The Who star in a French TV special about Mods

The English Mods were usually young people who worked in offices and spent all their money on stylish clothes, obsessed with cutting-edge Italian suits, vests, and shoes. Their ideal weekend was to take amphetamine pills and stay up for days dancing to R&B and soul.

Mods’ rumbles with the rockers became legend. Typically, rockers were from the tradesmen class. They were the descendants of the Teddy Boys, the first teenage subculture in post–World War II Britain, and their motorcycles and leather were in sharp contrast to the mods’ Vespas and parkas.

In the beginning, the rockers and mods didn’t fight—it was actually the mods and the police—but sensationalistic newspapers changed it to “mods versus rockers,” and soon, life imitated art. During the spring holiday of 1964, both sides massed to brawl on the beach in resort towns such as Brighton, Margate, Hastings, and Broadstairs, though how different this really was from typical post-football game hooliganism is open to conjecture. Still, it was enough of a newspaper story for a journalist to ask Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night if he was a mod or a rocker. He’d been a Teddy Boy as a teen, but the Beatles’ manager had remolded the band with a proto-mod look. Starr deftly answered that he was a “mocker.”

The Who’s first manager, Pete Meaden, decided to make them the band of the mod subculture. The Who took the mods’ style and, equally important, as author Nicholas Schaffner writes in The British Invasion, channeled the spirit of the mod-versus-rocker feud into their music. Townshend was the first guy on the circuit to use two amps at the same time, which made his distortion and feedback richer. He rubbed his guitar on his mike stand and shook the guitar in front of the amp to get a throbbing prepsychedelic cacophony. He created a Morse code effect by flipping the pickup of his guitar off and on, and then hitting another switch to make it sound like he was gunning the audience down, pointing the end of his guitar at them like an Uzi, making his way murderously from one end of the stage to the other.

When Townshend opened for the Stones, he saw Richards warming up by wind milling his arm. When Townshend realized it wasn’t part of Richards’s act, he took the pose for himself onstage, one of many he would develop to compensate for his nose, which he felt was too big.19 A few ballet lessons taken as a kid helped his natural grace as he jumped and bent down on his knees, transforming himself into one of the great posers of rock.

One night, while the band played “Smokestack Lightning” at the Railway Hotel in West London, Townshend lifted his twelve-string over his head and it went through the venue’s low ceiling. It broke his guitar, but he acted like he’d meant for that to happen, and continued slamming the guitar into the ceiling over and over. The crowd loved it, but next week he didn’t have an extra guitar to smash, so he pushed over his amps. Not to be outdone, Moon shoved over his drum kit. (Later, Moon took to stocking his bass drum with explosives to detonate at the climax of their sets.) The press, who had started coming by, told the band that if they did it again, they’d put them on the front page. So Townshend would ram his guitar into the speaker, throw it in the air and catch it, then bring it down over his shoulder and smash it on the ground.

In art school, he had seen the “auto-destructive” work of Gustav Metzger, who would spray hydrochloric acid onto nylon sheets to make the nylon disintegrate, as a symbol of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. Townshend branded his instrument smashing an “auto destruction” happening, which went along with the band’s Pop Art clothing, such as Moon’s bull’s-eye T-shirt and Townshend’s coat made out of the Union Jack.

The program Seize Millions Des Jeunes (Sixteen Million Youth) ran from 1964 to 1968, and this episode on the Mod phenomenon aired in March 1965:

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