Thursday, April 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Mods: The New Religion: The Style and Music of the 1960s Mods


As an American growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, to me Mod was something that was from another era and another country.  I became familiar with it through my Anglophilia which began when I was a child, as well as the British rock music of the 1960s that I immersed myself in growing up. Not only was I obsessed with (as I continue to be now) the music, but the fashions held an equally strong fascination for me. I did my best to emulate them however I could growing up in small town New England with the way I dressed, especially during high school: tapered-leg jeans, leather Oxford shoes or Dr. Marten's, turtlenecks, collarless dress shirts, pop art t-shirts, longish hair in a Beatles-style haircut (not easy when you have naturally curly hair!), and sideburns. I certainly wouldn't ever say I was a Mod, but I did the best I could given the constraints of the time and place I grew up in and the fact that my only points of reference for what was Mod was based on pictures and videos of 1960s British bands (Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Who, etc) and all the hours I spent studying my dad's copy of Quadrophenia on vinyl. If only a book like Paul "Smiler" Anderson's Mods: The New Religion had existed twenty years ago, my task would have been that much easier.


***special thanks to Neil at Omnibus for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

For the uninitiated or unfamiliar, Mod was a movement that developed in the late 1950s in post-WWII Britain as a youth-driven escape from the drabness and austerity of the post-war era.  Although skiffle and rock music had grown popular during the decade, the Mods rejected the white American and British attempts at appropriating rock and roll's blues, R&B, and jazz roots and instead sought authenticity by going straight to the source. Alongside this were the Mods' love and appreciation of sharp clothes, scooters, and all-night dancing and socializing fuelled by vast quantities of then-legal amphetamines. What started as an individualistic youth cult in London slowly began to spread throughout all of Great Britain as the various Mod pockets paid attention to what the others were doing in terms of their look and dances as they constantly tried to one-up each other. There were the usual clashes between the young Mods and their parents as well as sensationalized reports in the press predicting the ruination of British society as a result of their amphetamine use and carpe diem approach to life the Mods had. For these kids, life was about spending whatever money they made at their menial jobs on the sharpest clothes, the latest R&B records, Vespa or Lambretta scooters and their accessories, and the various speed pills they could get, all the while spending every spare moment they had dancing and listening to their favorite R&B music, be it via DJs playing records or live bands.  Clubs sprung up all around London and the rest of the country while the Mod aesthetic was beamed to the country's living rooms every week on Friday night via the influential Ready! Steady! Go! television show. American acts like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Water, Otis Reading, and James Brown (to only name a few) were held in high esteem alongside homegrown British acts like the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, and other lesser known but no less influential names like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, and more. However, the seaside riots of 1964 that pitted Mods against gangs of rival Rockers made national headlines and gave Mod even more negative connotations in the eyes of the older generations.



The high water mark for the entire movement was 1966 when Swinging London was at its apex. From here through to the end of the decade as Mod became mainstream and commercial on both sides of the Atlantic, it slowly withered away as its strongest adherents incorporated elements of the psychedelic movement, which was now all the rage, as Mod morphed into something else entirely.  Additionally, many of the earliest Mods were now by the late 1960s graduating from school, getting married, and starting families and careers, thus having neither the time, money, energy, or desire to keep up the lifestyle any longer.  Concurrent with this, the biggest of the Mod bands outgrew and evolved their images and sounds, chief amongst them the Who, Kinks, Stones, and Small Faces (who by the end of the decade were known as Faces and featured Rod Stewart replacing Steve Marriott on lead vocals).  The younger siblings (both literally and metaphorically) of the original Mods adopted many of the same trappings but added close-cropped haircuts and more extreme violence to become what the media dubbed Skinheads.  By the early 1970s Mod was for all intents and purposes dead, yet the Who's 1973 album masterpiece Quadrophenia kept the flame flickering until the movie adaptation in 1979 led to a full-on Mod revival, led musically by British group The Jam.  Mod continued to hold a fascination for people too young to have experienced it firsthand throughout the 1980s and 1990s, again coming to the forefront during the 1990s BritPop era.  Even in 2015, there are many folks both young, old, and original who still embrace some if not all of Mod and what it has to offer.



So there's a potted history of the Mods which now leads into the heart of this book review: if you want the real story about Mod, told straight from the mouths of those who lived it and created it, then Mods: The New Religion is the only book that matters. Paul Anderson is a second generation Mod and an expert on the movement and what he has given us is the true Mod bible. Weighing in at a hefty and densely packed 300 pages with a gorgeous hardcover, the book traces the history of Mods from the immediate aftermath of WWII to their rumblings and growing pains in the late 1950s before they finally exploded into a legitimate movement in 1960.  From here the scene is traced through chapters dedicated to the fashions and styles, the music, the dances, the clubs, the drugs, the scooters, and the various bands that made up the whole thing. While Anderson describes each of the factors that make up Mod in detail, he lets the folks who were really there tell the story through interviews and reminiscences that place you squarely back in that time and place. For someone like me who has always wished I could have lived through that decade in that city (London) this book is the closest I will probably ever come to feeling like I was actually there: the feeling was nothing less than magical and I say that with no degree of hyperbole or drama. Each chapter contains so many of these great memories told by the original Mods, plus the book is as appealing visually as it is verbally. Every page is crammed full of photos of memorabilia, concert posters, newspaper clippings, ads, record labels and covers, band photos, and more. What makes it even cooler are the numerous photos of the interviewed Mods themselves, frozen forever in time with their fashions, having fun, relaxing, dancing, or just mugging for the camera. The addition of real human faces to the stories help transport the reader even more firmly back to those exciting times. Along the way there are more subtle but no less fascinating nuggets of information to be learned, including several that I had either never known or had never thought about in the way that the book presents them. Among them: the Mods had a disdain for straight-up rock music which was one reason that, alone amongst the big British bands of the 1960s, the Beatles were never Mod favorites even though they dressed the part and cut their teeth on the same American blues and R&B records the Mods held equally as dear; purist Mods never considered the Pop Art movement of 1965-66 as anything to do with Mod; most Mods had an intense dislike of psychedelia and they despised most American rock bands of the era (Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead come in for particularly severe kickings!), leading many Mods to become disillusioned with the whole movement and drop out of it completely; and that Marc Bolan's transformation from early 1960s hard London Mod to late 1960s psychedelic flower-child to early 1970s glam rock superstar was a fairly calculated and ambition-driven metamorphosis than anything else.  Equally fascinating was to read about how so many giants of both the 1960s era and the subsequent 1970s rock scene all intersected throughout the decade via Mod. Besides the members of the aforementioned Who, Beatles, Kinks, and Stones, major players included Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds), Jimmy Page (session guitarist and The Yardbirds), Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds), Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Ronnie Wood (the Birds), and many more.



Mods: The New Religion was one of those books that I just could not wait to read each and every day; I was quite sad once I was finished with it as it was an absolute blast to read with every sitting. It was immersive, engrossing, interesting, and a true book-as-time-machine. A real pleasure for the senses, it not only caught the eye and the imagination, but it made me delve even deeper than I'm already familiar with into the sounds of the era by seeking out the more obscure records it mentioned, a task made immeasurably easier with 2015 technology such as Spotify and YouTube. If there is one complaint I have with the book, and it is a truly minor one, it's that the epilogue dealing with the death of the original Mod era and its subsequent revivals was a bit too short and rushed for my liking...it was only a few pages when I would have been perfectly fine with a full chapter on the subject. However, it was still a satisfying conclusion and a worthy enough way to wrap the book up in a satisfactory manner.  Perhaps the best thing the book did for me was to make me realize that, while I was far from a real Mod in my youth (plus I'm not that into dancing and I've never used drugs), in my own way I did my own small part in keeping the spirit of the clothes and music alive in my youth and I try do the same now.  Mods: The New Religion shows that while only a select few of us were true Mods who lived and breathed everything it had to offer for that brief golden period of 1960-66, in our own ways there are countless more of us may be, in whatever small proportions, Mods ourselves.  I absolutely loved this book and I've no doubt anyone else interested in the era also will. The subtitle of the book is completely appropriate: if Mod was the new youth religion of its era, Paul Anderson's book is its bible and the final, definitive word on the subject. Simply put, if you love Mod, you need this book.

MY RATING: 10/10

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