The 60s was a transformative era in British culture, especially in the realm of music and fashion. Two distinct subcultures emerged at the start of the decade, each representing opposing ideologies, music preferences, and distinctive fashion choices. These subcultures were known as Mods and Rockers, and they left an indelible mark on British society and the world of music. In this article, part of our Memory Lane series, we explore the origins of these subcultures, their music, fashion, and the impact they had on British society.
Origins of Mods and Rockers
The terms “Mods” and “Rockers” were born out of the post-war youth culture during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These subcultures primarily emerged in London but soon spread to other cities and provincial towns across the country.
The Mod subculture embraced modernism, reflected in their love for contemporary fashion, art, and music. The term “Mod” is actually believed to be a shortened form of “modernist.” These young, trendy urbanites sought to break free from the conventions of their parents’ generation and embraced the new, progressive, and stylish elements of modern society.
On the other side were the Rockers, who had grown out of the Teddy-Boy fashion of the 50s. They were also known as the Greasers, or Ton-Up Boys. They identified with the rebelliousness of American Rock’n’roll and were often associated with motorcycle culture. The Rockers embodied a more rugged and traditional aesthetic, rejecting the modernity embraced by the Mods.
The music of the 60s British bands
Several British bands defined the sound of the 1960s, capturing the hearts of both Mods and Rockers while making significant contributions to the world of music:
The Beatles: Undoubtedly the most iconic band of the era, The Beatles, from Liverpool, dominated the charts with their catchy tunes and innovative compositions. With their early incarnation in Mod haircuts and suits, and hits like A Hard Day’s Night, Day Tripper, and Ticket to Ride, The Beatles became the epitome of the British Invasion, spreading their music and culture worldwide.
The Rolling Stones: Hailing from London, the early Rolling Stones wore Mod fashions and haircuts, but in many ways were the epitome of the Rocker music scene. They boasted a raw and rebellious sound, blending rhythm and blues with rock and roll. Classics like Paint It Black, Sympathy for the Devil and Satisfaction became anthems for the rebellious youth.
To reinforce their Rocker credentials, the band famously used the British Hells Angels as security at their July 1969 Free Hyde Park concert, and also less wisely used the American Hells Angels at their ill-fated Altamont Free Festival in California in December of the same year. The San Francisco Chapter of the Hells Angels were a completely different kettle of fish to their British counterparts, and crowd violence – initiated by the Angels – marred the performance and, in many ways, ended the 60s period of peace and love.
The Who: This band from London’s Mod scene brought a distinctive style of rock to the stage, featuring powerful performances and anthemic songs like My Generation that resonated with both Mods and Rockers. Guitarist and songwriter, Pete Townsend’s art-school background brought a distinctively modernist aesthetic to the bands look. However, as the famously ‘loudest band on the planet’ at the time, they were most definitely high voltage Rock’n’roll!
The Small Faces: Formed in East London, The Small Faces combined elements of Mod style and R&B music, creating unique sound that appealed to both subcultures. Hits like Itchycoo Park, Afterglow and Lazy Sunday Afternoon showcased their creative prowess.
The Kinks: With their distinctive British sound and lyrical finesse, The Kinks, led by Ray Davies, produced classics like Dedicated Follower of Fashion, You Really Got Me and Waterloo Sunset, reflecting the everyday lives of British youth.
The Zombies: The Zombies, from St Albans, garnered attention with their hauntingly melodic hits like She’s Not There and Time of the Season.
The Animals: Originating in Newcastle, The Animals found international success with their bluesy rock sound and hits such as House of the Rising Sun and We Got to Get Out of this Place.
The Yardbirds: The band that brought us legendary guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, The Yardbirds fused blues and rock, influencing generations of musicians. Though Mod in a fashion sense, these boys were again hard Rockers in terms of their sound and expression.
Fashion of the 60s
Fashion played a pivotal role in distinguishing Mods from Rockers. Here’s a closer look at their respective styles:
Mod fashion was sleek, sharp, and forward-thinking, influenced by Italian and French styles. Mod clothing for men included tailored suits with narrow lapels, slim-fit shirts, narrow ties, and fitted trousers, often accompanied by Chelsea boots or desert boots. Women’s Mod fashion featured mini-skirts, shift dresses, bold geometric patterns, and vibrant colours. They accessorised with stylish hats, go-go boots, and large sunglasses.
In stark contrast, Rockers embraced a more rugged, rebellious look. Leather jackets, denim jeans, and black leather boots were staples of the Rocker fashion. They often wore t-shirts adorned with band logos and donned motorcycle helmets, reflecting their affinity for motorcycle culture.
The clash of the subcultures
The clash between Mods and Rockers reached its peak in the mid-1960s, particularly during the Bank Holiday weekends. The tensions came to a head in 1964 during the infamous clashes in the coastal town of Brighton. Thousands of Mods and Rockers flocked to the seaside resort, leading to violent clashes and extensive media coverage. These events fuelled moral panic and further entrenched the rivalry between the subcultures.
“Quadrophenia” – The Film:
The 1979 film “Quadrophenia,” based on The Who’s album of the same name, became a cult classic and provided a vivid depiction of the Mod and Rocker subcultures. Set in the mid-1960s, the film followed the story of Jimmy, a young Mod facing identity struggles amidst the backdrop of clashes with Rockers and the challenges of growing up. Quadrophenia showcased the music, fashion, and subculture clashes of the era, leaving a lasting imprint on British popular culture.
Legacy and Influence
While the Mod and Rocker subcultures eventually faded away, their impact on British society and popular culture remains undeniable. Both subcultures shaped the music scene and fashion trends of the time, with bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who leaving an indelible mark on the music industry. The fashion trends and attitudes of Mods and Rockers also had a lasting influence on subsequent youth subcultures and fashion movements, and their legacy continues to inspire and shape British culture, reminding us of a time when music and fashion acted as powerful forms of self-expression for youth.