Mods in the Metropolis
“All the others are third class tickets, is that clear?”
If you are unfamiliar with the 1965 minor hit from whence the lyric above is taken, the High Numbers’: ‘I’m the Face’, then shorn of its cultural context you will probably draw a blank as to the exact meaning of the word ‘ticket’. But if you were to hear singer Roger Daltrey’s withering and sarcastic delivery of this line, then you would be left in no doubt whatsoever that it wasn’t a compliment. The epithet ‘ticket’ was a derogatory term for the sheep-like followers in the ‘modernist’ movement of the 1960’s who would listen in awe to the ‘ace faces’, who in turn were the self-appointed, aloof arbiters of the coolest and most crucial styles and sounds around; and it’s instructive to know also that the mildly inelegant term ‘modernist’ itself would quickly be shortened to the far sleeker and flashier: ‘mod’.
The High Numbers, who had formerly traded under the name of the Detours, would shortly rebrand themselves for a third and final time as: the Who. In some respects the band’s soubriquet was almost an afterthought as they consistently powered through electrifying sets at London venues such as: the Goldhawk Social Club or the Railway Hotel, playing with such purpose and intent that it seemed as if their very lives depended upon them acquitting themselves well. The band comprised of four lean & lairy young tyros from Shepherd’s Bush, whose seriousness and musical intent were as much in evidence as their totemic Rickenbacker guitars & rum and Cokes. Singer Daltrey oozed barrow boy smarts and heroic self-belief, whilst guitarist and principal songwriter Pete Townshend was a Gustav Metzger-espousing idealist full of tics and nervous intent, bassist John Entwistle was pragmatically dubbed: ‘the Ox’, in direct reference to his four-square solidity, both as a musician and as a personality-type, and as for drummer Keith Moon; well let’s just say that a single cursory look at his arm-flailing, kit-trashing technique would reveal exactly why the Puck-like, cow-eyed one was known as ‘Moon the Loon’.
It was the nascent mods of West London who first caught a glimpse of, and then responded to, the urgent rhythm and blues of the High Numbers, and once they began to enthusiastically evangelise about them to anyone within earshot it was then only a matter of time before the slothful suburbanites in the dormitory suburbs began to pick up on this word-of-mouth, musical phenomenon. If you look at the earliest photos of the band and the mods that gravitated towards them like so many loyal orbiting satellites, then you will probably discern what the mods seemed to know instinctively: because you will see that the band and their fiercely loyal acolytes are all attired so similarly, that it looks as if all of their clothes were sourced from the same bolt of high-end Italian cloth.
Not only did the band and audience shop in the same same-sex boutiques, (this was unheard of up until the mid-sixties), such as the prohibitively expensive Lord John and the improbably named: ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, but both were also listening, internalising and then reacting to the same superior sounds that were emanating from American record labels who had incredible wellsprings of talent on their rosters: there was Stax, Chess, Volt, and Detroit’s Motown Records for example; and each and every one of them produced stunning tracks of ribald and raucous R&B and smooth & sensual soul.
One of the principle architects and codifiers of mod at this crucial cultural juncture was an elusive, enigmatic and immaculately besuited ‘ace face’ called Pete Meaden, and fortunately for the mods and the High Numbers, he also the owned & managed the previously mentioned Railway Hotel. Meaden was clearly a ‘switched-on’ character and knew exactly where to find the sharpest, hard-to-find clothes and the most soulful sounds, and because it was commonly known amongst the cognoscenti that his mod credentials were beyond reproach, when the late-to-the-party UK press eventually caught on to the remarkable tsunami of colour and cool that was mod, they pressed Meaden for a pithy soundbite as to what this ‘new’ youth movement was about; and Meaden, with timing as immaculate as his bespoke Jermyn Street shirt, offered up the following enigmatic epithet:
“mod is: clean living under difficult circumstances…”
Meaden would later go on to take on the Herculean and some would say unenviable task of managing the Who, but in attempting to encapsulate the aesthetic of mod, he was clearly being a little disingenuous in his assertion that mods were desirous of: “clean living”. Let’s just say that while it was true that mods were on the whole abstemious when it came to alcohol, which was almost unanimously perceived as an old-fashioned vice that made relatives sloppy and embarrassing at family functions, that that didn’t mean that the mods didn’t have their own brand of, how shall we say, ‘secret fuel’?
Most of the mod faithful would gather at the beginning of an expectant evening to pose and parlay in Italian cafes & geleterias, with both sexes resplendent in their mod finery (and perhaps for the first time in modern day youth culture the boys preened as much as the girls) and would quickly down a couple of synapse jarring double-shots of Italian espresso. After a lengthy and mostly good-natured and animated discussion which would usually revolve around the age old triumvirate of teenage obsessions: the opposite sex, clothes and music, and oncee a mutually acceptable venue had been agreed upon, a couple of prescription slimming pills would be surreptitiously swallowed with yet another coffee. These pills were nicknamed according to their colour and appearance: so there were ‘black bombers’ and ‘French blues’, all of which were ‘slimming’ pills that acted as appetite suppressants. When taken in sufficient quantities, these little pharmacological miracles would trigger the production of endorphins and serotonin, which gives the person a rush of energy that postponed tiredness and fatigue temporarily and meant that one could dance all night and even into the next day if you took enough of them. These pills soon became as much a part of the ‘mod experience’ as the obsession for hard-to-find clothes and the ubiquitous and ruinously priced Lambretta and Vespa scooters.
Inside the hallowed mod-dominated venue it would be hot, intense and crackling with both natural and artificial, pharmacologically-induced & enhanced energy, and many of these word-of-mouth places would often have a house deejay who was so ‘hip’ and ‘gone’ that he would be wearing impenetrable wraparound shades in the darkened DJ booth, and would spend most of his set attempting to convince star struck girls that he could read the embossed labels with his fingertips; at least as well as the non-sighted jazz & R&B pianist Ray Charles could read braille.
It was in this way then that the mods of London seemed to have found a way to access the electric grid that lit London’s yellow, jaundiced street lights & powered the tube trains that thundered through the Underground, as the mods danced, flirted and smoked the night away, perfectly in synch with each other, the music, and their palpitating, tremulous heart beats.
Finally, after a fraught and revelatory High Numbers show or a disco marathon that would usually finish as a new day was forming. the mods that didn’t have the resources for a last drink never mind a train ticket, would have to risk prosecution and jump the turnstile to catch the early morning train home. Many of the mods who had misjudged the amount of Dexedrine that they had imbibed would still be carrying the crackle and spark that had powered the last few hours of dancing. They knew exactly what it meant to be young, awake & aware as night slowly acquiesced to a new day.
In a very real sense then, the underground trains that were now transporting these wired, switched-on & style-conscious kids back to their homes, were literally carrying the very lifeblood and energy that was needed to nourish London’s ancient heart and keep it vital & alive.
The mods were now going home to sleep off another night of youthful abandonment and thrumming excess, whilst ironically most of the metropolis was waking up reluctantly, arising en masse, and would all-too-soon take those very same trains to places of work that they had long ago surrendered to, with numb, middle-aged deference.