Mods and Rockers: the 1960s youth cult

Following his earlier A brief history of the Teddy Boys, Mitch Mitchell recalls the rivalries, real and manufactured, between the Mods and Rockers.

I have to declare an interest. I was a Rocker, one of those greasy yobs who rode powerful motorbikes or drove large cars and frequented coffee bars.

The first Mod v Rocker fight was at Clacton in 1962. The two groups wandered around the Essex coastal seaside resort on August Bank Holiday of that year, rather aimlessly. Aimlessly that is until a Daily Mirror photographer who had been sent following a tip-off to the paper that there may be some ‘trouble’, decided to liven things up by offering both sides money to stage a punch up.

What really did it was that the Mods were given £10 (almost a week’s wages back then), while the Rockers were only offered a fiver! The Mirror man snapped away, oblivious to the fact that he had started a Bank Holiday craze that would last for the next few years.

There were major differences between the two groups. The Mods tended to be from the lower middle classes (about 60:40 middle to working class), whereas the Rockers generally were more working class and had jobs in engineering and similar trades. I don’t have definitive data, but that’s my sense from having been there at the time.

The Mods followed trends in fashion and music and prided themselves on their appearance and dress sense. Originally, the male Mods wore button-down white shirts, Levi jeans (these had just come on sale in Britain), Hush Puppy shoes with white socks, and the Parka coat. If they were going somewhere formal, like a dance or a club, the originals discarded the Parka in favour of what was known as ‘Beatle Suits’, worn with Cuban heeled Chelsea boots. The Mod boys initially had short, cropped hair, but when The Rolling Stones caught on, they began to let their hair grow.

Meanwhile, Mod women dressed down somewhat at first. They also wore Parkas with underneath over-the-knee grey skirts. The ‘Page Boy’ bob was a popular hairstyle. Around 1964, the fashion for girls changed with the introduction of the mini-skirt.

Mods rode scooters with several lights on the front, large aerials adorned with squirrels’ tails on the back. The scooters (we called them ‘hair dryers’) were chosen because riding them was cleaner than motorcycles and they didn’t go as fast as the bikes. Later, as they acquired more money, they moved into cars, the Austin and Morris Minis being the most sought after.

The Mods’ Mecca was Carnaby Street in London’s West End where tailors such as John Stephen had set up shop and where each week’s new trend emanated from. In fact Stephen, and one or two other shops employed young boys to put on the newest fashion, go to clubs and influence the people there into believing that is what they should be wearing. This would then percolate to the outer London suburbs, and by the time the new look had reached, say, Birmingham, the next big thing would have been designed.  These guys were known as ‘Faces’ and indeed that is where the ultra-Mod band, the Small Faces got their name. Carnaby Street now is paved over and part of London’s tourist trap.

The first wave of Mods followed groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, Who and Small Faces. They also developed a liking for early Tamla Motown label records from the USA.

One very major difference between the sides was drugs. The original Rockers were totally against them. Indeed one of the Rocker jibes was to refer to Mods as ‘junkies’. Mods, on the other hand favoured amphetamines, often called purple hearts. This was largely for them to be able to stay awake at their all-night, all-weekend disco sessions. When they were high on these, they were said to be ‘blocked’ and if very high, ‘blocked off their face’.

A lot of the Rockers were the younger siblings of the 1950s Teddy Boys. The Teddy Boy fashion had largely died out in London in around 1957-8, but survived well into the sixties elsewhere, especially in Wales and Glasgow. This meant that at pitched battles, the Rockers, who were usually in the minority, were often augmented by drape-suited Teds.

The Rockers were noted for wearing black leather jackets and based their ‘look’ on Marlon Brando as he appeared in the film The Wild One (1954). The film was actually banned by the censors in Britain for fear that young people might be influenced by the ‘bad behaviour’ depicted in it. It was finally released in 1968, after another film starring, Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra titled The Wild Angels (1966) had also been banned for similar reasons.

Rockers also wore tight jeans, known as drainpipes, and either pointed shoes (called ‘winklepickers’) or motorcycle boots. Black shirts were favoured, although not de rigeur. When going out for the evening it was soon discovered that many venues would not admit people wearing leather, so the Italian suits with short jackets, known as ‘bum freezers’ would be worn with the aforementioned winklepickers. 

Rockers aspired to style their hair around Elvis Presley, c.1957. Rocker girls usually wore the same leathers as the boys and tight jeans also, due to being pillion passengers on bikes. They favoured hairstyles either in the back-combed ‘beehive’ or based vaguely on Bridget Bardot, c.1959.

Musically, the Rockers stuck with the artists of the 1950s, such as Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers and Bill Haley. Promoters of gigs had to be very careful who they booked on shows. If a Mod band was put on as a warm up act to a rock ‘n’ roll star, there would often be trouble. I have been to shows starring people like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino where the support bands were booed off.

The regular bank holiday fights were a thing until about 1967, although by then they had largely died out. One of the biggest was in 1964 in Brighton. This is the battle that was loosely depicted in the film Quadrophenia (1979). After that, further skirmishes took place in Margate, Bournemouth, Southend and Clacton (again), but usually with less and less enthusiasm.

There was a Teddy Boy revival in the 1970s, where their enemies were punks, and in the 1980s, a Mod revival occurred. Meetings are still held at various sites, but the atmosphere is now distinctly friendly. Many of the original combatants are either too old or infirm to take part (or dead) and the gatherings now are by the sort of people who like to re-enact Cavaliers and Roundheads.

There are even big events around the world in parts that were never involved at the time, like the USA and Australia.

In about 1966, the Mods began to split into two camps. The more middle class became hippies and involved themselves very much in the psychedelic culture while the working class end joined up with Jamaican Rude Boys and became skinheads. Of course, in the 1970s, many (not all) skinheads got involved with fascist outfits like the National Front or the British Movement.

Around the same time, books and magazines from America started to arrive with articles about biker gangs such as The Hell’s Angels and The Bandidos. Several Rockers gravitated over, many adapting their bikes to be like the ‘choppers’ seen in photographs. It was then that the anti-drug ethos of Rockers changed and much cannabis was smoked.

Politically, both sides were across the spectrum. I came across some left wing people in both groups and also some rabid racists. Most who were involved went on to become model citizens and I have no doubt that several ‘rebels’ voted for Thatcher and the Tories. Similarly, many Americans who attended the high watermark of the counter culture, the Woodstock music festival, probably voted for Reagan.

C’est la vie!

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