By the end of this month (May 2013), the omo.peacockfairy.com sub-domain will redirect to http://www.oddmodout.com, and eventually the previous subdomain is (hopefully) going to be disabled by the end of summer. I’m still working out the best way to consolidate these sites, if they need ought to be redirected to a new subdomain or not, what should be taken to a new page on the new domain, etc….
Crime drama has been a part of the Mod subculture since the late 1950s, when the scene was best known as the Modernist (or Cool, or Bebop) Jazz Set. MacInnes’ London novels involved elements of small-time petty criminal activity in City of Spades, a bit more in Absolute Beginners, and crime drama was a central theme of the trilogy’s finalé, Mr Love and Justice. Petty crimes and somewhat organised drug deals were reminiscences in the Quadrophenia film, and on the other side of the Atlantic, starting in 1958, was a television noire series featuring who is arguably the James Bond of private investigators, Peter Gunn.
Always cool, but not yet inhumanly so, working out of the back offices of his friend’s jazz club, and friendly with musicians who maybe dealt on the side and billiards hustlers, small time boardwalk scammers, and other relatively harmless sorts who served him as informants for small fees or favours and the implied promise that he has no interest in turning them in, cos they aren’t hurting anybody. He drove a slick car (after all, this was ostensibly set in the Los Angeles area, likely the Long Beach wharfs — scooters are just impractical) and at the club was often attached to a beautiful woman, of whom there were a few in rotation but he maintained a steady girlfriend. The soundtrack was cool jazz, and real life jazz players of all sorts, and various levels of then-current fame and continued influence had cameos in the club or in coffeehouse scenes.
While I do maintain that the Mod subculture formalised in the UK, and it didn’t really come over Stateside until the mid-1960s, when it was practically a synonym for the Youthquaker models, including American Edie Sedgwick, in , to deny the Mod appeal of Peter Gunn and his eponymous telly drama is to display a gross misunderstanding of the subculture — especially if one is going to feature Bond novels and films in one’s collection.
Now, while the characters are similar, I still find it hard to say that they’re the same man with superficial differences — Gunn the American PI, Bond the British espionage agent, both in Italian suits with pretty girls on their arms. While each actor brings his own ineffable qualities. To James Bond, the writing, based on the original Bond novels, retains certain defining characteristics, often borrowed from author Flemming, himself. Bond was part “cool jet-set” and part classic 20th Century English gentleman, he liked golf and gambling and he was handsome and somewhat emotionally cold. Gunn, in comparison, is arguably of equal sophistication, and with equally expensive tastes, but in contrast, Craig Stevens is easily argued to possess more of an “American ruggedness” than any of the composites that went into Bond, or any actor selected to portray Bond. Furthermore, Bond maintains a clear distance from those he interacts with, where Gunn’s cynical humour and wit make the character feel rather easy to relate to in spite of an otherwise detached demeanour. Gunn would be easily at home in MacInnes’ London novels, whereas Bond is almost a DC Comics character, remaining impossibly cool-headed in the face of situations that were intentionally designed to be more fantastic than the last, rendering Bond practically absurdist in contrast to a near-realism to Gunn. Bond is the idol, but Gunn is the man you want to befriend, even if, at first, he seemed intimidating.
And let’s not forget that theme tune:
I will post the Art of Noise version if I damn well feel like it; if it’s good enough for Soul Train, it’s good enough for this blog. And yes, that’s Rick “the People’s Poet” Mayall.
After the Peter Gunn television series ended in 1960, a series of pulp novelisations continued on, and expanded the world Peter Gunn lived in. Organised criminals and police were more explicitly threatened by Gunn’s competence, and these eventually gave way to the 1967 cinematic release, Gunn (also starring Stevens in the role of Gunn) and over twenty years later, in ’89, the television film, and pilot for a series that never was, also named Peter Gunn, and starring Peter Strauss. As best as I can tell, the potential reboot of the series played up the James Bond similarities a bit much, and it tried for humour a bit more and overall ended up far less memorable than the original run –sometimes, you just ought to realise there’s no need to try and make a franchise relatable to a younger generation, because the original wasn’t so much a product of its generation, but an influence on it and later ones and therefore doesn’t need to be remade, because it is timeless.
As proof of the influence of Peter Gunn, after its relative success in its first series, a rival network created the similar Johnny Staccato, which lasted only a single series. Johnny Staccato was set in Greenwich Village, NYC, and in this, it suffered poor casting choices because the musos the casting department got for cameos were all associated with the West Coast scene — because the show was filmed in Los Angeles, and so it was cheaper to get local musos. It was also given a time slot that directly competed with a popular Western, which certainly had more mainstream appeal. While there was certainly incentive to compete with Peter Gunn, the timing was wrong, and with the growing popularity of “the Rat Pack”, and cool jazz’s spotlight proving flash-in-the-pan compared to crooners and folk music, neither Peter Gunn, nor copycat Johnny Staccato were going to survive the small screen past 1960 — indeed, the next popular jazz aficionado of television was beatnik/protohippie Maynard G. Krebbs, the simple-minded but sweet natured friend of the dorky, poetry-loving, and quasi-philosophical Dobie Gillis, the lovable but hard-lucked American teen of Central City, USA, and star of his own eponymous sitcom that followed him from high school to junior college. Indeed, the jazz fan, by 1960 in the States, was a happy-go-lucky parody of Kerouac’s Beat Generation that couldn’t even articulate what that meant, in other words: dirty, smelly, not even aware of what one believed oneself to be rebelling against, sweet but stupid, and only cool in one’s own mind — not a debonair and witty private investigator. After a moment to shine, the jazz set was suddenly a likable punchline, though to be fair, Maynard has his moments that even the counterculture could love, and the fourth-wall-breaking Dobie Gillis sitcom remains wry and clever, even by modern standards, and Maynard often had a rather tongue-in-cheek awareness of his own parody status.
But I digress.
Peter Gunn’s noir cinematography and pacing has always been a television oddity, especially for a half-hour (with adverts) drama, which is odd in and of itself, and while the episodic writing was always consistent in quality, the show was only really a modest success, and Bond’s flash, even in the spoof Casino Royale, overshadowed the Gunn film from the same year –the latter of which sought to balance the original television run with the comparable British spy’s dazzle, and so the series certainly remains the best remembered and most recommended among fans. The copycat Johnny Staccato can hold his own, and is worth seeing, but Peter Gunn certainly owns the concept of the cool, sharp, witty detective of the Jazz set, and certainly remains the best of the television noirs, and in my own personal top ten crime-themed dramas.
In 1924, a caricature of the “short” mid-calve hemline, but it gave birth to the miniskirt.
I did. My search engine told me so.
On a more serious note: The Mod scene and its history must include clear props to Jazz in all its forms. Don’t think so? Let me explain.
First off, cos this is the Internet, this blog cross-posts to Tumblr, and this is the Internet, where just the fact that I’m writing and publishing this here means some day, eventually, someone will find this, read it, and think of any reason possible to get offended cos they disagree with what I’ve said or, more often the case, with what they think I’ve said, let me get the easy part out of the way:
I am not saying that you have to be a jazz fan to be a Mod. The Mod scene incorporates a wide variety of music genres, and you don’t have to like all of them to be a Mod.
Considering that, you may not have to like every genre generally accepted in the Mod scene, but a basic respect for the genres that helped lay the foundation for the scene (Jazz, Soul, British Rhythm and Blues), especially their place in the scene, is something I feel should be expected of anybody in the Mod scene who wants their opinion taken seriously.
That said, let’s be realistic: You may not have to like any one or two or ten specific genres of Mod music, but if you don’t like any of them, yet still fancy yourself to be a “Mod”, don’t be surprised when people in the scene don’t take you seriously at all.
While I still figure, some day, someone will eventually find reason to quarrel with me on the above, I’ve at least made a good faith effort to explain my position in a manner that certain people on a certain forum like to argue with me over because they like to assume I’m saying things that I never did.
Dancer Martha Grahm, photographed 1928 –but I’m sure some-one will insist this is a Carnaby Street regular photographed in 1965 and photoshopped in 2010.
But Jazz, yes….
As I’ve said before, “the Mod generation”, contrary to popular belief, was not born in even 1958, but in the 1920s after a steady gestation from about 1917 or so. Now, Mod certainly came of age, fully sure of itself by 1958, completely misunderstood by 1963, and in a perpetual cycle of reinvention and rediscovery of itself by 1967 and 1975, respectively, but it was born in the 1920s, and I will maintain this. I don’t care who disagrees with me, and there are dozens of reasons that I do so —from the Art Deco aesthetic, to flapper fashions (complete with bobbed hair), to androgyny and subtle effeminacy, to jazz.
Now, Dixieland and Ragtime styles were popular in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and Dixieland directly bore Chicagoland jazz, which begat Swing by the early 1930s. Dixieland and Ragtime are generally considered “trad (or traditional) jazz”, and sometimes Chicago is, too, to distinguish the them from later forms, especially swing and more “rigid” forms of jazz that lack the distinct “freedom” and knack for improv that made jazz so interesting, but didn’t take those elements, especially improvisation, to the extent that cool jazz, bebop, free, and avant garde styles that defined the early Modernist scene of the late 1950s (or their spiritual heir, the No Wave jazz-punk scene of New York in the early 1980s —but that’s another story for another time).
Cab Calloway, I’m guessing mid-1920s. Don’t tell me he’s not stylish enough for your club night.
The reason that it’s really hard to discredit the Jazz of the Twenties from having anything to do with Mod is really obvious to me, but I’m going to try and articulate it:
First off, scatt singing is often associated with bebop, a popular category of Modern Jazz, especially amongst prototypical Modernists of the immediate post-WWII years, and early Mods in the late 1950s. On the other hand, scatt wasn’t born in the bebop idiom, but approximately thirty years earlier, and to dedicated jazz fans, was either invented or incredibly popularised by Louis Armstrong in the latter half of the Twenties. Armstrong taught this idiosyncratic style of improvisational singing to Cab Calloway, who sky-rocketed to fame around 1930 with his Baltimore-bred parental subgenre of swing due to immense support from Al Jolson (it’s also arguable that, prior pairings with Jolson in early talkies, which predate his famous “Minnie the Moocher” Betty Boop short by Fleischer studios, his sister, Blanche Calloway, one of few true female bandleaders [rather than a singer led by a conductor], much less African-American female bandleaders with any amount of notoriety, was actually more famous than Cab, but that too is another story for another time). Hell, Armstrong and Calloway, while clearly keeping true to their roots in many aspects, observing archive footage and their own words on the subject, when asked, the two clearly had respect for the “cool jazz” generation of the late Fifties and early Sixties.
Furthermore, Mod’s relationship with jazz never ended with bebop, nosir. From cool jazz instrumentals in many 1960s Mod-approved films from Bond yarns to Funny Face starring Audrey Hepburn, to bossanova interludes popular in the mid to late 1960s and proving highly influential on Japanese Shibuya Kei band Pizzicato 5, the jazz-funk and “rare groove” scenes in the late 1970s that gave birth to acid jazz in the 1980s, which would prove the biggest influence on Paul Weller in the formation of Style Council, to “nu jazz” artists like Lizzy Parks from the UK and Jojo Effect out of Germany, who frequently are met with approval by even those in the scene who would otherwise be staunch Soul fans. Hell, even one of the biggest scene labels calls itself Acid Jazz.
Needless to say, it will always perplex me when I see self-identified Mods who ignorantly dismiss the whole genre, or ask questions like “what does jazz have to do with Mod?” while buying The Strypes latest disc, which is on the Acid Jazz label. The subculture was not only born of jazz, the name, Mod, is short for “Modern jazz enthusiast”, and you barely have to look to see the continued respect for jazz that remains in the scene. Even the “mod jazz versus trad jazz revival” schisms of the late 1950s, very briefly mentioned in the novella and entertained a bit further in the film version of Absolute Beginners, while historical enough to get a nod, seems a mite silly considering the common origin — but then again, one could easily draw a parallel between that and the continuing rift between staunch “purists” of soul and British R&B, and fans of power pop and Britpop, the former group arguing an appeal to tradition, and the latter arguing an appeal to novelty, both equally fallacious positions when neither has a bit of evidence as to why their preferred genre has a greater claim to the Mod subculture.
As the late Louis Armstrong once quipped about the 1920s “hot jazz” and the 1950s’ “cool jazz”, “Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz.” If any genre truly defines the Mod scene in essence, it’d be jazz.