Various Artists: Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989
The resurgent mod scene of the late 1970s gets its due.
In spite of the long shadow the 1960s mod subculture casts in the British collective psyche, it’s important to remember that 50 years ago there wasn’t really such a thing as mod music. Surely music was a centerpiece of the mod world, but the musical taste of these sharply-dressed, pill-popping, scooter-riding pretty young things largely gravitated towards R&B, not rock.
However, that did not stop a score of rock bands from crafting a “mod revival” sound to go with the subculture’s resurgence in the late 1970s. Cherry Red’s box set Millions Like Us is the lovingly assembled chronicle of this oddest sort of revival, one that was a concerted effort by acts to recreate a sound that never really existed in the first place. Intended for the mod at heart yet still welcoming to those who haven’t been able to fully break their parkas in, the four-disc set is -- with one shocking exception -- as comprehensive an encapsulation of the movement as is reasonably warranted.
Much of the responsibility for the mod revival’s onset belongs to the Jam, the seminal three-piece who by welding the pop smarts of the Beatles and the Who to the passionate fury of punk helped create British New Wave. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no Jam songs to be found on Millions Like Us. No, not even “The Modern World”. The glaring omission surely has to be a rights issue, for that group’s presence (or lack of it) looms over the entire set.
In fairness, the sort of person likely to buy a mod revival box set probably already owns a Jam record. If that is not true in your case, then stop reading this instant, pick up The Sound of the Jam, and come back when you finish listening to it; it’ll be worth it. Additionally, while the Jam were as mod as they come, frontman Paul Weller always took pains to distance his band from the resurgent mod music scene. The Jam’s absence from the set does allow Millions Like Us to give space to everyone else in the scene -- the second division, the lesser lights, the also-rans, and so forth -- without letting the luster of the Woking trio -- which in all frankness was and still is heads and shoulders above all the other mod revivalists -- outshine them.
Early on in Millions Like Us, the distinction between the nascent mod revival and the peppier, poppier end of punk isn’t an easy one to discern beyond the lyrical content. Nevertheless, the preponderance of bright peppy numbers built upon slashing Pete Townshend chords and Merseybeat harmonies suggests that the agenda of these bands was a departure from Year Zero’s “No Elvis, Beatles, or Stones” stance. If any song acts as the line-in-the-sand that set the boundaries between the two worlds, it’s Strangeways’ “All the Sounds of Fear”, a wistful and downright romantic number with lines like “When I’m with you / The night seems oh so quiet / Evil shadows all subside." Once Squire and the Merton Parkas enter the picture, the music’s allegiance to the mannerism and iconography of the Swingin’ ‘60s is firmly established.
Prime New Wave mod figures Secret Affair and the Purple Hearts also debut on the first disc, but Millions Like Us truly hits its stride on disc two, which captures the apex of the mod revival’s brief moment. Here the movement sheds its last remaining punk vestiges save the energy, and fully embraces recreating the sound and feel of early British rock (the British component is especially emphasized -- there’s at least two songs on this disc about bank holidays). Nouveau mod luminaries Secret Affair, the Chords, and the Lambrettas step up to the challenge of emulating their inspirations and score goal after goal -- listening to single after single of crisp, punchy jubilation is akin to reliving the glory days of mid-‘60s guitar pop and soul. The one-two punch of the Chords’ “Maybe Tomorrow” and Sta-Priest’s “School Days” is especially riveting, and -- The Jam aside -- might represent the movement’s on-record triumph.
The mod revival’s resplendent moment was a brief one. It was probably inevitable, given it was defined by its fixation with an arrested moment in history, and thus limited itself in how far it could stray from its blueprint without losing what made it appealing to its specialized fanbase in the first place. Disc three of Millions Like Us captures mod revival as the 1980s get fully underway, a period where these bands pushed into ‘70s soul, acid rock, and even disco and New Romantic pop as a way to inject new life and possibilities into their beloved sound. Standouts from this portion of the set include the Onlookers’ “You and I”, the Purple Hearts’ brawny “Plane Crash”, and American outfit Manual Scan’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rave-up “Nothing You Can Do”. The mods had retreated from visibility by 1983, so disc four concerns itself with conveying what happens to a movement after its heyday has subsided, where those who missed the initial moment yet were still dedicated to mining the same vein did so to a much narrower (yet no less devoted) audience. From a listening standpoint, it hits the spot less frequently than the previous three discs. From a historical standpoint, however, it is appreciated for bringing closure to the story.
Befitting the mod obsession with looking sharp, the set’s hardcover bookcase is gorgeous, and the discs themselves are stuffed full with as much music as Cherry Red can manage. Perhaps too much, for no matter how good certain songs are on an individual basis, only ravenous connoisseurs are going to want to feast on a hundred songs that by design rely upon a very narrow palette. Millions Like Us knows its audience, and it caters to them handsomely. Scene outsiders might be less enthusiastic but are no less welcome, for the set endeavors to act as the authoritative document of the mod revival. The Jam aside, Millions Like Us paints the complete picture, and makes itself available to those willing to digest the tale.