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Beat Music, Beatniks, Ska and Italian Style: A Brief History of the Mod

Where does mod style come from? Many assume it was 1960s Britain; in particular, in and around the London-centred music scene. Yet, while it developed and evolved there and at that time, its origins really date back to the 1950s.


Somewhat growing out of (and reacting against) the ‘teddy boy’ culture and its instantly recognisable appearance of the mid- to late ’50s – which was intimately associated with rock ‘n’ roll from the United States – the mod phenomenon and its equally as recognisable look fast grew into a wider subculture, encompassing not just lovers of UK ‘beat’ music (The Who, The Small Faces and so on), but also Italian-inspired fashion, transport (mopeds and Vespas) and a way of life (popping amphetamine pills and so forth).

Indeed, media theorist Dick Hebdige has mooted that the mod movement and its culture began with “a group of working class dandies, possibly descended from the devotees of the Italianate style”, yet sociologist Simon Frith goes further; suggesting that mod-ism grew out of the ’50s beatnik coffee bar culture (which, itself, was associated with ‘teddy boys’ too, of course), especially as this attracted Jean Paul Sartre-loving art school students who were listening not just to US rock ‘n’ roll but also its progenitor, R ‘n’ B, and were happy to become wrapped up in London’s politically and aesthetically radical bohemian scene.


The height of mod-ism came in the mid-’60s, when the aforementioned rock bands enjoyed a huge popularity as the latest things in music. Yet, perhaps inevitably, just as soon as it arrived it seemed to be gone. Why? Well, come 1966, youth culture was tilting in a different direction. The Beatles and The Stones were experimenting with different looks and, well, drugs and their music was starting to sound different; ever more experimental. Mirroring this, the young peacocks and bohemians of the day were becoming more experimental too – psychedelia was in; the smart, instantly irresistible Italian-design style of the mods was out. Now it was all about free love and expanding the mind, rather than a love of Art Gallery clothing and popping on your scooter down to Brighton of a weekend.


That said, you can’t keep a great movement down. Come the late 1970s, music, fashion and an entire ethos specifically informed by that of the ’60s mods was back. This crowd loved to listen to Jamaican ska as well as beat music bands; they embraced pork-pie hats and morphed into the ‘two tone’ (monochrome) style of the early ’80s (associated with ska-ish bands like Madness).

But, in their purest form, the greatest proponents of this scene, at least music-wise, were Paul Weller’s The Jam, a band that styled itself on the Who/ Faces era of the early and mid-’60s – scooters and all. Now, sure this movement too didn’t last, but mod-ism as a recurring alternative subculture had now found its niche in the British identity, which is why it’s dabbled in today by enthusiasts (following a mid-’90s mini-revival thanks to Weller again and Britpop bands like Blur and Ocean Colour Scene). And, don’t doubt it, there’s thousands of them; getting their fill of old-school sounds and the likes of Jam shoes purchased from a mod shop… here there and everywhere!


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