When Statement Meant Conflict: Mods, Rockers, and the Bank Holiday Mayhem

Last June, the UK experienced one of the greatest shocks in its history by leaving the European Union. Society was polarized: young voters wanted to remain in the EU, while older generations appeared set to leave and never look back. Over the course of the summer, rallies choked the streets, public anxiety gripped the nation, and a political figure was even tragically murdered. To many, the United Kingdom seemed more divided than ever. However, such social conflict was wasn’t unprecedented. Fifty years ago, in the throes of the Swingin’ 60’s, the streets of London once again full of opposing parties whose destinies seemed irrevocably at odds: the Mods and the Rockers.

Before introducing these two warring parties, one must understand the society that created them. The emergence of these two opposing movements was a result of the booming post-war British economy. Wartime austerity measures officially repealed, economic demand hit an all-time high, creating unprecedented opportunity for working and middle class young people. In the early 60’s, even a modest paycheck meant a young person’s first taste of financial liberation from their parents. In addition, thanks to the expansion of global trade, British society was gradually liberalizing: gone was the Churchill-era conservatism, replaced by a potently untraditional blend of European and American modernism. To top it all off, the end of conscription with the abolition of the National Service in 1960 liberated young men from the obligation to live the same life as their GI-generation parents. Both freed and enriched, the youth of Britain were eager to make a statement in their brave new world. While this post-war generation had a lot in common, one central question divided them: were you a Mod, or were you a Rocker?

The Mod (or “Modernist”) movement started in and around South England in the late 1950’s. Mods wore stylish suits and listened to “modern” jazz by the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Mod cliques prided themselves on appearing neat, sharp, hip and smart – essentially, like wealthy global jet-setters. Although many teenage Mods weren’t considered “upper class,” they spent what money they had on stylish luxury items like Vespa scooters, Italian clothing, and hard-to-find imported music. Mod cliques often congregated around “coffee bars” (ballrooms) where they could dance “all day and all of the night” fueled with, then legal, prescription amphetamines.

While every aspect of their culture oozed style, the Mods were especially avid followers of fashion. Favorite Mod brands included Gibson overcoats and Hathaway shirts, both favorites of musicians the Mods idolized. However, as long as something looked novel, it had the opportunity of becoming an overnight sensation in the Mod world. A newly imported coat could become a fashion trend; an accidental misstep on the dance floor could create a new dance style; a new shop on Saville Row could become a Mod temple. The message was clear: if it was novel, stylish, and consumable, it was for Mods. Just as importantly: it wasn’t for Rockers.

The Rockers (also known as “Café Racers” or “Ton-Up Boys”) represented almost everything that the Mods were opposed to. Contrary to popular belief, the name “Rocker” didn’t come from their musical tastes. Instead, the group took its name from the “rocker” arm of a motorcycle engine. You can probably guess where this is going.

Rockers were heavily influenced by “outlaw” movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild One.” Both films featured young, rebellious troublemakers with denim jeans, tough attitudes, and most importantly of all, motorcycles. While Mods flocked to jazz, Rockers listened to the emerging genre of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, favoring artists like Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, and Eddie Cochran. While they were on paper less “modern” than the Mods, Rockers remained open to the new post-war identity Britain was forging. In many ways, Rockers represented a contemporary expression of Victorian social culture. Traditional notions of male machismo were very common among Rockers, and while it may seem paradoxical, many women in turn identified as part of this high-octane social group, motorcycles and all.

While Mods leaned towards scooters, the “Wild One” Rockers were all about their bikes. Many customized their rides, chopping as much weight as possible to create superlight (and superfast) “Café Racers,” so called since Rockers usually raced each between cafes as a form of social competition. A typical leisure activity for young British Rockers involved meeting up, finding long stretch, and racing to beat one another to 100 MPH first.

Since the Rockers spent most of their lives on top of their bikes, their clothes and accessories were built around the harsh conditions of racing. Italian suits simply wouldn’t last ten minutes on a Café Racer. As a result, Rockers favored selvedge denim jeans, thick leather boots, and most importantly of all, heavy-duty leather jackets. While many Rockers appeared to favor identical black moto jackets, there was actually a deep customization subculture built around making these jackets as different as possible. Popular adornments included patches, badges and even studs. 30 years before reflective tape, metal studs were as functional as they were intimidating: polished studs served as reflectors, alerting drivers that Rockers were around, even on pitch black backroads. Although both Metal music and the Hell’s Angels biker gang were yet to emerge, the subversive Rockers of post-war Britain are credited with influencing both.

Now that we know who’s who, let’s talk about the relationship between these two groups. At first, Mods and Rockers refrained from engaging one another. Yes, there were occasional fists thrown and curses yelled, but it never exceed the fan section of a Chelsea-Arsenal match. The main reason behind the tensions between the groups was that, the Mods hated the Rockers’ crude conception of masculinity, and the Rockers thought that the obsession of Mods’ with fashion was effeminate. As tensions grew, members of these groups began travelling together and carrying small weapons, like bike chains and switchblades. Although it may seem hard to picture armed teenagers in Italian suits, paradoxically, the Mods were the more aggressive of the two. Turns out “A Clockwork Orange” wasn’t far off.

However, it wasn’t long before these occasional skirmishes boiled over. Tensions between the groups came to a head during the “Bank Holiday” weekend (think Memorial Day) of May 1964. As proper Londoners, many Mods and Rockers alike travelled to the same popular seaside resort towns like Clacton, Brighton and Bournemouth. Instead of relaxing on the beach, the groups began openly fighting each other for the first time. Some say the initial brawls started out of pure boredom – you could either sleep in the sun, or start a fist fight. Hard choice for some. Minor brawls sparked between the two groups which accumulated all the way to all-out riotous fights on the streets and the beaches. The infamous Brighton Riots were the worst of them all, with violence in the streets lasting nearly two full days.

As you may imagine, the media had a field day after these events. Both Mods and Rockers were demonized, dubbed “folk devils” by the press and television news alike. Mods were especially prime targets, since they opposed “traditional” British notions more explicitly than the seemingly-provincial Rockers. Mods were also deemed more dangerous and unpredictable, since their clothes and mannerisms projected affluence, confusing locals as to why wealthy teenagers would engage in such criminal activity. When the dust finally settled post-Mayhem, many members of both groups were in either hospital beds or jail cells. For both Mods and Rockers, the party was over – many became disillusioned and actually retired their bikes and clothes after realizing the damage their tribal subcultures could do to society at large.

Ironically, this outburst was not the end for these movements. Thanks to the media coverage of the Mayhem, Mods and Rockers became the dominant mainstream youth trends in Britain for the remainder of the 1960’s. As it turns out, millions far outside London related to the statements both cultures were making, propelling the movements to new heights. Yet, as with everything that becomes mainstream, the Mod and the Rocker subcultures soon lost their cool as many popular figures – especially musicians – appropriated each culture’s look to sell their audiences on their “coolness.” Even through Mayhem, the right statement comes through loud and clear.