I was first introduced to the Mods & the Rockers at age 14. I was taking part in a programme at Carleton University that aimed to give High School students a taste of undergraduate education. With permission from your High School, you were able to apply and select a course from any number of interesting academics on offer.
“20th Century Youth Subcultures” seemed to leap off the page at me. It was a fascinating two weeks glancing over the origins of western youth subcultures from music and style, to representation in popular film and culture. Excellently taught by the Professor who’s name eludes me now, the course was responsible for introducing me to a variety of musical genres and subcultures, specifically that of the Mods.
Mods on the left and Rockers on the right. Margate, 1964. / BBC
It also helped open up my Dad a bit when he saw that I was learning about the Mods & the Rockers. From the North East of England, he shared with me his Who albums and told of how he was conflicted at the time for his love of The Who (a Mod identified band, if not torch bearers for the scene) and that of Elvis and classic American Rock & Roll, as heavily influenced by his Uncle who identified more with the Rockers.
A group of Rockers. May, 1964. / gettyimages.com
At first glance one might assume the Mods were of the more well-to-do set (ie. of a higher social class), interestingly though both subcultures for the most part shared working class origins – as perfectly portrayed in Quadrophenia. The main character in the film – Jimmy, is a Mod and his childhood friend Kevin, a Rocker.
A group of leather-jacketed ‘Rockers’ inside the Busy Bee transport cafe on the A1 Watford By-pass, 1964. / The Museum of London Collections
The Rocker subculture revolved around a passion for motorcycles, specifically Triton’s which were a hybrid of Triumph engines with Norton frames. They ascribed to leathers, Rock N Roll and the open road – hanging out at road side cafes, famously at the Ace Cafe in North London which is still open today. With a disdain for drug use, Mods on the other hand were heavy users of amphetamines.
Mods with their scooters, one which boasts 27 lamps, plus horns, mirrors, badges and chrome mascots. May, 1964. / gettyimages.com
For the Mods, scooters were the ultimate fashion accessory preferring Vespas or Lambrettas which they in turn would heavily customize or accessorize. Typically working 9-5 jobs, Mods would spend their money on clothes, drugs and dancing the night away at various clubs.
‘Mods’ try on Beatle boots (modified Chelsea boots) at Annello and David, Drury Lane 1964. / The Museum of London Collections
The outfit of choice for male Mods were tailor-made suits, skinny ties, and Chelsea boots with an iconic military parka overtop (so as to protect their smart clothes when driving their scooters).
A Mod Girl is measured for a suit in a Carnaby Street tailors. May, 1964. / gettyimages.com
Female Mods tended to prefer a more androgynous look – sometimes wearing men’s shirts & trousers, short hairstyles, flat shoes, mini skirts and simple to no makeup.
Mods outside a cafe with scooters, on Tower Bridge Road. London, 1963. / The Museum of London Collections
The musical tastes of the Mod tended to jazz, soul, R&B, and bands like The Who, The Kinks and Small Faces to name a few.
Bank Holiday Mods in Brighton, 1964. / gettyimages.com
An air of violence between the two rival subcultures was constantly brewing and close to boiling over –
While mods were seen as “effeminate, stuck-up, emulating the middle classes, aspiring to a competitive sophistication, snobbish, [and] phony“, rockers were seen as “hopelessly naive, loutish, [and] scruffy“, emulating the motorcycle gang members in the film The Wild One, by wearing leather jackets and riding motorcycles. Dick Hebdige claims that the “mods rejected the rocker’s crude conception of masculinity, the transparency of his motivations, his clumsiness“; the rockers viewed the vanity and obsession with clothes of the mods as immasculine.
Things came to a head during the May Bank Holiday in 1964 when 1,000 youth descended upon the English south coast. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous “Battle of Brighton” where the Mods and the Rockers clashed on Brighton Beach by the Palace Pier. It was a violent fight, with similar brawls across the south east during the long weekend, and has been since immortalized in one of my favourite films – Quadrophenia.
Photo Credit: John Frost Newspapers
It’s fascinating to me the dislike for one another these two groups held, when both subcultures actually evolved from the Teddy Boys & Teddy Girls of the 1950’s.
This initial introduction to the Mods & Rockers would eventually guide me to Brighton as a teenager on a family trip to the UK, and in later years moving to the city itself. Brighton today still feels very much like the spiritual home for Mods, especially with cracking good stores like Jump the Gun, which has been selling beautiful Mod suits and other Mod apparel in the North Laines for over 20 years.
An interesting period in time that captured my imagination as I’d walk that very rocky beach, where the Mods & Rockers had battled that May long weekend back in the ’64.
“You have to be a Mod or a Rocker to mean anything.” – Mod Girl, Daily Mirror, 1964.