“War inna Babylon, tribal war inna Babylon
A wha' you seh, it sipple out deh
So wha' fe do? We slide out deh, oh yeah”*
Like most young men of the 20th Century I wanted a motorbike. Shortly after I was born, Ferdinando Innocenti started up a factory in Milan to produce a type of modified motorcycle called a Lambretta motor scooter. By the 1960s the motor scooter had come to be the two-wheeled vehicle of choice for those of us ‘modernist’ European teenagers subscribing to the view of all things cool later typified by the album and film Quadraphenia. My Lambretta-riding buddies and I thought of ourselves as Mods. Mods were into fashion and the new Liverpool Sound, R&B and Soul, along with Ska from Jamaica. When riding we wore parkas with hoods trimmed in ‘wolf’ fur (from a coyote). The side panels of our metal steeds were dipped in silver paint and shiny chrome bars installed with a mass of gleaming mirrors.
This was all to look as different as possible from the other big youth tribe of that time, the much despised Rockers, with their traditional Triumph or BSA motorcycles, old-fashioned black leather outfits, and outdated love of 50s Rock ’n’ Roll. In stark contrast to his rivals’ greasy pompadour, a Mod male had his hair in the close cropped ‘Claude Francois’ style - a precise half inch at the front rising to two inches at the back. He dressed up in suits. His Dolly Bird wore the bowl-shaped coiffure and long dresses of Soul star Cilla Black from Liverpool.
A good time for us Mods was a ride to one of the seaside towns to meet up with our fellow fashion hounds. I was working one summer at a night club in a popular rental trailer park on the coast at Hastings, when on the August Bank Holiday weekend Rockers chose that town to rendezvous. By late Friday night, bikes by the thousand were spread all across the hilly Downs behind. On the earlier May long weekend that same year, a giant rumble between Mods and Rockers in nearby Brighton had spilled east into what had found infamy as the ‘Second’ Battle of Hastings.
My hairdo and high-fashion clothes would be a dead giveaway. My brother on his Lambretta had barely dodged a pack of bikers determined to take him out. Though tall, I was weedy and so badly frightened. I rushed to hide my Model 150D in a thick hedge, and mussed my expensive coiffure when pulling pints in the bar. By ducking down whenever any longhairs hove into view, and skulking in my trailer when not at work, I managed somehow to stay incognito.
Though the ruckus in Babylon that Summer of 64 was truly scary, the craven among us made it safely through.
*War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo/Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry