Skinny Ties and Scooters Retrofitting the Mods

Skinny Ties and Scooters Retrofitting the Mods
The last fight I got into was ten years ago, outside Montreal's Stanley Pub. I was 16 years old, alone and wearing my three-button suit, parka and desert boots. It started with a shoulder bump with one of a group of five ugly, greasy-haired rockabillies and got nasty quick. The beating wasn't as bad as it could have been, and I think I gave as good as I got. But the thing I remember most vividly of that encounter was the feeling of twisted pride I had afterwards: that I was the latest casualty in an on-going myth-making battle between artificially-created rival factions in an essentially pointless and stupid assertion of teen tribalism. I know fighting is wrong and I certainly don't condone it today, but if you asked me ten years ago, I believed in my cause, right or wrong. I was a Mod, they were rockers, and there you had it: instant enemies. End of story.

Never mind that the fight was by that time 30 years old, from a different continent and as pointless and stupid then as it would be a generation or two later. To hate rockers was Mod. It was as Mod as riding a scooter, dressing right and listening to early ‘60s British R&B.

Today Mod is the Next New Thing. You see it on the streets, on TV ads, in fashion magazines. Go-go boots and mushroom cuts have entered pop culture thanks, in large part, to Austin Powers and the invasion of Britpop. Bands like Blur, Oasis, Stereolab and Ocean Colour Scene are donning the mantle of Mod dressed as Britpop, and North America has been catching up over the past five years. Which, if you know better, is an abomination.

the Flashing Lights

For the lifers, the new fad remains the latest subculture to have been co-opted, raped and exploited by the merciless forces of mass marketing. Gaven Dianda, organist for Toronto's ‘60s-inspired roots/psych band the Flashing Lights, and who also plays in the garage/mod band Satisfaction, dismisses the latest explosion as a cynical attempt by opportunists to cash in. "I guess [marketers] are running out of clichés to subvert and co-opt," he notes with resignation. "They've exhausted the ‘70s kitsch bullshit and the ‘70s disco fad-ism, and they've run out of iconography and images to re-package and sell to you. So they're forced to seek out more obscure reference points, and I guess it sits well with the whole postmodern thing that's going on right now."

If the postmodern scene was born with the death of Kurt Cobain and the fizzling of the last great movement in rock music, there were more than enough bands on either side of the Atlantic to pick up the pieces and start something new. By 1996, bands in the UK were shamelessly emulating the sounds and images of the early Beatles and Who. Meanwhile Lad-ism, essentially the reassertion of the disenfranchised white male, found expression in low-brow glossy magazines like FHM and a voice in notorious asshole Liam Gallagher.

The Datsons

For Trevor Anderson, vocalist and guitarist of Montreal mod/R&B trio the Datsons, the adoption of the Mod tag by Britpop bands is not only misguided, but also damning. "All [Mod] really is to me is a great set of tastes, a good set of judgements ? it's a good system of choices. What made me uncomfortable with it for a while was that it seemed to be a kind of reactionary thing, where people are like, 'Yeah, fuck the hippies, man, let's start wearing suits and go out clubbing and buy nice cars!' For me it's purely just clothes and music, it's not a political statement. The whole Britpop thing was very politically reactionary, it was in a way very right-wing reactionary."

In every subculture there is an element of over-intellectualisation of style and music, especially among neophytes. Some embrace it, some reject it. And in a small, limited market like Canada, there is bound to be confusion as to subculture identity and meaning.

Canada's three big cities each have some sort of Mod/Britpop night. In Montreal, it's at Cybertek on St-Laurent; In Toronto, there are at least two weekly, with other guerrilla shows appearing occasionally. Wednesday night's Mod Club at the Lava Lounge on College Street is pure ‘60s soul (Motown and Northern) and R&B, while Saturday nights at the El Mocambo is contemporary Britpop. On the West Coast, Vancouver offers Britpop on Mondays at the Purple Onion, while monthly "Double O Seven" nights at Picadilly features Northern soul and ska.

At about midnight at the Lava Lounge in Toronto, the place is "packed to the pyjamas," according to DJ and member of the reformed and distinctly Britpop-ish Platinum Blonde, Mark Holmes. He strives for the same see-and-be-seen flavour so important to a subculture, and yet despite a healthy presence of older Mods, scooterists and ‘60s throwbacks, there are dozens of casually dressed patrons bemused, curious or just fond of the music. As a scene centre, it isn't.

Holmes speaks of the entire Mod culture with the enthusiasm and reverence of a religious convert. On the successive waves of Mod revivals, he believes he and his partner are part of "keeping the flame alive. The torch was passed from one generation to another, and with each passing the torch is turned into a conglomeration and then becomes a big torch again. The entire point is to keep the flame alive. It's a religion almost ? a music and lifestyle religion."

But at what point does a religion become mired in dogma, factionalism and heresy? No one can provide a satisfactory answer as to what Mod ? as either a noun or an adjective ? means. Jon "Mojo" Mills, editor of the London, UK's Shindig magazine, wrote in an email that "Paul Weller has been the one that has proved that Mod can be really whatever you want it to. As long as a keen sense of style and coolness is there, and your ideals fit the moving forward and being [of a] different mould, in essence you're a Mod… It's a wide term, and the Jam Shoe, Parka style is less Mod than someone who wears brand new clothes, listens to new music and has a fine appreciation of culture, style and nightlife."

Clichés applied to Mod abound: "Mod is living well under difficult circumstances"; "Mods are not affected by insignificant things like the weather"; "Mod is about Jean-Paul Sartre, John Lee Hooker and amphetamines." Depending on who you ask, a Mod can be a vanity-driven peacock, a working-class hero or an existentialist hopped up on goofballs. The one thing they share is an affinity for early to mid-‘60s music and style.

Dianda, of the Flashing Lights, does see the Mod scene split into different camps, but the split is more similar to one between friends than between ideologues. "There used to be a certain amount of antagonism between the short-haired, soul, 1964-'65 style Mods, versus your longer-haired, more psychedelic freaky Mods. The same thing happening today happened in the ‘60s: the influx of so many people onto the scene turned the sort of more purist people onto greener pastures, psychedelia being one. But it's like being a Catholic ? you always maintain that sensibility, and just like it you always maintain that sense of ritual and hierarchy."

In North America, psychedelia and its retarded cousin, garage punk, were the precursors to a new movement that would spawn and mutate rock in a dozen different directions. Psych led to the netherworld of hippie-dom; garage to punk rock. Garage punk was the North American version of an indigenous Mod scene. One of the few bands that managed to amalgamate both these strains was the MC5, but their fury was soon spent on alcohol and heroin.

Mooney Suzuki

"There could never be a real Mod band in America because it would automatically be labelled a garage band," says Sammy James Jr., lead singer of New York City's Mooney Suzuki. "The fact that we might wear suits and have bowl cuts is always wildly interpreted. People would say we were ripping off anyone from the Beatles to the Ramones."

The mishmash of the North American Mod/garage scene has in recent years become even more confused, James continues. "Even ten years ago, subcultures had very firm sedimentary levels. Everyone knew that on this level, you had this kind of band, on that level, you had that kind of sound. Now, it just seems as though someone took the whole tank and shook it up. Any kid can turn on the TV or search the net and be exposed to anything throughout history as instantly as watching Eminem on MTV."


Strangely, some people see the rave scene as the closest thing to the true spirit of the original Mod scene. Sean Allum, the drummer for Winnipeg's Duotang, feels the comparison isn't stretched in the least. "Look at that scene in [classic Mod film] Quadrophenia," he says, "when all the Mods are down in Brighton, dancing in the club to 'Green Onions'. It's almost like a rave, dancing to jungle and wearing snug, except there's always the flavour of the past." (Allum is careful to note the difference between contemporary electronica and soul: "I like to say that rave music is premature ejaculation, while Otis Redding is making love all night.")

"Identity is in crisis in Canada," says Flashing Lights guitarist and vocalist Matt Murphy, "and I think the explosion of the Mod scene may reflect that ? a desperate grab at identity. I mean if you use the term Mod, it gives you the right to use that handsome target symbol, which is great, it's a beautiful symbol. But what's it mean, really?"

In Montreal, Jordan Swift is piloting successful Canadian ska label Stomp's sister label, Tyrant Records, with the explicit purpose of bringing together Mod, surf, garage and New Wave bands. "After years of doing Stomp with [Planet Smasher and Stomp co-founder] Matt Collyer, I had a desire to reach out to other types of music that we love," he says. "Stomp is doing really well, but it's frustrating not to latch on to others bands we think are really cool."

Tyrant has signed three Montreal bands and has one album, the Gruesomes' Cave-In!, already released. The Datsons, also on Tyrant, will be releasing their debut album at the end of June, while Montreal's the Undercovers are also preparing a summer release. These three bands, while sharing some basic elements, are all very different.
Swift realises the inherent problems of trying to artificially create a scene where one does not exist. "There isn't a unified Canadian mod scene. There is a network of ‘60s enthusiasts who work together to put on nights, but we want Tyrant to be the home of Canadian bands playing ‘60s-influenced music."

A scene of ‘60s-influenced music is a viable thing. It already exists in most parts of the country, with the large cities being their natural hosts, but a strictly Mod scene as such does not seem to be cohesive enough to stand on its own.

"In Canada you're going to have to lump people in together, because it's so small," says Murphy. "If there's something happening on a larger scale, like in England or the U.S. and you're trying to find a parallel here, you're gonna end up squeezing all these disparate elements under this one umbrella, because there are not enough bands doing strict Mod music."