‘We are the mods!’ – time travelling with Quadrophenia


Rachel Thomson

Had a lot of fun at a one day seminar on Quadrophenia at Sussex called ‘By the sea and the sand’ organised by CIRCY member Pam Thurschwell and sponsored by the Centre for Modernist Studies and CIRCY. Quadrophenia is the title of an album released by the Who in 1972 (when they were bearded, flared and in the concept album phase) reflecting back on their own recent past as sharp-suited wannabe Mods, a youth subculture that was ‘over’ by the time of the beach battles in Brighton in 1964 that are the focus of the film and the excuse for a 50 year anniversary. The film Quadrophenia came out in 1979, a moment of post punk youth cultures including a Mod revival and the death-knell of the youth labour market that was the underpinning of the style conscious working class aspirational lifestyle of the original Mod.

The Thursday night before the symposium we were treated to a public screening of Quadrophenia at the Duke of Yorks cinema, to which I took my 14 year old teenage son – explaining to him that I had last seen the film when I was 13 with my own Dad who had given me the choice of what film to see – and had found my choice wanting. At the time I had been part of a Mod revival in my own seaside town, where teenagers trawled charity shops and jumble sales to glean the treasures of a previous generation in the form of kitten heels, plastic boots, sued mini skirts and shiny macs. There were a few scooters, plenty of parkers and lots of intense dancing to Booker T and the MGs at the local leisure centre. My memories of watching Quadrophenia at the time were not of a period piece, but of a commentary on the contemporary: the style, the dancing, the excitement, the sexism.  Watching again with my son was a lot of fun. At 14 he was just old enough (think 70s realism) and I did wonder whether I might have been shocked as a 13 year old (think 70s parenting). The film was better than I remembered and sitting next to my son I was aware of the visceral way it captures the autonomy of a youth culture where having your own transport, music, dances, drugs and spaces allows for the creation – however fragile – of world within a world. We are the Mods!!! The film also captures the dark side of teenagehood: isolation, violence and moral disorientation. Hearing its director Frank Roddam talk after the show helped flesh out the connections between the three time zones in play. Peter Townsend wrote the album as a tribute to his recently passed youth, Roddham shot the film with a cast of mod revivalists and punks using settings such as the public baths and pie and eel shops that he knew were about to disappear. And Jonny Rotten nearly played ‘Jimmy’ – because Quadrophenia is really about punk!

Having not seen Quadrophenia for 35 years I spent the following day pouring over every aspects of the film: its relationship with the album, its relationship with the original Mod subculture and its relationship with the global Mod youth culture that has pulsed eratically since the film’s release. Pam Thurschwell introduced Quadrophenia as a ‘rich text’ and I was amazed that we were able to immerse ourselves in it so enjoyably for so long. One of the reasons Pam suggested for this was that the film and the album are obsessed with ‘time travel problems’ – involving a combination of nostalgia for the past as well as  an a forward thinking modernism, addressing the temporary nature of adolescence, predictions of obsolescence and allowing self-conscious identifications across historical time. The cult nature of the film, I discovered, was in part the result of these temporal ambiguities, the use of a rehearsed yet largely amateur cast, wind angle lens that captured great detail and the slightly ram-shackled character of the text that invited fans to join in. The day brought together a motley mixture of people: academics of different disciplines (literary, film, politics, history, youth studies), journalists, fans, and filmmakers. It showed that research is not the privilege of the academy and that it may be through our status as fans, connoisseurs, has-beens and wannabes that we do the best research: whether that be the original mods studying the fashions of Italian movies, scholars deconstructing the 5.15 train scene to Brighton, or fans compiling lists of continuity errors. For me it was more evidence that popular culture is a rich source for public and participatory knowledge building. I’m now waiting for the symposium of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, anyone for the Time Warp?


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