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The Real Me? Quadrophenia and The Chaotic Joy of Youth Culture

Quadrophenia tells a universal story. ‘Mod’ is a shorter word for young, beautiful, and stupid. We’ve all been there—Pete Townshend.

Well, I’ve never been beautiful, sad to say. Young and stupid, on the other hand…

But we can all say that, I’m sure. The power of youth is in action, and hindsight is both a blessing and a curse to the middle-aged, for whom youth is removed but not so far gone that the tantalising prospect of trying to reclaim said youth isn’t a torment. This is why bald, middle-aged men in open-top sports cars look eternally ridiculous. Make the most of what you have when you’re young, because it won’t last forever…

Before I really get on to Quadrophenia, I need to give you some context as to why this film means a lot to me personally, even though I very rarely watch it anymore.

Quadrophenia is a film that, in its way, sums up the power, energy, and creativity of youth to seek out an idealised vision of life, and the fallout when youth discovers that said idealisation was a mirage, a wisp of a sound pulled cruelly away by the autumn breeze.

I first saw the film when I was 15 and was instantly hooked. It was the first time that I really understood the links between youth culture and pop culture, particularly in relation to music, and how invincible and inspired the connection between the two could make a young person in its throes truly feel.

I wasn’t really a mod in the purest sense, not by a country mile (I was a Pink Floyd, Nirvana, and Dr. Dre fan, for starters), but in the same way that Pete Townshend, by his own admission, wasn’t really a mod but was so inspired by the movement that he used their innovation, attitude, and energy as a base to live from and a point of view to write from, I was so taken with and fascinated by mod culture that I certainly identified as such.

There wasn’t anything false about this, per se. The Who became my favourite band for the next three years, and I maintained an obsession with them for a long time after. Add to this the various forms of ’60s soul, ska, rocksteady, and mod bands like The Jam, The Small Faces, Secret Affair, The Action, and The Creation. I had numerous parkas with target patches sewn on the arms and am still quite partial to a parka now. (No wonder I ended up living in Manchester). Fred Perrys and Ben Shermans were the order of the day, although that was perhaps more in line with skinhead/suedehead culture, as were my 10-hole cherry red Doc Martin boots (and This is England was equally inspiring to me six years later, sans the racism, obviously).

Nowadays, I’ve fallen into the middle-aged hipster trap of obscure film and band T-shirts, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Being young can sometimes feel like a competition, especially if you’re pretty sensitive and don’t feel you have the strength or feel comfortable enough being yourself. I don’t have that problem anymore, and thank God I don’t. I once heard mods described as being cultural magpies, picking the best from every culture, and if I was still to define myself a mod, I would do so by that definition, keeping an open mind to all cultures, arts, and forms of expression, however much that might go against the more narrow definition of mod as the subculture we know in populist terms. I don’t know many mods, for instance, who might spend a day listening to Death Grips and Neu! and spend the evening reading Jean Genet and watching Eraserhead. Although, you never know…

In a lot of ways, Quadrophenia is responsible for me taking my first steps on the journey through popular and underground youth, art, and subculture, whereby through this passion I ended up finding some sort of understanding of myself. It all looks a bit ridiculous, to be honest, reading that back on the page, but there it is. It’s the truth, if nothing else.

But what was it about Quadrophenia that opened the doors, so to speak? Get on your parka and get astride your Vespa scooter, and I’ll take you on a little journey…

A Four-Way Personality Split Encased in Vinyl

The album cover for Quadrophenia by The Who
Where it all began…

Quadrophenia originally began life as an album in 1973 by everyone’s favourite Shepherd Bush headcases, The Who. The album itself was the group’s second rock opera (a way of having an album tell a narrative story whilst also providing its own soundtrack) and was songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend’s way of creating a story grounded in youth and reality to which the Who’s predominantly working-class fanbase could relate.

Taking his inspiration from a variety of different Who fans who had been mods when following the band in the early days, the idea came together for a story that would look back to those heady days of ’64 and ’65 when the band had a devoted mod following. Townshend would then use the story to examine that audience, their hopes, their dreams, and their conflicts, amalgamating his memories of several different mods of the time into central protagonist Jimmy: alternately cocksure and paranoid; a Face and just another face in the crowd; certain and in disarray. The title Quadrophenia came from another layer Townshend added, giving Jimmy a four-way split personality that was meant to reflect the personalities of the four different members of The Who. Phew! They don’t make concept albums like they did in the ’70s.

What soundtrack would you give to such a layered, almost meta, story? The Who had been a beast of a band since they started touring their previous rock opera, Tommy, in 1969. They had become tight, muscular, and ferocious in a way they had never been before, giving a rock-solid foundation to their tension-ridden suspended chord sequences and Townshend’s atonal feedback, equally angry and anxious. By 1973, they had become one of the best rock bands on the planet. It was something they were never truly able to retain after this album, making the Quadrophenia album unofficially the last great stand of The Who’s greatest period.

If the music was to accurately reflect the street fighting, peacocking youth culture of the narrative, it would have to be larger than life, grandiose almost, but extremely tough with it. Fortunately, Townshend was on peak form as a songwriter and composed a suite of tough yet tender songs, songs full of swagger and fire, of bruised, begrudging vulnerability.  A rock opera full of drama—as if its writer already knew that it would be used as the basis and the soundtrack for a film that would bring its youthful chaos to beautiful fruition.

Like The Stones on Steroids and French Blues

The first thing that gripped me about the film, admittedly, was the music. It’s possibly quite predictable that music from the source material would be used. However, this was not a musical, and the songs were not performed, as they were in Ken Russell’s big-screen adaption of Tommy. Likewise, there was no attempt to use the songs as diegetic sounds of the world being represented. Rather, they are being used to comment on Jimmy (played by Phil Daniels) during emotional or important moments in the film, or to reflect Jimmy’s emotional state at that particular moment.

So, we get the vaguely countryish and vulnerable statement of vulnerability and strength of “I’m One”, as Jimmy broods on his scooter by the canal in the shadows of the night after seeing the love of his life at a pilled-up party, arriving with her boyfriend. That the moment ends with Jimmy turning his scooter headlight slowly onto a nearby kissing couple like some kind of modish peeping tom, before accelerating off with a shout and nearly killing them, shows how Jimmy cannot reconcile these different parts of his personality, each competing for domination.

An out-of-sorts Jimmy sits between two stuffy businessmen on the train
Jimmy, out of his brain on the train.

Later in the film, on the precipice of a breakdown as everything in his life begins to crumble, the vulnerable intro of the song “5:15”, with its gentle piano and refrains of “Why should I care?” gives way to a strutting, intoxicated piano rhythm-and-blues romp like the Stones on steroids and French blues rather than smack. This uncertain stumble of an assertion of invincibility perfectly soundtracks Jimmy on his train journey to Brighton, pilled out of his head (possibly for real—check out how messed up Phil Daniels’ eyes look in this scene) and staring schoolgirls and bowler-hatted businessmen out with an intensely disdainful detachment. He’s dressed up in his finest suit, crushed burgundy in colour, and brandishing eyeliner, showing how full of life he is compared to the drab everydayness of the other passengers, and yet he looks a right state. The eyeliner only exposes how vulnerable and scared those eyes look. It’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.

Why do these moments work so well? They’re almost like brash, pop-art aural paintings as opposed to proto-music videos, where the music is as much a part of the scene and the story as the visual action it accompanies. It gives the film a larger-than-life feel, without taking away from the gritty, working-class world it depicts, enhancing the emotions of the scenes depicted.

And for me personally, the music was transformative. This tough music, full of attack and yet lyrical, was not quite like anything I’d heard before. Of course, I’d heard rock before—I wasn’t that ignorant. But The Who, that was a different story. Townshend’s tension-ridden compositions are full of suspended chords, Entwistle’s virtuoso bass playing almost making it the lead instrument, and as for the drums—has anyone else ever made such beautiful sense out of such violent, chaotic playing than Keith Moon? I’d started to get into music before this, but I think this was the first time I thought, this is for me. This is who I am.

A case in point: the opening to the movie, which goes from a quiet shot on the beach, Jimmy walking tautly towards us as the sun sets, to a jumpcut setting us right on the London streets, leading Jimmy, looking resplendent in his parka and on his scooter,  along his route like a king surveying his kingdom, a leader ordained by heaven. All this as those first crashing chords of “The Real Me” hit, all proud, boastful guitar chords and horns, the bass dancing around the whole, while singer Roger Daltrey challenges the listener with cocky insistence to see “the real me.” It was the youthful feeling of invincibility distilled into a film scene.

It was perfect.

“Zoot Suit, White Jacket With Side Vents…”

To be clear: Quadrophenia isn’t a great mod film. Perhaps this why is Pete Townshend redefined mod to mean “youth,” and therefore Quadrophenia as a great youth movie (which it is).

With Townshend’s involvement, you’d think the period would be better, or rather, sharper. One of the criticisms of the film from those in the know is that it doesn’t reflect how sartorially sharp mods were, at least before the media frenzy. The mod movement originated in the late ’50s under the name of modernists, fans of modern jazz who would buy expensive American imports of their favourite artists and hang out in the latest coffee bars, debating the merits, or lack thereof, of their chosen heroes. What separated modernists, however, from general hipsterdom, was their fascination with and passion for continental European fashion and culture.

The cast of Bande à part engage in a synchronised dance in a Parisian cafe
The cast of French New Wave classic Bande à Part, or are they the first Mods?

There were a few factors at play to make such a cultural leap at a time in which such things didn’t really occur. Firstly, there was a generation of young people who had been born just before or during the Second World War who came into adolescence and adulthood in a country that had been ravaged by war. In any case, it had nothing to offer culturally to its citizens, especially its young, who saw England’s “green and pleasant land” as grey, drab, and built on assumed manners and servility. Where was the excitement that life should offer?

Thankfully, there were economic changes afoot. In the ’50s, hire purchase (HP) was becoming a prominent factor in working-class people’s ability to buy expensive, luxury consumer goods in affordable instalments. This included things from the latest hi-tech cookers and dishwashers to top-of-the-range hi-fi systems, guitars, and cars. These were items working-class people would never have been able to afford in one payment. Suddenly, whether rightly or wrongly, working people could compete with those in higher classes on the level of possessions. This helped give working people to a level of dignity and pride again, whether for right or wrong reasons, that they hadn’t had before.

The young adolescents and adults were the ones to really benefit from this, living for the modernity that the new consumer culture allowed them. This included the new import items from places like America, France, and Italy. There was much demand for them. The English dress was baggy, shapeless, uptight, and out of date. The sharp tailoring and bright colours coming over from the continent were a godsend, a complete antidote to English banality. And cinema played its part in this. One of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard is of young modernists in the ’50s sneaking in to watch French New Wave and Italian films, not understanding a word of the language, and sitting there in the dark of the theatre with a sketchpad and pencil, sketching out the cuts of jackets and trousers and noting the colours so that they could take their drawings down to their tailors to knock up their own version. Now that’s dedication. If you’re going to be vain, you might as well make it a calling.

And this is where those purist modernists and my 15-year-old self would have experienced a divergence of opinion. I can see the modernist’s point. Quadrophenia stylistically is almost the Burtons version of mod—serviceable and in the parish, but far, far away from the individual sharpness that was the modernist’s creed.

You see, to modernists, the difference between an inch in a Levi’s turnup was a matter of life and death, and no matter how ridiculous that seems now, remember how it felt to be young, when such things really did matter. I’m not sure the makers of Quadrophenia truly remembered this.

There’s the ubiquitous Fred Perry, of course, and the parkas. But underneath that, the suits seem a little second-rate now, a bit cheap and ill-cut. There’s very little in individualism, as there was between the modernists, who would try to outdo each other in their attire by making it as sharp and as distinct from the next person as they possibly could. By contrast, there is a uniformity to the mods’ attire in Quadrophenia that betrays a desire to belong rather than to stand out. “I don’t wanna be like everybody else, that’s why I’m a mod, see,” says Jimmy in the film, without the slightest trace of irony or self-awareness. The sea of parkas at Brighton Beach before the famous mods-rockers beach fight scene tells the truth of a commercialised subculture. The mods in Quadrophenia, well, they’re all a little shabby.

But here is where my 15-year-old self would object. There is often talk of the empty gesture of the revival in popular music culture, the return of a subculture thought previously dead and buried that, when the revival of such is examined, is revealed to be only a thin echo of what made that culture special in the first place.

But much like kids who got into punk via The Libertines or the early Manic Street Preachers, what difference does it make? If you haven’t experienced it in the first place, then you haven’t acquired the jaded attitude towards it that those who experienced it the first time may have, those who dismiss the return of anything as old hat. The immediate appeal of something exciting hasn’t been diluted yet by received knowledge of its happening the first time around. As Paul Weller had on a plaque around his neck in the early days of The Jam as he was accused of being a mod revivalist, “How can I be a revivalist when I’m only f***ing 18?”

Best friends Jimmy and Dave at the club, checking out the scene in their mod 'finest'
Best friends Jimmy and Dave at the club, checking out the scene in their mod finest

The 15-year-old me instantly got the appeal of the mod attire in Quadrophenia. Living in and having brought up in a working-class culture, I was well-versed in the unspoken rule that you never let people know when you’re down and out. If you perceive that you are thought of as being scruffy or dirty by those classes higher up the hierarchy, why wouldn’t you push the other way, dress smartly, but in a way that reflects working-class interest and enthusiasm for fashion and style? In an increasingly visual global environment, imagine knowing you look better than the next man, even if they have more advantages than you. You match them in smartness of attire, but not only that, you look better than them because of your deference to style and fashion. I’m not saying there isn’t an element of vapidness to an obsession with style, nor do I think the pursuit of style over everything else is ideal, but I do understand it from the point of view of someone at the bottom of the food chain in a (still to this day) class-obsessed Britain. You take any advantages you can, and people will get their self-esteem where they can find it.

So I absolutely connected with the clothes in Quadrophenia, even if later research would lift the veil on their stylishness. I understood what it would be to wear something cool, a little under the radar, and feel like an absolute dude as you met your mates later at the pub or a party or a gig. I understood the symbolic power of a Fred Perry, of how a code of dress could also reveal a certain set of beliefs or attitude towards life. Quadrophenia opened that door for me.

Love Reign O’er Me

For all the talk of music and style, there was one remaining factor that made Quadrophenia such an important film to me at 15: the character of Jimmy. I was having my own issues with flailing moods, trying to keep in one headspace long enough to make sense of the world and failing miserably. In Jimmy, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit.

I can see it more for what is now, with the passing of time. We both felt and believed in things so intensely. For Jimmy, being something, whether it be a mod, a rocker, or a binman, was almost religious in its calling. It meant something. It was symbolic of a set of beliefs, a way of life. We could both find importance in even the smallest of details. This helps to attach great meaning to the living of life, true, but it’s also bloody confusing and exhausting to take everything so seriously all the time. There’s no time to relax because the brain is always talking with itself, with whatever mood the brain has chosen to provide for you that day.

Take for instance the moment when Jimmy comes back after having been arrested in Brighton during the fighting to see his friends laughing at him, and his girlfriend now with his best mate Dave. To them, it’s all a bit of a laugh, nothing to be uptight about. Jimmy, in fact, is a figure of fun because he takes everything so seriously. So when he tells the assembled mods that he doesn’t care about having been arrested, as he got to go to court with the Ace Face (the top mod), with all the conviction of a man talking about having been with Jesus, of course he cannot understand the ridicule he receives in return for this revelation. Jimmy can’t possibly understand why those around him can’t take the world as seriously as him. And yet he doesn’t see that the problem lies as much with him as it does them. The ideal position, in fact, is probably somewhere between the two states.

Jimmy, on his bike, talks passionately with Steph
Jimmy tries to convince Steph of the purpose of being a Mod

Unfortunately, Jimmy can’t handle having his illusions deflated in front of his eyes. He catches up with Steph, now going with his former best friend Dave, and tries to explain how being at Brighton with her, making love, fighting with his fellow mods, and being arrested with Ace has to mean something. He can’t comprehend it when she snaps at him that, yes, she fancied him, but it was all a bit of fun, it didn’t mean anything, that he can’t even have a bit of fun without giving his best mate a kicking, as he did to Dave back when he saw her with Steph the first time. Does Jimmy handle this well? Not really. The only way he can express himself in response is to give his scooter a good kicking.

And as for when he gets off the train back in Brighton and sees that his idealised, idolised Ace Face is actually working as a bellboy in a hotel, meek and servile, it crushes him. All of his ideas about the meaningfulness of life have been shattered. He has reached the point of no return, a point that I am thankful that I have never reached.

Then again, the ending of the film, just like my own life, might actually be a happy one. For a long time, I thought the fact that Jimmy driving recklessly up to the cliffs soundtracked by Townshend’s tense chords, screaming “MEEEE!” in obvious pain, was a suicide note, one which reached fruition when Jimmy revved up and took that final run towards the cliff edge, the scooter, mysteriously missing Jimmy, flying over the cliff and smashing to pieces at the bottom, a symbolic way of showing Jimmy’s suicide in an impactful manner without having to deal with the logistics of throwing a body down there.

Nowadays, I still believe it’s symbolic, but in a much more positive way. Remember, at the start of the film, we see Jimmy walking away from the cliff without his scooter, which possibly sets up a circular narrative, perhaps not, but does suggest he jumps off the scooter at the last moment. The plummeting scooter, at the end then, I choose to see as Jimmy’s rejection of stymying codes for living, narrow definitions of being, a farewell to all that. Maybe Jimmy can start again, heal, work out for himself what life’s meant to be, what he wants it to be, test this safely against the realistic opportunities of the world. I sincerely hope so. Because, if he didn’t, then, in the words of Roger Daltrey just after the scooter explodes…

“…you stop dancing.”

Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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