BRIGHTON, ENGLAND — The youth culture of 1960s England produced music, art, films, fashion, and attitudes that conquered the entire world and continue to resonate today throughout cultures high and low.
Before any of those revolutions could happen though, all that teenage angst and energy came to a high-pressure boil and exploded into violence across the spring holiday of Whitsun in May 1964.
At odds were two camps: the Mods and the Rockers. The mad, massive fights between the two factions became legendary, entering the folklore of the 1960s experience and being forever immortalized by the Who’s 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, and its 1979 movie adaptation. It was also the inspiration for the hit song “Rumble in Brighton” by the Stray Cats.
Mods, short for “moderns,” wore long coats and fancy frills while driving Italian scooters and championing the sounds of Jamaican ska and contemporary hometown acts such as the Kinks and the Small Faces. Rockers resembled American “greasers” in most things, including their slicked-back pompadours, leather jackets, passion for motorcycles, and musical preferences for Elvis Presley and 1950s rockabilly.
Teens being what they are, the two groups could not stand one another. Gangs formed, hostilities rose, and fist fights escalated into rumbles that, on May 18, erupted into history-making Mods vs. Rockers chaos all over the beach districts of Brighton, Clacton, Hastings Margate, and Southend.
The time it took place is significant. Whitsun is a three-day weekend that England observes each May or June. As with Memorial Day in the states, it’s the unofficial kick-off of summer. Seaside resorts tend to get packed on Friday and stay that way until Monday.
As a result, what rendered the 1964 clashes so dangerous and ultimately destructive was the sheer number of kids who’d headed to the shore at that point — as well as the countless families, workaday citizens, and unsuspecting fun-seekers who inadvertently got caught up in the nonstop melees.
Brighton officers numbered the amount of Mods and Rockers thrashing one another at one thousand. Margate authorities reported about four hundred. Typical incidents included mass brawls, rocks and bottles being thrown, sit-ins on popular promenades, facilities being smashed and vandalized, and furniture going up in flames. Police repeatedly swarmed the scenes on foot and horseback alike to disperse the youths, and they were reportedly being none-too-shy about swinging their nightsticks.
Tony Edwards, an 18-year-old Mod at the time, recalled the scene for The Mirror, stating:
“When we arrived on the beach there were just a few Mods and a big group of Rockers in the middle. Within about 90 minutes the beach filled up with hundreds of Mods. Then someone on our side threw a pebble at them and within a few seconds they were just being blitzed…. In the end, the police had to charge on to the beach and escort this group of Rockers off the seafront, which must have been humiliating. They were tough men and we were just little kids poncing around in fancy clothes…. It was the holidaymakers I felt sorry for. They looked terrified.”
By the weekend’s end, innumerable injuries were suffered but no fatalities were reported. Nonetheless, a panic befell British society over the potential for youth violence that would come up again most seriously with the following decade’s arrival of punk rock.
More Mods vs. Rockers dust-ups occurred throughout the summer, but the whole brouhaha fizzled by year’s end. Rockers, who tended to be older in the first place, apparently got on with things, while some Mods evolved into hippies.
Perhaps the best take on the whole 1964 hullabaloo came from Ringo Starr. In the movie A Hard Days Night, a reporter asks the Beatles drummer if he’s a Mod or a Rocker, to which Ringo replies: “I’m a mocker!”
Main photo: a Whitsun weekend fight [BBC (screenshot)]