Call me an old contrarian but I think there’s a case for arguing that Paul Weller, who celebrates his 60th birthday today, rather than the Mancunian with the dodgy politics who we don’t mention anymore, is actually the great pop poet of 80s British music.
While Mozza lifted lines wholesale from films and novels, the eternal mod took a more subtle approach peppering the lyrics of many Jam songs with references to George Orwell, Neville Shute and others with a light poetic touch. As DJ Taylor, whose new novel Rock And Roll Is Life which is out shortly points out in The Prose Factory, his tome on 20th century British novels, Wind In The Willows informs both Tales From The Riverbank, the glorious B side to Absolute Beginners (more on which in a moment) and most of Weller’s classic soul album Wildwood.
Weller was also clearly a TS Eliot fan too naming a track on The Jam’s fourth album Setting Sons after the poem Wasteland.
So to celebrate Weller’s sixtieth (how is this possible!) birthday and here are a few of classic Mod books.
Penned at the tail end of the 50s Absolute Beginners is perhaps the first novel to accurately capture the emergence of British teenage culture and the birth of the Mod movement. It centres on Colin, a smart, independent and resourceful teen who spends his days spinning round the capitol on his Vespa while working as freelance photographer. Along the way he has altercations with wannabe teen pop stars, his on, but mainly off girlfriend, Suzette, and some neanderthal mates of his brother. MacInnes’ prose beautifully conjures up an era of Espresso bars, race riots and modern jazz – a London emerging from post-war monochrome starting to embrace a hedonistic, materialistic 60s technicolor.
The character are wonderfully drawn, the detail – from the description of the west London neighbourhoods to the nuances of Colin’s wardrobe – is superbly observed. The books fizzes with an energy that makes its 200 or so pages fly back. A must read for anyone with an interest in 60s pop culture. Weller loved it so much he named a song after it.
It has been suggested that Terry Taylor may well have been the inspiration for Colin in Absolute Beginners. Whether that’s the case or not Taylor’s debut novel, Baron’s Court All Change, is a worthy partner to Absolute Beginners, perhaps not quite as incendiary, but still a pacey and intriguing read. It tracks the summer of unnamed 16 year old as he lands in central London and falls in with jazz loving prototype Mods. This is classic coming of age stuff set in the world that David Bowie chronicled a few years later on his much underrated track London Boys. Needless to say it all goes pear shaped by the end. Baron’s Court All Change was once the holy grail of early 60s British novels with a stupid price tag to to boot, but mercifully it was reissued a few years back, so can be picked up pretty cheaply.
It might have been a huge hit when it was published in 1967, but The Dolly Dolly Spy has largely been forgotten – championed only by the select few who love an intoxicating mix of swinging 60s London and a good spy yarn. Diment’s hero, Philip McAlpine, is basically James Bond’s groovy younger sibling. While Bond is propping up the bar with his Martinis, McAlpine is haring around London in his E -Type, with a model by his side and a stash of illegal substances in his glove compartment. How The Dolly Dolly Spy never became a movie is a mystery – though there is a theory that it was the inspiration for a certain Austin Powers. Sure it is a period piece and yes it features some wincingly sexist observations that are a tad tricky to stomach today, nevertheless it’s a blast of read and a vibrant snapshot of Mod going psychedelic.
There are endless discussions about what exactly Mod stands for and what Mod culture really is.Richard Weight’s Mod: A Very British Style might prove to be the definitive tome on the culture side anyhow. It is not a rose-tinted, nostalgic romp through the history of a movement that has had profound impact on British culture, but a serious academic (yet still very readable) study of what Mod is and was and how the 60s Mods have influenced British society.
Its scope – which goes way beyond most books about Mods -has already attracted criticism from hardcore Mods who may or may not have a point that the author talks too much about the influence of German art school Bauhaus at the expense of say, how Makin Time and The Prisoners took Mod in a new direction in the 80s.
For me the pivotal part is Weight’s dissection of how the 60s Mods – not the original late 50s/early 60s ones who were a different tribe altogether – changed the way Britons live, think and most of all shop.
As a counterweight, for a more orthodox view of Mods: The New Religion, by Paul Anderson is rich in period detail and features many wonderful tales from the original Mods.
There are lots of books about the Jam from the brilliantly titled Love With a Passion Called Hate by Sean Egan through to drummer Rich Buckler’s own take on his formative years That’s Entertainment. The one I keep coming back to though is Albert Jack’s romp through the history of the band on a song by song basis. Ok so it is no Revolution In The Head, but Jack keeps the pace going unfolding the story of the band while giving insight to the music books, film and individual who inspired the young Paul Weller.
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