In his 1979 NME article on mods Penny Reel declared: “The maiden wave of modernist youth emerges out of the East End and Essex sometime around 1960, as reaction in style against the coffee-bar cowboy definition of check shirts, striped drainpipe trousers, winklepicker shoes, Tony Curtis hair styles, Marino Marini records on the Durium label, and Old Compton Street in Soho. Precursors of the new look wear their hair short in the French style, back-combed, and with a centre parting, carry umbrellas and LPs of the soundtrack from On The Waterfront, smoke Sobranie cigarettes, and put their hands in their back pockets, Bette Davis style.” That reference at the end there to Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ is a typical Reel touch, and an allusion only really understood, here when Kevin Rowland, circa 1981, made quite a thing of mentioning Bob’s Highway 61 Revisited prompting an investigation.
According to Reel, the early modernists were “at first, very rare and wonderful people, such as you might see no more than a half a dozen, and probably not even that, on a Sunday morning saunter along Middlesex Street and Club Row markets.” In the Monkey Business book Reel writes about this same small band, made up of teenagers from semi-affluent Jewish families, hanging around Stamford Hill bowling alley, “favouring conservative smartness, clothed in knitwear of the same shade”.
These kids adopt clothes of modern French and Italian style, hence maybe the term modernists, which is abbreviated to mods as gentile youth adopt and adapt these fashions. More glorious detail by Penny Reel on this, the clothes, the shops, the music, clubs, etc. is scattered through Paul Anderson’s mod book, including a great passage about mods’ fondness for continental films which again has echoes of the early Subway Sect story.
Reel persistently makes the case for the early mods as progressive, pioneering, porous beings. He writes again, as Tommy Whitmer, in his book In Groves And Along Lanes, about the origins of modernism among a small cool crowd of Jewish youth, hanging out at the Stamford Hill bowling alley, and playing pinball at the schtip down the road: “It starts as a kind of club with a group of arty, intellectual boys at the Stamford Hill Boys Club who are reading books by French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and US beat writers such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, listening to raucous US R&B records”. He mentions again about dressing in identical outfits, matching knitwear, like the ubiquitous grey crew-neck sweaters which are a recurring Reel motif and, dare one say it, an early Subway Sect one.
This Whitmer passage comes within his story of Frank Stokes, a youth who grows up in the East London of the time, and who adopts aspects of the mod look, notably buying a leather-trimmed olive-green suede jacket from Johnny Gould’s leatherware and hats place of Dalston Lane. Frank’s story at times is rather like Reel’s, and Frank even knows Charley Steiger from Bodney Road, Dalston. As things move on Frank becomes a hippy, in line with developments in Reel’s 1979 story, though these are likely to be missing from any transcript you might find online, but then again you might find them quoted in a Simon Frith book.
As Peter York (not a favourite person of Reel’s) puts it in an article he wrote on the 1979 mod revival for Harpers & Queen in September 1979, and which was later included in his Style Wars collection: “The embarrassing reality is precisely this: that in 1966/7 most of the top Mods, the originals, the Faces, whatever their backgrounds, went some kind of psychedelic. Mods became hippies. And the only writer I’ve come across to bring this out explicitly is a man called Penny Reel, on the New Musical Express, in a brilliant piece in April based on his own memories.”
In Reel’s piece there came a time when The Scene Club's coolest couple were to be seen "dressed in exotic Tibetan smocks, with Indian silk scarves affixed to their wrists, sandals on their bare feet, wooden beads around their necks, daisies in their hair, and looking for all the world like, as one observer put it, two flecking gypsies. They proceed to tell anyone who will listen that love is all what really matters."
Mickey Tenner, one of the names cited by Reel as being among the early modernists in his area, mentions in Paul Anderson’s book about the mod thing being left behind and how after being deported from Franco’s Spain (a badge of honour, no doubt) he came back to London and frizzed his hair up and wore cow bells around his neck. There is a lovely picture from that time too of Mickey “embracing the new style”. Even in Richard Barnes’ Mods! book Mickey looks (in gently mutated clerical garb) as exotic as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead or at least Nickolas Grace’s splendid performance as him in the TV adaptation.
Frank Stokes in the Tommy Whitmer book becomes devoted to The Doors (and there are some rousing passages relating to the group which is great to see), and also to Love (not coincidentally these are two of the very small number of ‘rock groups’ in the loosest sense to get the Reel/Whitmer seal of approval). There is a mention of Frank growing his hair long and listening to da capo by Love lying on his bed, “eyes closed, lost in the sweet, jangly music.”
Reviewing an Elektra reissue of Love’s da capo for the NME back in May 1981 Penny Reel memorably wrote: “Expressions tell everything! I see one on you. Pace the jangly guitars and Jaggerstrutta vocals, all are faithfully worked into the faded weave, inscribed in myth, as is the debt to Johnny Mathis, or how up close Arthurly is so hip it like really phases you out. I mean, you know the buzz you get off of really good Moroccan? With pictures and words, is this communicating? Personally, I always consider that Bryan Maclean is crucial to Love’s apparent dichotomy. He provides the flower power motif that lends many ears to regard this music as artefact.”
Reel added: “Nor must we forget the huge debt the world owes to Mr Tjay Cantrelli’s sunglasses, neither neglect mention of John Echols, who provides not altogether proficient but certainly peppermint guitar noises. We may also make issue of harpsichords from Telemann, the fact of Karl Marx having lived above Leoni’s Quo Vadis restaurant in Dean Street, the recommended reading of Ralph Ellison for greater insight into ‘She Comes In Colors’, the apparent dated aspect of ‘Orange Skies’, even though sunsets are blessed with as roseate a blush as ever they were in 1967, and the K in ‘The Castle’.”
When it was first released da capo was not glowingly reviewed in IT or the International Times, part of the underground press Frank Stokes would have read (for he did the whole hippy thing of moving across town to Notting Hill to share a house, etc.). Penny Reel actually got to write for International Times back then, having himself become fully immersed in the hippy milieu.