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Bleecker Street, New York, 1999: Every Wednesday night at Life, history is forgotten as leather-trousered trust-fund rockers dance to DJ Jayne County, while in the next room over NYU students dressed up in sharp three-button suits gyrate to '60s soul music. But don't label the revelers at On! as Life's late-night shindig is called mods. This is no straightforward retro revival like the swing kids, profess the participants, but a hybrid scene that draws from several sources.
"It's a '60s and '70s soul party combined with '8Os and '90s new wave and Brit pop," claims On! host James Spooner. "We don't look completely '90s but neither do we look completely from the '60s. A lot of kids at On! are taking the best from different generations and making their own amalgamated versions."
Call them the postmodern mods. Born nearly two decades after the original heyday, they retain not the ideology of the subculture, but its image, culled from pictorial histories like Skinhead by Nick Knight and Mods! by R. Barnes. This they then mix with numerous other influences pop art, psychedelia, bubblegum, glam, funk, big beat to create a refreshing mishmash that makes up in sheer exuberance what it lacks in authenticity. Where else in New York clubland can you hear some of the best Anglo-American pop music from the last four decades under one roof everything from the Chambers Brothers to the Chemical Brothers, the Monkees to the Smiths?
"To call yourself a mod in America in 1999 would be a bit silly," admits Nick Marc, a British transplant who deejays at On! "Mod was a very English thing. With the original mods, it was a class statement, looking good on a little money. Now, it's a fashion statement."
"I can pretty much speak for everybody on the scene when I say we don't identify ourselves as mods," agrees Spooner, a sculptor by day who also runs a bed-and-breakfast on Charles Street. "To identify yourself as a mod these days is pretty cheesy. Personally, I walk the line between mods and rockers. I like soul music and rock and roll."
The attitude of the mostly early-twenties partygoers at On! is typical of these post- subcultural times, where every individual sets his own fashion rules. As style writer Ted Polhemus has pointed out, no one is a raver or rocker or B-boy anymore. Instead, young people are into techno, or acid jazz, or ska or hip-hop sometimes all at the same time. Subcultural loyalty has declined dramati- cally; in the old days, you were a punk or a mod for life (or at least until you got married and settled down). These days you try on a number of subcultural identities before finding one that fits. Many of On!'s mod cons were previously rude boys or skinheads or skateboarders. But one thing hasn't changed: as with the '60s mod scene, the guys still dominate the dance floor, while the girls, sporting elfin bobs and go-go boots, look on from the sidelines.
Most of On!'s revelers don't know much about mod's extensive history how out of its ashes both skinhead and Northern soul were born, and how long after the subculture's demise at the end of the '60s it remained a strong influence on British bands from the Sex Pistols to Blur. But some are aware that a mod revival in this post-mod era is inherently ludicrous; after all, mods weren't obsessed with the past, but with the latest sounds and fashions. Justin Miller, who tends bar at On! dressed in oi!-style suspenders and a Fred Perry tennis shirt, contends: "If you were truly going to be a mod in today's context, you'd be into hip-hop or drum and bass."
At On!, "mod" is used more to generi- cally refer to styles and music of the '60s and early '70s, à la The Mod Squad or Austin Powers. But a more purist post-mod scene as sembles every Sunday for a party called Shout!, at a small Greenwich Village bar called Thirteen. Here, 50 or so devoted soulboys dance exclusively to the music of the original mods. "Whereas On! is about having fun, Shout! is more about being seen, having the right look, and doing the tight dance steps," says photographer Scott Gries, one of the few who actually rides a Vespa scooter to these events. (The amphetamines that fueled the '60s scene are also noticeably absent.) Other local parties where post-mods hang out are Tiswas at Don Hill's on Saturday (a Brit night started by On! DJ Nick Marc) and Charmed Life at XVI on Tuesdays. Indeed, mod-influenced scenes exist across America and the world, from London to New Jersey, Tokyo to San Francisco; bands identified with the milieu include the Make-Up, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Dandy Warhols.
What's the big attraction of mod for young people who weren't even alive during its peak? Scooter enthusiast Gries thinks he knows: "It's a revolt against the shoddiness of early '90s grunge. When I first went to Shout! and On!, I was so surprised to see so many well-dressed, good-looking guys who aren't gay."
Nick Marc has a similar explanation: "It's all about pop songs and feel-good music. If this scene stands for anything it's being against depressing bands who take themselves way too seriously."