Feature: Eddie Piller talks Pete Meaden and Quadrophenia

by Modculture 12 October, 2011

Pete Meaden

Pete Meaden

Eddie Piller looks at Pete Meaden and the Quadrophenia movie, as well as their continuing impact in the modern era.

Quadrophenia was Pete Townshend’s retrospective view of his early life in music. Consequently, it is highly stylised and idealised. To understand where the film came from, one has to examine the trilogy that became The Who’s first important body of work.

Townshend conceived the idea of a teenage rock opera that told the story of Jimmy, a composite and complex character who tried to lead the perfect mod life with disastrous results. Consequently, Quadrophenia became the ultimate mod experience. The album was released with an extensive photo-book of his character’s life experience which was designed to be looked at whilst listening to the album. Townshend’s mind was straying to the visual even then.

On it’s release the album was a worldwide international hit. The sixties modernists were long gone and the band’s audience wore the denims more associated with the antithesis of mod – the rocker. This did not diminish the impact of the album, but such are the machinations of the international film industry that it took a further five years before the Who’s then managers were in the position to make the movie.

Bill and Jackie Curbishley had taken over from the mercurial Lambert and Stamp in guiding the Who’s career. They had painstakingly assembled a team which included cult director Franc Roddam. Eventually the finance fell into place and production on Townshend’s opus began in 1978.

The production team included Peter Meaden, who enthusiastically sourced locations based on his early mod experiences in Shepherd’s Bush. Meaden had been Pete Townshend’s first guru. He became manager of the proto-Who High Numbers and was seen by many as the only true mod-philosopher-poet of the 1960s. His ideas set the standard for the concept of youth-culture-as-art-as-commodity. He became a major influence on Townsend in his formative years and obviously thought that the mercurial guitarist had returned the favour with the story of the film. He was quoted as saying after he had read the script. ‘Townshend’s writing about me, man, this is the story of my life’.

Indeed the parallels between Townsend’s Jimmy Cooper and Peter Meaden were obvious. Cooper is eventually overwhelmed by a sea of amphetamine insecurity and paranoia which results in him taking his own life at the end of the film. This was sadly reflected when Meaden ended his own life with a barbituate overdose just before Quadrophenia finished production. His genius was a sporadic thing. Moments of complete clarity in pursuit of the aesthetic commercial ideal contrasted with periods of dark depression. He died without ever seeing the end result on screen.

Whilst in 1975 it would have been easy for Quadrophenia’s investors to visualise a celluloid rough-art-house-movie as a break-even tax-loss, perhaps even as a quaint and historically accurate period piece. Life as a young mod – autobiographical for many of them. None could have possibly predicted the social future. It was here that fate dealt a particularly prescient hand.

Punk rock had swept all asunder in 1976. It destroyed the cosy relationship between the prog-dinosaurs and the complacent record companies. The original movement burnt brightly but quickly died. In its wake it left a new generation of inner city youth who were frustrated with their contemporary surroundings. By 1978 this disparate group of non-punks had coalesced around a young Woking band called The Jam. The antithesis of their punk contemporaries, they were a mod-influenced three piece who rejected McClaren’s elitist mantra and who collectively sowed the seeds for the forthcoming mod reveal.

The Jam based their style, attitude and music around that of the Who’s Meaden-inspired glory-period (1964-1966). A sharp mod image was backed with Paul Weller’s iconic world-view and a propensity for speed-fuelled r n b flavoured modernist anthems.

The parallels between the Jam and the early Who were striking. When the producers of Quadrophenia were looking for mod-extras for the film, small-ads in the music weeklies bought forward a plethora of teenage Jam fans and scooter riding proto-mods. Clothes? ‘No problem, we’ll bring our own’…Dancing.? ‘Yeah, we know the dances’. Fight scenes.? ‘Yeah, piece of piss, we fucking hate rockers’. Realism was not a problem.

The proto-mod revivalists and the producers of Quadrophenia collaborated in what soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Quadrophenia was a film about mods, THE film about mods. For the first time in fifteen years British kids were living the mod life. Perfect timing. The mod revival flowered from 1978. By the time Quadrophenia hit the streets in mid summer 1979 mods were already a fixture in most British towns. The film’s producers targeted this unexpected but most welcome audience. They utilised the potential for conflict and confrontation (echoes of Stanley Cohen’s seminal work on youth culture ‘Folk Devils And Moral Panics’) local press resounded with headlines like ‘Mod Riot at Cinema’ and ‘Mods vs. Rockers violence over film bring back memories of the sixties’. Even the legendary ‘Councillor says Ban This Film’ made an appearance.

This publicity, alongside that of the post Jam-second-wave-of -groups from the burgeoning mod revival scene (The Chords, The Purple Hearts, Secret Affair, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Merton Parkas, Lambrettas, Special Aka, Madness et al) were receiving maximum press coverage and riding the new-mod zeitgeist, ensuring that the film was rapturously received by teenagers. Critics, on the whole, received the film well. They were unaware of the movements in underground subculture that were occurring because of the film and consequently wrote about its attempt to sum up the all-encompassing world of sixties modernists.

On reflection, some 28 years after the film’s release the gaps and differences between the mod scene of the 1960s and that of the late 1970s have shrunk to nothing. Mod has become the philosophy that Meaden was never able to commercially articulate. A bite-sized Ben Sherman, an RAF ministry of defence roundel. Meaden’s vision of social revolution through modernism died with its commerciality.

Quadrophenia, the project was Pete Townshend’s attempt to shape the sixties modernist idea in his own image and through his own memories. His view was backed by journalist and Townshend’s best friend Richard Barnes’ through his phenomenally successful book, Mods. Published on the back of the film and revival, it went on to sell a quarter of a million copies. A feat almost unheard of in non-fiction photo journalism with such a limited subject.

Even Townshend could not have imagined how the current generation of British youth would embrace his particular dream. He had been introduced to the secretive, underground world of the modernists by Meaden in early 1964. To Peter Meaden this particular lifestyle was all encompassing and total. Mod could and indeed should, influence every aspect of life; from the clothes that you wore, the music that you listened and danced to, the place you lived, the books that you read, the art that you appreciated. His view of modernism was similar to that of his architectural and artistic predecessors, in that to him, as to them, modernism was more than just a lifestyle choice. It was all.

Pete Townshend had long been regarded as the creative fulcrum of the Who and he embraced Meaden’s outlook and philosophy from the very start. His attempt to eloquate these loyalties and frustrations through music bore fruit with the bands extraordinary 1965 trilogy; ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Substitute’ and ‘My Generation’ which effortlessly and successfully captured the distilled essence of what it was to be a modernist in mid 1960s Britain.

Consequently, any attempt to re-create those original lifestyles and ideals after the event, once artistic values had moved on and once mod as Townshend and Meaden knew it was well and truly dead, are condemned to be regarded as post-modernist by their very nature.

The irony inherent in Quadrophenia is that what started life as a retrospective, historical tale of a specifically defined (by Townshend at least) modernist movement could then hi-jack and subsume a contemporary and thriving youth culture should not be lost.

The very release of the film Quadrophenia added at least some 250,000 adherents to what had been, up to that point, an underground scene. This drove the mod revival up into mainstream territory, a fact reflected by The Jam becoming the most successful British singles band since The Beatles (17 singles in the top 75 at the same time?) and bands with a smaller mod-profile like Secret Affair selling upwards of a million records.

Like its predecessor in the 1960s, the mod revival, which had been partly inspired by the film Quadrophenia, enjoyed its moment in the spotlight, but the rule with all youth culture is that exposure to the mainstream precipitates a hastened demise. Mod suffered from press overkill and eventually faded from view. The modernist ideal however, as defined for the 1980s by Paul Weller, survived and continued to exist in an underground world of late night Soho clubs – a life of ‘clean living in difficult circumstances’, of jazz, soul and smart tailoring – until its resurrection and reinterpretation in 1995 by the Gallagher brothers and Damon Albarn amongst many new travellers on the mod path.

The legacy of Quadrophenia runs deep. Just ask The Arctic Monkeys and The Ordinary Boys. Modernist or post-modernist??? Or just mod?

  • Bradlegn

    Jimmy does not take his own life at the end of Quadrpohenia. He is seen at the beginning walking away – a survivor !!!

    • Eddie Piller

       yeah, i know but i considered it ambiguous enough to make the point above.

      • Penny Lane

        I like and dislike at the same time the metaphor for the mod who dies inside Jimmy. But, at the same time I could not think of better ending. And, there’s a lack of information about Pete Meaden on the internet, so the text brought me a new point of view. Thank you so much for this!

        (sorry about my english, I’m brazilian)

  • colin fribbens

    very well put.