Seeing The Who perform songs from their classic “Mod Opera” Quadrophenia this month was a strangely exciting and yet unsettling experience. As the show ended, I turned to my wife to find her on the verge of tears. “It was like they were saying goodbye forever,” she said, choking on her words. She was right. The entire performance was structured like a loud and dramatic farewell to those who had grown up with this music over the course of their lives. The original members of the band – Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend – are nearly 70 years old at this point, and the fact that they have chosen the soundtrack of Quadrophenia as the subject for their latest tour reflects an awareness on their part that their youth has passed away and that as time marches on, they are also destined to eventually die, just like the other original members of the band, Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Though they did not perform “My Generation,” I was reminded of the lyrics from that song: “Things they do look awful cold. I hope I die before I get old.”
When I was a teenager, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a revival of the mod subculture. But it was sometimes difficult to disentangle the mods from the punks and the skinheads as my peers and I would freely borrow from the differing styles and mix them together in our own unique and original ways. Many of us rode around on scooters (I had a Vespa Rally 200), sometimes in packs, and often getting into trouble along the way. Some of us dressed in suits that were worn with belligerent irony, while others dressed in leather jackets and combat boots. Trench coats and fishtail parkas were also very common, and when paired with chains or spurs or bullet belts, it was impossible to determine the subculture of one’s allegiance. The truth of the matter was that neither I nor my friends were part of the first wave of any subculture. We were second (or third) wave punk-rockers who were influenced by all of the exciting youth movements that had come before us including (but not limited to) hippies, teds, skins, new romantics, metalheads and mods. We were, to put it in a nutshell, weird. We didn’t fit in with anyone else, and so we counted ourselves lucky to have found one another. It was an adventure trying to figure out who we were, and part of this involved borrowing from and combining various fashions as we struggled to express our authentic selves.
I always liked the mod aesthetic, but I was not a fan of The Who until I saw the movie Quadrophenia. When I was in my early teens, I associated The Who with mainstream stadium rock. After all, their music was played on the radio and their albums were top sellers. Why would I be interested in what they had to say? I thought their music was the type that jocks or boring consumer drones would listen to. Give me The Feederz or The Angry Samoans any day! When I saw Quadrophenia, however, there was a message that truly spoke to my alienated and angry nature. From the opening sequence, when the lyric “Can you see the real me?” comes blaring across the soundtrack, to the depressing and yet oh so true ending when Jimmy realizes that everyone, even the coolest of tough guys, ends up having to “lick boots” for his “perks,” the film summed up my teenage angst and told me I was right to feel the way I felt.
Soon, it became a ritual for huge groups of us to ride for hours on our scooters in order to rendezvous with other misfits at midnight showings of Quadrophenia where, together, we would share a feeling of temporary belonging. Amidst the teenage nonsense there was something real that I still spend time now, at the age of 48, thinking about fondly. Yes, there was a lot of ridiculous posturing, and yes there were teenage dramas and fistfights as we tried to emulate the characters from the film, but there was also a sense of camraderie and meaning. It was because we wanted to be different that this movie spoke to us, and it was because we also shared a desire to be understood that we gathered in a like-minded group.
Eventually, the mod purists withdrew into their own cliques (as did the skinheads and heavy metalers) and that left many of us to identify ourselves primarily as punk rockers; which, to tell the truth, probably always suited me more than any of the other subcultural designations. While The Who’s definition of “mod” as “clean living under difficult circumstances” was something that resonated with me then and now, there was also an elitism about mod purists that turned me off and turned me against the subculture. Clothes and scooters were the most important things to them; and if you didn’t wear the right jacket or have a scooter accessorized with just the right parts, you were worthless in their eyes. I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by mods and I increasingly made the conscious decision to simply avoid and ignore them. I lost some good friends because of this; but that’s just part of growing up I guess.