Mod: A Very British Style

Ian Penman writes:

In a lovely 1963 piece on Miles Davis, Kenneth Tynan quoted Cocteau to illuminate the art of his ‘discreet, elliptical’ subject: Davis was one of those 20th-century artists who had found ‘a simple way of saying very complicated things’. Jump to 1966 and the meatier, beatier sound of a UK Top 20 hit, the Who’s ‘Substitute’, a vexed, stuttering anti-manifesto, with its self-accusatory boast: ‘The simple things you see are all complicated!’ You couldn’t find two more different musical cries: Davis’s liquid tone is hurt, steely, recessive, where Townshend’s is upfront, impatient, hectoring. One arrow points in, the other out. But somewhere in the journey from one to the other, from cool, cruel blue to Townshend’s three-minute psychodrama – ‘I look all white/but my dad was black’ – was the brief, paradoxical flare of Mod: the story of how a small cabal of British jazz obsessives conducting a besotted affair with the style arcana of Europe and America somehow became an army of scooter-borne rock fans, draped in the ambiguous insignia of RAF targets and Union Jacks.

(LRB 29 August 2013)

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