MOD: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain's Biggest Youth Movement by Richard Weight
|MOD: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain's Biggest Youth Movement by Richard Weight
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A comprehensive account of 'the Modernists', Britain's most influential youth cult, and with its coverage of fashion and style from the 1950s to the present day, more wide-ranging than the main title might suggest
|Date: January 2015
|External links: Author's website
Mod is arguably a rather-overused term. First of all, there is the matter of establishing a precise definition. Modernism, which was soon abbreviated for convenience, began as the working-class movement of a newly affluent nation. Once the age of immediate post-war austerity was gone, the cult of a youth keen to shake off the drab conformity of life in 1950s Britain took hold. It was more than anything else an amalgam of American music and European fashions, beginning as a popular cult and gradually becoming a mainstream culture.
One of the virtues of such ill-defined movements is that they effectively have no boundaries. For Richard Weight, it is not merely a neat five-year window of style or even revolution coinciding with the height of the swinging sixties. He regards it as a somewhat sprawling spread of one fad into another, from the fifties, the dawn of rock’n’roll and the advent of Teddy Boys, through to the sporting and cultural success of the 2012 Olympic Games, if not beyond. In around 400 pages he takes us on a helter-skelter journey through the whole lot.
To an apparently victorious but economically ravaged Britain in the late 1940s, he suggests, America was the land of opportunity and the trendsetter in modern taste. International modernism came from across the Atlantic. To some, it was the key to a Technicolor future, while to others, such as the poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin, it was a malign influence, responsible for corrupting art and literature and now about to poison the whole British way of life. If Britain had more in common with her fellow European nations, many were keen not to face up to the fact, xenophobia being a perfectly understandable by-product of the struggle against Nazi Germany which was still within living memory of the older generation, and which was persistently reflected in media stereotypes for some years onwards, The Germans episode from Fawlty Towers being one of the most obvious. But by the time Harold Macmillan was leading Britain’s first attempts to join the Common Market, as it was then, Mods or ‘modernists’ were beginning to see Mediterranean countries as a land of opportunity, or in modern parlance, cool.
Before this, they had been among the first white Britons to take to contemporary American jazz, in particular that of Miles Davis. Within a few years, their tastes moved on to blues and modern pop music. It was ironic that the ‘British invasion’ was spearheaded by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other groups whose early repertoire had been drawn mainly from American blues and rock’n’roll. Hand in hand with these came the unashamedly mod-influenced The Who and the Small Faces, and above all the Kinks, whose music reflected their love-hate relationship with nostalgia for Britain’s past and a fascination with music hall and vaudeville. All this came at a time with liberalising attitudes in British society with the abolition of capital punishment, the availability of the Pill on the NHS, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion.
In the sixties, Britain was a more free society than America, where the religious Right still wielded considerable influence. And, as at least one American critic acknowledged, rock’n’roll now had a British accent that sounded hipper, smarter and funnier than Elvis Presley’s down-home drawl. The fashions went beyond music, and Carnaby Street, the designs of Mary Quant, Ted Baker and Ben Sherman, and the opening of Terence Conran’s Habitat store were also part of the movement. So, if less obviously, were some of the new paperback designs, such as those used for the Penguin edition of Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin.
By the mid-sixties, with people from the West Indies settling in Britain, Jamaican ska and reggae caught on, culminating just over a decade later in the Coventry 2-Tone record label and the more politicised music of the Specials and the Selecter. Punk fashions might have seemed the antithesis of Mod, yet still had their echo in the sharp suits and angry young leftism of The Jam and its front man Paul Weller, who was something of a spokesman for his generation in the years to come as much as Pete Townshend of The Who had been a decade earlier. The dance music, house and rave scenes a decade later carried on the tradition, if less forcefully.
Where did Mod end? It evidently never did. Some might argue that it eventually ran its course, but Weight’s view is that Britpop, 'cool Britannia' and the Blair-Brown-Cameron era were a natural progression if not a mere extension of the movement. As his final sub-chapter heading concludes, 'We are all modernists now'. The pop culture that developed in Britain during the sixties took hold and evolved through succeeding generations, all ready to adapt the style to changing times. Though it may not be the Mod fashion that it seemed to be during the premiership of Harold Wilson, perhaps it never really went away. Weight has charted the convoluted story with a wealth of very impressive and utterly engrossing detail.
For a considerably broader perspective, may we recommend Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay; for a shorter account of the pivotal decade, The Sixties by Jenny Diski; or for a more detailed account of the period, including social and cultural as well as political history, A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr
MOD: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain's Biggest Youth Movement by Richard Weight is in the Top Ten History Books 2015.
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