Ed Driscoll

Can You See The Real Me?

Quadrophenia celebrated the 35th anniversary of its debut at the movies today, according to Kathy Shaidle, who links to the film’s trailer, and an hour-long “Making Of” video.

I became a huge fan of The Who in response to The Kids Are Alright, both the 1979 movie and the soundtrack double album (an actual album, long before there were tiny silver CDs), and its accompanying booklet filled with beautifully written hagiography by British rock critic Roy Carr. (I just checked the author’s name; it’s one of the few actual LPs I still own, complete with price tag indicating it was purchased One Million Years Before CD at the Turntable record store in Willingboro, NJ.)

I loved the sturm und drang of the roaring original Quadrophenia album from 1973, and played it endlessly (and still do from time to time). So when the movie version of Quadrophenia followed the Kids Are Alright movie out of the gate, I eagerly anticipated it. When I saw it, though, I had a very difficult time reconciling that the music, sung by Roger Daltrey in all his hard rocking macho glory, was built around Jimmy the Mod, a scrawny little 16-year old shrimp of a kid puttering around on his Vespa scooter. For a guy who grew up among classmates in suburban New Jersey who owned Camaros, Mustangs and Mopars, it was cognitive dissonance in the extreme.

But then, most of the iconography of the early 1960s British Mods initially seemed impenetrable, except for two things: rationing and information ricochet. The mods were a rebellion against the last stages of the postwar rationing maintained by its socialist government, which hadn’t ended until the late 1950s, a rebellion built around what we would now call conspicuous consumption, of American Brooks Brothers Ivy League clothes, Italian scooters and the La Dolce Vita lifestyle depicted in Italian cinema, and American Motown music.

As opposed to their arch rivals, the Rockers, who worshiped American 1950s rock and roll, and the image that Marlon Brando cultivated in The Wild One.

And with their rival obsessions over American culture, both the British mods and rockers were enmeshed in what Tom Wolfe used to describe in the late 1970s and early 1980s as “Information Ricochet,” such as in this 1983 interview (with Ron Reagan, of all people):

The history of punk seems to go as follows: It was picked up by young English people and used in somewhat the same way that Los Angeles teenagers used the word rotten to mean good. Punk had a certain genuine quality at the outset in England as a kind of version of the great gob of spit in the face of the class system. So there was this elaborate glorification of things rotten, as in the name Johnny Rotten. Then it was brought to this country in magazines. It had no roots in this country whatsoever. Young people read about it, and the shops existed before the phenomenon. It just caught on as a fashion. This is what I think of as information ricochet. The Hell’s Angels, for example, didn’t exist until the movie The Wild One. They looked at The Wild One and said, “Oh, that’s the way it’s done. ” So they took their own name and insignia and stuff, and Roger Corman came by and said, “Oh, that’s the way it’s done,” and made a movie called The Wild Angels. And the Hell’s Angels came by and said, “That’s a nice idea; we’ll do that.” That’s information ricochet. Punk was developed the same way, and the only genuine thing about it is a general impulse among people in their late teens to thumb their nose at the ongoing attempts to make them act like adults, which begin to seem like an imposition and rather boring. So you glorify wanton, impudent violence.

Of course, the information ricochet surrounding the mods and their story was endless. As Franc Roddam, the director of the film version, notes in the making of documentary that Kathy links to, he originally wanted to cast punk rockers, to help make the film more accessible to young audiences in the late 1970s. Roddam claims that Johnny Rotten had an excellent screen test, but he was unable to get insurance on the musician, based on the Sex Pistols’ destructive reputation. The film makers settled for Sting as supporting character, in one of his first movie roles.

But British mods would send a little information ricochet bouncing back to America even before the film began shooting, albeit in stealth form. Nik Cohn was a British journalist and friend of The Who – to the point where Pete Townshend wrote “Pinball Wizard” in response to one of Cohn’s obsessions to help ensure a favorable review of Tommy. Cohn would write a 1976 article for New York magazine titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the inspiration for Saturday Night Fever, a blockbuster hit the following year, which would set a new cycle of information ricochet into overdrive, as American teenagers wanted to live out the Travolta disco lifestyle. Cohn would later admit that his article was a complete fabrication:

Mr. Cohn said he based his piece on a young man he knew in England. “My story was a fraud,” he wrote. “I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.”

Disco Stu is unknowingly a Mod, too? That’s so much information ricochet bouncing around, even the Pinball Wizard must be jealous.

Update: Almost forgot to mention that the movie version of Quadrophenia was recently given the deluxe Criterion treatment, and looks (and sounds) terrific on Blu-Ray. While I don’t believe the Criterion disc contains the making of video that Kathy links to, it’s filled with loads of additional ancillary clips, including a behind the scenes shot of Daltrey and Who bassist John Entwistle auditioning young rock groups to play a Who-like mod band for the background of a club scene in the film. During which, Daltrey complains about Saturday Night Fever beating Quadrophenia to theaters and potentially stealing its thunder. But I doubt he knew just how much Saturday Night Fever stole from the mod era in general.