For two brief periods in the past 50 years they were at the forefront of popular culture, but, to paraphrase one of their heroes Paul Weller, these days the mods have gone underground. I'm in a basement – the basement of Dublin's Grand Central Bar – where, tonight, patrons of Bubbles, the city's nightclub for mods in the '80s, have gathered for a reunion. First impressions are how energetic, enthusiastic and, most of all, how smartly turned out everyone is. Many of the men are in sharp suits, and a lot of the ladies have towering beehive hairdos and heavy eye make-up. On a dancefloor tucked into one corner, a group of revellers – who must be in the medium-risk range for osteoporosis – are cutting seriously athletic moves. And huddled against a pillar at the bar there's a guy with a quiff, a bowling shirt and a key chain – the uniform of the dreaded rockers. So by-gones are evidently by-gones, and everyone is partying like it's 1981. Or rather, like it's 1981 going on 1964.
Paul Davis, the organiser of the night, is in the DJ booth playing the anthems of a generation, and of a generation who resurrected a generation. It's hard to get a word in with him. You're not a minute into a conversation when he has to tee up another record – most of the tunes favoured by mods are under three minutes' long. Tonight's setlist is largely made up of '60s British R'n'B and songs from mod and ska revivalists like the Jam and the Specials. There's also a lot of northern soul – 'forgotten' US soul music from the '60s that was rediscovered in the late '70s by nightclub DJs in the north of England. Nostalgia plays a big part in mod culture: Joe Moran, a mainstay and chronicler of Dublin's mod scene for over 30 years, tells me the mod revival of the late '70s and early '80s was about looking back, contrary to the dominant pop-cultural current of the time. "The punks were against everything; against their parents, against their parents' music. But our parents were into the first mod music of the '60s. We wanted to get back to that stuff. We thought our dads were cool."
Like all youth cults, there's a paradox at mod's heart: it's about acquiring individuality via a group identity; it's about self-expression, making a statement, through a uniform. I discover mods are big on statements: "Mod is not for sale," a guy yells on the footpath outside. Mod is for sale, though, isn't it? In the Ben Sherman concession at Arnotts, or at the Lambretta showroom? The man's point broadly stands though – mod is a people's movement. It's about a certain dress code and even a certain lifestyle, but the very rigidness and timelessness of this prescription is why mods feel they properly own their culture. I approach a guy who identifies himself only as Mossy (46), striking in his red handmade mohair suit, paisley shirt and luxuriant head of hair with long bits down around his ears. How important are the clothes, I ask him. "It's the most important aspect of it," he says. "Even more important than the music. It's all about how you present yourself."
If there's one thing that anyone knows about mods it's the epic battles with rockers in the '60s and later. I ask around if there were any such scenes in Dublin. A group of women remember a scuffle "at King's newsagent just off the Artane roundabout". Joe Moran says with a smile: "It was the trendies we had the problem with, or casuals they'd be better known as. Guys who wore casual sportswear." Mossy recalls a major to-do in 1980. "There was one time," he says, "when me and my mate Steak were in Advance Records on King Street, looking through the vinyl, and some bloke comes in. 'Who owns the scooter outside?' he shouts. It was Steak's. We ran outside, and there were 10 or 12 punks trying to shove it down a manhole. Me and Steak got a right hiding. A few days later a group of us met up at the O'Connell monument – that was the big meeting point for mods in the '70s and '80s. And we all went up to the Dandelion market and kicked the f*** out of the punks, teds and rockers."
Mostly though, the people here, long shorn of the bravado of youth, find the idea of violence laughable. Love is the emotion that abounds tonight. A woman called Anne has a dispute with her friend about what her surname is when I ask her. Eventually she settles on Ryan. "That's my married name," she says. Is your husband a mod, I ask. "Yeah he is. He's right here beside me." Was it a culture where as a girl you felt welcome? "Absolutely. All the lads minded us. But we were highly respected. They knew where they stood with us."
It's an inclusive and democratic scene then, no better exemplified than by the sight of 200 men and women, united in their passion for music made by black and white people spanning 50 years, lost in revelry and memories. Well, that and a quiffed-up old rocker nursing his pint at the bar with not a worry for his safety.
I grew up in Coolock. Youth culture was a big deal back then. You couldn't be out on your own. You could be a new romantic, get into Bob Marley, or be a mod. They were your three options in Coolock. Being into ska, the natural progression should have been into reggae. But because I was dressing like a rude boy, the dress aspect of it took over, and I went in the direction of mod. I got into the Small Faces and the Jam. When I started going to Bubbles in '85 I really got into the northern soul. That took over everything. In fact, around that time I started selling off my mod records to buy soul. Now I'm doing the opposite – I'm selling off some of my old soul records to buy back the mod stuff.
Mod is a lifestyle. That's the tagline for [1979 mod-themed film] Quadrophenia: "A way of life". It's that simple. I tried to get a mate of mine to a gig once, and he said mod wasn't his thing. And another friend said, well, was it ever. Because if it grabs you it grabs you. It's not something you can shake off. It's been responsible for shaping me into who I am.
A guy called Pete Meaden, who was the manager of the Who, described mod as "clean living under difficult circumstances". It's all about an ideal. It's about looking and feeling good at all times. It's the one youth culture you can look back on and not feel embarrassed about. Goths and new romantics look back at pictures of themselves and go "Jaysus". But looking sharp has never gone out of fashion.
I grew up in Bray. There was a big mod and skinhead scene here, but there were no discos for us. We'd just drive down the seafront in our scooters and hang around the amusements. I was just a little too young to go into Bubbles in Dublin. I'm 41 now.
Dressing up for me was about being stylish. It was about class. It was about never being scruffy. The clothes would always be top range. Clean-cut. For girls, a lot of ski pants, dresses, skirts with tights. Your hair in a bob. Back-combing too – beehives and that type of style. I've always had a bob. I wouldn't wear it in work, but if I'm going out I'd always wear the black eyeliner, heavy make-up, heavy eyeshadow. I'd wear maybe a dogtooth dress. You couldn't get all the styles back then as you can now. The best place to get anything – and this goes for music too – is Camden in London. I was just over there last November.
The girls in work have a laugh at me sometimes. They'd be asking me about I-don't-know-who on the radio. And I'd say I don't listen to it. My idol is still Paul Weller. I love the Jam. He's playing November in the Olympia. I already have my ticket. I'd say I was the first online.
My husband Mick (pictured above with Lynda) is a skinhead. He's into ska, old-style reggae and Oi! bands like Sham 69. He's originally from Whitehall in Dublin. We met in a pub called the Fox and Pheasant that used to be on Capel Street. A lot of mods and skinheads used to hang out there back in the day. ?
I grew up in Sherriff Street in the '70s. All the cousins I was sent to be babysat by were skinheads, and that's how I caught on to mod. I started hanging around the O'Connell monument in '77. There were about eight or nine of us at the time, all mods. Then Quadrophenia came along and the scene just exploded. The British mods wore red, white and blue RAF targets. But during the '70s, if you wore a British target over here you were dead – you were the target. So we changed our targets to green, white and orange. Even today, a lot of the Irish mods are better dressed than the British mods. I know a guy over there who plays in bands and he says the Irish mods are the top dressers. We get our suits tailor-made, do things like that.
I thought the rockers were okay – I listened to rock 'n' roll myself – but there were riots in town, up by the Dandelion market especially. The police had to get involved. The easy ones to spot were the ones with the green coats, the parkas. We were blamed for starting a lot of the fights.
About 17 years ago I started organising scooter charity runs for the Coombe hospital. It started off as just six of us. The following year there were 40, then 50, 60, 80 – and now there are 200 scooters on the run. I gave up the work last year, and a new chap, Bo Redden, took it over. He raised 15 grand at Easter. I sometimes used to bring in 17 grand.
I started off DJ-ing at a hop in Home Farm football club. A guy called Derek, who was a bouncer there, asked me one day could I help him out in a club he was running, Bubbles, in the basement of what's now the Temple Bar Hotel. So I went along. At the time it was a pop club. But I started playing some Beatles and Kinks. Then the Kingsmen, the Small Faces and the Who. And it went down very well. The crowd changed after that. We put on a '60s night midweek. We brought in the Jam and a bit of ska, '60s reggae, then the northern soul. It wasn't that we set out to put on a mod night. It just happened. They came. It grew and grew. I don't think the mods had been catered for up to that. But I wouldn't have classified myself as a mod. I never dressed up in the gear or anything like that.
It was a young crowd. So it was a non-alcohol club, just the mineral bar. They were strict enough. If they smelt drink off you, you wouldn't get in. And if you were caught staggering around, you were thrown out. As in every club there were cliques. The in-crowd. They would try and dictate how things went. They listened to northern soul almost exclusively.
We used to put on all-nighters. They ran from eight in the evening to eight in the morning. Twelve hours. There was a fantastic atmosphere on those. Some incredible dancers. I used to play for the duration. I had a very big record collection. There were lots of crowd pleasers. R Dean Taylor's 'There's a Ghost in My House'. 'The Night' by Frankie Valli'. 'You're Ready Now' by Frankie Valli'. 'The Snake' by Al Wilson. 'Fortune Teller' by Benny Spellman. Loads of them. I used to buy a lot of stuff from England. I'd buy job lots of 100 records. I might get two or three good ones out of them and throw the rest away. And it was still worth my money.
In the late 1950s, smartly dressed, dandy-ish youths began to congregate in London's late-opening coffee bars, flaunting copies of Camus's The Outsider, affecting the airs of French new-wave film stars, and monopolising the jukeboxes. They identified themselves as 'modernists', or mods for short. Their sharp, fussy look was in deliberate contrast to the style of the rock 'n' roll-worshipping 'rockers', whom adherents of the new subculture viewed as stuck in the past.
Key elements of mod style included Italian suits, skinny ties, button-down-collar shirts, V-neck cashmere jumpers, Fred Perry tee-shirts, winklepicker shoes, bowling shoes and Chelsea boots. Parka jackets were worn to protect fancy clothing from grease and smut when mods were riding their Vespa and Lambretta scooters.
Female mods wore mini-skirts, two-tone shift dresses and often flat shoes. The mods adopted the Union Jack and RAF 'target' as style symbols, partly ironically, partly as another conscious affront to the Yankee-worshipping rockers.
Mods began by listening almost exclusively to US soul and R'n'B music. Later, British R'n'B groups like the Who, the Small Faces, the Kinks and the Yardbirds became favourites with the new movement. As the '60s wore on, the British media revelled in depicting mods as delinquents, seizing on their amphetamine usage and making hay of their brawls with rockers in English seaside resorts – most famously in Brighton.
The first wave of mod died out by the late 1960s, but there was to be a resurgence of the movement just over a decade later, when bands like the Jam, Secret Affair and the Merton Parkas brought smart dress and the scouring Rickenbacker guitar sound back into fashion. The second wave of mod was also inspired by the film Quadrophenia, which depicted the antics of a group of mods from the early 1960s. The new mods drew on a wide musical palette – all the '60s stuff, the revivalist sounds and the ska music of the late '70s, plus old-time reggae and skinhead music. It was around this time also that northern soul became popular among the mods. Northern soul was simply another revival – of American soul one-hit wonders (the more obscure the better) of the '60s and early '70s.