When John Manion was a teenager back in the 80s, he used to hop on his old Vespa scooter and struggle to keep up with Dan Ryan traffic on the 15-mile trip from Calumet City into Chicago, where he came to see his favorite local mod bands. "I used to take my life into my own hands doing that," he says. "You tend to do that kind of thing when you're 17."
Today Manion's 39 and lives in Nashville, where he works as a sales executive for the Shop at Home cable network. He doesn't have to leave home at all to be in the thick of the Chicago mod scene: since 2000 he's had a big hand in holding it together himself, running the ModChicago Web site (www.modchicago.com) and organizing the annual Our Way of Thinking festival.
The fourth OWOT fest--subtitled "Kinetic Underground" in tribute to a late-60s psych club called the Kinetic Playground, which operated in the Uptown space that would become the Rainbo roller rink--kicks off Thursday, June 2, at Delilah's with a performance by Atlanta's Cherry Splits and several DJ sets, including one by New York's Soul Sisters. On Friday San Diego's legendary Loons play the Subterranean with local mod-psych combo the Civilized Age, who are celebrating the release of their self-titled debut EP. On Saturday a scooter rally and a mod garage sale will be followed by an all-night dance party at the Note that Manion expects will draw close to 500 people; DJs from across the country will spin mod, psych, freakbeat, organ jazz, and northern soul.
The mod scene has been Manion's passion since 1982, when he caught a midnight screening of the Who's Quadrophenia as a high school freshman. "That really got me into the whole culture," he says. "I was living in the south suburbs and listening to bands like the Jam and the 2 Tone-era stuff, the Chords, all the mod revival groups from the 80s. When I came into Chicago and saw that there were other people into this stuff too, it was really exciting."
Chicago's mod revival flowered between 1983 and '86, first with a series of all-ages shows at the West End booked by Sue Miller, who'd go on to co-own Lounge Ax, and branching out to venues as big as Metro. A number of popular bands--Green, I Spy, the Slugs, Reaction Formation--arose during this period, but the good times didn't last. (For a definitive history, see J.R. Jones's 1997 Reader article "In Mod We Trusted.") "Basically all the people involved were really young, and then they kinda grew up," says Manion. "It was pretty disheartening to see people leaving to go to college as mods and coming back as Deadheads."
Some of the old bands soldiered on into the 90s, but it wasn't until 2000 that Manion discovered a new generation of mod enthusiasts coming up in Chicago. "Most of the people were a good five to ten years younger than me," he says. Among them were Ben Pirani, who was DJing a monthly mod-themed set at Club Foot, and Eric Colin, a Lincoln Park native who'd caught the tail end of the 80s scene, then moved to LA for a few years in the mid-90s, where he played drums with the Fuzztones' Rudi Protrudi. "Meeting those younger guys, and seeing there were people in town into that stuff, that's when I started to build what would become ModChicago," says Manion.
Manion launched the ModChicago site in 2000 "to support and represent the mod scene in town by helping promote shows and bands that were coming through," he says. Before long Manion and Colin were promoting DJ nights at venues like the Hideout and Liar's Club, as well as occasional shows from luminaries like the Creation; within a year or so they figured there was enough local interest to stage an annual mod rally like Spain's Purple Weekend or the UK's Le Beat Bespoke. At the time Manion was working in sales for Neiman Marcus, and decided to put up the money himself.
The first Our Way of Thinking festival took place in June 2002. The bands booked for the weekend over the years have included Minneapolis's Funseekers, the UK's Embrooks, Italy's Link Quartet, and the Chains and Les Sequelles, both from Montreal; DJs like LA's Tony Sanchez and Richard Karstrom of Sweden's Uppers Organization have made the trip too. In 2003 Pirani and Colin formed their own group, the Civilized Age, with artist and singer Billy Bauman, who creates the lush, trippy promo posters for the fest. Along with Manion, who served as their manager for a time, they've become an important nucleus of the Chicago mod scene.
Each year OWOT has expanded, adding events like the mod garage sale. "We felt like we needed something for people to do in the day on Saturday, and what's more midwestern than a garage sale?" says Manion. "It's a record swap and people come and sell 60s clothing."
The marathon Saturday-night dance party is still the biggest event, though. "Most of the DJs who spin have their own mod nights at clubs across the country," says Manion. "They're serious about the music. No one plays CDs or LPs, no Britpop or 90s stuff. They only play vintage 45s--and these guys have amazing record collections."
Despite the fetishism on display, Manion insists the fest isn't just for hard-core mods. "You don't have to wear a double-breasted suit and know the most obscure records to have a good time," adds Colin. "We always end up with a good percentage of people who just happened to come in off the street."
"The Chicago weekender just seems to grow. It's got a really good reputation," says Mike Stax of the Loons, a British expatriate who's edited the zine Ugly Things for the past 22 years. "There have been similar [events] in the States, in New York, and occasional ones in Vegas and San Francisco," he says, "but the Chicago one seems to be pretty consistent, and seems to be bringing in people from a wider radius."
"People come from as far as England and Italy," says Colin. "Since the first year, it's changed from a local event into a national event, or international event."
Around the time of last year's festival, Manion took his current job in Nashville. "The people I work with have no idea what I do in my other life," he says. "Most of them would probably be shocked to see me dressed up in a Nehru jacket." For a time he worried that his move would scuttle Our Way of Thinking, but Colin stepped forward to assume the day-to-day work of putting the fest together. Manion retains a big role in planning the event, though, and he's still its sole source of capital.
"In the four years I've done it, we've never broken even," he says. "But, hey, we put on a great event. A lot of people come out from all over, we get some really well respected bands and DJs, and we just have a great time. That's really all that matters."
Our Way of Thinking 4: Kinetic Underground
See page 34 for complete schedule.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kristina Marie Kurg, Carlos J. Ortiz.