SUIT YOURSELF INTERVIEWS
AUTHOR ANDY MORLING - PROPER & MOD GHOSTS
When we heard on the grapevine that a book was being published, recreating photographic locations from original Mod revival photographs it piqued our interest. the idea that someone could capture the essence of the revival Mod scene using a camera was worth keeping our eye out for. We expected a nicely laid out pictorial visit down memory lane, what we weren't expecting was a beautiful hard back coffee table book of fantastically written literature. Andy Morling, the creator of the masterpiece 'Mod Ghosts' has now bought us his second masterpiece 'Proper - A Modernist guide to impeccable taste'
In this exclusive interview Andy talks to us about his own journey throughout the world of Modernist culture, how 'Mod Ghosts and Proper came to fruition and his own views on the scene past present.
'Mod Ghosts and Proper' by Andy Morling are essential parts of any collection and a must have for true lovers of the Modernist scene.
Hi Andy, can you tell us a little about yourself, where you are from and how long you have been involved in the Mod scene.
Well, I’m a proud son of Suffolk’s county town of Ipswich, where I was born fifty-three summers ago. I moved to London’s Shepherds Bush in my early forties and today, my wonderful family and I live just outside the M25 in Hertfordshire.
The lottery of birth gifted me a childhood spent in close proximity to some of England’s finest coastal and rural scenery. Growing up with big ambitions, Suffolk’s expansive skies and distant horizons were supremely motivating. The reality of the trajectory for a working-class kid in the 1970s, however, was less promising. This glass ceiling was partly imposed by contemporary mores but, it has to be said, also partly self-imposed.
I think to some extent, my immersion in the understated visual beauty and red-brick history of Suffolk was the catalyst for a lifelong appreciation of aesthetics and urban heritage respectively. I’ve no doubt that this contributed to me embracing the Mod movement with alacrity in 1979.
As I explain in Mod Ghosts, a TV youth programme about the early Mod revival in the spring of that year opened my eyes to the subculture. Although the programme was astonishingly dismissive of the authenticity and likely longevity of the movement, all my twelve-year-old eyes saw was something refreshingly new and breathtakingly cool. The seed sown that day took root three months later as I watched Secret Affair miming their way through Time for Action on Top of the Pops. Everything about the band’s performance was different. Everything about their style was captivating. The deal was done for the next forty years.
Can you tell us a bit about your early influences, what got you into the scene, the clubs and rallies you used to visit and a favourite early memory.
Although a practising Mod from 1979, it wasn't easy to live the lifestyle to its fullest as a 13-year-old. Mod rallies and clubs were beyond my reach for the first couple of years but my commitment to the ideology was nonetheless total. For me, it was all about clothing, music and attitude. In 2019, this remains very much the case.
Although still financially dependant on my struggling but hard-working parents, I made every effort to ape the sartorial look I’d seen deployed so well by Ian Page and the guys on Top of the Pops. But on a budget. I can remember my mum successfully converting a light blue two-button sports jacket into something approaching the right look. I felt fantastic. Strutting around the backstreets of central Ipswich, the people and places unchanged since Edwardian times, in my first cobbled-together Mod outfit taught me early on the powerful connection between dress and self-esteem. I cherish those early memories of how looking sharp made me feel bullet-proof. In the context of a society still heavily divided by inherited social class, this would be a valuable tool. I'm certain that the self-confidence I derived from Mod helped me defeat society’s limited expectations of an academically below average young lad born at the wrong time on the wrong side of the wrong town. In the book, I refer to this as social mobility of the mind. If anything, this concept is more important today.
What sort of music do you like?
Like many of my contemporaries, as a child, I had access to a worthy but limited library of original vinyl courtesy of my extended family. I had to dig deep, mind you. In my maternal grandfather’s collection, amongst the endless Top of the Pops compilations and ABBA LPs, were a handful of sixties and early seventies commercial soul gems. Once the passion for music really took hold in 1979, The Who’s My Generation album, an early jumble sale find, was a tremendous help in defining both the look and the sound I was after. A couple of years later, I chanced upon northern soul and process of musical discovery this kicked-started has given me, what I humbly consider to be, exceptional taste in recorded sound.
Although my introduction to the sounds of black America was fairly conventional by the standards of the day, after a year or so I found myself magnetically drawn to the ‘modern room’ at northern soul nights and all-nighters. Since the early 1980s, it’s been the atmospheric, rich and emotionally laden production of what we're, at that time, contemporary soul releases that really caught my ear.
This may be hereby to some but I’ve always found the very best eighties and nineties modern soul music to be more than a match for anything produced in the sixties. The rich, complex and layered arrangements can fill a dancefloor and a pair of headphones with warmth like little else. It's interesting that what I consider to be the golden years of black music (1979 to 1985) were also the golden years of the Mod revival.
Almost every day I discover new music to love. My single requirement of any tune is that it is capable of moving, motivating or mollifying me. Although I’ve found this to be largely genre neutral, musical forms traceable back to African American roots tend to deliver consistently.
A huge part of the pleasure I derive from music has always come from sharing it with others. In the mid-eighties, this inevitably led me to the pure unadulterated joy of playing out as a DJ. I started out spinning northern and modern soul at local Mod events and, after later teaching myself to mix to a reasonable standard, I began to play deep and soulful house.
For the last twenty-five years, my dominant musical passion has been deep house. This is real music produced with integrity, care and no little respect for its place in cultural history. The very best producers of the 21st century draw influences from the widest possible audio spectrum. You'll hear discernable elements of jazz, rock, soul, reggae and blues together with Latin, Middle-Eastern and African rhythms in the strongest of today’s melodic, deep, soulful house.
The resulting tunes are every bit as capable of conveying meaning as their cultural predecessors of the last sixty years. In Mod Ghosts, I offer the view that quality house music being made today is the natural musical progression for twenty-first-century Mods. In common with the defining spirit of the movement, this is forward-looking music with creativity and inventiveness baked into its DNA. It is also blessed with a surrounding underground subculture of complexity and depth which is rarely exposed to the light. Sound familiar?
To accompany Mod Ghosts, I put together a Spotify playlist showcasing some of the diversity of this wonderful Mod music from the last twenty years:
What is your favourite part of the scene? the clothes? music? events? Socialising?
For me, it’s always been music first with clothing coming a very close second. That said, I'm not particularly active on the mainstream Mod event scene. As the father of twin nine-year-old girls, I have neither the time nor the energy to get out and about as much as I might like. That's no loss to any self-respecting Mod night as I’ve always been at the shittier end of the dancing spectrum. Very few Mod dance floors are poorer for my absence.
It must also be said that, unless very carefully curated, some Mod themed events can drift a little closer to pastiche than I’m entirely comfortable with. The movement to which I subscribe deserves better. In middle-age, Mod for me is more about an attitude to life and living right. Mod is the fuel that drives my every interaction. For me, it’s not about a futile pursuit of the past. There’s simply no need. Mod ages with you.
Where did the early influences come from when it came to writing?
I’ve certainly never been a prolific reader. In fact, my literary consumption over the last fifty-three years probably compares unfavourably with that of my nine-year-old daughters. I've always been more of a talker than a listener so perhaps my ambivalence towards reading is a product of that.
Novels leave me particularly cold. I find it almost impossible to justify committing many hours of my life to the product of someone’s imagination. The real world is so endlessly fascinating and the time available to understand it is so finite.
My own style, to the extent that I have one, is probably influenced more by journalism than creative writing. I find the measured and informal tone of many broadsheet columns, op-eds and features particularly appealing. Other than that, I’d like to think my writing style is very much my own.
Had you written anything before ‘Mod Ghosts and Proper’?
Mod Ghosts was my first book and I learnt so much from the process of taking it all the way from concept to print. I’m very proud to have managed every stage of production. It was undoubtedly harder work than hooking up with a publisher but it gave me a unique level of creative control. I have to confess, however, that my inexperience caused the project to take nine months longer than it really should have.
Where did the inspiration for Mod Ghosts come from?
Mod Ghosts has its origins in a Twitter feed (@amodproject) that I began in 2016. This was, in turn, a product of my long-held fascination with the history and evolution of urban locations. I’ve always loved comparing old photographs with my knowledge of the present-day locations. So the Twitter account enabled me to indulge this interest whilst also tracking down the location for many iconic Mod photographs.
In 2018, I became aware of a recently published book called, ’Covers: Retracing Reggae Record Sleeves in London’ by Al Newman. As the title suggests, the book cleverly overlays images from the covers of 1970s reggae album covers with present-day shots of the same London locations. A cracking book and, without question, a direct inspiration for Mod Ghosts.
What I wanted to do with Mod Ghosts was to create the photographic equivalent of the blue plaques installed by English Heritage to commemorate a link between a location and a famous person or event. By capturing in a book these otherwise insignificant urban stages upon which the story of the Mod revival unfolded, I hoped they would gain immortality.
The first-hand narrative accounts from other revival Mods were intended initially to provide context for the images. In the end, I found the stories so intriguing, so touching and so honest that I just had to give them greater prominence. I also realised that changes to people's lives over the last forty years were every bit as compelling as changes to the urban environment. Just as I wanted to pay tribute to the ordinary places in which Mod happened, I also wanted to pay tribute to the people that made it happen.
In the book you very cleverly recreated the photos that were originally taken by Mods in the Mod revival era, why did you pick this particular period and was it difficult trying to take the exact shot again?
Obviously, I have an affinity with the Mod revival and I also hold the controversial view that the second coming was more meaningful, more creative and ultimately more impactful than the first. That's why the focus is on the revival period.
Taking the current shots was challenging in so many ways. My inner nerd demanded that both the framing, angle and composition of the present-day photographs were as close as possible to the originals. This was particularly challenging where the original photographer had taken the shot from the middle of what would then have been a relatively traffic-free street. Apart from incredulous looks from curious passers-by and horn action from impatient drivers, I was very nearly hospitalised for my art on more than one occasion.
You also talk with Mods from the period giving us a great insight into what it was like to live through this time, it certainly struck a chord with me. What was it like reliving the experiences through other peoples stories.
These chaps are the real heroes of Mod Ghosts. I feel privileged to have written their stories. Unremarkable folk from unremarkable places but each made an important contribution to the most remarkable period in British subcultural history. Their trajectories from childhood to Mod and then onto responsible adulthood differed but there were also so many common threads. What stood out for me was the sense of pride each contributor had in being part of the Mod movement.
You talk of your own history within the scene at this time, without going into too much of a spoiler could you give us a brief overview of your own experiences in this special time in Mod history.
From first dipping my toe in the water in mid-1979 to the end of the eighties when, for most, Mod returned underground, I enjoyed every second. It was a time of no little danger for young Mods with those wishing to do us harm seemingly around every corner. As I was over 6ft tall from my early teens I probably attracted more grief from skinheads and casuals than most. All Mod’s stood out from the crowd but Mods that were also lanky, arrogant, streaks of piss seemed to present an irresistible target. I wasn't handy either so if my first punch didn't connect, it seldom ended well for me. But this was also a time of unparalleled discovery, camaraderie and pride. To this day, I’ve experienced few feelings as breathtakingly life-affirming as riding a scooter into town in convoy with a dozen or so good mates.
I would imagine that now you’ve set the ball rolling there have been lots more people that have approached you with more fascinating stories.
You’d think so, but surprisingly that’s not happened yet. I’m already planning Mod Ghosts 2 so maybe this interview will shake that particular tree. I’m certain there are some fantastic untold stories out there.
Other than the fact we are all getting a little older but not much wiser, in your own view can you see a marked difference in yourself and the 40-year time-lapse?
As I mentioned earlier, family and work responsibilities prevent me from being hugely active on the contemporary Mod scene. That aside, I still subscribe to Mod’s core ideology, I still appreciate quality music, I still care about how I look and I still ride a tatty, gloriously malodorous and climate-changing geared two-stroke Italian scooter. So for me, not much has really changed.
In my view, the biggest change in forty years is the impact on the scene of the grey pound. Many returning middle-aged Mods can now afford the best scooters, the best clothing and the best music. I’m not sure this has been a universally positive change. A glance around the Brighton Mod Weekender over the August Bank Holiday will reveal dozens of scooters of a quality simply unseen at rallies in the early eighties. Similarly, the average standard of dress is a country mile from the sartorial improvisation I experienced during the revival. Yes, this makes for a colourful spectacle and the scooters are indisputably beautiful, but I worry that throwing money at Mod has inadvertently ripped the soul out of it. I’d rather see a movement imperfectly evolving while taking on new ideas than a beyond-perfect recreation of times past. We simply must keep moving forward. I hope my book will encourage the forward-thinking Mods we need to break cover.
Your second book Proper - A Modernist guide to impeccable taste has just been released, can you tell us a little about it.
Through the finely tuned senses of a Modernist, Proper focuses on the most precious thing that the movement, unlike any other, bestows upon many of its number. The gift of impeccably good taste. This gift has helped Mods tease out the very best from more than half a century of underground cultural delights.
The premise of Proper is that it doesn’t have to end there. If Mod really is a way of life, then this heightened discernment can and should serve us well in matters way beyond the traditional boundaries of the subculture. In curated lists and short essays on topics as diverse as food, clothing, vehicular design, cinema and music, joined together by entertaining and irreverent narrative, the book picks apart illustrative examples to reveal the very building blocks of beauty. Proper shows us where, how and why we should spend our lives looking for it.
Where can our readers find out more information and where to buy the books?
Mod Ghosts is currently sold out but the new book Proper is available from the website but is selling fast so grab a copy quick https://modghosts.co.uk/product/proper/
Lastly, and this is one question that suits you greatly, if you met yourself as a young Mod, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?
A brilliant question, deserving of a brilliant answer. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have one! Without wishing to sound conceited, I have few, if any, regrets. I genuinely believe the successes and the reverses of my younger years all played a necessary part in shaping the person I am today. And I’m just about as comfortable with that person as I would ever wish to be. I’ll always be restless, but I think that’s a good thing.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of crushing self-doubt along the way. There were plenty. So my advice to a younger me would probably be to have more faith in my own judgement. Time spent doubting yourself is time wasted. In my mid-fifties, I’m acutely aware of the finite nature of our time on this planet.
If pushed, although I enjoyed every single inhalation, I would also tell myself not to start smoking when I hit fifteen. I’m no physician, but I suspect that the resemblance between my lungs and two stripped bunches of grapes might have something to do with the fumes from the thirty Bensons I dragged into them every day for almost twenty years......