Music and Movement
"I don't give a monkey's arsehole about Mods and Rockers. Underneath, we're all the same, 'n't we?" (Ray Winstone, Quadrophenia)
May Day Bank Holiday, May 1964, Brighton: the sea front is crowded with tens of thousands of youths from London and its surrounding areas. The reason, to wage war. Mods in their US fishtail parkas, Italian suits and shoes, Vespa scooters, descended in droves. Meanwhile, Rockers in their dirty denim, black leather, greasy hair and Norton motorcycles also popped down to the historic seafront. Neither group was there for the fish, chips and fresh air. The youngsters tore the quiet seaside town to pieces, leaving countless dead and many more injured. The whole thing would be recorded for posterity by Pete Townshend for his Quadrophenia album, and later, movie.
Of course, the truth is a bit different. Only 1000 visitors arrived that weekend. Yes, there was trouble, but not on the scale described above. Much of the scandal was whipped up by a media hungry for a good story and eager to demonise the new youth movements that had sprung up since the mid-50s in the wake of the first wave of rock n’ roll. These two movements come ostensibly from the same place. Post-war, young people had money in their pockets for the first time and an industry quickly developed to fill take advantage of that fact. Study the early origins of any of the big names from the 60s and early 70s and you’ll find a list of clothes and records by the same people: Elvis, of course, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, etc. We’ve all seen the photos of quiffed up young Beatles and Stones. The Rockers had emerged from that era of fifties rock n' roll. Initially, they might have been Teddy Boys in their Edwardian jackets and crepe shoes, drainpipe trousers and pomade. Suddenly, how you looked was important. Dressing like your parents was no longer acceptable. Fashion was important and what records you clutched under your arm was a key element of that. What if Keith Richards hadn’t taken that Chuck Berry LP out with him that day?
The accepted narrative was that it was Mods vs. Rockers. This is true, as we can see from those 1964 news cuttings.
Mods – short for Modernists – were also rooted in the American culture of the mid to late 50s. Whereas the Rockers (Teds, Greasers) were in thrall to early rock n’ roll, the Mods favoured jazz. The kind of jazz played by Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. They looked to the continent for fashion, looking for sharp suits, polished shoes, that iconic American military parka, and a neat little scooter as favoured in Rome or Paris. As time passed, Motown and soul would also feature, and certain British Invasion bands would claim Mod origins in the wake of the auto-destructive antics of The Who with their pop-art clothing: targets, arrows, union flags. Their other enemies were the Trad Jazzers. These were an altogether different breed of jazz hound. Seeking to revive the New Orleans jazz movement in the Thames Delta was always going to be a tough call. The Traditionalists wore baggier clothes, loved Louis Armstrong and the swing bands that preceded the modern jazz groups of the Mod movement. They were led by Bilk, Barber, Ball et al. Big hitters at the time, though it is rare now to find young record buyers looking for their albums. Worth bearing in mind that without Chris Barber, there might not have been a Lonnie Donegan, which would have meant (possibly) no skiffle.
Skiffle was the brief fad that allowed young people up and down the UK to find their way into music through truly DIY means. An acoustic guitar or banjo, an old tea-chest and broom handle for bass, a washboard for percussion. Lonnie popularised songs from the American west and was a huge influence on all those 60s groups. No skiffle, no Beatles. Let that sink in.
Whichever you prefer now – and I often think that the Mods won the cultural war. Mods seem cool while Teds seem comical. Is that fair? - both movements were critical. They gave young people a place to belong. The 1960s saw unprecedented cultural and creative bursts in music, film, and literature. Lines were drawn and you had to pick a side, even if it was just a case of choosing Beatles or Stones.
As the 60s turned technicolor, the original Mods and Rockers were growing up. A new generation of kids needed something to call their own. The era of hippies was dawning and now the lines were much clearer. You could be a hippie or you could be a straight. You could appeal to mum and dad, or you could let your freak flag fly. Hippies shopped at places like Granny Takes a Trip and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. They wore kaftans and loon pants, Paisley shirts, long hair. Drugs played a part in all of this, as they had with the Mods, Rockers, and Trads. The hippie movement does feel like a coming together of sorts. Boundaries were coming down and the lines were blurring. It was okay to like The Beatles AND the Stones AND Coltrane AND the Incredible String Band. A new age of enlightenment meant that those that had previously been on opposing sides were now perhaps unified in their embracing of altered mind states and political awareness. I sometimes wonder how many of those bearded folkies who yelled at Dylan in ‘65 would swap their jumpers for Paisley as the decade moved on...
1968 saw the student riots in Paris and the Stones were keen to get in on this notoriety with Street Fighting Man. But by ‘68, The Stones, like The Beatles, like Dylan, were on a different level. American youth would protest about the war in Vietnam. In Britain, the CND movement was gaining ground. Music had an element of protest about it that was also sexy, vibrant, maybe even a little threatening. British psychedelia was a very different aesthetic to its Californian cousin. While British groups often favoured elements pinched from Victorian Music Hall, as well as imagery borrowed from children’s literature, the American version seemed to lean towards musical showboating and noodling about. The Grateful Dead would inspire the jam bands of the 70s, 80s and beyond. Syd’s Pink Floyd would be able to stretch out live, but they also explored the I-Ching, nursery rhymes, jazz, blues, pop, Shakespeare and nonsense verse of poets like Edward Lear.
This hippie culture with its interests in all sorts of spiritual and counter-cultural texts, as well as music, would slowly change again. Young psychedelic bands like Deep Purple, Yes and the Moody Blues would soon be referred to as progressive. The Prog era was massive and seems aesthetically like an extension of what went before: long hair, beads, kaftans, velvet trousers, eastern mysticism. It always seems a bit male though. Not laddish. Just a lot of men sitting about stroking their chins and referring to their girlfriends as ‘chicks’. I may be wrong. I wasn’t there. Albums like Close To The Edge by Yes and In The Court Of The Crimson King are as fascinating now as I’m sure they were then. Still, as is generally the case with this stuff, things come in pairs. Are you a Mod or a Rocker? Do you prefer The Beatles or The Stones? Are you a freak? The early 70s asked its own question: are you Prog or are you Glam?
60s losers like Bowie and Bolan finally found themselves a foothold and success beckoned. What’s more, the girls could get involved. Androgyny was key but, for old-school blokes like Slade, Mott, The Spiders, the glitter was perhaps a means to an end. It’s hard to look at groups like Sweet and Mud now and now squirm with embarrassment for them. Like so many of these movements, there are only a few that could master the look in a timeless way. Beautiful young Iggy, David of course, Marc, Lou on the cover of Transformer. For the first time, sexuality was also on the table. So while the somewhat asexual Prog groups were churning out their technically brilliant but often uninspiring masterpieces, the Glam lot were going at it like knives. Theoretically, at least. But let’s face it, Aladdin Sane, The Slider, Transformer, these records could all soundtrack bedroom activities. Did anyone ever Get It On, Bang A Gong to Snow Goose by Camel?
“You’ve got your mother/ In a whirl, cos she’s/Not sure if you’re/A boy or a girl.”
While the kids of the 50s wanted a good time at the end of austerity, the kids of the 60s wanted to open their minds and stick it to The Man, it might be argued that Glam was all about Hedonism. Pure and unadulterated. As David makes clear in Rebel Rebel, this is an era that sees its youth focused on breaking taboos. Being gay was no longer illegal in the UK and while it would be foolish to say that homosexuality was accepted – it wasn’t; for proof of that, look no further than Channel 4’s recent brilliant It’s A Sin – it was certainly the case that people were at least talking about it.
But, as Prog groaned its way to a sexless anti-climax and the limitations of Glam became all too apparent, it was time for change. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple provided an alternative that would soon find a name: Heavy Metal. Here was a branch of music that seemed to stand somewhere between the Proggier musical excesses of Yes and Crimson, and the glitzier aesthetics of Glam. Over time, Metal heads would adapt their uniform: leather, denim, horror imagery, long hair, tattoos. The music would change too. The souped-up blues of Purple and Zeppelin, the sludgy gloom of Sabbath would give way to the sleeker, faster energy of Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Motorhead. In LA the hair metal would spring up around bands like Motley Crue. Out of San Francisco would emerge the thrash of Metallica and Megadeth. Guns N Roses would become ubiquitous as the 80s became the 90s and would survive the purges of Grunge. Post-Grunge, the Nu-Metal variant would briefly infiltrate the globe. Now, there are so many branches of Heavy Metal that it’s impossible to count. As a cultural statement, Metal seems to be one of the longest lasting. For all of us 80s kids who bought Master of Puppets, Appetite For Destruction, or Number Of The Beast, these albums provided a portal. For me, that portal led me back in time to Paranoid, In Rock, Physical Graffiti, whilst leaving channels open for Nevermind, Ten, Angel Dust. But Metal also led me to Hendrix, the British R n’ B movement, The Who, The Stones, Punk, Iggy, David Bowie, T Rex, King Crimson, Yes. It doesn’t end.
The 70s would end with another choice: Punk or Disco? Punk is a great place for young people to start their collections now. Nevermind the Bollocks, The Clash, Singles Going Steady are all going to deliver as much now as they did then. The NY bands like Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Television, Talking Heads and Blondie might be more diverse and more interesting musically, but the British punk bands of 76/77 had a look, an energy, a menace that is still a huge draw now. As contrived as the images may be now, it’s hard not to feel a certain excitement at seeing The Clash in leathers on the streets of Belfast. Here were another generation of Angry Young Men who resented being left on the scrap heap. Punk was easy. Like skiffle before it, there was a DIY ethic. Nobody expected anyone to be musically skilled. In Viv Albertine’s brilliant book Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, she talks about buying her first guitar and carrying it around in a cardboard carry case. She describes the chaotic early performances and early recording sessions. Punk was as much about dropping out as the Hippie culture had been ten years previously. But punk was also fiercely puritanical in its outlook. Suddenly, the bands of the 60s and 70s were out. Prog giants like Emerson Lake and Palmer would never comeback from it. And this musical year zero meant that Punk was a spent force within a year. Punk, now, means a lot of different things to different people. I find it ridiculous that Blink 182, Sum 41 and Green Day are regarded as Punks. Similarly, the postcard Punk has become a bit of a cliché. This is a shame as Punk was a moment of real change in the UK and led to a diverse range of music that gets bundled together under the umbrella of Post-Punk.
And what of Disco? Dance music had long been popular in the UK. The dance halls of the 50s and 60s were filled with young dancers. The Northern Soul movement would emerge from the Mod scene and would open up a whole world of new music to a hungry record buying public. The all-nighters at Wigan Casino and The Twisted Wheel are still famous and have been brilliantly recreated in the films Northern Soul (2014) and Soulboy (2010). On Instagram, the brilliant Sal & Pops keep the movement alive with their brilliant videos showing incredible dance routines and fantastic clothing.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Disco was the thing. Emerging from the Soul and Funk movements of the 60s and earlier 70s, Disco also felt like an extension of Glam. Sexually ambiguous, fuelled by quaaludes and full of sparkle, some incredible music came out of this time. Soul fans who had grown up on Marvin, Stevie, and Arethra gave way to a younger generation who also craved the psychedelic lunacy of the 60s. Funkadelic, Parliament and Sly Stone filled this gap. But by the end of the decade, the focus was no longer on songs, per se. Like the early 70s James Brown tracks that seem to be extended grooves with the Godfather barking out instructions and demands, Disco seemed to be routed more in the notion of extended jams. Disco fans weren’t as interested in political messages on the dance floor. They wanted to be able to dance unhindered. This music is, of course, best suited to the dance floor, but albums like Risque by Chic, Love to Love You by Donna Summer, and I Am by Earth Wind and Fire still point the way.
From Disco, we find ourselves in the world of Hip-Hop. The flights of fancy of the Disco giants would prove to be difficult for the kid on the street. But block parties using turntables and a microphone would open up a new chapter. Quickly, skilled MCs and DJs would become the stars of a new dance music scene, socially conscious, angry, hedonistic, fueled on ego. Hip-hop, like Heavy Metal, would not go away. It would morph over the following decades, embracing elements of all music that had gone before. It would become increasingly hi-tech, as DJs became producers. Rappers would become increasingly diverse and dexterous. At the end of the 80s, hip-hop was a novelty music, by the end of the 90s it was some of the most adventurous music in the world. For much of its life, Hip-Hop has been American. Artists from outside the US have seemed like pale imitations.
The aftermath of Punk saw a number of things happen. In the north of England, bands like The Fall, Echo and The Bunnymen, and Joy Division brought about a look that would come to be considered “Indie”. A slew of independent record labels in the wake of Punk maintained the DIY momentum and saw the majors casting about for suitable acts to meet the needs of the marketplace. Kids wore Crombie coats and Doc Martens. But it’s trickier at this point to identify where the lines are. The Postcard label up in Glasgow saw the likes of Orange Juice wearing something akin to the Mod look. The Jam had helped to revive the Mod movement and once again, there was a subset of young people wearing American military parkas. Sadly, the far-Right had manipulated some of the disenfranchised punks and skins. A thuggish quality crept in. The Jesus and Mary Chain would be all about black leather and birds nest hair. The Smiths wore chunky cardigans. Dexys Midnight Runners looked like New York stevedores (or boxers, or raggle taggle folkies, or preppies).
For me, the era is best exemplified by the Ska revival which took place at the end of the 70s and the early 80s. The 2Tone label was a record label but it was also a look and it was also a lifestyle. As a musical movement, it threw up such incredible records as Specials and One Step Beyond, as well as excellent bands like The Selecter and The Beat. The infectious reggae beat was everywhere. Steel Pulse’s excellent Handsworth Revolution, UB40’s incredible Signing On. The 2Tone bands were different though. The black and white colour scheme, iconic logos, abhorrence of boundaries in gender, race, and sexuality. Like the Mods and Rockers, like Metallers and Punks, here was a clearly defined palette within which to create yourself. The music was socially conscious (for the most part – some of those Specials lyrics might make you shudder now) and energetic, aimed squarely at the dance floor. Singles were once again as important as albums – something else that Dammers et al had learned from punk.
Elsewhere, other things were happening. For those who can’t handle the infectiousness of the one-drop, the disco could provide something else. Bands like The Human League, Duran Duran, and Culture Club had emerged from the Post-Punk umbrella. New Romanticism was here and it looked naff. Still, it was a look. Some great pop music was made by some outrageous haircuts. Look at the cover of Prince Charming by Adam and the Ants or Seven and the Ragged Tiger by Duran Duran if you want to get a sense of it. Unbelievable to thing that people used to try and pull that look off whilst nipping up the Co-Op. Madonna and Prince are partly responsible!
By the end of the decade, the indie kids were looking back to the 60s, to flowery shirts and baggy jeans. The crossover between dance music and rock music kicked a few doors down. Screamadelica, Bummed, The Stone Roses. These albums by Primal Scream, Happy Mondays and, er, checks notes, The Stone Roses led the indie kids onto the dancefloor. No longer would they be looking to Morrissey for direction (“So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.”) Ecstasy meant everyone was in love with everyone. Pulling from the other side, albums by The Shamen, The Prodigy, and The KLF would point the ravers in the direction of rock bands. Suddenly, it was ok to listen to all that old shit from the 60s and 70s again. Soul, reggae, hip-hop, hard rock, it was all there to be discovered.
Time was moving quickly now though. The industry was well aware that it needed to chuck a new craze or three at the music-buying public every couple of years. The alternative rock scene in the US that had spawned moderately successful bands like REM was about to erupt. Nirvana’s Nevermind saw a whole heap of young men chuck their baggy jeans in the bin and buy plaid shirts. The winning combination of Beatles hooks, punk energy, metal force created one of the most iconic albums ever. Others would follow. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Afghan Whigs. Sonic Youth would sign to a major label. Once more, kids were clearly identifiable as into Grunge (unkempt, plaid) or into dance (smart, Oxfords). This brief interest in the American nightmare wouldn’t last and within a couple of years it was back to the barbers and out with the Fred Perry. Brit-Pop had arrived.
It’s hard to recall now how important Brit-Pop was. It’s become a watch-word for a sort of insular, homogenous musical backwater. A lot of the fashions had already been done and done better. A lot of the music was a substandard Kinks/Small Faces/Beatles thing. Elements of New Romanticism, Punk, and New Wave would crop up. In fact, listen to Parklife and it’s almost a compilation of all the pop music that had come before it. Oasis, for all their Beatles aspirations, trod a much more straightforward path. But while Blur seemed like head music, Oasis seemed to speak to the heart. And while you were expected to pick a side, it wasn’t possible to tell just by looking.
Although these two bands made some great records, as well as others like Pulp and Supergrass, some of the best records from that era came from artists who refused to fit in with the movement: Radiohead’s The Bends, PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love. Also, look at the Bristol scene. Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead. Once again, rock fans could embrace music from a non-rock background. Leftfield, Orbital, Goldie, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Air, The Aphex Twin. A whole wealth of incredible music to discover. People slipped into a kind of casual dress at this point: jeans, trainers, t-shirts. It seems that less care was taken. We were in the midst of globalisation and late period Capitalism. Looking good is now easier than ever. Budget clothing looks good now in a way that it never did for any other generation. But there’s a lack of diversity as a result. If I want to dress like Harry Styles or Billie Eilish, I can. Not just look like I belong to their tribe. I can get their precise wardrobe or at least a cheap but identical knock off. Handmade Italian loafers are each unique in a way that each pair of Nike Air Force Ones are not.
“Went to the show sitting in the front row in the black track suit and it’s shut down”
Maybe it’s my age, but it feels like we’ve slumped into an age of tracksuits and trainers that shows no sign of budging. And like most people, lockdown has kept me in sweats and Ts for the last twelve months. This uniform of the street is fine. It tells me only the bare minimum though. That you’re a Drillah, Hittah, Gangsta. It’s misleading though. You might be into Ed Sheeran. You might be into Lewis Capaldi. You might like Sam Smith. It doesn’t tell me which side you belong to. And there doesn’t appear to be a different side anyway. I do get the principle behind it: anonymity, comfort, flexibility. I just long for a time when looking good meant dressing up, not putting on the kit that you loaf about the house in. We seem to have drifted away from that, and it’s my belief that a lack of musical identify, a lack of tribal identity is the issue behind this conformity...
Perhaps it’s the era of streaming that has done it. Kids aren’t saving up their pocket money to spend it on records as much anymore. All the songs that they could ever want to hear are available to them for free. And this is a good thing. While Brit-Pop began the landfill indie of the 00s, the 10s saw a much braver approach to music. There is great music everywhere and this generation are not under any pressure to pick a side, nail their colours to the mast, or any of that sort of thing. Perhaps, then, the sub-cultures are done and dusted. Maybe with the exception of those ageing punks and goths, we’re all now just part of this big lump of fashion. Whither the Ravers? Where have all the Skinheads gone? And when will we see a surge in music that also combines with a code of aesthetics to rival all those incredible looks that went before. I’d like to see music and fashion link together again, even if I’m too old to be part of it!