The Society of Cool
Mod Girl Memories
Back in 1982 a young mod girl stood back and admired her first scooter-a black Vespa 90 with customized Union Jack side panels. Bleached blonde and bouffanted wearing a little too much black eyeliner and an oversized parka resplendent with badges and tippexed band names Secret Affair, The Chords, The Who, she looks fragile but somehow manages to grab the handlebars and pulls back the stand without falling over. She sits on the polished leather seat in her black ski pants and dolly shoes steadying her balance as she is ready to take her first ride out. Mum and dad watch from the window-agitated. “Be careful-don’t go too mad!” shouts mum from the window. She looks back and smiles “yes mum” she groans.
Yeah that was me back then, its true to say I felt completely terrified and yet totally exhilarated that finally, I owned my very own scooter-now all I had to do was learn how to ride the bloody thing.
Back in those days all you needed was a provisional license and not much else-scary to think of that now. Several moments stick in mind in the learning process, in fact I didn’t even understand how the gears changed to begin with believing that as long as I stayed in second gear I would go slower-and almost managed to burn the engine out on my first trip out. Another time waiting at the lights the engine stalled and a gang of skinheads jeered at me out of the window of their car. I managed to get the engine started in the nick of time and made my escape.
Once while riding pillion on my boyfriend’s Lambretta I forgot he had taken one of the back foot rests off-he reminded me repeatedly to put my right foot forward and after a few beers I managed to forget as we journeyed along-some moments later when we arrived at our destination my shoe was literally on fire the sole totally melted on the exhaust, much to everyone’s amusement.
Two months later there I was, riding to the Isle of Wight scooter rally-the only girl in my group of eight other scooterist mod types of the lesser known Carpenders Park Mods known as The Way Out Scooter Club we were later joined by some of the Hemel Mods on my first long trip to the coast. Although I had been on rallies before I had always been on the back of someone else’s scooter so this time it felt strange that finally I had to worry about my own scoot and whether I would get there without it conking out (a common occurance) My boyfriend made a good job of renovating the engine, and in fact although it was registered as a 90 the engine capacity was greater-or so he claimed. I admit I knew nothing about what to do if it went wrong-I was young and naïve and was more concerned with the look of the thing than what was the engine capacity! I cant say I even remember much detail about my first coastal journey other than freezing my arse off and worrying about my hair when I took off my crash helmet (bouffants and beehives were never a good combo for the crash helmet issue.) No one warned me how bloody cold it was going to be on such a long journey regardless of the weather-and my teeth were literally chattering at one stage. I was grateful for the old army coat (oversized or not).
Once we arrived though it was like a scene from Quadrophenia as scooter after scooter cruised by with admiring glances. In my head The Who were playing My Generation and Dr Jimmy and I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like I was living “the teenage mod dream” and as a female of the species I was a rare breed by this time. In fact Mod girls were virtually extinct let alone on the back of a scooter by 1982-the mod scene was in decline giving way to the New Romantic scene where the blokes had more lipstick on than the girls. As for me I was happier with looking at the odd mod god in black eyeliner a la Jimmy in Quadrophenia, the futuristic element passed me by and I tried hard not to acknowledge it even when Soft Cell released their excellent version of Tainted Love. I was the only mod girl in the entire school, and one of only three mod blokes since there was a hard core Skinhead group in my area, plus a lot of mods defected to Suede heads and Two Tone before finally becoming “casuals”
For that reason Scooter Rallies became more and more important at this stage and were not just about the scooters of course, it was (and still is) very much a way of life. We lived and breathed it and like Jimmy we couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave it and we wanted to stay close to others that felt the same. Our evenings at scooter rallies were spent at pubs or make shift dance venues drinking cheap watery beer and smoking too many cigarettes. As a girl, for me being a mod was not just about the music, which I loved, but also about the look, the clothes, the hair and being totally colour coordinated from shoes to bags to earrings. Unlike the bitchiness of school girls- mod girls would want to know how you did you hair, where you got the shoes and bag, and complement you on getting it right. We admired the attention to detail and adored each others loyalty to the scene.
There were also the “plastic” mods that pretended to be in the scene but didn’t quite have it right. One hapless plastic I knew couldn’t afford Jam shoes so he tippexed a white stripe down his Hush Puppies, he also had the misfortune to be dyslexic and misspelt his Parka art work which was resplendent with the word “QUADPHENIA” and “THE CORDS” thankfully he wasn’t into tattoos.
The music of course was important but it was also the dancing that made these events come alive. If you couldn’t dance how could you ever be a “Face”? Stuff like that was important to me. I learned my steps from watching others and reading vintage books and magazines from the 60s archives. Many of us merged what we knew with the now hugely popular Northern Soul dance scene. Back then we also had the stamina to keep on dancing despite the hazards of beer splashed or talcum powdered floors and thick cigarette smoke that engulfed the room. On one rally we had an old barn that was used for the dancing-as the night drew on the dust from the floor rose and mingled with the smoke so that we could barely see the other side of the room-I emerged at 5am covered in dust and my nose clogged with black soot! In fact one rally I slept in an old barn and was terrified to hear rats crawling about in the middle of the night-luckily a few mods had torches and kept them at bay; certainly it was not a luxury experience.
One rally in the Isle Of Wight I recall was a particularly uncomfortable one for me. At the end of the night my then boyfriend was so drunk he forgot what B&B we had booked and we decamped to a deserted garage with other hapless mods too drunk to care. While my fellow girlfriends sensibly shared the last few rooms that were available, I had to share one single sleeping bag with said boyfriend on a very cold floor. I was not impressed. The following morning bleary eyed I walked to the shops to buy him more cigarettes and watched while other mod zombies aimlessly walked about with grey dazed expressions, and black eyeliner and mascara smudged on their eyes and cheeks (and that was just the blokes!) It was bloody freezing that morning and all I wanted to do was go home at that point.
Later in the day though, having partially forgiven him, we sought comfort in one of the pubs which had a mix of mods, skins and scooterists we knew. The Landlord was upset that someone had nicked some of his old pictures off the wall “Those pictures have been up there for 50 bloody years” he bemoaned to which someone at the back shouted “Well it’s about time you bought some bloody new ones then!”
Towards the end of the Mod Revival the antagonism between the many youth cults was waning-Mods started dancing to Ska and Skins danced to Northern Soul and everything was blurred and less defined. Maybe everyone was growing up and realizing that actually it was pretty pointless fighting or just that we all knew the scene was dying and we just wanted to enjoy the last moments of misspent youth in peace.
What I do remember is that I drove back from the Isle of Wight a different girl, somewhat more confident than before and already planning the next rally I would attend and what I would wear. My 1980-1982 diaries are packed full of detailed drawings and descriptions of what records I bought and my latest vintage discovery from Oxfam; Dolly shoes, button earrings, lacy tights, hipsters and ski pants. There are even notes on whatever bleach I was using on my hair at the time and what white lipstick was available. It was not unusual for me to act as hair stylist for some of my bloke mod mates in as much as I would bleach their hair in the bathroom on many occasions with the then popular mixture of Hydrogen Peroxide and Inecto Bleach-a messy affair that often resulted in daffodil shades of blonde.
Fast forward to today, here I am again at scooter rallies but this time with the mod icons of the day, still on top form, Secret Affair. I see the mod scene evolving and growing again, young faces stare up at the band on stage resplendent in boating blazers and Fred Perry’s. Some come to the gigs and rallies with whole families and kids decked out with their own tribute to the scene. It seems the scooter rally and the mod scene never really died but is still very much intertwined with ska, skins and reggae and is now reawakening, reviving and reminding us of good times and good friends we met along the way-while the new Mod waits in the wings for the next encore.
This work is the copyright of Tracey Dawn Wilmott and originally appears in ZANI online magazine. The views expressed are purely those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or institution.
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