Scotland’s mod scene

IT is the last Friday in April, the day of the Royal Wedding, and all over Britain people have been watching it on television. Paul Molloy, perhaps Scotland’s most ardent mod, was not among them. His mind has been on other things. Important matters. Like what to wear that night at Friday Street, the monthly club he co-runs in Glasgow. And what records to play.

Now, at 7pm, in his semi-detached home in the southern suburbs, the 41-year-old is still flicking through his enormous collection of vinyl singles – “sevens” – and narrowing it down to what he considers an acceptable couple of hundred discs. His fellow DJ, Mikey Collins, will be bringing a similar number. They are music-daft. Pop-daft. Soul-daft. R&B-daft. And they’ll pay hundreds of pounds for just the right single. For them, being a mod is not just a hobby. It is, as laid down in the 1979 film Quadrophenia, a way of life.

What is mod? A youth cult that first emerged in London’s Soho in the late 1950s, its first adherents called themselves modernists after the modern jazz they favoured. By the early 1960s, however, the scene had gone national and coalesced around a set of shared passions – notably bespoke tailoring, Italian scooters and black American music. It became and remains predominantly working class. Mod is also about a particular attitude of mind that is hard to define.

“Good mods have a certain way of looking at things,” says Molloy. “A critical eye. A bit aloof. It’s an aspirational thing. I suppose there is a wee bit of snobbery there as well. You don’t want to be the guy in the tracksuit who lives in the next close.”

Clean living under difficult circumstances. That’s the mod code. It fits well with Glasgow – a dirty, post-industrial city in which the populace have always veered towards the flamboyant.

Molloy owns “an obscene amount of clothes”, many of them bespoke. He slips on a pink Italian shirt, buttoning it over the Virgin Mary pendant that rests on his chest. His tight striped kick-flared trousers, split at the bottom hem, were made for him by the tailor
Steven Purvis, favoured couturier and breeksmeister to the Glasgow scene. Brown suede shoes, a chunky silver bracelet, a couple of invigorating cheek-slaps of Paco Rabanne, and he’s all set. You never know, though. When it comes to clothes, Molloy is indecisive to say
the least.

“I’m a nightmare. She’ll tell you.” He nods towards the door in the general direction of his wife, Mary. “I’m worse than a woman sometimes. I’ve turned taxis around when I’ve been on my way somewhere and changed my mind about what to wear. It’s pathetic really.”

He has the classic mod haircut – short fringe, long and brushed forward by the ears. He looks a bit like Mean Streets-era De Niro. He works as a “sweetie man” selling confectionary from a stall in Paisley. On the walls of his room are pictures of Rod Stewart, Henrik
Larsson and Pope John Paul II. Above the television is a framed reproduction of the front cover of a Daily Mirror from the summer of 1964, showing a mod booting a rocker lying on Brighton beach. “In dramatic pictures,” says the sub-heading, “all the fury and hate of
the scrap-happy Whitsun Wild Ones.” Through the window, out in the garden, lie a toy pram and a child’s bike with stabilisers.

The phone rings. Taxi’s here. Molloy makes final adjustments to his trousers, grabs his box of records. “Mary, I’ll see you later, doll.” Out the door. Into the cab. Into the zone. Paul Molloy is a mod. That’s who he is, what he does. A belief system. “After my wife and
kids,” he says, “this comes next.”

SATURDAY the 30th of April. Bank holiday weekend. Zooming down the A77 is a squadron of Vespas and Lambrettas, chrome and mirrors gleaming in the sun, RAF targets flying from whip-aerials, making their way from Glasgow to Ayr. The air is filled with the smell of hot asphalt and cherry blossom, and the Spitfireish drone of scooter engines. The mods are coming.

This is the Scottish Mod Rally, organised by Paul Molloy and Mikey Collins. The scene in Scotland is buzzing at the moment. Its epicentre is Glasgow, home to the annual Mod Weekender, which attracts around 1,000 people towards the end of June. There are around 250 hardcore mods in Scotland.

They come from all over and they vary in age. A few are silver-haired survivors who were into it first time around. However, the majority of Scottish mods are men and women who became involved in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Quadrophenia and The Jam sparked a revival. Then there is a new generation who are getting into it through their
parents and grandparents, through the influence of websites such as, and through the likes of Liam Gallagher whose clothing label Pretty Green (named for a Jam song) is very mod.

The venue for the rally is the Station Hotel in Ayr, a large red sandstone building. There are around 80 scooters parked outside. Quite a sight. Mod is a strange balance of conformity and individualism, authenticity and originality. The idea is to look more or less like everyone else, but to express yourself and attempt to outdo the rest with finely nuanced differences. Mod is in the details. So, for instance, while all these scooters look similar, no two are the same.

Some have up to 18 wing mirrors, plus numerous spotlights, chrome mascots and handlebar tassels. “It’s all just bling,” one explains. Others fly Saltires, lions rampant and even fox-tails (artificial, in this era of the hunting ban) from the whip-aerials. There’s a scooter
sprayed with a painting of Paul Weller and one with stickers of a pin-up girl in a tartan bikini. There are even scooters customised to express their owners’ footballing allegiances. Mod, by the way, straddles the Old Firm divide.

Forbes Robertson, a 56-year-old local in a parka, points to his scooter. “See when I’m riding that?” he says. “Providing I don’t see my grey hair in the mirrors, I feel I’m 16 again. To me, it’s a time machine.”

Music drifts out from the hotel. The Ray-Bandos, a group from Glasgow, are covering David Watts by The Kinks. Inside, there are stalls selling vintage vinyl. A single by Ron And The Embracers is marked for sale at £80. A note on the sleeve announces: “Just sold on eBay at £110.” These old records are coveted items and can fetch high prices. Mikey Collins, a 41 year old warehouse manager from East Kilbride, has a collection of around 4,500 singles. The most he has ever paid was £975. “If I had the money, and I saw a record that cost three grand, I wouldn’t have a qualm about buying it,” he says.

Remarkably, given the value of some singles, playing cheap re-issues or album tracks is not the done thing at mod clubs. The whole point is to play the original seven-inch. “It doesn’t matter if it sounds the same, it’s got to be the real thing,” says Paul Molloy. “It’s no
problem buying a reissue for a fiver to play at home, but don’t go out and DJ with it and kid on to people that you’ve actually got it. Unless you’ve got the real record, you haven’t got it.”

This approach is not without risk. Recently, Molloy was DJing in a Glasgow pub when a drunk knocked over his box of records. “The sevens were everywhere,” he recalls with the grave countenance of one reluctantly reliving a trauma. “I had to be held back. I was going to kill the guy.”

He and Mikey Collins have known each other since they were young teenagers. “In those days, in the early 1980s, the cafés in the Barras were where all the mods met. You’re talking about a crowd of three or four hundred,” Collins recalls.

“All the different cults had different areas,” says Molloy. “Skinheads were on Union Street. Casuals were Argyle Street. I think the reason the mods started gravitating round the Gallowgate was you could go and buy clothes there. You could get a lot of original 1960s clothes down the Briggait and the Barras. So we’d go up to the cafés on a Saturday and just basically hang about. We met there and we used to get the train together because he stayed in Clydebank and I lived in Dumbarton.”

Did it feel exciting to come into the city? “Aye,” says Molloy. “We used to say ‘Are ye goin’ up the toon?’ You used to look forward to it. Up early. Pressin’ yer troosers. All excited just to go and walk about Glesca. I used to wash cars to make money. I was earning 30, 40 quid a week when I was 14, which was a lot in 1984, and I used to spend it on clothes every week. Best dressed guy in the scheme.”

Here today are young lads, in polo shirts and parkas, who are experiencing the same excited, covetous feelings about Vespas and vesture as Molloy and Collins did back then. Calvin Palmer, Matthew Stevenson and Julian McLaughlan are 15-year-olds from Kilwinning. They are counting the days until they are old enough to ride scooters. “Cannae wait.” They are scornful of neds – “We can’t be doing with trackies. We dress smart” – and regretful that bespoke tailoring is beyond their finances at the moment. “It is a bit,” Palmer admits, before brightening. “But I’ve got a wee paper round on the go.”

This is their first time at a rally. But how do they even know about mod? “My papa used to give me an awful history lesson about it,” says McLaughlan. “He was a mod. I didn’t know what the music was. But then you hear it and it hits you.”

Mod first hit Glasgow in 1963, according to Nicky Stewart whose pub McChuills is one of the scene’s main hang-outs. Stewart is 62 and resembles Andy Warhol. “I was 14 when it began,” he says. “The best record shop was Gloria’s Record Bar on Battlefield Road. They had a shoebox full of 45s. You’d spend your pocket money on Booker T and James Brown. And the club that everyone went to was the Maryland on Scott Street. It was a great scene and it’s wonderful that it hasn’t died. I’m an old man and I feel a wee bit born-again.”

In part, the vibrancy of the Scottish scene is an accident of timing. The original mods are retiring from their jobs. Many of those who were active during the mod revival of the 1970s and early 1980s are now at an age when their children are leaving home.

“People have more spare time and extra cash,” explains Scott Mealyou, a 42-year-old landscape gardener from Whitburn, “or they get divorced like myself and go mental.”

The opportunity is there to re-experience something you enjoyed in your youth before bringing up children and paying the mortgage forced you to sell the scooter and stash the
records in the loft.

Denise Clark is a 46-year-old in a blue Chanel-style shift dress who travelled here from Coatbridge on her Vespa. “There are so many more women riding scooters now,” she says.
“In the 1980s, most women tried to find a man to take them on the back.” She became a mod at the age of 14, but left the scene to raise her sons. She split from her husband five years ago and subsequently met her new partner at a Glasgow Mod Weekender. “It’s like a new lease of life,” she says. “It’s brilliant. My whole life now revolves around this.”

While the scene remains dominated by men, it’s striking how many women are at the rally, and how passionate, even trainspotterish, they are about the music. Emily Frame, a 19-year-old from Glasgow in a knitted red, white and blue vest top, seasons her conversation with confident references to psych, freakbeat, R&B and Motown.

She is here with her mother Joan, who was a mod during the 1980s. They both attend Pineapple Soul, a club in Greenock. Emily has been teaching herself Northern Soul dance steps by studying YouTube footage of the Wigan Casino. She carries around talcum powder to lessen the friction between her feet and the dancefloor.

“This old man came up to me at Pineapple Soul,” she recalls. “He was telling me all these moves he used to do at 16. He said, ‘My opening used to be doing a somersault off a table.’ It was amazing for me that he liked my dancing. I was just so happy.”

Emily explains that, for women on the mod scene, sourcing the right vintage clothing is becoming as important, obsessive and competitive as wearing the right suit has always been for men. “Every girl wants to get the best dress. You have to look the part and if you don’t then it’s not good enough.”

This strutting, vainglorious, peacockish aspect of mod is, perhaps, its most fascinating aspect. “I like to be immaculate at all times and stand above the mingingness all about me,” says a 39-year-old Glaswegian known as Groovy Graham. “It’s all or nothing. There’s nothing else that I think about. I live the mod life completely.”

Oneupmanship dictates that you find ways of making your outfit different and better than that of your peers. But there are certain parameters. The idea is that a mod should be able to recognise another mod. “It’s like the Masons,” says Paul Molloy, “only good.” Fred Perry
shirts should be buttoned to the neck. Levis should be worn with a quarter-inch turn-up. Desert boots must have two holes. It has come down from Mount Sinai that suit jackets should have three buttons and lapels measuring two-and-a-quarter inches.

There are further commandments to do with the placing and length of vents. And fabric? “Mohair, mohair, mohair all the way,” says the tailor Steven Purvis. The most desired mohair is Tonik, manufactured by Dormeuil, which costs £120 a metre. “Tonik is the Holy Grail.”

It’s a scorching afternoon in Ayr, hardly parka weather; inside the hotel, The Ray-Bandos are covering Heat Wave by Martha And The Vandellas. The audience appear to be seized by the music. A shuffle of Hush Puppies, a twitch of the knees, a swivel of the hips, a clap of the hands, and then they are on to the dancefloor, giving it laldy, singing along to that song of burning, obsessive desire.

It is clear that for the Scottish mods, their involvement with the youth cult most of them abandoned as they grew older has all the bittersweet passion of a rekindled love affair.

Jeff “Scoob” Kerr, a 47-year-old from Whitburn, explains how much it all means. “I’m reliving my youth,” he says. “I wish I’d never left the scene. It was always in my heart, though, eh? And I’ll never leave it again.”

Scoob grins as he makes his solemn vow. “I’ll die a mod.”