The Queer/Mod Connection

The Link Between the Gay Scene and the Mod Landscape in Early 1960’s London (from The Online Mod/ern/ist Archive)

Scooters as symbols of hipness burst onto the scene with young English mods in the early 1960’s. This article explores the nexus between that scene and an emerging queer identity in 1960’s Britain.

Peter Burton (centre) and his sister Pamela and friend Stevie posing in D'Arblay Street 1967

where we went

Are you ready for the story of gay clubbing in London – more than 50 years of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Yes, we really have been partying for that long – even before the first discothèque opened in 1960. “There’s a great myth that gay life didn’t start until 1967,” says Peter Burton, who ran the gay mod club, Le Duce, which writer Alkarim Jivani calls “one of the trendiest places to be seen in London.”

Amber”, now 71, arrived in Soho in 1948 at the age of 13. He can reel off a list of queer bars in Soho in the 50s: “The Alibi, the Huntsman, Take 5, The Apple, No. 9, the Casino. You didn’t have to go 100 yards. We had more places then than now.”

Most of the bars were in basements and attics. They were tiny, but some had a juke box and people would dance. Amber reminisces about the Mambo in Greek Street. He must have been there in 1956 because Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ was on the juke box: It was the pits. When they all started jiving, you could see the floor going up and down.”

Ironically, the Wolfenden Report, which recommended to the Government in 1957 that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence,” made life more difficult for queers. Homophobic police stepped up raids on queer meeting places. They rarely made arrests, but intimidated everyone by taking names and addresses. Corrupt cops also took cash and booze from bar owners. Queers took refuge in illegal drinking clubs. Gay activist, Claire Andrews, remembers, “They were usually run by black people, who were sympathetic to lesbians and gay men who didn’t have a place to go.”

In 1964, when homosexual law reform had become inevitable, the Director of Public Prosecutions warned the police to ease up. But by that time gay life in Soho had been decimated. It wouldn’t recover until the late 80s. In a double irony, the renowned Le Duce was co-owned by an ex-cop, Bill Bryant. In 1964, he and his partner, Geoffrey Worthington, had opened a discreet queer bar, The Lounge, in Whitehall. It didn’t work, and the pair moved to Soho’s D’Arblay Street, where they got the formula right with their queer version of the nearby straight mod club,The Scene.

Like their hetero counterparts, queer mods wanted to dance non-stop (and had the drugs that enabled them to). Le Duce was open all night every Saturday. The basement room had a door policy that kept the club fashionable (and predatory older men out). Working class poofs and straight dolly birds danced to black music – Jamaican blue beat, Tamla Motown.

Outside Le Duce, 1967

They spoke directly to us,” says Peter Burton, who was in charge from 1966 to 1968, when he moved on. By then Soho had been carved up by East End and Maltese gangsters, who were getting rich from hetero strip clubs and clip joints. The queer scene moved to West London, where it was to thrive in the 70s. Incredibly, a prototype back room operated at the Gigolo in King’s road, Chelsea, from 1967. It was a long cellar and everyone would cram up the far end,” recalls gay historian Dr. David Lawrence.  “The lights were dim. It was like a scrum. Nobody ever came up and stopped anything.” Alan Jones, co-author of the disco history, Saturday Night Forever, is more explicit. “The first time I was ever given a blow job was in the Gigolo,” he reveals.

Meanwhile, in 1967, homosexuality was made legal according to the Wolfenden recommendations. It was little more than a rubber stamp. “It never changed my life in any way,” declares Amber. “It didn’t provoke a rush of new clubs,” agrees Peter Burton. But drag legend Pip Morgan feels that after 1967 there was a subtle change. “You used to keep an eye open for people who were in trouble,” he says regretfully. But when everyone could do what they wanted, people stopped being nice to each other.”

what we wore

Growing up gay and realizing that one is different means a constant questioning of who you are,” says “John,” interviewed by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shaun Cole. “Experimenting with clothes is a way of exploring this difference, a way of showing or accepting your difference.”

... Next to advertisements for John Stephen - Man alive published such ads for Domino mail order - fantastic text ...

Aged 15 in 1960, Peter Burton “favoured shirts in delicate pastel colours (lilac was a firm favourite) … a bouffant hairstyle and a tortoiseshell cigarette holder.” This dandy look, popular since Quentin Crisp’s heyday, was superseded by the Continental style, promoted to London queers by Bill Green, a former physique photographer, who opened Vince Man’s Shop in Soho in the 50s. On a trip to the South of France, he noticed such novelties as black jeans and tight swimming trunks. Rome’s ‘Dolce Vita’ period at the turn of the 60s was the next big influence. Within months of the film’s premiere,Vince marketed “bum freezer” jackets, drain-pipe trousers and winklepicker shoes.

Green’s sales assistant, John Stephen, left to open His Clothes, around the corner in Carnaby Street. Stephen developed his own style, accentuating the male form even further by lowering trousers from the waist to the hips and minimizing underwear (“hipster briefs”) accordingly. This sexy and essentially queer look was appropriated by the mainstream rag trade to dress the Mod era, big from 1963-1966, when The Beatles helped to make London the most swinging city in the world.

By 1967 mods had been replaced by hippies with unisex clothes and shoulder-length hair. For the rest of the decade it was often difficult to determine gender, let alone sexuality. But this situation began to change around 1969, when some working class lads reacted to hippie androgyny by shortening their hair and wearing braces (suspenders). Were these first skinheads as gay as the skins at Hard On? They were always gay!” laughs Alan Jones. Braces! Even then it was a gay code.”

what we listened to

For decades working class queers and female prostitutes formed a natural alliance against the authorities that wanted the trouble makers off the streets and into jail. But from the early 60s, when the legalisation of “discreet” prostitution and homosexuality became imminent, working class queers began gravitating towards the immigrant community from Jamaica. This defining relationship between outcast societies can be traced through to the present day (and makes the homophobia of some Jamaican dancehall stars all the more preposterous). From 1963, both straight and gay mod clubs played danceable records by Jamaican blue beat stars like Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker, music which became part of the soundtrack of the mod era.

But queers also liked the whole package – the beat, the lyrics and the camp image – of U.S. soul groups like The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and especially The Supremes. At Le Duce the only white music played was “blue-eyed soul” by the likes of Dusty Springfield, who also happened to be gay and made-up like a drag queen. Although ‘The Green Door,’ a hit for both Frankie Vaughan and Jim Lowe in 1956, allegedly refers to a queer bar, the first unequivocally queer song, ‘See My Friend’ by The Kinks, reached number 10 in the British charts in 1965. For the rest of the decade, queers generally ignored protest songs and flower power in favour of bubblegum music, the camp fun of Tiny Tim and Harpers Bizarre, and stuff promoted by gay radio jock Kenny Everett.

Incidentally, all records played in gay clubs in the 60s were on juke boxes. London’s first disco, La Discothèque, and its more successful rival, the Whisky-a-go-go, were in Wardour Street from the early 60s; but there was no openly gay club night in the capital until Tricky Dicky (Richard Scanes) began at the Father Redcap in Camberwell in 1971.

how we danced

The jive and its variations, introduced to the UK during World War II by American GIs, retained its popularity throughout the 50s, but mainly with straight kids. Queers preferred the rare luxury of dancing arm in arm. Everything changed in the early 60s, with the arrival of the twist, first popularized in New York’s Peppermint Lounge, “a gay hustler joint frequented by sailors, lowlifes and street toughs in leather jackets,” says DJ historian Bill Brewster. The first dance in which partners didn’t hold each other, the twist was perfect for queer bars. When the police arrived, dancers quickly turned towards a person of the opposite sex.

Unfortunately, this didn’t work when the pretty police were on the floor. In 1962, David Browne, manager of the Kandy Lounge in Gerrard Street, was hauled into Court because the club had been “visited by plain clothes policemen who observed men dancing the twist with each other.” Browne’s counsel maintained that the men concerned were dancing the madison, in which people of the same sex formed a line. It didn’t wash. Browne was found guilty.

The twist spawned several variations – the fly, the mashed potato, the locomotion, the pop pie – whose names were more familiar than their steps. (When Kylie Minogue revived the Locomotion in 1988, nobody could be found who remembered Little Eva’s original dance). In 1963, despite the continuing success of the twist, its prime exponent, Chubby Checker, turned his attention to the limbo.The next major development was the blues, the first of the “standing still and twitching” dances, supposedly invented by Dave Clark as a publicity stunt for his record ‘Do You Love Me?’ (1963). It became the mods’ favourite dance, and was later “mod”ified into the hitch-hiker and the shake.The latter superseded the twist, but by the end of 1965 it had evolved into the frug, which became the staple dance of the late sixties.

how we got wasted

AS QX said in 1998,“Queers are always first to discover a new drug.” And so it’s always been. Most of the queer bars of the 50s and 60s didn’t serve alcohol. Cocaine, which had virtually disappeared before World War II, hadn’t returned. Therefore queers went in search of new excitement. A popular destination was the branch of Boots on Piccadilly Circus, which stayed open all night. Here you could buy a tube of Preludin, a slimming drug, which delivered a nice buzz for quite a few hours, or a tin of ten amyl nitrate capsules, intended to treat angina. (You snapped or “popped” the capsule into a hankie and inhaled. Poppers weren’t widely available in bottles until the late 70s).

Queers and Jamaicans bonded not just because of music but weed. Cannabis was unknown in the UK until Jamaicans brought it here in 1948. At first it was used only among jazz musicians. The first drug bust was in Soho in 1952, and this alerted the local queer community. Amber used to buy four ready-made “reefers” (spliffs) for £1.

Amphetamines, notably Benzedrine, were widely used as stimulants during World War II; and under their street names – purple hearts and black bombers were most common – “uppers” became the mods’ favorite drug. Sleep became difficult without barbiturates (“downers”). Pip Morgan remembers that the dealers were often girls (they were good at charming prescriptions out of doctors).

Pip Morgan circa 1966

Peter Burton says that the fish in the tank at Le Duce kept dying because clubbers threw their pills into the water whenever there was a police raid. He also saw clubbers removing the wadding from Benzedrine inhalers and dunking it in Coca Cola, and Samantha the transvestite cat burglar sniffing her wig cleaning fluid. Queers (or “gays” as we became known from about 1969 onwards) generally remained loyal to uppers and downers well into the 70s.

Lysergic acid (LSD), which arrived around 1966, didn’t suit queer club culture. The swirling patterns and dreamy, jangly music that contributed to the first Summer of Love in 1967 were pretty much a hetero thing.

Originally published in QXmagazine

  1. Mark Armstrong says:

    Great article! I’ve been a Mod with Suedehead tendencies pretty much all my life and also gay, Im 43 now. I guessed gay people were there on the scene from the beginning, but its nice to read the reality of it.

    • sqoot says:

      Suedehead, Mark? Now that’s one subculture I know so very little about. Kind of an offshoot hybrid of Mods and Skinheads is the most I’ve heard about it. Can you shed some light on it from your perspective? Also, as a Mod, did you get into scooters? What did you ride? Do you still ride? Thanks for your comment! Steve Shultz, Sqooterheads

    • Jon says:

      So when I refer to Mod’s as Gay Mod’s…. I am correct!

  2. unnamed says:

    wow! super!

  3. Mr John M BURT ISM says:

    I recall the Dorian whkere I danced with A Russian ballet dancer, then on to Yours or Mine, Ken High Street of to The Stud and La Duce. Your Pam stood all night in a new leather coat!
    It was Ian? who had cigarettes dipped in a prescrition tincture. Great time at 82 King’s Road.
    Too many memories for an OAP of to visit another close pal Bob soon.

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