August Bank Holiday means it’s time for my annual viewing of Quadrophenia (1979), the film built around The Who’s 1973 LP of the same name. Jimmy, a young mod from London, prepares for a beano in Brighton, travelling to the coast for pills, punch-ups and a knee-trembler in a back alley. Set in 1964, the backdrop to both the film and the album is provided by the clashes between mods and rockers that sparked a moral panic in the media at the time. Deckchairs fly and windows smash as style wars play out in spectacular fashion. Heady highs and crushing lows coalesce as Jimmy experiences the best and the worst time of his life. He gets the girl and loses the girl. He’s inspired by the ace-face mod and rises to the challenge, sharing a police van and staring down ‘the beak’ in court. He feels a camaraderie and a liberation, but then has to return to a mundane job and a troublesome home with troublesome parents: trapped. He also discovers the ace-face (played, rather incongruously, by Sting) is by day a Bellboy at a hotel, carrying bags and doing what he’s told. Having travelled back to Brighton, with added eye-liner accentuating the fact he’s out of his brain on the train, the film ends with Jimmy hurtling towards a cliff-edge on the ace-face’s scooter. The arc of flight leads only to the rocks below, the scooter smashed – like Jimmy’s mod identity – to pieces. There’s no sign of Jimmy (at the start of the film we see him walking away from the same spot) and no sign of a way out. We know, from the album sleevenotes, that Jimmy’s on route to the psychiatrist. More than schizophrenic, his psyche is so fractured that he’s ‘quadrophenic’ – only the ‘real me’ for a moment.
I’ve always loved the film, as much for the aura around it as the actual ‘viewing experience’. When I was at school in 1980, Malcolm Grant brought in a copy of the tie-in book written by Alan Fletcher. Its cover was garish: a purple (violet?) scooter decorated with mirrors set beneath a bulging title in silver and red. Being a Corgi paperback, it was pure pulp and well thumbed, the pages of sex and violence flopping open on command. We were 9 or 10 and Malcolm was a mini-mod with an older brother. He even had a parka if memory serves; bunked off school to buy The Jam’s ‘Funeral Pyre’ the day it came out. Magic. None of us had actually watched the film: we’d just seen the pictures, heard the rumours and imagined the ruckus. Pre-teen dreams of what life might be like.
When I finally did see Quadrophenia, circa 1983 or 1984 (probably Channel 4), I was smitten. I absorbed and adored the dialogue: ‘pillhead’, ‘you killed me scooter’, ‘I AM one of the faces’, ‘it don’t matter where you go, there’s always some c*** with stars and stripes wants to tell you what to do’. I wondered about the youth cultural stylings: the custom-made suits and Steph’s leather raincoat. I liked the deviant thrills and, though I’d not express it like this at the time, the capturing of temporal experience. Equally, and I guess this is why I ended up an academic, I liked the existential quandaries the film (and album) explored: the search for a way out of (or around) the structures that contain and shape you; an escape from the boredom of everyday life; a desire to feel life lived in the moment rather than viewed vicariously (and, yes, I realised the irony of thinking this while watching a film based on an album with a fictional narrative). I also liked the music, especially ‘My Generation’, ‘Green Onions’ and an opening sequence where Jimmy rides his scooter through London streets to the flailing noise of The Who in full flight.
Forty years on and the film still forms part of my cultural fabric. The obsessions of my youth – integral to the film – now determine what I write, teach and think about. Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), inspired by the same seaside scuffles that triggered the album and film, remains a set-text and essential reading to understand how the media works and perceptions of youth cultures repeat. The Subcultures Network I’m part of published a book on Quadrophenia as part of its book series for Palgrave Macmillan (Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture | Pamela Thurschwell | Palgrave Macmillan). And the existential angst remains, now ravaged by age rather than the desperation of youth.
So, when the August Bank Holiday comes, I’ll watch Quadrophenia again. I’ll enjoy the bath-tub sing-off between Phil Daniels’ ‘Jimmy’ and Ray Winstone’s ‘Kev’ (The Kinks vs Gene Vincent). I’ll think about what might have happened if Johnny Rotten had, as was touted, played Jimmy. I’ll mull over how the notion of youth (sub)cultures providing only an illusory (‘magical’) solution to life’s inequities still has resonance. Maybe I’ll play the album. Most of all, however, I’ll remember Malcolm bringing the book into school and sparking my imagination. ‘Me’ in a moment.
Matthew Worley is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Reading, specialising in twentieth-century British culture and politics.
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