and worked as office clerks, secretaries and tea-boys in new buildings like the CIS tower and Granada HQ. At the weekend, they met in two main places - outside the Old Shambles (Sinclairs Oyster Bar was on a fairly busy road in those days) and at the Cona Café and Wimpy Bar in Piccadilly. Surrounded by the architectural mélange that was 1960’s Manchester, extant Victoriana and bomb-sites sitting alongside the flurry of modernist buildings going up at the time, public transactions - sales of 45's, exchanges of money for pills -would take place on these urban corners.  Not to be outdone, Manchester also witnessed its own small riots. The most celebrated started outside the Twisted Wheel to the annoyance of the owners (the Adabi Brothers), so the crowd moved up the street into Albert Square and gathered outside the Oasis and the Jungfrau clubs. Mounted police charged down the streets, chasing the crowd all over the city, leading to the breaking of department store windows on Piccadilly.

The movement did not confine itself to the metropolis and was popular in industrial towns all over the North West. After a night at the Twisted Wheel or the Blue Note club on Gore Street, many mods from Manchester headed out on their scooters to Bolton. The Boneyard was their venue, an upstairs club near to the railway station and a pleasant change from Manchester’s damp cellar bars. The Boneyard was an evocative nickname - the club’s real name was the Caroline Lounge, named after the pirate radio ship: “Radio Caroline... on 199…”

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Does it really make sense to describe the Manchester Mods as ‘modernist’? Some commentators have approached Modernism as a socially progressive trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings “to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of practical experimentation, scientific knowledge or technology.” Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of life, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was 'holding back' progress, and replacing it with new ways. The young mods were instinctively in tune with these ideas. Positively embracing the moderne, with none of the nostalgic yearning for the country, none of the folkie trappings of the later Hippy movement, the mods were vigorously, urbanely self expressive.

The embrace of technology was expressed in the adoption of the Italian scooter as preferred transport mode: aerials trailing, chrome gleaming, the flashing of street lights on Market Street “captured repeatedly in the dozen or so mirrors festooned around the front handlebars”. Modern pharmacology also played its part: Black and Greens – amphetamine: Benzedrine or Drinamyl capsules (Purple Hearts), developed in wartime for military purposes and now, ironically, used experimentally as mood enhancers and energy-boosters for all-night dancing sessions.

Others have focused on modernism as an aesthetic introspection and obsession. The modernist aesthetic of sharp, clean lines, purist attention to detail, absence of traditional excrescence, played a key part in mod visual iconography. This manifested itself initially in an elitist veneration of the ‘aesthetically pure’. The trouble with the Rolling Stones, as far as the Manchester mods were concerned was that the Stones copied the original artists, and the originals were always the greatest. Original recordings were to become the ONLY versions acceptable. (Thus started the rare record scene off Brazennose Street.)

More famously, obsessive mod attention to fashion detail took over everything. The way in which a sparely cut Italian mohair suit jacket was buttoned. The manner in which one’s top pocket handkerchief was folded. This fashion aesthetic was internationalist in flavour, borrowing freely from Italy, from France, from the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Fred Perry three-button shirts, cycling vests and shoes, Marcello Mastroianni’s black sun glasses, brogue shoes, parkas.  See-through plastic raincoats, white lipstick, kohl eyes, long false lashes, Mary Quant hair-cuts, Op Art dresses straight out of Bridget Riley…

This Low Northern Modernism was instinctive, strongly felt, ‘bottom up’, in comparison to the theoretical abstractions of High Modernism. Yet urban youth were displaying the same embrace of the new, the same desire to experiment, the same aesthetic purism as their academic counterparts. For this reason, I would like to re-christen this seminal 1960s Northern youth movement and to give it back the term from which its ideals and aesthetic were derived.

All hail the Manchester Mod(ernist)s!

© Stephen Hale

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 1 'BOLD'.