Forty years ago pictures of Mods and Rockers shocked polite society. But were they staged by the press?
They came, they saw, they beat each other senseless on the shingle. Or did they? Forty years ago this Easter weekend, mods took on rockers for the first time, fuelling Britain’s first mass-media scare over dissolute, drug-taking, mindlessly violent youth.
Starting with a spot of bother at Clacton, Essex, over the Easter weekend of 1964, the tabloid press feasted for months on the gory new phenomenon breaking out at sleepy seaside towns across the South-east.
Beside gleefully horrified headlines – “Riot police fly to seaside” – were photographs of pale youths in Italian fashions fighting pale youths in engine-oil-caked leathers beside penny arcades at Margate, Brighton, Bournemouth, Clacton, Southend and Hastings.
But now mod experts and some of the old rockers and mods themselves are admitting that many of the candid newspaper shots of seaside gang fighting in 1964 – so shocking at the time, and now considered classic images of Sixties Britain – were staged.
Further, with the tales of drug-fuelled derring-do and flying deckchairs now the stuff of pop-culture legend, a new, far less violent picture is emerging of what actually happened. It’s a world far removed from Quadrophenia, the cult 1979 film based on The Who’s mod-nostalgia album.
“There are famous photographs taken in Brighton where the photographer paid the lads a few shillings,”
says David Cooke, a Brighton-based mod ephemera dealer and an authority on the history and lore of the mod world. “Quite a few people know that photographs were set up in Brighton.”
Finding that gangs were engaged not in open warfare but aimless wandering, some photographers and reporters paid youths to stage mock fights and chases.
“At Margate some photographs were definitely staged,”
recalls Howard Baker, in 1964 a purist mod and now a writer whose novel Sawdust Caesar is set against mid-1960s mod culture. “Reporters and photographers were paying off a lot of kids. You’d get a fiver or a tenner. We’d get pissed on it.”
“The media made it sound much worse than it really was,”
says rocker Phil Bradley, a veteran of dozens of seaside “visits” in the Sixties and a repentant mod-baiter. Bradley became a rocker at 14 when he bought his first motorbike, and spent most of his teens trading insults with the scootering mods. But bloodshed?
“There wasn’t as much fighting as what has been made out,” he says. “The press hyped it right up. There were only isolated incidents. There weren’t riots like in that film Quadrophenia. The odd deckchair came flying through the air, but there weren’t weapons like you see nowadays.
“And we certainly didn’t go chasing after old people, even us rockers. If we saw an old lady going across the road having trouble, we’d walk across with her.”
Tabloid headlines about the drug menace facing Britain’s youth, which for a few months in mid-1964 alternated with seaside warfare headlines, pointed to another glaring falsehood.
“There was an idea that amphetamines, which were the mod pill of choice at the time, caused us all to be terribly aggressive, but that wasn’t the case,” says Alfredo Marcantonio, 40 years ago a devoted mod and now a leading figure in British advertising. “Most of the time you danced your socks off in clubs, but afterwards you were so worn out you wouldn’t want to fight anyone.”
No, says Howard Baker, there was real fighting as well as fake fighting.
“The Brighton photographs weren’t staged. I was there. The violence was nasty, but there weren’t guns.”
Mods were not averse to fighting other mods, rather than rockers.
“It wasn’t really mods versus rockers, as the press put it, anyway,” says David Cooke. “Mods were fighting each other. The north London mods hated south London mods. South London mods hated north London mods, and east London mods hated everybody, and everybody hated them.”
“You could almost tell which part of London a mod was from by which colour suit he had,” recalls Mr Marcantonio. One of many early mods who went into advertising and the media, he remembers spats, but maintains pitched battles did not happen.
“The streets were not strewn with broken deckchairs,” he says. “The police herded you up and you ended up walking around Brighton in the great phalanxes of people looking a bit pissed off.
“The seaside towns were the domain of the rocker, their patch,” he explains. “Every rocker, you imagined, dreamt of working on the dodgems, with the sound of Del Shannon echoing past the helter-skelter. So a lot of us turning up on scooters, it was asking for trouble. But mods didn’t ever get on their scooters and go down to the coast for a fight. Real mods were far too concerned about their clothing. I mean, we’re talking about possibly losing buttons – you know, creasing or tearing clothing you’d saved for!”
But isolated outbreaks of violence did continue throughout the Sixties.
“The Battle of Hastings, about 1965, was quite a big one,” remembers Phil Bradley. “Some scooters and bikes went off the top of the cliff. Margate in 1964 was the worst – the cells filled up. There were only seven coppers in Margate at the time, and one Black Maria – but there were about 4,000 mods and 500 rockers!”
In the end, the mod movement mutated. “Everyone diverged,” says Howard Baker. “Lots of mods became hippies or freaks and wandered off to India, like I did.”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea why there was any fighting with the mods,” says Phil Bradley. “I really don’t know.”