I was a Rocker. In the late 50s and very early 60s Rockers were called Ton-up boys. Somehow the name morphed into what it was now. Back in 1964 I was sixteen years old. I owned a Triumph T110 motorbike with a splayed cylinder head and twin Monobloc carburettors. In those days it was just about as good as you could get. The engine was tuned by Freddie Cooper who had a workshop in Greenwich. The bike had racing camshafts and high compression pistons. The inlet ports had been bored out. The flywheel was perfectly balanced. It was a mean machine and very fast. I wore a leather jacket and jeans. Sometimes I had a silk white scarf with tassels which I draped round my neck. I wasn’t a fanatical Rocker, if there was such a thing. It wasn’t an ideology or belief system. It was just a name given to people like me.
Mods, on the other hand, drove motor scooters and wore posh Parkers. They were smartly dressed and wore modern clothing. There was nothing special about Mods. I had a friend who was a Mod. We worked in the same factory doing the same job and earned the same money. He spent his money on clothes. I spent mine on my motorbike. We both smoked. He smoked tipped cigarettes and I smoked roll ups. My hair was long. His hair was medium length and styled. I would say Mods were more fanatical than Rockers. They embellished their scooters with all manner of accessories, in particular badges, rear-view mirrors and air horns. My friend’s Lambretta scooter had at least half a dozen mirrors and a couple of air horns. Air horns were connected to compressed air cylinders and were very loud. His scooter was always pristine, clean as a bright new coin. His clothes were always clean and neat and tidy and oh so very modern. In comparison my jeans sometimes looked like an oily rag.
Mods and Rockers weren’t supposed to get on. They were arch enemies. If you were with a group of Rockers and you saw a Mod, your behaviour immediately changed from one of congeniality to intimidating and threatening. If a group of Mods saw a Rocker the same thing would happen. They didn’t hate each other. They were expected to hate each other. It’s an identity phenomena. Your group was the ‘in group’ and anybody outside of it would be viewed with menacing suspicion. A classic example is the animosity between football fans. Fights sometimes break out inside and outside the football ground. They had a collective hatred of one another. Yet, as individuals, they would probably get on just fine.
I am ashamed to say that I got caught up in this madness. Groups of Rockers used to meet in Woolwich between the Odeon and the Granada cinemas. Between the cinemas there was a large green area and a café. It was the place to go if you were bored. You’d pull up on your motorbike and Rockers of all ages welcomed you. You felt comfortable knowing that you were with a group of like-minded people. I knew them all by name but there was one in particular who I regarded as a friend. His name was Brian. He had a 650 cc Norton SS. On the back of his leather jacket a number of neatly arranged silver studs spelt out the name ‘Rebel’. Like me a smoked rolled up cigarettes. Brian wore polkadot shirts with button-down collars. He was a mishmash of Mod and Rocker. The only difference between Brian and a Mod was the fact that he drove a motorbike and wore a leather jacket and jeans.
I was a peace-loving individual who played guitar and wrote songs. I didn’t give a hoot about Mods. Like I said, I had a mate who was a Mod. I occasionally wondered if he would feel the same about me when he was with a group of other mods?
One day one of our group got beat up by a gang of Mods. He happened to have wandered into the wrong territory. They pounced on him, broke his nose, blackened his eyes and gave him a good kicking. Naturally we were outraged or feigned outrage. I was more sad than anything. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t hell bent on vengeance. Others were. Word quickly spread throughout the biking community about the bloke who got beat up. A couple of days later more than fifty bikers, some with heavy chains hanging across their bodies, congregated outside the cinemas. Someone said we ought to roam the streets looking for Mods and give them a good kicking. “They are not going to get away with beating up any of us,” the guy said. Everyone agreed. So we left our bikes and started scouring the streets for Mods. It felt somehow exciting, like I was on a big adventure. I wasn’t out to cause mischief or satiate my anger. I just wanted to be there, be part of the group and witness what might happen. It’s amazing how you can so easily get caught up in this sort of thing. It must have been terrifying for residents to see us marching down their street. Can you imagine how intimidated they must have felt? It’s not everyday that you see fifty or so leather jacketed young man rampaging down your Street. Everybody was desperate to find a Mod to beat up. We saw one cleaning his scooter. Like a tribe of leather jacketed warriors, hell bent on vengeance, we all ran towards him. Looking shocked and frightened, he quickly ran into his house. His scooter got trashed. I looked on somewhat disturbed by the mindless violence. It had at first seemed exciting but now it was happening I felt rather sickened. I wondered what the hell I was doing here. Looking for more Mods, we walked from street to street until we got fed up. I guess the Mods had heard we were on the rampage and decided to stay at home.
Back at the cinemas there was an air of excitement amongst the lads, who felt as if they done their bit for their fallen comrade. We sat around in small groups drinking coffee and fizzy drinks from the café. After an hour or so, I got on my bike, kickstarted the engine into life and then drove home. That was the last time I met with the others. It all seemed a bit hollow and pointless.
That weekend me and Brian drove to Brighton. We had heard on the grapevine that many other Rockers were heading for the seaside town. When we arrived a hundred or so other Rockers were already there. And still they kept coming. Motorbikes of all description were parked side-by-side along the promenade. It was an amazing sight to see. A few hundred yards away there were as many Mods, their gleaming scooters parked in rows. We eyed each other menacingly — combatants about to go to war and sizing up their enemy. Already there was an air of malevolence, as if violence would break out at any moment.
Brian and I decided to go down on to the beach. A few others followed. Soon deckchairs started to rain down from the promenade. Thirty or so Mods were throwing the deckchairs and anything else they could get their hands on. They were determined to harm us. Trying to get away from the flying debris, we ran and hid under the pier. Suddenly dozens of Rockers appeared. A full-scale battle broke out. It was exciting but scary to see the fighting taking place on the once peaceful promenade above. I thought it would be fun in Brighton but it turned out to be anything but. Police were there in significant numbers. They had obviously been expecting us. Many people were arrested. One man dressed in leathers was badly cut after being pushed through a plate glass window. The mobs retreated. But violent skirmishes continued to break out all over Brighton. When the police cleared one area, fighting broke out in another. It was almost impossible to contain. The ferocious clashes went on all afternoon. Me and Brian decided to get on our bikes and head for home. We’d had enough of all the hostility and bloodshed. I had to admit it was good to be back I home. At the same time I was glad I had witnessed events that would go down in history. The fear and fascination of violence is a psychological phenomena that captivates most people. These acts of brazen lawlessness were the beginning of what would become common in later years.