Now, this is probably the best book on Mod culture so far.
If not, it is the one with the best academic approach to it and a real understanding of the subculture that goes beyond pure distanced sociological writing and simplifying banalities (that are used too often in other publications on the topic).
The British Mod movement was a very important episode in terms of youth culture, popular music culture and probably the most important blend of European, Caribbean and American style of the 20th century that united design, style, fashion, and most of all music into a new (and modernist) whole that paved the way for Britain’s leading position in most future “things youth culture” and popular music.
Quadrophenia, the main topic throughout the book, is actually a number of things. First, there is the concept album and rock opera, entirely the brainchild of Pete Townshend, guitarist with The Who. Published in 1973, it displayed a new dimension of the band’s musical abilities, this time focusing thematically on the mental and emotional life of a young adolescent working-class boy Jimmy; however, the album is finally about teenage angst. The diverse aspects of Jimmy’s adolescence, modeled into many different versions of a “me,” let him experience a kind of schizophrenic reaction. The album’s title hence is an allusion to schizophrenia, and by giving Jimmy aspects of each of the Who’s members (represented by individual songs), this schizophrenia turns into a “Quadrophenia.” The double album came with a 44 page photo booklet, that in gritty black-and-white pictures documented some of England’s bleak outlook and still unsolved social problems then.
Then in 1979 the movie Quadrophenia had its premiere and was rather successful; nevertheless, the movie received a cult status among many new generations of Mods. Some of the plot was changed, as for example Jimmy (played by actor Phil Daniels) is originally a garbage man on the album but an office boy in the film. A soundtrack, also labeled Quadrophenia, was published the same year, featuring most of the 1973 albums’ titles in a different mix and some 1960s pop songs on it. It was dedicated to Pete Meaden (“… Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances”), a famous Mod and early manager of The Who. He had died only a year earlier. The High Numbers, as Meaden renamed the band briefly, often played in a number of Mod hangouts, and while he was in command, the band received their flag suits, target T-shirts and other smart accessories that were profoundly inspired by Mod fashion.
What we find in the 14 contributions of Thurschwell’s book, subdivided into three thematic chapters, are mostly texts on the movie and how it represents the subculture of the Mods. Topics here are social change, the meaning of the seaside resort Brighton, counterculture, the subcultures of Mods and Rockers, working class and youth in postwar Britain, traces of queerness in the movement, first-hand testimonies of female original Mods, and interviews with the (American) Quadrophenia album artist photographer Ethan Russell and Franc Roddam, director (who then delivered his first feature work).
The different angles to the subculture of the Mods get presented very well, and among other particulars we learn that in contrast to the many rebellious and political debates and subcultures in Britain before and after the mid-1960s, the Mods were never even close to an activist organization or even in the least out for social change.
Put simply, the main aim was to party, ride scooters, go to dances and impress your partner (and your crowd) with perfect haircuts, extremely sharp clothes, a love for detail in everything from the length of your tie to the size of the collar button, and a good selection of the latest records. In short, members of this subculture (that consisted mostly of men) were highly material-minded hedonists who were fond of the new possibilities of consumerism in early 1960s England and willing to work for those benefits. Well, nothing wrong with that.
It was basically a young people’s working-class phenomenon but not a political one. The Mods wanted commodities and fashionable consumer goods, and they were willing to work for it without the political agenda. There was a deep understatement that steady work (in what blue-collar job ever) was a necessity for the lifestyle that was simply never questioned. (Maybe that is one of the reasons why many of the original Mods from the 1960s in post-premiere interviews were rather disappointed by the film, since looking for trouble and fights with Rockers was considered a waste of good time (and the good wardrobe, too); a thing they perceived over-represented in the movie).
Generally, the original Mod movement was a rather short subcultural affair, measured in years. As it existed from around 1962-1966, maybe until 1967. By then Hippie culture from San Francisco had arrived in London, and the once sharp-clad mods turned into a British version of California hipsters. This happened both on a fashion level, as well as musically. The country that once had invented unique and brilliant British Beat, Freakbeat and somewhat later Popsike, by the end of the 1960s was suddenly famous for a musical blend of American progressive rock, psychedelia and – what was subsequently called – the beginning of pub rock. Quite a few Mods moved on to the Northern Soul scene or the suedehead scene. However, while it lasted, Mod culture was quite fascinating.
Definitely in the 1960s, there was “… the idea that Mods had a code. …[W]hen you’re in a group like that, the group is everything. You look at adults and people and everyone around you and the just don’t count, because they’re not in your way of life. I think it probably grew out of that. To be eighteen [like the protagonist Jimmy], to be a Mod, everything that wasn’t Mod was bad. Mod was not just wearing a particular coat or suit; it was actually a way of life“ remembers director Franc Roddam.
That Mod culture did not die completely after the 1960s is proven by a huge British Mod revival going on already before the film’s completion around 1977/78 (which, by the way, helped the success of the band The JAM enormously) that also spread over to Europe.
The late 1970s in England were a disastrous time for unions, welfare, and workers’ rights; we must not forget that Margaret Thatcher was elected in May 1979. The bleak, cold and grime reality of the album’s booklet is somewhat left out of the movie.
And so are some aspects of working-class culture, says Keith Gildart, Professor of Labour and Social History at the University of Wolverhampton, one of the altogether eleven authors who contributed essays for the book. “The individualism and autonomy of the Mods on screen is perhaps a pointer to the politics of the 1980s where solidarity, commonality, and the remnants of a working-class culture that had been preserved by the post-war census would be almost destroyed through deindustrialisation, a rapid collapse in the number of trade-unionists, and the neutralisation of the political left. … The Mod revival that accompanied the production and the release of the film was predominantly working-class. Once again, thousands of teenagers were defining themselves through a subcultural identity and activity that formed one response to the economic and social context of 1979-1980. … Quadrophenia presents a more nuanced and sophisticated analysis of Mod and ‘swinging London’ than exists in some of the more popular and academic narratives of the period.”
Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture may be not interesting literature for everybody, but it is one of the very few academic books on the subject. It should not be surprising to read of this title in many footnotes of studies on youth culture, subcultures, Mods and music of the 1970s in the years to come.
Highly recommended reading.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2018
Pamela Thurschwell (Ed.) Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture. Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 268 p.