The famous Brighton seafront. The pier resplendent in the August bank holiday sunshine. Waves crash onto the pebbles, failing to drown out the cries of anger and fear coming from further up the beach. Holidaymakers and families with young children hurry to escape two groups of young men, both dressed distinctively, hurling deckchairs and punches in each other’s direction. The police arrive, and the majority of the offenders are bundled into vans as peace is restored.
You’d be forgiven for imagining that that was a clash between two of the stag parties that are often seen staggering around Brighton these days, but this was 1964 and the combatants were dressed rather differently – no “Wolfpack” or “On It ’Til We Vomit” t-shirts to be found here – in smart suits and parkas on one side, leather jackets and biker boots on the other. These were the mods and the rockers, and their clashes on the beaches of England’s south coast were immortalised in the 1979 film Quadrophenia, which celebrates its thirty-sixth anniversary this year (no, thirty-six isn’t a momentous birthday but there’s no bad time to talk about a film as good as this).
“I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else – that’s why I’m a mod, see?”
A hugely influential British cult film, Quadrophenia was adapted from The Who’s epic concept album of the same name by director Franc Roddam with the help of guitarist and lyricist Pete Townshend. It tells the story of Jimmy (Phil Daniels, though Sex Pistols singer John Lydon had been cast until the film’s producers refused to insure him), a mod in 1960s London whose greatest desire in life is to be one of the “faces” – to this end he pursues both a stash of “blues” (speed) and a girl called Steph (Leslie Ash) in the lead-up to a Bank Holiday weekend in Brighton where their rivals, the rockers (who liked Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent as opposed to soul and R&B), are also heading.
Although it was made fifteen years after the mod movement is considered to have ended (in fact, production took place during the mod revival period in the late Seventies), Quadrophenia has won consistent praise for its realism and adherence to detail throughout, from the suits Jimmy and his friends wear to the scooters they ride around South London.
More importantly, as a representation of one slice of British youth culture, it is virtually unparalleled – an American Graffiti or a Dazed and Confused nostalgia trip for a UK audience – and it is totally believable. Even the sight of Sting (who was reportedly cast to attract the punk crowd) popping up during the Brighton scenes as the Ace Face in his grey tonic suit and white-blonde hair doesn’t jar as much as it should – he stands out because we know he’s Sting, but the character is supposed to stand out. This is the man that all mods are aspiring to be like, which is why Jimmy’s devastation when he turns out to be nothing more than a common hotel bellboy is so affecting.
“Is it me for a moment?”
It resonates even now as a portrait of youth disaffection. While teenagers in today’s Britain are becoming increasingly handicapped by the declining opportunities for employment, an inability to get onto the property ladder and so on, the young people in Quadrophenia are handicapped by the opposite problems. As part of the baby boomer generation, they, are all able to afford tailor-made suits and never appear to want for anything – Ace even offers to pay his £75 court fine (equivalent to £1,371 today) there and then, brandishing a chequebook to the cheers of the other mods awaiting their turns in the dock – but they are still dissatisfied with their lot.
Their daily lives are a grey existence, which is why they feel the need to take pills and smash things up – the same issues were explored in Edward Bond’s notorious 1965 play Saved, in which a group of young adults stone a baby to death in its pram essentially because of their overwhelming boredom. Certainly Jimmy and Steph’s jobs (a mail delivery boy in an office and a supermarket checkout girl respectively) aren’t particularly stimulating, but they take their frustrations out on their peers rather than going down the Saved route. The mods are a gang, just a different sort to those that plague estates in London, Manchester and Birmingham today.
The film’s other big achievement is to tease a coherent narrative out of Townshend’s sprawling, multifaceted crowning glory, concentrating on the mods and their lives rather than trying to get inside Jimmy’s head. Although the album is sold with an accompanying story-cum-essay that pads out its plot, the film all but ignores it, dispensing with the idea of a split-personality main character, reordering certain events and changing the ending – on the album, Jimmy becomes stranded on a rock out at sea in the middle of a storm where he finds redemption in the pouring rain (“Love, Reign O’er Me”), whereas in the film he breaks down mentally and throws Ace’s scooter off Beachy Head, symbolically rejecting the culture of mod he has spent the previous two hours of screentime trying to master.
“Here by the sea and sand, nothing ever goes as planned.”
It also consolidated Brighton as the mod town – even today, aging mods congregate at Volks Tavern (where the scooters first arrive in the film) in August for the annual Mod Weekender, which celebrated its fiftieth birthday last year and usually includes a scooter ride out to nearby Beachy Head, the famous cliffs from which Ace’s scooter takes a dive in the film’s opening scene. Jump The Gun, which can be found in Gardner Street, is widely regarded as one of the best independent places to get mod gear from skinny ties to mohair suits anywhere in the country, and fans of the film still visit the film’s key locations, including the alley between East Street and Little East Street that Jimmy and Steph have an (ahem) amorous encounter in during the rioting. Brighton probably didn’t need the extra tourism that the film brings in every year, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.
Less a triumphant depiction of mod culture than a focused examination of what it was like and what it meant to be a member of the young urban working class during the 1960s, Quadrophenia is nevertheless an incredibly influential film, probably more so than the album it was born out of – you only have to look at the continued interest in mod fashion and culture, personified by Oasis, Bradley Wiggins, Miles Kane and Pauls Smith and Weller, to see that. It’s also, in a general way, one of the best British films ever made, especially in terms of style, performance and content, featuring the cream of (then) young British acting talent, including the likes of Ray Winstone, Phil Davis, Toyah Willcox and John Altman alongside the aforementioned Daniels, Ash and Sting.
No matter how many times you’ve seen it, there’s no bad time to kick back in your penny loafers and skinny tie and watch Quadrophenia again. Alternatively, Brighton is the perfect city for a weekend of exploration, so get the 5:15 train down with the album on full blast and have your own mod experience – just steer clear of any rockers you might encounter!