In the early 1960s, young people in London and environs divided up into two camps: the Mods and the Rockers. This is, of course, an insane over-simplification, but it makes for a good story, so let’s run with it. Certainly the opposition of Mods and Rockers has remained a touchstone for British style over the past fifty years; every few years there’s another Mod revival and/or Rocker revival. And probably the opposition has deeper roots than fashion.
Just so you’re clear on this, these are Mods:
You can recognize the guys by their tailored suits, thin lapels, skinny ties, pointy shoes, porkpie hats, and especially their parkas, and the girls by their cropped haircuts, miniskirts, and androgyny. The key accessory for the mod, however, was the scooter, usually a Vespa or a Lambretta, and ideally outfitted with a dozen extra mirrors and foglights. They tended to be comparatively progressive in their ideas about race and gender. They were not necessarily well off, but they cared about style a great deal. Mods listened to American soul music, as well as ska and r’n’b; they liked French and Italian films, took amphetamines, and danced all night.
And these are Rockers:
Whereas the Mods looked to the Continent for style, the Rockers looked to American movies, especially Marlon Brando and James Dean flicks. The guys wore leather jackets and jeans, had greased-up hair, and rode serious motorcycles (not Italian scooters); rocker girls had bigger hair and wore more make-up than mod girls. They were, on the whole, tougher and less urbane than the mods; they were more concerned with attitude than style; and they weren’t so progressive in terms of their thinking about subjects like race and gender.
There were occasionally tensions between Mods and Rockers, most notably in the spring of 1964, when over a series of weekends, Mods and Rockers poured out of London to go to seaside towns on vacation, and squabbles escalated into riots.
The Beatles started out as Rockers, but then Brian Epstein made them dress up like monkeys in those weird collarless suits. (In A Hard Day’s Night, Ringo is asked if he’s a mod or a rocker, and he sits on the fence, declaring himself a “mocker”.) Blues-loving bands like the Stones, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds tended to keep out of the fray. But the Who started out right at the centre of mod culture. Here’s some unbelievable early footage of the band, back when they were still called “The High Numbers,” looking impossibly young. (Skip ahead to 1:12 if you like.)
There are, of course, better Who songs than “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and “I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying”; but the crowd shots here are really something. London 1964.