Living as a Mod in the 21st Century

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tales from the Mod Revival with Russell C. Brennan

We often look to the 60s' Mods as the guardians of true Mod history. We sometimes elevate them to cult status. I, myself, seek insight from the originators of the movement whenever I can. One thing we tend to forget is that without the Mod Revivalists, the movement would never have survived. We should give credit to the people that were instrumental in reviving the scene and keeping it alive when it lost its mainstream appeal. We should be grateful to guys like Russell C. Brennan for being one of those movers and shakers that were at the forefront of the 80s and 90s Mod scene.

To say that this cat has had a hand in almost every part of the movement is an understatement. Be it through producing music, writing lyrics, photography, managing bands, running a couple of modzines and record labels, he has seen it all. You will also learn through this exclusive interview a few revelations that were never known to the public to this day.

Here is Russell C. Brennan, in his own words.

Tell us how you were introduced to the Mod scene?
I always loved The Kinks, Motown, Ska music and the Mod clothes I saw when I was a nipper and felt I had missed out. As a young teenager I was a fan of the Jam and then Quadrophenia came out, sparking a Mod Revival. I thought, at last, an opportunity to live the lifestyle I really wanted to. So I was quick to adopt the look and was already enhancing my record collection.
I had been a DJ at 15 in a pub even though I was not old enough to be in there technically. I had a girlfriend and her father owned a pub. The DJ hadn’t turned up one night and because I already had a good record collection (Motown, oldies, The Kinks) and a few new tunes, it went down well and I got the gig full time during weekends. 

Within a few years I was also managing a record shop. Even though I was really young, I met the record shop owner of Music Master in London who said his shop was losing money. I convinced him that if he hired me as a manager, I could turn it around despite my age. He took a chance and was happy he did because it became one of the most successful record shops in London within 6 months. Apart from identifying lots of bad ways the shop was run previously, I introduced a specialist section  by stocking hard to get Motown and 60s records.
I re-launched the shop with 60s pop stars signing autographs including Chris (Out of Time) Farlowe who I happened to know and he brought other artists along like Sandie Shaw. I did a deal with EMI to get lots of old 60s records re-issued and sold them at 60s prices in the shop. I did a Mod / 60s window display for one week only. There was a queue around the block to get in the shop and it got mass publicity in the media because of it. At the front of the queue were lots of local Mods and they spread the word that this was the place to go because of the ambiance, the hard to get records and that a Mod was running it. The shop became the first stop for many London Mods before they went off to Carnaby street on Saturdays. I even got Mods from all over the country and abroad to visit the shop when they came to London.
A year or so later, bands would come in the shop asking me to manage their group. I thought this would be a great opportunity to produce a few tracks. Strangely, I had been rearranging songs in my head since I was about 7 years old while walking along the street. Obviously, I didn’t know what a record producer was. Although production is a lot more than knowing how to arrange songs, it is a useful thing to be able to do.
It was during one of these sessions that I went out to get KFC to eat and met Eleanor Rigby. I chatted her up and persuaded her to do backing vocals at the session. We hit it off and found that we loved the same bands, music and lifestyle and became an item. After hearing her sing, I persuaded her that she could do well as a solo artist. We got a backing band together that mostly did a lot of Kinks covers and a few other tracks live.
The Jam had just split up like most of the revival bands like The Lambrettas, Secret Affair, Purple Heats, etc. The Mod scene was waning slightly and needed a new music figurehead to get into and Eleanor was the one that packed out the live venues and picked up a big Mod following.
We were offered record deals by EMI and Virgin and by this time the single I Want to Sleep With You and my track 1995 had been written. The record labels didn’t want controversial records like this released. They also wanted Eleanor to ditch her Mod following and change her clothes to a more trendy high street look like other bands. Eleanor designed her own 60s influenced dresses. She dressed Mod most of the time. She refused to change her look or ditch her Mod following and do crap covers.  So the deals were turned down. However, with Mod music disappearing from the charts, it was important that a Mod band got some decent releases out there to keep the Mod scene alive. The Gents were on the scene but there was suspicion that they were not strictly a Mod band and they had split opinions. A few other smaller bands were proving popular with small pockets of the Mod scene but they had little chance of getting a major release because there was a backlash against Mods at the time. Plus they had a tendency to just copy the Jam rather than be a bit more original. Eleanor was seen as the only act that appealed to Mods but would also appeal beyond the Mod scene like The Jam. All The Jam's records all went straight in at number one and sold a million. There were not enough Mods to make that happen so their appeal was obviously wider.

A few people, including our main supporter at EMI, had said that we could get our own label. EMI, although having a lot of say if we signed directly with them, would offer a less restricted deal as a distributor. Pressing up lots of records, paying for advertising and promotion wasn’t going to be cheap.
As we pondered over the problem of how to fund this and get a record out, the solution was handed to me via DJing. I was offered a big deal to DJ in Scandinavia on a nightly basis. For nearly a year that would earn me big money, which in turn could fund the release. 

The end result was that Waterloo Sunset records was launched in 1985 and Eleanor’s notorious I want to sleep with you single, complete with free condom, came out. It went to number one in Ireland, strangely not because of the condom, but because of a photo of Eleanor on a scooter. The Irish Mod scene was more healthy than the rest of the UK for some reason. Back in the UK, Eleanor’s record went straight into the chart but was then thrown out because of the free gift. Then the record itself was banned from the airwaves because of the song title. A very Mod video was also made and this too was banned. A famous show called The Tube wanted to play it but because of the record being banned, the authorities wanted to find a way to ban the video too. They were expecting sex scenes but found none. So some bright spark then noticed that there were lots of Mods riding around on scooters not wearing crash helmets. It pointed out that this was against the law and the video was banned for that reason. The video is no longer banned and on YouTube. The song itself is very catchy and has a Kinks feel, as did most of the stuff I produced back them.

You’ve been involved in the Mod scene mainly via your modzine and your record labels. What achievements are you particularly proud of?
As well as being a songwriter, I used to write scripts and sold one early on, in America. I also wrote books on the side, so writing was always in my blood. Writing a fanzine seemed like a natural thing for me to do. The Dedicated Follower zine was originally started as an Eleanor fan mag but by the 3rd issue, it became a fully fledged modzine. We used to go to review other Mod gigs and other bands releases anyway so we just expanded on this with interesting articles and interviews. It lasted 13 issues, which became very collectible (I’ve seen the set of these go for over £100 on eBay). I also did a weekly Mod paper called The Britannia (100 issues, which I saw go for £200 on eBay).

The Britannia came about because another person on the Mod scene was doing the only weekly Mod paper and was using it for dodgy purposes and for his own gain. The power and perversion of this person upset a lot of people. Everyone was looking for an alternative weekly. The Cavern Mod shop decided to bankroll on an alternative. Because Dedicated Follower was the best selling and most popular zine at that time, I was approached to do it. I was reluctant to do it at first because I had a lot on my plate. So I said I would do it if the top 12 fanzine editors did it with me. I managed to persuade them to do it and it proved very popular for a few years.
Both Dedicated Follower and The Britannia was then featured in a Mod exhibition at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London and they are still housed there today. Eleanor and me were also featured in the exhibition along with Ace Faces like Paulo Hewitt.
These zines also got good coverage in the mainstream press getting a positive vibe for the Mod scene for a change.  Around this time, Jackie Meacham of the In the Crowd modzine thought up the Mod Aid idea and to do a single like Band Aid. He approached Eleanor to be first on the record. Once she agreed, many others would follow. Even Steve Marriott of the Small Faces was on the Mod Aid record with his song All or Nothing, singing lead with Eleanor, PP Arnold and my old mate Chris Farlowe on the 12” version. The song charted for a few weeks.
So you could say that Eleanor and I had a big impact on the Mod scene. Our record label also signed up another popular Mod band The Reaction and we put out the classic Make Up Your Mind single. That track and many others can be found on the The Waterloo Sunset Story CD on the Future Legend Records website.
As for what achievements I'm proud of, there are many apart from the above-mentioned zines and label. There was a UK Mod chart and Eleanor was at no 1 and 2 with I want to Sleep with You and Take Another Shot of my Heart respectively. For two years non-stop no other Mod act could knock her off the top, not even reissues of Jam singles.
The proudest achievement though probably has to be writing and producing Eleanor Rigby’s Censorship album. This is considered an all time classic indie album, even outside the Mod realm. People like Shirley Manson (Garbage), Graham Coxon of Blur, Sarah Cracknell (Saint Etienne), Buster Blood Vessel (Bad Manner) and even Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) have all said it's one of the best albums ever made and influenced the Britpop revival in the 90s. 

I’m also an established photographer these days and will be featured in an exhibition of the most iconic rock photography of the last 6 decades. I got into photography via doing Eleanor’s photos as a favour but then I got lots of people asking me to do them as well over the years. Again it was the Censorship album cover that was noticed by people like David Bailey. The single Over and Over was Eleanor's most popular single and the cover was listed as record cover of the year by one mag. So I’m proud of that as well.

Click on image to enlarge

The Censorship vinyl album was deleted long ago and has changed hands on the collector's market for a minimum of £50 and the Over and Over vinyl at £20. A documentary about the making of the album just came out. It is the bonus disc to The Eleanor Rigby Story documentary. A fan version of both discs together is available at Future Legend Records and a short version of Eleanor’s very interesting story will hit TV screens early next year.

Other things I’m proud of and humbled by are that I was listed on one website in The Top 20 Most Innovative Record Producers of All Time. Apart from my Mod stuff, I produced Ska and cutting edge music. I started the cult themes trend in the UK doing new versions of Cult TV and film themes to help break new acts.
Amongst these were many Bond themes. I met John Barry and he said some were even better than the originals. Another proud moment was when You Only Live Twice sang by Eleanor hit no 1 in the Italian charts. After Eleanor disappeared, I formed a new band, Ministry of Ska, and our one album Rarin To Go is also considered a classic album. It's on iTunes and a "Best Of" will soon be available.

You were also known as a well-established DJ. How would you have described your style?
Original is the best way to describe my style. I tended to mix things up a bit. I mostly played Motown, 60s, Mod, some new exciting acts that people were not familiar with and the odd quality chart release. I also tended to be very informative giving out snippets of info people were not familiar with. I’m proud to have become one of the top DJs in Europe and number 1 in Scandinavia back in the day. I’m long since retired although strangely I have recently been offered the chance to do my own radio show, which I’m considering.
You wrote many songs, and ultimately married, cult Mod artist Eleanor Rigby. Care to share with us that part of your life?

When I went to Denmark to DJ to raise the money for Waterloo Sunset, Eleanor came with me and I proposed to her. The plan was to get married when we returned to England but after a month she got arrested for trying to work illegally. She was about to be deported. So I asked the policeman if we were married, would it make a difference. He said yes so I asked him if he would like to be the best man at the wedding. Once he got over the shock and saw that I was serious, we got married a few days later with him as the best man. Eleanor disappeared a few times later in her career at the height of her popularity. After the first disappearance, she came back and we decided to divorce. I have not seen her since as she up and disappeared again. I have written a number of songs about this period for other bands. I was in Box Office Poison and my current band Psykick Holiday are worth checking out. We have an equally stunning lead singer.
Although I have written many innovative songs over the years and always have something to say like Paul Weller or Ray Davies, I’m still fond of all the tracks I wrote for Eleanor. One journalist said Over and Over was the best Kinks song Ray Davies never wrote. Think For Yourself is a great song and 1995 is still very popular. I also wrote two Mod anthems, Mod Girls and Mad Xmas (originally called Mod Xmas). So my legacy to the Mod scene lives on today through the songs and releases.

Songs like Getting Thru the Day, More than the Truth and Censorship could also have been written yesterday as the lyrics are as relevant as they always were.

Has Mod fashion and style always been an integral part of your life or did it come second to the music?
I think to some degree the two went hand in hand originally. However we felt the Mod scene became a bit restrictive at one point. People thought it was all about dressing up like a two week period in Quadrophenia and you were not allowed to have your own style thus making everyone like sheep. The original idea of Mod was to be stylish yet individual at the same time which meant experimenting. Although I still wear Levis, Ben Sherman's and 3 button sharp suits, I do wear other stylish clothes that some may say are not strictly Mod but neither are they high street or part of any other culture because I follow the original Mod ideal.
A good example is that I designed my own parka. It’s black with a distinctive inside quilting. It also has one off distinctive patches on it. I get asked by a lot people where I got such a great coat and where they can get one. It’s a one off I say. I have even been offered £500 to £1,000 for it but I’m not interested. It’s my design, my style and it has its roots in Mod. It's stylish and individual and that sums me up. I have many one offs and what I find extra funny is many bands I produce always want to buy what I’m wearing.
The irony is you would think a band would look artistic but many are bland. Many times I come into the recording studio and people think I must be the band's front person but I’m just the producer.
Of course, I am in a band as well but that day I had my producer's hat on. I don’t always get it right and have experimented a bit too much sometimes. Looking back there are a few looks I cringe at but it's all part of being in a band. I once had a double samurai hair style (two pony tails at the back). Again the ironic thing was that I met two other Mod Ace Faces not long after that. Jez Bird, lead singer of the Lambrettas and Eddie Piller, head of Acid Jazz and both had one long ponytail. At least mine was more distinctive. Then record label A&R people started copying my hairstyle so I cut it off and went a bit Jim Morrison. I’m now back with more of a Mod hairstyle.
What people have to realise is that artists need to grow both style-wise and musically. David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart were all Mods and all made great music but their look changed many times.  Even more relevant to Mod is The Who and The Small Faces.  Look at them in the 70s and they were pretty much hippies dress-wise.  Steve Marriott turned up to do the Mod Aid single  wearing dungarees (not a good look). But how can you knock a Mod legend who wrote great songs and had a great voice just because he felt restricted clothes wise? Would you refuse to play a Small Faces record because of this? I have also met Paul Weller a few times and he doesn’t always dress Mod.
So artists I think should get some leeway. The same applies to music. I started off writing and playing hardcore Mod music. It was Kinks, Motown and a bit Blondie influenced but clearly Mod music. But where do you go from there without repeating yourself and sounding boring? 

Although I had written most of the 2nd album for Eleanor and most would have a Mod flavour, we were also exploring the idea of experimenting musically with a few of the tracks. Sadly Eleanor never got to record another album so the songs turned up in a more experimental band I did called Box Office Poison. Most of the songs on the album Beyond the Twilight Zone would have been on Eleanor’s 2nd album. The Mod roots were showing through in many songs. Some had a Motown flavour and a new version of 1995, although very different, did go down very well with Mods. The best tracks were Mysteries, which I think is one of the best songs I have ever put out and Magic for which I won best international poem of the year in America. 

Neither sound Mod but do sound extra special. So if you have an open mind check them out. I did however continue to do Mod music in parallel with this new innovative music I termed Pop Noir. I produced Wallpaper Man for Modette Misty Woods and formed and fronted a new band Ministry of Ska. As we all know Mods like Ska and so did I. 

I produced over 80 cult TV and film themes with new artists and most tracks are loved by Mods. I was even approached by Dr. Martens to do a special Mod album tribute to Quadrophenia in 97 which is excellent and very collectible. This threw me full-time back into Mod in some ways. My own band B.O.P did a version of Louie Louie. It's very Mod and was voted by one influential radio station, the best version of this much covered classic. I also ended up producing a new version of Dance for The Lambrettas.   I then became an honorary Lambretta producer and played on a cracking soulful version of the Starsky and Hutch theme. Even Huggy Bear approached me to produce an album for him. Sadly I don’t like rap so I turned this down. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Mod culture seems to go through another resurgence. What do you think of its current state? Is it still relevant to you?
You are right, Mod is always having a resurgence. I was lucky enough to be involved with the Mod Revival and I was extra lucky to be in the thick of the next one commonly known as Britpop. In fact, I can give an insight to something special. My newest label Future Legend Records was launched in 1993 (It's celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) and I released the first cult themes album Themes from the 60’s Vol.1. It featured two of Eleanor’s last recordings , Up the Junction and You only Live Twice. The radio stations all picked up on You only Live Twice and we released a single even though she was no longer around. To our surprise it went to number one in Italy and sold out in the UK.

Because Censorship was long sold out and collectible, we decided to keep it that way. Because Eleanor also used to release singles not on albums, we put out a Best of album in '94. A Mod DJ at the Blow Up club was playing it. I happened to be speaking with him and he said it was a shame that Mod music still had a stigma about it and that we needed to coin a new phrase for it. He said something like British Pop or Britpop or something. He started using that phase that night. Blur were in the club as were Menswear, a new Mod band. Before you knew it this was the new phase covering Mod music.
I also went in a record shop a few weeks later to deliver some stock. The manager told me there had been a big surge of Eleanor sales. He also mentioned that a band called Blur had bought all Eleanor stuff. Graham Coxon had said he grew up with Eleanor’s poster on his wall and playing her singles in the 80s. Two years later I went to the Mods Mayday 20th Anniversary gig and there was a very healthy turnout and the buzz still seemed to be there.
The next Mod Revival came as a result of the Internet and MySpace. Eleanor got 100 000 hits and fans on her page. Many were hard-core old school Mods rediscovering her and just as many were new Mods coming on the scene. I did a Facebook page last year and it got the maximum 5 000 friends within two weeks. So current social media is keeping Mod alive and spreading the word.
There is a big Mod Revival due this year. Bradley Wiggins who won the cycling gold medal is a hard core Mod and he's been advocating the Mod lifestyle. All the newspapers said a Mod Revival is imminent in 2013. Paul Weller released his most Jam like album with Sonic that went straight to number one and Miles Kane, another Mod related act, is a best seller. My American management who used to manage John Lennon, Paul Weller, Ray Davies and the Red Hot Chili Peppers tells me there is a Britpop revival starting in the US. I even heard a rumour that Bradley Wiggins joined up with Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton to do a one off Jam single.
So Mod is alive and well. I think what is healthy is what I was advocating all those years ago about being individual and stylish. There will always be hardcore Mods who will not deviate from a certain look and will never listen to anything non Mod. But that’s OK with me. If that's what makes you happy and therein lies the answer to life itself, do what makes you happy.
Mod is still relevant to me as I still dress Mod, listen to Mod music and occasionally sneak into a Mod club to dance the night away. I go to the odd gig but I do like other things as well.
I contributed a lot to the Mod scene in the 80s via music, fanzines and gigs. I was very much at the heart of things, helped get exposure for the artists and positive exposure for the Mod scene in general. I’m obviously embedded in Mod culture via exhibitions, books, magazines and music. It was an intense period and nearly 24/7 a lot of the time. At some point you have to pass the baton on to the younger generation to keep things going. I took more of a back seat in the 90s, although I still contributed hugely with music releases that were  of particular interest to Mods. The new millennium saw the music continue via my record label, including albums like Mod Tunes: Three Button Legacy and The Themes Bond... James Bond. 

Tell us about some of the projects you are working on at the moment and that would interest the Parka Avenue readers.
I already mentioned the photography exhibition I will feature in. This will feature quite a few of Eleanor’s photos and few other Mod shots. I will have a book of my photography and lyrics out to coincide with this.
Years ago I also wrote a book called Music Business Bastards (how to do well in the music business without getting ripped off) which proved very popular with bands and anyone into the music business. A new updated 2013 paperback and Kindle edition came out two months ago and even someone like ex Stones Bill Wyman said it was a must read for bands. I have a few novels also coming out.
As stated, The Eleanor Rigby Story documentary, with a bonus DVD about The Making of Censorship will soon be out. A shorter version will appear on TV next year. It’s a real eye opener.
The biggest news of all is that I’m branching out into film and I should have my debut feature film out next year called Over and Over. It's a music business revenge thriller film noir. I have written it and will direct it. What will be of special interest to Mods is that the soundtrack will be done in a Mod Britpop style and will add to the Mod music revival and credibility. So in effect I’m returning to my roots for this one.
There is an outside chance of a new Ministry of Ska album coming out next year and I’m currently promoting Psykick Holidays' new album Forever Pop Noir.

I want to thank Russell for his unique insight into an era that is too often overlooked. For more info, check out these websites.
Future Legend Records (all music and DVD releases)
December Publishing (Books)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Parka Avenue’s Cocktail Corner: The Summer Edition

With summer now in full swing, the Vespa hitting the pavement on a regular basis and the BBQ season taking off, do I have something in store for you! Planning a Tiki Luau or a backyard Beat and Go-Go party to celebrate the return of the warm weather? 

Any reason is good to whip out the ol' shaker. That’s why I think the timing is perfect for the second installment of Parka Avenue’s Cocktail Corner. A while back, I shared with you a few of my favorite Martini recipes and how you can rival your neighborhood 007 in a shaking contest. Have a look here.

This post will be all about some great summer cocktails. Yes, I like beer as much as the next scooterist, as long as it comes from a micro-brewery. I'll leave the mass produced watered down poor excuse for a beer American type lager to the Rockers thank you very much! Beer is what your bring along at a scooter rally in the woods or when you meet mates at the pub.

We are Mods. We have class and we want the finer things in life. Am I right or am I right? You're wearing a nice Ivy League light seersucker jacket and linen trousers for the first time this season? You're looking forward to showing off your new vintage summer Madras jacket? Then what you need is a chilled cocktail in one hand.

You might think that a backyard BBQ might not be classy enough for some cocktails? Wrong! Do as I do and bring your own portable bar with you!

Try this one for a start.

Ike and Tina Liquor

1 oz Vodka
1/2 Apricot Brandy
1/2 Dry Vermouth
A dash of Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients well with ice in a pitcher and then strain in a chilled cocktail glass.

Back from a long ride on your Italian chariot and need to relax? This drink will do the trick.

2-Stroke Blue Smoke

2 oz Blue Curacao
1 oz Vodka
1/2 oz Gin
1/2 oz White Rum
A dash of Sprite

Shake the first 5 ingredient in a shaker filled with ice. Strain into a cocktail class. Add a dash of sprite. Garnish with cherry and lemon wheel.

The We Are The Mods radio show with thought provoking and captivating host DJ Warren Peace has swept the Mod world with a vengeance. He makes no qualms about drinking scotch on the job. The rattling of ice cubes and belching on air is proof enough. So why not join him? Tune in to Wake The Nation radio or simply download an episode on iTunes and mix yourself this stiff one concocted in his honour.

You've Been Served With a Warren
2 oz Scotch
1/2 oz Tawny port
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
A dash of Angostura bitters
In a mixing glass half-filled with ice cubes, combine all of the ingredients. Stir well. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Want to toast the parka going back in the cedar chest for the next few months? Then this one has your name on it.

The M-51 proof Parka

2 oz Midori melon liqueur
1 oz Bacardi Limon

Add a few cubes of ice to an Old-fashioned glass and then add the Midori and Bacardi. Fill the rest of the way with the soda and give a little stir. Garnish with a lime wheel.

If you haven't listened to the Modcast with Eddie Piller & friends yet, than this is the perfect occasion to do so. This entertaining monthly podcast has Eddie rubbing elbows with guests that have some connection to the UK Mod scene. You only need to listen to a few episodes to figure out that Mister Piller's favourite catch phrase is "Mod is a very broad church". He has even mentioned that some listeners have set up betting pools trying to cash in on the time he lets his famous expression out. Now, I propose the Modcast drinking game! Invite your friends over to the pad and have a Modcast listening marathon. The rules are simple. Every time you hear the words, have a sip of my own Sangria recipe dedicated to the show.

The Pillers of a Broad Church Sangria

1 bottle of red wine
2 oz of Brandy
1 oz of Triple Sec
1/2 can of frozen orange juice
1 orange
1 lime
1 lemon
A cup of cherries
1 cinnamon stick
2 cans of Canada Dry ginger ale soda
Poor the brandy in a Mason jar full of cherries and let them marinate over night in the fridge. Slice the fruits into a pitcher and poor the wine over them. Add the cinnamon stick and let sit 12 to 24 hours in the fridge. Mix in the Triple Sec, cherries, brandy, orange juice and ginger ale to the wine just before serving. Serve in a wine glass full of ice.

There you have it folks, a little something for everyone. And remember, Mods don't scoot drunk!