Monday, 22 October 2012

Richard Barnes - The Unabridged Interview

“Movers & Shakers” by Paul Hooper-Keeley

If, like me, you first got into the Mod scene during the 1978/79 revival period then there was only one book that gave you those all important details of what the original sixties scene was like; ‘Mods!’ by Richard Barnes. I remember taking it to the barbers to make sure he cut my French Line properly!

It was published by Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie imprint in 1979, although Richard already had a long association with the world of Mod. He ran a Rhythm & Blues club at the Railway Hotel and had come up with the name, The Who.

I recently had the very great pleasure to ask Richard some questions about his memories of the Mod world: -

Paul Hooper-Keeley: Your book, ‘Mods!’ is almost as synonymous with the Mod revival period as was the release of the film, Quadrophenia. How did the book come about?

Richard Barnes: The Mods! book came about because I got a phone call from Pete Townshend, my best friend, who was in a band closely associated with the Mods, suggesting I do two books, One was on skateboarding (very current at that time) and the other was on Mods. As I knew nothing about skateboarding I turned down the first idea. The second idea was intended to be about both the original Mods and the then new Mods, this would be about 1978. A mod revival had developed in the seventies inspired (probably) by the 1973 album Quadrophenia and boosted by the Franc Roddam's fabuloso film about the sixties Mods, based on the Who's Quadrophenia album.

PHK: In your book, you say that you weren’t a Mod yourself but an art school student; when did you first become aware of Mod fashions?

RB: Although I hadn't been a mod in the sixties, I'd been closely involved with the Who from the early days.  The Who's mod/Pete Meaden phase, as the High Numbers, coincided with my running a club in North West London, the Railway Hotel in Wealdstone, which, along with the Shepherd's Bush Goldhawk Club, became the High Numbers mod launch pad and quickly transformed into a major mod venue (See 1964 footage of High Numbers at Railway on Amazing Journey DVD – or YouTube). A few years earlier I'd been involved with the staged mod photo shoots for the 44-page book that accompanied the original 1973 Quadrophenia album.

I had firm views on rock and pop books at that time. I didn't rate most of them as they were written by journalists who weren't speaking from experience but from a few lazy researched phone calls.  I said that I didn't know much about, let alone understand, the new Mods, so I would just do a book on the original Mods.

I did some research on the new Mods. Interviewing some and went to see a band that I was told were a new mod band at the time, Madness. I talked to them after a London gig. However, I couldn't really get to the heart of the new Mods so I dropped that part of the book. I didn't want to write about what I didn't know.

PHK: Where did you manage to locate all of those wonderful photographs of the sixties Mod scene?

RB: We conducted some very rigorous and thorough picture research, visiting every major photo agency in London but repeatedly came up against a brick wall. Everywhere we went and requested their photographs of Mods they'd look at us as though we were from Mars. They had nothing. Absolutely nothing. They had files on students, CND marchers, Teddy Boys, beatniks, and trads, but nothing remotely like Mods. It became a major problem.

I'd got wonderfully meticulous and thorough information from the Mods and faces I'd interviewed so I knew that the book's text would be complete and impressive. It was suggested that we release the book with mainly text, however I'm a visual person (I'd been at art school during the early sixties), and was definitely, a 'picture's worth a thousand words' man. In the Quadrophenia booklet, we'd printed the photographs without any captions or explanations. In my view a book on Mods had to have actual photographs of the sixties Mods otherwise there was no point.

Eventually we assembled about 20 photographs and by blowing up different parts and treating them with various graphic effects we could stretch them out to make it look like we had a lot more. We made a mock up of how it would be but although it met with approval I decided to scrap it and go back to the drawing board. We started picture research all over again and this time we struck lucky. About five years earlier I'd worked in the Daily Mirror and I went in to see if I could get a look at their picture files. The chief librarian spotted me and asked me what I was doing and when I told him he said, 'leave it with me'. He assumed I still worked there and it slipped my mind to tell him. The Daily Mirror then owned a huge picture agency called Syndication International; He talked of an aircraft hanger full of photographs. We soon had a proper selection of photographs of proper sixties Mods. Several of cool-looking kids on scooters at Brighton.

Then at one of the oldest picture agencies, Popperfoto in Fleet Street, I found some great pics taken inside and outside the Scene Club. The Faces standing, posing, 'maintaining their cool' outside in Ham Yard were just so typical of that era. The big breakthrough came when my assistant on the Mods! Book, legendary sixties face, Johnny Moke discovered a stack of contact sheets in a colour photo agency, neglected in a drawer because they were only black and white. These were taken by British photographer Terry Spencer (see article in Scooter mag) in 1963 for an article on swinging London for Life magazine in the US. He’d captured these fantastic images of Mods in clubs, on scooters, in Carnaby Street, at the riots – the lot. As far as I was concerned, he was a genius. His pictures really captured the zeitgeist of the Mods, and of the sixties.

PHK: Over the years there has been much discussion of the Sixties Mod being a descendant of the Forties & Fifties Modernist of the modern jazz scene. From your recollection, was this a direct relationship or more the aesthetics of the style the modern jazz scene participants were taking from Blue Note record sleeves and Italian tailoring?

RB: When researching for my 1979 book ‘Mods!’ I determined to trace the origins of the Mods. It appeared that the early mod movement was the product of a fascinating process of social evolution. The neat, tightly controlled mod movement evolved from various disconnected characters or small groups that all eventually fused probably over two or three years into one overall group of similar like-minded souls. There were various committed teenager free spirits calling themselves 'Individualists' and 'Modernists'. These were kids who were passionately into fashion; many were middle class, mostly male. These kids were obsessed with fashion and style, and discovered an appreciation and enthusiasm for Italian tailoring,  

Over a period they combined with Scooter boys and others and developed into what we now know as Mods. As they latched on to this emerging, unifying style, the more eccentric and ostentatious Individualists, either adapted their look, or were left behind.

When I was at school I remember kids as young as 13 altered the school uniform to make it less formal. They'd get their trousers tapered, start wearing winklepickers, and, what was much more of a statement, instead of the usual standard short, back and sides haircut, they'd get it styled in a Perry Como', American 'College Boy' or a 'French Crew' cut, Sometimes they had to take in a picture for the barber to copy. As with the later Mods, the very distinct statements these kids were making to each other were probably invisible to the rest; the unenlightened and the teachers. These same kids would be listening to modern jazz. Not bebop, not Charlie Parker or Coltrane, nothing frantic, but to the smoother, sophisticated subtler jazz sounds of the Modern Jazz Quartet or Dave Brubeck. These guys would probably have been labelled Modernists. 

However the movement grew and evolved and I don't think a working class mod in 1964 would necessarily have felt any connection with fifties modern jazz, let alone with the Forties jazz era.  He or she might hear Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith or Mose Alison, but these would be labelled R&B rather than jazz. 

PHK: How would you describe the essence of an original Mod?

RB: I think the term mod applies more to the way of thinking, the lifestyle, and the aspirations of those individuals. If you put it in context, they'd grown up in a society that had been through five or six years or warfare and was coming to terms with the damage and shock to the system. There was tremendous social upheaval and fundamental change to society and lifestyles. Barriers were coming down. Attitudes on homosexuality, divorce, sex, censorship were all changing. Advertising and early consumerism were taking hold. Hire Purchase - buying on credit - was introduced for the middle and upper-working classes for the first time. Families were acquiring their first washing machines, telephones, televisions, and cars.

For adolescents, significantly the two years of compulsory military conscription for all boys at age 18 stopped in 1960. Working class deference to their betters, authority and the monarchy were all dissolving. The church was losing its power over people. The contraceptive pill was introduced (poet Phillip Larkin later wrote, 'Sex began in 1963'). Italian scooters were a perfect example of the new world. They were enclosed, clean and streamlined, similar to other modern futuristic icons like the Comet jetliner, the E-type jag, and the mini. For the first time the population of the world could destroy itself – with the H-bomb. Russian Yuri Gagarin had flown around the world in a space capsule.

I think the Mods were identifying 100% with the new way of thinking. They weren't in any way political – except to question and challenge the once rigid class structure (hard to believe but back then government was made up of almost exclusively from wealthy old-Etonians). They aspired to a sleek, smart, modern, automated, space-age lifestyle. One that was better than their parents and older siblings and free of the old ways. The Beatles generation were already fulfilling a lot of these aspirations. There was controversy over long-haired boys and mini-skirted girls. 'The Times They Were A-Changing'. However the Mods were in a different even more serious sub-league. Driven and determined to be cool. Committed and passionate - the elite – the 'In-Crowd'.

PHK: It’s well documented that you attended The Scene Club on several occasions. What was it really like?

RB: An old dump in a way, a bit sordid and dark. But the top club for Mods (along with The Flamingo) and important because of Guy Stevens and his record collection. People today don’t realise how difficult it was to get records back then. Guy Stevens had links to all of the US labels.

PHK: How big was the Mod scene back in 1963/64? Were there really ‘Millions Like Us’ or has that just expanded with the mythology of history?

RB: Not huge in reality, infact quite small. Mods were always a minority in general but filled out the Mod clubs, which were mainly city based. Of course, the media attention of the Bank Holiday riots created lots more Mods.

PHK: Which song/record that represents those days of Mod stands out most for you?

RB: I’ve always liked the Hammond organ/jazz sound like that of Jimmy McGriff. But the songs that take me back to Mods dancing in the clubs back then are “Dancing in the Street” & “Mickey’s Monkey”. The Mod scene was neat and complete, young people self-driven to be cool. I’ve never again seen such good dancing – cool, clever, no choreography, just natural steps.

PHK: Do you think Pete’s Quadrophenia album retrospectively captured the attitude of Mod?

RB: Lots of Mods say that it doesn’t sound Mod at all, but it’s definitely Pete’s song cycle story of Mod. It doesn’t really sound like The Who of the early seventies either, but it is wonderful. What is important is that someone was singing about jackets with side vents 5 inches long, neat haircuts etc. I don’t think the film is accurate though – it makes Mods out to be more aggressive than they were. Actually, the Mods were quite gentle in reality.

PHK: With the Director’s cut/box set of Quadrophenia released, and The Who touring it in 2012, do you think it could prick the interest of a new generation to look back to the Mod scene of the early Sixties to further their youth?

RB: It could produce a mini-revival, and perhaps that is what Pete wants. Quadrophenia is probably the best thing that each member of the band has done, individually, from a musicians’ point of view, but it is not quite as accessible as Tommy was in the first instance. It’s not a pop album of singles, but it does capture the essence of Mod, and is probably the best thing that Townshend has ever written.

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