When I was about 13, a friend loaned me a copy of British band the Jam’s definitive (if hardly best) album, In the City. The lyrics may be hard to take seriously as an adult, but the vibe was happening, and it really started some motors for a certain art-school-bound teenage suburban romantic back in the day. I’d been hearing a lot of punk up to then in friends’ rough split-level basements, sort of pretending to like it: Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash, Circle Jerks, the lot. Punk already felt ancient and tired to me in 1982, although I don’t know if I could have articulated that then, much less dared say it for fear of drawing the disdain of my relentlessly snobbish punk-cult friends. Honestly, punk mostly sounded like my dad’s rocknroll from the ’50s, just sped up and played badly – which of course it mostly was. It generally sounds better to me today than it did then, and I wish looking back I could have taken more advantage of it to process some well-deserved anger at my parents. More mosh pits might’ve helped. But I’d been exposed to enough real violence. I didn’t need it snottily foregrounded in my art. In college, I got into more melodically post-punk bands like Husker Du, Minutemen, and Fugazi, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I didn’t know anything about Mods when I first heard the Jam. Mod progenitors the Who to me were my older sister’s music; bell-bottom, long-hair, clanging guitars, cocks-and-balls music. Grating. Pretentious. Not mine. The Jam, while all about their moment, were driven by an admixture of nostalgias: for working-class life, for post-war British identity, and specifically for the culture and vibe of the Who circa 1965. Speed up the early Who’s tempo to match punk, and you have a key component of the Jam’s sound template.
For the uninitiated, a teenaged Paul Weller founded the Jam trio in the mid ’70s, wrote most of the songs, played guitar, and sang lead. He is reverently known today by many as the Modfather. When I encountered the band, I was already into clothes and looking good. My worship of Paul Weller took it all to another level. He’s lately suggested that Mods are born, not made; that it’s an aesthetic sensibility, not a particular style. I tend to concur. For Mods clothes are always a part of it. It’s about a certain attention to presentation, at all levels. The criteria are not fixed. Another aspect of Mod is adaptability and eclecticism.
As a kid, I had switched from a suburban pseudo-preppie-type middle school (the oldest school building in town, which had thankfully been condemned), to a newly built, airy junior high school in a recently developed, unincorporated part of the county to the east. There, mere miles away, I suddenly entered a locked-down conformist province where nearly everyone, boys and girls, sported permed mullets, horned-rim plastic Vuarnet sunglasses (choices were white, red, blue, black, or pink), sleeveless t-shirts, and checked Vans. Rush and Van Halen were the sound track. After getting bullied about my brand new tight brushed corduroy pants at the bus stop my first day (“nice pants, faggot”), I quickly got with the program. When in Rome. Overnight, most of my clothes were made of loose-fitting pale cotton duck. I took the sleeve of Zenyatta Mondatta to my first lady barber, pointed at Sting’s bleach-blonde faux-hawk and said, “that.” I built a sweet assortment of OP t-shirts adorned with sunsets, palm trees, mountains, and racing stripes, and those short, square, wide-wall OP shorts in like 6 pastel colors. I drew a hard line at Van Halen. No. Still the worst.
My first real teenage band was the Police, and they represented a sort of Mod-ish, punk-ish rebellion against the conformity in which I found myself ensconced. The first few Police records (before Sting’s literary pretensions completely took over) represent some good music for 8th grade boys, in suburban Denver, in 1982. My friend Chris and I covered the fronts of our two tone canvas hoodies with Police buttons, scoured from every strip mall mom-and-pop record store from downtown Denver to the furthest reaches of southern suburban sprawl. North of downtown, places like Thornton, Broomfield, and Northglenn were no man’s land: quelle horreur. Likewise the infinite ticky tacky wasteland of Aurora. Dozens of independent record stores, even the chains, all carried different buttons. It was like collecting baseball cards, or stamps, but they were shiny and brightly colored, with cutting-edge graphic design from Europe and New York, and you could wear them. We were dorks, but we occasionally met cute dorky chicks, who mostly had our same New Wave haircuts.
The Neo-Mods promoted a sense of fashion that had longer cultural legs and deeper roots than all that transplanted Today’s Tom Sawyer, faux Dog Town beach wear, and as I entered high school I turned toward it for further stylistic redemption. Mod style is modern style. Arising as arguably the first youth movement in 1960s England, Mods found their foil in the Rockers. Rockers faithfully aped American ’50s rocknroll culture, but weren’t really about being kids. They unconsciously idealized disaffected adults. They greased their hair back into ducktails and pompadours, wore leather jackets, Levis, and boots, rode motorcycles, and listened to Jerry Lee, Carl, and Elvis. In literally sharp contrast, Mods looked both to continental Europe and the next generation of American music (R&B and Soul), deftly synthesizing them, and smashing all racial and ethnic boundaries with shared modern ideals and aspirations.
Mods drew on influences from recently lost territories of Empire – the Americas, Africa, India, the Caribbean, and Asia – and their numbers included many of the children of recent immigrants to Britain from around the world, kids who found and built a culture themselves to call home, to re-orient from. The only real criteria was having a bit of style game (properly understanding that aesthetics includes everything.) They grew their hair out, or cut it off, bent or at least blended gender, mixed flamboyant haute couture with dry preppie and blunt blue-collar fashions, and rode tricked-out Italian scooters designed to putter between cafes and cups of espresso, not roar down American freeways. This sort of amalgam is the signature characteristic of the Mod aesthetic, hence worldview. Racially diverse and culturally diffuse, Mod always looks to the future, while drawing the past forward with appreciation and flair.
The Jam formed as the Who were well into their more mature if likewise fatuous phases. But the Who weren’t the Jam’s only Mod inspiration. Other bands like the Faces, the Kinks, and especially the Beatles provided style as well as sonic models that are evident throughout their catalog, and Weller’s beyond his first band’s demise, in the Style Council and his solo work. The Jam rocketed to the top of the British music charts, and stayed there for years before disbanding with a record at number 1. In Britain, for many years they were the second only to the Beatles in terms of record sales and hits. For numbers of generations of Brits now, the Jam are a cultural touchstone on par with Big Ben, clotted cream, and the Queen herself. So why have maybe only one in a million Americans ever heard of them? And why on earth did they appeal to that handful of us in such a visceral way?
I remain fascinated and perplexed by the Anglophilia of my youth, and the environment I came up in. Looking through a box in my mother’s garage recently, I came upon a high school year book. I was stunned to suddenly realize how nearly everyone’s name was either Irish or German, including many of the folks of color. The Spanish influences were palpable, too. How did suburban Denver, Colorado, USA end up seeming like such a British colonial outpost? My childhood was a torrent of obsessions (shared with plenty of peers) for Dickens, Lewis, Tolkien, Monty Python, Masterpiece Theater, Shakespeare, James Bond, Michael Caine, William Blake, and Arthurian lore, scored by Beatles/Bowie/Eno/Ferry.
Actress Jane Seymour was my first iconic crush, some kind of feminine ideal; at 12, I carried a picture of her in my wallet. At 15, I would have pushed my parents off a cliff for a date with Helena Bonham Carter. None of these fixations were especially affected. They were sought out with a peculiar intuitive drive, both libidinal and in some sense more sacredly inspired. Recent DNA tests and research have revealed my overwhelmingly English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry, and maybe that’s part of it. But that does little to explain the sheer aesthetic and conceptual allure of fair Albion, removed by most of a continent and a wide ocean; that green and pleasant land, physically visited only much later in life, but more an idea really than an actual place. Even today, many of my favorite visual artists are Brits, like Howard Hodgkin, Sean Scully, Patrick Heron, and the quietly great, neglected Ben Nicholson. I see more and more how these ideals, maybe grounded in English common law and British Protestantism, shaped every aspect of my early life and mind. And it was a good and noble, if necessarily flawed, attempt by this culture and the people in it to produce more good people.
As a teenager, I may have first found the Jam, but within months I’d discover the Cure, Psychedelic Furs, PIL, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Billy Bragg, the 4AD label bands, et al. You could make a case for any of them being loosely considered Mod, but the quintessential Mod aesthetic was more evident in two-tone bands like the (English) Beat, Madness, the Specials, even in American bands like the B-52s. Weekends were often spent combing the racks at the host of great thrift stores on Broadway Blvd. near the then rundown art-deco Mayan theater. The holy grail was the endangered but not yet extinct sharkskin suit, but anything with narrow lapels and tapered pantlegs we’d snatch up. Bowling shoes were a crucial accessory, to be worn with tight high-water slacks or pegged jeans. You’d wear a crappy pair of shoes as collateral, bowl and if they were decent, walk out in the loaners. Delinquents.
After school one day, per usual we hit a hole-in-the-wall record shop near my house to rifle the milk crates. In the back of the shop, they kept one lonely, thinly stocked bin with a hand scrawled sign reading “import new arrivals”, and I still remember my fascination discovering one particular record cover by a band I’d not heard of before, with a big import sticker slapped on it. A true mark of quality. It was kind of stark looking, generic even, with a black-and-white image of a young dude in profile, surrounded by a sea of light blue, and plain sans serif text. It had the nonsensical appellation Hatful of Hollow, and song titles that asked questions like, “How soon is now?” and, “What difference does it make?” The band itself had a paradoxically memorable appellation: the Smiths. I couldn’t resist. I had no idea of the game changing sound I was in for. Later, I could never really abide solo Morrissey (another topic). It was the band, in particular the underestimated rhythm section, that made the Smiths so compulsively listenable. Stephen M.’s much maligned mawkishness I just found hilarious, and poignant, in turns. In subsequent decades, guitarist/riff lord Johnny Marr has been established as a Mod icon second only to the Modfather himself.
Mod includes Modern (with a capital M), but it’s a quintessentially postmodern aesthetic. Of course, postmodern isn’t actually a separate thing. The modern ethos has always been about bringing what is at the fringes of or outside culture into focus at the center. The ubiquitous Mod target icon maybe symbolizes this. The center is always shifting, the elements forever in flux, but the values remain consistent: inclusiveness, boldness, tenderness, independence, futurism, and looking good.