Out of My Brain on the Train: ‘Quadrophenia’

I remember the day the car stereo ate my 8-track version of Quadrophenia, The Who’s 1973 album that memorialized mid-’60s British youth culture and explored teen identity.

When the music died in the middle of “5:15” I felt that something more than a mechanical failure had occurred. It was as if the onion-skin-thin tape that held the double album in a cheap plastic housing meant for much shorter records simple could no longer handle the powerful music imprinted on it. Containing much of The Who’s best work, Quadrophenia ranks among the top records of the decade. It also seemed to be a sign that I, like the album’s protagonist, could no longer delay the onset of adulthood.

A dramatization of the psychological breakdown of a “mod” attempting to balance the demands of work, home, and social life, “Quadrophenia was always screaming out to be a movie.” So argues co-producer Bill Curbishley in an interview conducted for the new Criterion Collection edition of the 1979 film.

Unlike Tommy, the 1975 Ken Russell adaptation of The Who’s album of the same name, Quadrophenia is not a rock opera. Instead, the film follows the narrative suggested by the album, with the music as a counterpoint to the action, in music and words. The score is thus much more tightly integrated into the story than a typical soundtrack, but without the generic distancing of a musical.

Jimmy (Phil Daniels) lives at home in an uneasy truce with his parents and sister in their London row house. By day he works as an office boy at an ad agency; by night and on the weekends he hangs out with his scooter-riding, smart-dressing mod friends. Jimmy’s fealty to his closely knit, hard-partying crowd reaches a peak on a bank holiday excursion to Brighton, where he shares a moment of passion with Steph (Leslie Ash), a girl he fancies, and participates in a riot with a group of rival rockers—motorcycle-riding, leather- and denim-wearing youths whose adopted style and musical taste contrast sharply with those of the mods.

An ugly break-up, a falling out with his best friend, and a row with his mother cause an increasingly disillusioned Jimmy to lash out and leave home.

While Howard Hampton compares Quadrophenia to Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets in an essay written for the Criterion release, the film is closest in topic, theme, and format to disco-drenched Saturday Night Fever (1978). Who vocalist Roger Daltrey makes the connection in a 1979 making-of featurette included among the DVD extras. Daltrey, who expresses his admiration of Saturday Night Fever, felt at the time that its release a year before Quadrophenia detracted from his film’s impact, given that both were built around a soundtrack and both dealt with a young man reassessing his life against the backdrop of music, fashion, and a particular cultural scene. Daltrey, of course, favors the music in Quadrophenia, which he calls “The Bee Gees with balls.”

The interplay between fashion and music and the clash among styles was particularly acute in the mid- to late ’70s, with disco and punk marking far ends of the spectrum both sonically and sartorially. Perhaps not since the mid-’60s had music and fashion so filled the news. Quadrophenia captures the vitality of both eras. Producers at one time considered Johnny Rotten for the role of Jimmy, and Sting was recruited to play mod supreme dandy Ace Face.

Around the time of the film’s release, Dick Hebdige explored the relationships among music, fashion, and style in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, which offers a key to understanding the mod subculture as well as Quadrophenia. The working-class adolescents and young adults who embraced the mod lifestyle, Hebdige argues, created a “secret identity” out of the markers of respectability; “pushing neatness to the point of absurdity,” “they were a little too smart, somewhat too alert, thanks to amphetamines.”

While they tended to hold down good jobs, mods merely endured the work day, saving their real industry and energy for the evenings and weekends, tinkering with scooters, maintaining elaborate wardrobes, bathing and grooming themselves. (The DVD extra disc offers two episodes from French TV, from 1964 and 1965, that explore mod culture and The Who in detail.)

Like all youth cultures, of course, the mod lifestyle is unsustainable. Sooner or later everyone flames out or sells out. The editions of himself Jimmy has fashioned in order to operate in the wildly disparate worlds of home, work, and street start to blend and overlap, then disintegrate. His breakdown—foreshadowed by the multitude of mirrors on the mods’ scooters, reflecting different bits of their riders at odd angles, and announced by the film title’s twist on schizophrenia—seems inevitable. His bourgeois sense of romantic fidelity doesn’t work among the mods, yet he finds his parents’ relationship repulsive. He can no longer endure the subservient behavior required of him at work, yet talk of quitting his job is met with horror by his fellow mods, who though they may mock respectability, would never give it up.

And here the film leaves the mods, rockers, and all the particulars of postwar Britain behind, to tell a familiar story of a young man of no particular talents (and who at times is not very likeable) looking at all the models of how to live that are available to him and finding them wanting. What direction Jimmy will take remains unclear at the end of the Quadrophenia.

In addition to Hampton’s essay, the booklet accompanying the DVD includes a reminiscence about mod culture and The Who by Irish Jack, a friend of Pete Townshend in the early ’60s and one of the inspirations for Quadrophenia. The booklet also reproduces the original album liner notes: a first-person narrative of the events in Jimmy’s life, written by Townshend.

The producers of the DVD, who remastered all the music from the original source tapes (Who sound engineer Bob Pridden explains the process in a new interview among the extras), suggest you play this movie loud. I concur. The DVD format is much more durable than my old 8-track.

RATING 8 / 10