I was sixteen coming on seventeen years old and without a care in the world. Life was sweet. An infinity of possibilities lay ahead of me. Everything would be fine just so long as I had my guitar and my motorbike.
It was late spring in 1964. The media was full of full of lurid headlines about the violent skirmishes between Mods and Rockers that had occurred in Clacton, Bournemouth and Margate. It was rumoured there would be more fighting in Brighton this weekend. There had never been anything remotely like this before. Exciting times. Feeling a need to be a part of it, my friend Brian and I decided to head for the coast and see exactly what was going on.
I guess you could call us Rocker on account of the fact that we wore jeans and leather jackets and rode motorbikes. I had a Triumph T110 650 cc motorbike with a Bonneville splayed head and twin carburettors.
Mods dressed more flamboyantly and drove Vesta and Lambretta scooters adorned with multiple wing mirrors, air horns and car aerials with flags on. It wasn’t just the clothes and the mode of transport that divided us. We were ideologically different. Rockers generally favoured 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, mostly by artists like Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochrane and Jean Vincent. Mods listened to 1960s R&B music, the Who, the Yardbirds and the Kinks. They were my favourite bands, too, along with the Rolling Stones. I didn’t particularly like Elvis Presley, whom I associated with Teddy Boys. Rockers seemed to be stuck in a time warp. I guess I had moved on.
My motorbike was customised to look more like a racing machine. It had clip-on handlebars, sweptback exhausts and Dunstall silencers. The engine had been tuned by Freddie Cooper, a specialist in tuning Triumph engines for racing. He had a shop in Greenwich. Inside a gleaming dragster motorcycle was on display. It was a nicknamed Quasimodo. Like Freddie Cooper, I was proud of my bike and would spend hours polishing the aluminium and chrome.
The sun shone out of a clear blue sky as we gunned it along the London to Brighton road, overtaking cars towing caravans and reaching 110 mph in places. The bank holiday had begun with tourists flocking to the coast. The weather was nice and families were out to enjoy themselves. We were going simply to be part of an emerging phenomenon: aggressive teenagers at war with one another. We wanted to be in the thick of it, to feel and witness the simmering rivalry between the two groups.
When we arrived in Brighton there were very few Mods, just a few scattered here and there. Many motorbikes were parked along the main High Street. I pulled in alongside them, got off my bike and yanked it onto its stand. Looking around, I could see a large groups of Rockers gathered on the seafront and pier. Some were larking about on the beach. Everything seemed calm and peaceful. Tourists with their children were sauntering along the pavement and sitting on deck chairs, not a care in the world other than mild curiosity at the growing numbers of teenagers.
As we made our way towards the pier, a small group of Mods arrived on their scooters. They were followed by wave upon wave of Mods wearing polkadot shirts and Parker’s. Brian and I watched the numbers grow. Within ninety minutes of our arrival over a hundred Mods had turned up. We were outnumbered two to one.
The atmosphere began to change. An air of malevolence — like a sinister cloud — rapidly descended upon the town. Worried parents mustered their children around them. We watched as they gathered their belongings and left the beach.
Crowds of aggressive Rockers started verbally abusing the Mods. “You fucking queers, fairies …”
The Mods responded by goading the Rockers, egging them on and calling them ‘Greasy morons’.
Suddenly tensions reached flashpoint. Rockers started lobbing stones from the beach, aiming at the Mods standing behind the metal rail of the Promenade. I saw one guy full backwards, clutching his head. He got up, blood streaming down his face. His friends gathered around him. They were visibly shocked. Their fear quickly turned to anger.
The enraged Mods picked up deckchairs and aimed them at the Rockers on the beach. As tourists fled for their lives, the police — who seemed to appear from nowhere — charged onto the beach. Rockers scattered, trying to avoid capture and being struck by the multitudes of deckchairs that rained down on them.
The scene grew uglier by the minute. Anxious to avoid the violence, Brian and I decided to make for the aquarium. We wanted to get away from all this mayhem. Now and again we would turn and watch when vicious scuffles broke out. There was something fearful and yet curiously fascinating about the violent behaviour that was erupting all around us.
I saw a Mod get pushed through a shop window. He emerged from the glass dazed and smothered in blood. It was a horrible sight, really nasty. A policeman helped him. He actually looked quite shocked, very emotional. I heard him shouting out: “For Christ sake, stop this.”
Finally we reached the aquarium. The concrete stairs that led down to the main doors were lined with Mods, perhaps fifty of them. They leaned against the walls and railings and were gathered in the space at the bottom.
I paused at the top of the stairs. Should I go down? For some reason I felt that it would be safe. Brian and I looked at each other. Holding our crash helmets, we slowly descended the stairway.
Rows of Mods stared inquisitively as we stepped passed them. Chatting nervously to each other, Brian and I tried to give an appearance of normalcy. But the situation was far from normal. It was probably the most audacious thing that we had ever done.
Suddenly I heard a girl whisper to her friend: “God, they’re brave.”
Still we continued on down. Finally we reached the bottom. Mods stood aside, allowing us to thread our way through to the main entrance. Breathing a sigh of relief, I nodded my head in thanks and then entered the aquarium. We had made it.
Above us a war raged. Yet here, underground in the aquarium, we couldn’t be in more tranquil surroundings. Fish swam gracefully in the deep waters of the huge tanks, oblivious to the maelstrom of violence going on above. The only malevolent thing was the crocodile at feeding time, snapping ferociously at the meat fed to it by the aquarium staff.
Brian and I drove home in the early evening, glad to be away from the battles between these two rival groups. Funnily enough one of my friends was a Mod. His name was Raymond. We had never once argued. He admired my motorbike and I admired his scooter. The truth is there was little difference between us. We grew up together in the same street, played together as children and even drank in the same local pub.
The Mods hanging around in the aquarium were probably sheltering from the violence themselves. It may have been the reason why they never attacked us. Like us, they had driven to Brighton more out of curiosity than malevolent intent. The Brighton aquarium offered a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the maelstrom of viciousness perpetrated by the extremists on both sides.
I don’t recall any further skirmishes between Mods and Rockers. The Brighton battle was the finale of these violent events.