The headlines screamed vitriol: “Vermin”, “Louts”, “Sawdust Caesars”. The Mods and Rockers had thrown the media into a frenzy and a tide of fear was spreading across the country. The Birmingham Post went as far as to say this new subculture were “internal enemies” in the UK. Everyone was at risk. Civilisation as people knew it, was on the verge of complete collapse.
These lurid editorials were sparked by an initial conflict between the two groups in Clacton during the Easter weekend of 1964. On the Whitsun weekend (18-19 May) thousands of mods arrived in Margate and Broadstairs. But the worst of the violence, at least according to the press, was reserved for Brighton, where the beaches were overtaken by marauding, crazed bikers who hurled deckchairs, and openly fought and terrified innocent, respectable holiday makers.
Brian Muggers, a former Mod – who was there on the weekend in question in Brighton – has a different take on events. The situation was blown out of all proportion by the press at the time, he claims. Mods and Rockers a threat to society? They were as innocuous as the candy floss and ‘kiss me quick’ hats on sale along the promenade.
Speaking to Brian, it’s difficult to imagine him frightening anyone. He’s amiable and polite as he recalls how he became involved in this supposedly scandalous new movement. At 15 he began a job in a scooter shop, opposite Preston Manor. He soon became passionate about Lambrettas and Vespas, and after buying a scooter himself, started meeting other youths in Brighton’s Castle Square, at the bottom of North Street near the Royal Pavilion. “We’d go there most nights of the week,” he recalls, “whenever we had money to put petrol in our scooters. Then we’d discuss where we were going that day. We always went somewhere on the bank holidays, but never knew where until about three days beforehand.”
How did his association with the Mods evolve?
“A few lads used to come down from London wearing really smart Italian suits and coats. We were impressed and wanted the sort of clothes they were wearing. Fortunately, a few enterprising shops in Brighton cottoned on to that, like Sammy Gordons in Trafalgar Street. We followed the looks in foreign magazines: double seams at the back, double breasted, the right number of buttons, that sort of thing.”
“Mods” is an abbreviation of “modernistic” and, for Brian and his friends, it was all about dressing up in attractive clothes – and the scooters.
“It was all about the image. We strutted everywhere, never slouched. There was a way of walking, standing, riding your scooter. Your feet had to be positioned in a certain way and you always sat bolt upright.”
The Rockers were evolving at the same time as the Mods. Their scooters, Brian remembers, were called “hairdryers” because of the noise they made. Was there much hostility between the two groups?
“We didn’t get on with them very well. The other nickname we had for them was ‘greasers’ because they didn’t bother to dress up or take any pride in their appearance. They had their own places to hang out in Brighton, mainly transport cafes. We preferred coffee bars.
“There was a little bit of antagonism between us, simply because we were two very different youth cultures. The Rockers didn’t like the scooters we rode or the clothes we wore – they thought we were too posy. We didn’t respect the Rockers because their motorbikes were always dirty, whereas we kept our scooters more or less in pristine condition. For the rockers it was all about the motorbikes – it was never about how they looked.”
Brian didn’t even know that the infamous “Battle of Hastings” was happening. He refers to a famous photograph of some 200 policemen getting on a plane at Northolt aerodrome to come down to Hastings.
“If we didn’t know it was going to happen, then how did they?” he laughs. “How did the authorities know they needed to get a vast number of police down there? No mobile phone back then. It’s bizarre.
“On that weekend in Brighton, we were sitting down on the beach, on the left hand side of the Palace pier – about 300 of us, chatting and joking. The police were up on the promenade. A couple of reporters from The Sketch and The Mirror came down, selected a few people to give money to and said ‘you’re a bit quiet, lads, how about making some noise and throwing some stones?’ And so they did. A few holiday makers started to run and the police got involved. Then, the next day, all over the front pages you had headlines like ‘families fleeing in terror from stone throwing mods’.”
Brian says that Rockers were not even in sight at the time, which rather quashes what has been written about them being attacked and overwhelmed by the Mods.
“Later in the afternoon the Rockers turned up and there were small fights all over the place, but nothing on the scale of what the papers would have you believe. The police always tried to keep us apart. Sure, there were minor skirmishes because there are so many back alleys and side streets in Brighton and Hastings.”
Brian is fascinated about the way the events were reported at the time – and the myths that now surround the rival groups.
“Looking at it from a distance, I think the establishment was worried about a youth culture which didn’t fit into a certain mold. This all happened not long after the war, with conscription and rationing. You were told what to think back then. I don’t believe the powers that be wanted us to have our own ideas and feelings. It was about keeping the status quo and I think that’s why the police overreacted every bank holiday weekend.
“There were instances of some violence. Deckchair throwing is quite often brought up by the media, but that wasn’t a battle. The reason for that was that we were riding along the Western Road and these rockers overtook us on bikes and forced one of the lads into a traffic island, which put him in hospital. We chased them and finished up on the terraces of Madeira Drive in Brighton, where we cornered them and started to throw deck chairs at them, but if you look at old pictures of the event you’ll see police on the lower esplanade waiting to arrest them.”
Brian says he never witnessed any spontaneous violence between the two fractions; indeed, he recalls sharing public spaces with Rockers without any problems.
“We’d drive down to London from Brighton on a Saturday to get to the clubs at 2am, then drive back at 10am on Sunday, stopping at a café near Gatwick called the Blue Pencil. It was a favourite place for Rockers. The owner would get a bit worried – ‘no trouble lads’ – but nothing ever kicked off. We just wanted something to eat.”
Brian is certain that some of the more notorious images of altercations between Mods and Rockers were staged. Such views are corroborated by Stanley Cohen in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, in which he claims that the media possibly went as far as faking interviews with alleged Rockers.
“Pictures of Mods and Rockers supposedly fighting in front of old ladies who were doing their knitting. Please!” he laughs. “Obviously I’m not naïve enough to think there weren’t issues, but it was all blown out of all proportion by the media. it suited them to do that, they made a lot of money selling their papers.
“For us that period of the sixties was all about friendship. I made friends for life back then and given the chance, I’d do it all over again.”
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