Pete Townshend on Mod

At the recent SXSW festival in Texas journalist Will Hodgkinson chaired a discussion called This Is Mod the highlight of which was this candid and revealing conversation with Who frontman Pete Townshend:

The Who’s second gig was a place called Boseley’s Ballroom in Chiswick, West London. John Entwistle and I were still at school and Roger Daltrey had just finished, so this must have been the summer of 1961, I would have been 16, and at Boseley’s there was already a mod thing bubbling under. It was the first time I ever danced. Prior to that, dancing at a club was jiving, which required a degree of coordination plus contact with a female, neither of which I had access to. I realised that, actually, that was where the mod movement began: boys being able to dance on their own. It was incredibly important.

One day in 1962 we did a gig at Acton Town Hall, and we all had new suits made. We got our picture into the Acton Gazette and I was looking pretty sharp in my suit and black tie, and young and quite handsome, and Roger’s younger sister saw it. So Roger said to me in his best gorilla voice: “Urgh, Christine’s got a crush on you.”

I went out with this really charming girl for six or eight weeks, and in that time I got to know Roger’s other sister, Gillian, who was a mod. Her boyfriend had a scooter. His hair was a bit of a bush but it had a style, and he had a PVC coat. Gillian wore very tight pencil skirts below the knee, flat black shoes, and she was doing these dances that I believe evolved from the twist: tiny moves with her knees together. It was incredibly sexy, incredibly elegant. Gillian was 19 and her boyfriend was 20, and he was the first “face” [top mod] I knew.

That experience, with that couple, made me feel I knew what mod was. It sounds like I’m reducing it to a perfume ad on the TV at Christmas, but it was very much about lifestyle. The boy had been to Paris. He had been to Milan. He had a small collection of R&B records, and he wasn’t interested in my band, and he wasn’t interested in the Beatles, and he certainly wasn’t interested in Billy Fury. The essence of what it was to be a mod was starting to build. Then I went to art school and the mod thing sat dormant for a while as the band started to develop.

In the summer of 1963 I started to force this stuff into the band. We were already playing the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush, we were already playing in Harrow and Wealdstone, Carpenter’s Park in Watford, and all these regional places had huge mod enclaves. The kids used scooters because public transport was terrible, so we were aware of it but not particularly a part of it: I was an art-school boy and I had my big ideas about what we were doing. My manifesto was much closer to punk. I thought we should literally destroy ourselves, perhaps pour petrol and blow ourselves up, which Keith Moon thought was fabulous.

Roger wasn’t so keen. He still wanted to be a sexy rock’n’roll star. So half of our crowd was mods and half was art-school kids.

Our first manager, Pete Meaden, came along to a gig at the Goldhawk Club, supporting Wee Willie Harris. He came with a henchman of his, a very cool, dangerous looking mod called Phil the Greek. It turned out that Meaden was modelling himself on [The Rolling Stones’ first manager] Andrew Loog Oldham, who had Reg “the Butcher” King. Meaden wanted his own Reg King so he hired Phil the Greek. I was more impressed by Phil the Greek than by Meaden, because Meaden just used to talk all the time, and he was fluffy and confused and seemed to lack focus.

The money thing, the idea that mod was a product of young working-class men and women having money to spend for the first time, has been revised. People were working in shitty jobs. Roger was a tin-plate metal worker. John Entwistle worked at the Inland Revenue. Keith worked at British Gypsum, and he was so bored that he kept sending the wrong concrete to the wrong building site so that in a few years’ time the buildings would fall down. It was almost as if he was commissioned by [the auto-destructive artist] Gustav Metzger.

Yes, there was a dandy element, but it came from a weird place. Let’s take 100 people at the Glenlyn Ballroom in Forest Hill, where The Who played early on. Twenty would have been girls. Of the 80 that are left about half had suits. The rest would be what Meaden called “tickets”, wearing whatever they could afford, maybe one cool item like a pair of Levi’s or a T-shirt that they would paint red around the sleeves. Or they might just have a great pair of desert boots, in which case they would do a dance that made their boots stick up in the air.

They wouldn’t be in the suited guys’ rat race, which would be: “Oh, your jacket has side vents. This month we’ve got inverted pleats.”

These boys were getting their suits made, on the cheap, by backstreet tailors. The cloth was expensive mohair, but the old Jewish postwar tailors would be making alterations all the time. And there would be a few that were taller. Most mods were dwarves, as far as I could see, but there would be a few great big tall guys, men, older by two or three years. They were the faces, in with the girls, who were dancing with them, saying, “Ooh, he’s gorgeous”. Which he wasn’t, but he was a face. He was a man. He’d got a job. He’d got a car, not a scooter. He knew how to sleep with women, which none of these children knew how to do, and anyway they were all so full of purple hearts that they had no sense of anything anyway. Those were the guys that stood out. And I realised that if one of these guys showed up in a particular type of tie, the next week all of the boys would be wearing that tie too.

What Meaden pitched to us was not the clothes, but what it was to be a mod, what it was to be like and think like a mod. So we had to meet Guy Stevens, the DJ at the Scene Club, where something magical and extraordinary was happening. And John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Julie Driscoll were a part of this. The style goes back to a group of jazz fans that called themselves modernists and had hung out on the Left Bank in Paris and been inculcated into this incredibly sophisticated world. It could have been the summer of 1959 or 1960, when a whole bunch of boys came to Paris from Milan for a concert, maybe Miles Davis, certainly somebody very cool. They wore soft shirts, no tie, a well-made suit, and these scooters that they had ridden all the way from Milan. This was the image that made its way to Soho in the early 1960s.

When you hear the R&B records that Guy Stevens played now, they sound amazing, so imagine being in the Scene and hearing them for the first time. And there were never more than 30 or 40 people at the Scene, so the people that were there were very important. You would hear Charlie and Inez Foxx alongside a Memphis song by Snooks Eaglin, and it would all be about dancing. That romantic sense, combined with elegance … The girls were maybe not sexy, although I thought they were, but they were elegant. You have to remember that Elvis had turned into a complete prat by then, while other people simply, conveniently, died before they made idiots of themselves. Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, all gone. This felt new.

At the same time there was a powerful West Indian influence going on.

The Roaring Twenties club was dark and dangerous, with stabbings and marijuana wars. It was in a basement on Carnaby Street, below the John Stephen clothes shop, and it was so loud that you could stand outside on the pavement and hear it, and watch hipster trousers twitching. A lot of people would also show up at the Flamingo to watch Georgie Fame.

You had a combination of mod boys, jazz fans, and these very cool black guys with pork pie hats, cut-off macs, Levi’s jeans and desert boots, with a blade in one pocket and a bag of grass in the other, servicing the community. And if the owners of the club tried to interfere they got killed.

The spur of the mods going to the seaside towns happened as the mods went north, ending up in Sheffield and Nottingham with the now disreputable club owner Peter Stringfellow. He was the north’s Guy Stevens, and had somehow amassed an extraordinary record collection. We went up to his club and the records he played that night … there wasn’t one bad one. There was a place called the Nottingham Dungeon with a mod contingent. At the same time the events that happened on the south coast, which is what Quadrophenia celebrates, marked the end.

It was around this time that Meaden gave the band up. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp came to see The Who, then called the High Numbers, when Meaden arranged an audition at Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush for Andrew Oldham to see us. Andrew liked us very much, but he took me aside and said: “I understand Kit’s seen you.” Then Andrew went over to Pete Meaden and said: “I’m out”. He was friendly with Kit and he was graciously deferring. Meaden was furious. “I nearly had the manager of the Stones! Get Phil the Greek! Go and kill Kit Lambert!” It was over.

Quadrophenia is my view of that neighbourhood story, the Goldhawk Club story. There were so many boys that seemed to go through that saga, and at the end of the mod movement the economic bite in Britain took hold.

Something had shifted. The mood changed. Things got darker and nastier.

Some of the faces had got really old, and when they showed up at clubs they had become proper criminals. I remember at the Goldhawk one night a guy came in and killed someone with a gun, and suddenly the whole place was full of police. I remember Roger jumping off into a fight and coming back on stage, and what he had under his shirt was a sawn-off shotgun. At the Marquee one day a mod I knew was hit in the back with a hatchet and he was so out of it that he didn’t even realise it.

With some of the early Who shows we tried to conquer new territories in East London. We hadn’t realised that there was a “firm” thing going on, and we were going in as the representatives of the West London mods. We thought we were all mods together and they would love us, but they didn’t. They loved the Small Faces.

Pete Townshend was talking to Will Hodgkinson for This Is Mod, an event at SXSW on the worldwide influence of mod culture, produced by British Underground



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