Interview with Paul "Smiler" Anderson, author of Mods: The New Religion

Author Paul Anderson

The Rock and Roll Chemist is proud to bring you the following interview with author Paul "Smiler" Anderson. Paul is the author of the excellent book Mods: The New Religion which I reviewed earlier this year. For anyone interested in Mod style and culture and music, or just 1960s Britain in general, it's a must-read. Paul 'Smiler' Anderson has been involved with DJ'ing on the Mod scene for over 30 years and has been writing about it via fanzines, record sleeve notes and books for the same amount of time. He has DJ'd at many of the major Mod nights and has DJ'd at Mod rallies and events, both in the UK and Europe, since the 1980s. In 2011 he wrote and came up with the concept of the biggest ever exhibition of 1960s Mod artfacts, which alongside Damian Jones, he set up at Reading Museum entitled 'Reading Steady Go!' In 2009 he co-wrote "Circles - The Strange Story of The Fleur De Lys" about the little known 60's Mod band. in 2014 "Mods: The New Religion" was published and he is currently working on a new book entitled "Mod Art" due for release next year. Paul was kind enough to answer my many questions about his great book and his views on Mod culture. Enjoy!

RNRChemist: Hi Paul, thanks for speaking with me...I'm really excited to have the opportunity! Let's get started: can you tell us little bit about yourself?

PA: I’m 50 years old and I live in Reading in Berkshire which is approximately 40 miles from London. I  live with my wife Lorraine and my son is 4 later this year. I’ve been into Mod since 1979.

RNRChemist: How did you first get into Mod culture?

PA: I became involved in the Mod scene around September 1979 after watching it evolve from afar. At first the entry point was through the revival bands such as the Jam, Secret Affair, The Chords etc. Fashion-wise I hadn’t a clue: it was all white, socks, loafers and a parka. In 1983 I started work as a postman, and by then lots of the older original revival Mods were getting more into being scooter boys. In other words, their interest revolved around their scooters so clothes were not that important and their music choices changed. To me, being a Mod was always about clothes first, music second, and although I always have owned scooters, they really aren’t a necessity. At work I had to wear a uniform so I really appreciated dressing up in my leisure time, which I guess is the paradox to businessmen wearing jeans and sports wear in their free time. By 1984 locally most Mods had evolved into the scooter scene whilst I went in search of my Mod Nirvana which I found in London. I discovered clubs like The Phoenix and Sneakers which were full of young kids wearing tailor made suits and 60s vintage clothes dancing to original R&B, soul, ska, beat and jazz. I found my Mod heaven and that dictated my direction from then on. I was always in search of elusive vintage shirts by Brooks Brothers, Jaytex, Ben Sherman, Brutus, Austins, Jon Wood, Harry Fenton or Arnold Palmer. If you couldn’t get vintage you’d find a good shirt maker such as Katy Stevens who was based at 7 Archer Street in Soho at the time. She’d made shirts for The Beatles and The Small Faces in the 60s and was the best. Suits and trousers were either vintage or tailor made. We had a guy called Charlie Antoniou who had a tiny room above a shop in Carnaby Street. Beautiful mohair masterpieces in 3 or 4 buttons, or maybe double-breasted. You avoided the mass Mod market shops that were dotted along Carnaby Street and were cheap quality pale imitations. The street fashion by 1984 was Frankie says T shirts, linen one button ‘Miami Vice jackets’ or Casual gear such as Pringle, Lyle &Scott etc paired with Farrah slacks. Youth tribes from the period included ‘Boneheads’ (Skinheads racist ancestor), Punks, Psychobillies, Rockabillies, New Romantics, Casuals, Rockers, and Scooter Boys. Most hated us Mods but in a way it felt great to be involved in such an underground movement.

RNRChemist: What was it about being the Mod scene that interested and appealed to you?

PA: As above really. I had no interest in the present day fashions, really.

RNRChemist: How long did you spend researching and writing this book?

PA: The book took around five years to write and was at the publishers for two years before it was released! I did most of it the old fashioned way, recording interviews on a tape recorder, writing it out in ink, editing and typing it up. Most contacts were gained by getting phone numbers and taking a chance.

RNRChemist: What inspired you to write the book?

PA: I’d always written fanzines in the 1980s and I’d never actually read a book that I thought had done the original scene justice. Lots lean towards the Northern Soul route which really doesn’t interest me that much.

RNRChemist: Why do you think the time was right for the movement to start when it did in the late 1950s/early 1960s?

PA: Britain was still recovering from the destruction of the Second World War. Rationing was coming to an end. Hire purchase was on the increase for working class people. National Service ended and youths wanted to distance themselves from the grime and misery that their parents and siblings lives had seemed to be full of.

RNRChemist: Why were the Mods so obsessed with finding authenticity in everything? In particular, with their music?

PA: Mods love one-upmanship, so what better way than to search out an obscure artist or song? To find a rare record on an even scarcer label is always nice.

RNRChemist: Regarding the drug use by the Mods, how prevalent was it and do you think it was as bad as the media made it out to be at the time?

PA: Yes, I think it was very prevalent...probably worse than what was actually reported!! Amphetamines were a huge part of the Mod experience.

RNRChemist: Besides allowing the kids to stay up all night raving it up, why do you think they were drawn to uppers rather than alcohol, pot, or psychedelics?

PA: You have to remember most clubs were held in unlicensed premises, so alcohol was pretty much out of the question. Besides which, a lot of Mods were kids of, say, 15-17 so they were too young to drink anyway. You also have to remember that it was only later in 1964 that the "illegal use of drugs" act was proposed. Prior to that the drugs taken could be slimming pills or pick-me-ups for anxiety. Psychedelics would not enter the scene until ’66 or ’67, really.

RNRChemist: A lot of detractors thought the Mod males were a bit effeminate for caring so much about their appearance, but most of those guys were tough bastards! Why were working class youth so clothes conscious?

PA: The working classes have always liked to dress up, even back in the days of the "Sunday best" suit. You may be poor, but if you can dress up, the less people will judge you.

RNRChemist: The same goes for scooters. What was the appeal? I'm guessing it was some combination of getting around the city easily and appropriating another fashion from the continent?

PA: Yes, it was a glamour aspect combined with a relatively cheap form of transport for freedom. Plus, you could personalise them, and everything engine wise was covered up unlike the dirty, greasy motorbikes of the period.

RNRChemist: The entire movement seemed to have a live fast/live for today mentality...not many of the kids seemed to care to save their money; as soon as they earned it they seemed to spend it on clothes, scooters, records, pills, and going out. Was this simply a rebellion against the austerity and scrimping and saving they'd all known growing up in the 1950s?

PA: You have to remember that the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 almost saw the end of the world. A lot of youngsters wondered if there was much point in saving. They embraced the feeling of moving forward, but living for the moment at the same time. Plus you have to remember they’d grown up in the bomb sites and the grey days of rationing. This mixed with new fashions, music and inventions...why wouldn’t they want a bit of glamour?

RNRChemist: How do you view the whole Mods vs. Rockers thing? Was it a legitimate rivalry or was it trumped up and exaggerated by the media?

PA: A mixture really, yeah, it could be bad but in most cases Rockers lived in the country or the Home Counties. The press stirred it up for sure but in reality the worst enemy of Mods was other Mods. This being either young Mods coming up trying to gain reputations or the usual rival territories such as East London versus South London.

RNRChemist: In your opinion when did the original wave of Mod start to die out? Why do you think it did?

PA: Mod was constantly evolving. The late 50s Mods, well some may have even been gone by ’61 or ’62. The riots in '64 thrust Mod into the spotlight and caused many to disappear. Mod’s last true stand was probably over by ’66 and by ’67... it was definitely past its sell by date. This is due to music evolving, especially in ’67 where the white West Coast sounds took off, plus heavier drugs. For some it was boredom or for many, getting married and settling down. Mod may have still been found in Northern England  and other places, but London was pretty much over it.

RNRChemist: It seems that most of the folks you interviewed in the book all share the opinion that when Mod went commercial and Carnaby Street became the epicenter for Swinging London, the scene moved past its expiration date (so to speak). Was that the death of the movement, losing its authenticity and becoming too mainstream?

PA: I think it was the combination of all that I mentioned in the previous question. In ’66, Swinging London was a tourist trap and a million miles away from how it all started.

RNRChemist: Regarding the people you interviewed, it was so wonderful to read all of their memories and to see many of them in their youth in the midst of the Mod scene. How did you manage to track down so many of them?

PA: Sheer hard graft is the plain answer. Just tracing leads, phone numbers on bits of paper etc. Asking one interviewee if he had other contacts, that sort of thing.

RNRChemist: Who were your favorites of the people you interviewed?

PA: Hard to say really as since making the book I have become good friends with many. Terry from The Eyes, Ali from The Birds, Chris Farlowe, Steve Ellis, Jeff Dexter, and Mike Quinn are some of "the famous" that I now count as friends, which is as surreal as it is lovely. Then the Mods: Mickey Tenner, Lloyd Johnson, and the Portsmouth Mods were all really great. I had loads of fun interviewing Jimmy James, Geno, Martha Reeves, Eddie Floyd, Owen Gray, Derrick Morgan…the whole journey was a blast! I had a lovely couple of meetings with Ian McLagan, sadly the last one was just before he died.

RNRChemist: Personal opinion of course, but who do you think were the leading figures during the scene, and why?

PA: Mickey Tenner was very influential and I was so glad to have him on board for the book. To me, the Birdcage Mods from Portsmouth seemed to have the whole idea and attitude down to a tee. I love those guys. Guy Stevens and Roger Eagle in terms of the music. I believe Chris Barber is the unsung hero of the scene, really. Whilst he was never a Mod, he deserves credit for bringing over all those early visiting blues artists. Of course then there are Andrew Loog Oldham, Peter Meaden, Johnny Moke, Willie Deasy. Most movers and shakers were just the actual Mods.

RNRChemist: Were there any interesting or crazy stories you gathered while interviewing everyone that didn't make the final cut of the book? Any chance you could share one with us?

PA: Ha ha! I could tell you that Andy Ellison and Johns Children actually got the job of painting The New Scene Club white after the Scene Club renamed itself in ’66 and got rid of its old blacked out image. John Lee Hooker used to piss in old empty beer bottles whilst on tour in the back of a van. One day another band used the van, took a corner too fast, and found themselves drenched in stale JLH piss!

RNRChemist: Which of the British bands of the 1960s era do you think were the most authentically Mod? Which ones are your favourites?

PA: I think Rod Stewart was definitely about on the scene in the early days so deserves more credit than he gets...he was everywhere! I believe that Georgie Fame had a lot of suss to cover what they covered musically. The Animals were also loved by the very hip crowd. There are loads of little bands that maybe could be there such as The Wes Minster Five or the Bo Street Runners. The Stones and the Yardbirds were very sussed in their early choice of blues material. You have to put in The Who really, because although kind of manufactured to be Mods, they were in the epicentre of it all. They were in the right clubs and had first pick of a lot of Guy Stevens records. Out of all the singers, to me Chris Farlowe has one of the most authentic sounding voices. Later bands like The Small Faces, The Action, and The Fleur De Lis contained actual Mods so are obviously included. I love aspects of all of these bands, really, so it’s hard to choose. I think The Action are to me the ideal package, though, in terms of material, look, and that fantastic Reggie King voice.

RNRChemist: Why do you think that, alone amongst the big 60s British bands, the Beatles were never really embraced by Mods? They seemed to dress the part and share the same influences as the Mods, yet their brand of pop and rock seemed to fall on deaf ears when it came to the Mods...

PA: Time has been a bit unfair to them. As my book states, they were one of Britain’s first bands to cover R&B. "Some Other Guy" by Ritchie Barrett was a fantastic song to cover, as was "Twist and Shout." But to London Mods they were aliens from "up North" and so were seen as behind the times. Their squeaky clean image was a bit too produced and they were perceived as a girls pop band. Although The Animals were from up North, too (Newcastle), I think they were regarded as a bit more "street" and tough, working class so they were accepted a bit better.

RNRChemist: Along these same lines, the rock and skiffle crazes of the 50s led to a lot of kids picking up an instrument and starting bands; indeed that's how almost all of the 60s bands got started. Yet it seems most of the kids who came up Mod weren't inspired to do the same...they were content to go see shows, dance, and listen to the records. Am I off base, and if not why do you think this is the case?

PA: Can’t really see that, as most early Mod type bands featured at least one person from art school so I think there was a definite creative flow there. Surely the Beatles and The Stones got as many bands to pick up guitars and form bands as did Elvis and even The Shadows? Most later rock groups like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, The Faces, and Status Quo all had that Mod background element in them.

RNRChemist: What aspect of Mod fashion is your favorite? How about least favorite?  What do you think are the best and worst aspects of Mod culture?

PA: I love a good button down shirt and tailored trousers with nice loafers, basket weaves, lace ups etc. A beautiful well cut suit is always aesthetically pleasing. I hate all the psychedelic garb, frilly shirts, day glow, big long collars. I’ve never liked boating blazers. The best part of Mod culture is the creative one, as in discovering new records, styles and facts. The worst part is the destructive one, which is the pompous, blinkered and egotistical bullshit that pollutes it.

RNRChemist: In your view, what was it that made the late 1970s climate in the UK and US so ripe for the Mod revival?

PA: The same as when the original scene sparked in to life: Britain was a depressing place. Faded rock stars, strikes, hippie flares, bad haircuts. Punk cut through that all, thank God, but a lot of it came from a middle class background. That added to the fact that punk was kind of like the Rocker thing in that the whole dressing down look was what the establishment and the general public expected. Working class kids in well-cut suits wasn’t, so the boundaries were blurred. Punk gave it the spark of energy needed but lost momentum. The Mod revival just added the energy needed.

RNRChemist: Which bands, if any, from the second generation of Mod (say, the late 1970s Mod revival through to the late 1990s BritPop scene) do you think embodied the spirit of the whole thing (whether in their fashion or music, or both)?

PA: The Jam obviously deserve most credit for having influencing so many of the bands to form or "go Mod." Paul Weller was very quick to point out that The Jam were not a Mod band, although he was a Mod in a band. Weller was pretty shrewd there and deserves credit. He saw what happened to Jimmy Pursey and Sham 69 when you align yourselves in such a way. They had trouble at lots of Sham gigs. Secret Affair took on the banner and suffered lots of trouble at their gigs with the Glory Boys etc. The Chords were great energy-wise as were The Purple Hearts. In honesty, The Style Council probably got a lot closer to the original ethics of Mod in the 80s. By the 80s bands were less punk influenced, so bands like The Prisoners, The Moment, Fast Eddie, and Makin’ Time were accepted by more discerning Mods. Although there were lots of fodder amongst them with bands like The Gents and such. I could not relate to these.

RNRChemist: What are your favorite bands from the original 60s Mod era? Favorite albums? Favorite songs?

PA: My favourite musical style is the blues so I love Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and all those greats. Booker T & the MG’s "Green Onions" probably is the ultimate Mod tune in my opinion with "Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud" by Tony Clarke a close second. But my personal favoutite song ever is "Heatwave" by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. I love all the stuff really. Not a fan of Northern Soul but I like bits of it. R&B, Jazz and Ska are always in my DJ sets. Paul Weller gets a lot of stick but in my opinion he is probably the most influential Mod ever. As much as I love the Small Faces, Marriott and co. were only part of the scene for a very small period. Bands like The Eyes and the Creation always sound so exciting, even today. I’m proud I still like all my revival stuff, too. Hell, life is good. Mod got me in to so many different things, from French Jazz to Brasilian sambas!!!

RNRChemist: Paul, thank you so much for speaking with me and enlightening us with your knowledge and thoughts on all things Mod! It was a true pleasure! For my readers, I can't recommend this book enough. If you're a fan of anything we touched upon in our discussion above, you need Paul's book as it is truly the bible for all things Mod.