The mod squad
No New Zealand song captures the joy, dizziness and sheer optimism of the 1960s youth experience better than the Ray Columbus and the Invaders’ three-time hit 'She’s a mod', here introduced by Roy Orbison.
'She's a mod' was recorded in Auckland a few weeks before the New Zealand tour by the Beatles in June 1964. It traded on the so-called British invasion of trendy fashions, groovy dances and swinging morality. Carnaby Street, the Pill and Mary Quant were about to become household names.
Beatlemania was on the rise, but American artists and dance crazes still dominated at the start of 1964. Columbus and his band the Invaders had always preferred the hard-edged British image that made them the toast of their home town of Christchurch. After moving to Auckland at the end of 1962 the band attracted a following at nightspots, such as the Shiralee, for their danceable rhythm and blues, matching pink guitars and mod image of shaggy hair, black drainpipe trousers and winkle-picker shoes.
The world was by now flooding into New Zealand lounges via the flickering black and white TV broadcasts, which began in 1960. Even though a 23-inch set cost the equivalent of 10 weeks’ average salary, the new medium caught on so quickly that by 1964 the stuffy state radio’s night-time audiences were crumbling. Youth became the ultimate beneficiary.
After years of bans on noisy songs like Chubby Checker’s version of 'The twist' and a single half-hour national hit parade per week, teenagers finally got a look-in. The breakthrough was the Sunset show on Wellington station 2ZB, which played 90 minutes of pop every evening. It was presented by DJ Peter Sinclair, who also fronted a new Wellington-based TV pop show Let’s go!
After the twist
Ray Columbus and the Invaders went to Australia in 1963. Sydney teenagers mostly identified as either bleached-out surfies or leather-and-chains-clad rockers. At the 2000-capacity venue Surf City, the Bondi youth all hopped around, doing what the New Zealanders thought was a moronic dance called the Surf Stomp.
So Columbus, a former champion tap dancer whose life changed when he heard Elvis, decided to teach them his own Mod’s Nod, where the dancer’s feet mostly stayed in place, but the torso swayed and the head never stopped shaking. At a time when dancing to bands was everything, the band already swayed in unison to the Mashed Potato and the Hitchhike. Columbus and his Invaders were old hands at these post-Twist dances. They had learned them at the Christchurch clubs, where the band got its start, in the early 1960s from off-duty black American servicemen from Operation Deepfreeze.
In May 1964, shortly after arriving back in New Zealand, Columbus and his band recorded 'She’s a mod' for Zodiac Records in Eldred Stebbings's rumpus room in Herne Bay, Auckland. Obscure British songwriter Terry Beale had penned the number, and it was offered to the band in Sydney by a record plugger called Jack Argent, the song publisher of the Beatles in Australia.
Initially, none of the Invaders liked 'She’s a mod', although Columbus thought it had potential. The version that finally appeared was rockier than the original British acetate, and it added a harder guitar sound and the exuberant 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' hook that defined the times.
Nearly 40 years later the song sounds surprisingly fresh, given the primitiveness of Stebbings's studio equipment, which meant Columbus couldn't even hear his own vocals during the recording. The song was released here in June 1964 as the Beatles swung pois and charmed the nation. Faced with that sort of competition, 'She’s a mod' faded from view.
To everybody’s surprise, the song became an overnight smash in Sydney during October 1964. It topped the charts and reportedly sold 20,000 copies in less than three weeks. The band raced over there to capitalise on the success, with the newly married Columbus quitting his honeymoon after three days to join the other band members. The band soon repeated its success in New Zealand, and it became an overnight Australasian teen sensation and was mobbed wherever it went.
The band had other hits, notably the brooding Loxene Golden Disc Award winner 'Till we kissed'. None ever reflected the times like 'She’s a mod'. After the band broke up in 1965, Columbus rerecorded the song with a brass band backing for his solo album. He tried yet another treatment while living in California and recording with his band Art Collection.
The song’s durability became apparent during the 1980s as the classic hits format swept through radio. Early in the decade, the original 'She’s a mod' went Top 20 again. In 1990 a rap version by Columbus with Double J and Twice the T topped the Auckland charts and went to number two nationally.
Because 'She’s a mod' is pitched in quite a high key, Columbus admitted in a 1993 interview that it posed a challenge for an older voice. He was still enthusiastic about the first New Zealand record to top the Australian charts: 'I can’t just throw it away, but I don’t want to ... I enjoy singing it and the crowds love it. That song has been good to me.'
See NZOnScreen's 'Screentalk' interview with Ray Columbus: