Monday, September 16, 2013

Ian Penman reviews Richard Wight on Mods: Amphetamines, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Lee Hooker

He doesn't much like the book, but the review is rad, man. (I know, I'm not referencing the right subculture.)

Some snippets:

What Richard Weight calls the ‘very British style’ of Mod found its initial foothold in late 1950s Soho with the arrival of the jazz ‘modernists’, who defined themselves in strict opposition to the reigning gatekeepers of Trad. Modernists were wilfully brittle, stylish, working-class Cains, different in every way from the whoop-it-up trad jazz Abels. Trad – hugely and improbably popular in its day – had a predominantly middle to upper-class and purposively vulgar fanbase. In its ranks were Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and George Melly, who all later wrote of this time as of a lost Eden. Larkin’s jazz column for the Telegraph ran from 1961 to 1968, a period roughly coextensive with Mod’s quiet rise and noisy fall.

Trads embraced a louche, boho scruffiness (silly hats, sloppy jumpers, duffle coats), where Mods dressed with considered exactness. Trads were British to a fault (real ale, CND, the Goons) while the Mods had a magpie eye for European style, from the Tour de France to the Nouvelle Vague. Trads followed Acker Bilk, Mods worshipped Thelonious Monk: even at fifty years’ remove, you can see how sharing the same club, city or country might have been problematic. If the Oxbridgey Trads had a philosophical pin-up it was Bertrand Russell, with Freddie Ayer for real deep kicks; Mods backed the darker horse of existentialism. How much the Mod crush on continental philosophy was a pose, and how much serious engagement, is a moot point. Even as ‘mere’ pose it’s a very interesting one. In the dourly socialist cinema of the British New Wave, working-class characters are portrayed as sooty beasts of burden, life-force bruisers, 12 pints a night men; Camus-rifling aesthetes are thin on the cobbled ground...

For the Mods, as with the Situationists (awol from Weight’s index), there was a conflict between rowdy group identity and individual slant. They mixed outdoor jaunt with indoor dissipation, group jamboree with sombre reflection, and they took very small things very seriously indeed, things other people wrongly perceived as frivolous. The Mod obsession with Blue Note album sleeves and Italian fashion had the quality of fetish, in both the Marxist and ritual senses. It required near-fanatical commitment to ‘source’ the materials required for a makeover...Early Mod shared with Bauhaus an almost puritan obsession with clean style and correct design. Early Mods had a deserved rep for sartorial aloofness, which shaded into a kind of radiant anonymity. Like the ‘man of the crowd’ in Baudelaire (and Benjamin) they were in the crowd but not of it, tracking sociability like spooks instead of being haplessly caught up in it like everyone else.

Early Mods could ‘pass’ between work and play without changing their suits, which is perhaps one of the reasons they were never sent up in the culture at large...

Mod’s ‘very British style’ was initially a tasteful synthesis of American flash and European savoir faire.

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