In celebration of the Sky Arts documentary being released to mark its 40th anniversary, we speak to the cast to investigate the legacy and impact Quadrophenia holds
Alex Rigotti
14:05 19th September 2019

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In 1979, director Franc Roddam took The Who’s seminal double-album Quadrophenia and turned it into a British cult classic. The eponymous film was more than just a love letter to all things mod. It let us into the darker aspects of the culture, documenting the breakdown of the protagonist Jimmy (played by Phil Daniels) as his life began to unravel. For a story centred around the sociology of a culture and identity, why has Quadrophenia had such a massive impact on modern music? 

It’s post-war Britain, and youth culture is on the rise thanks to higher standards of living, increased consumer culture and people having more time on their hands. The mods would rise from these conditions, consisting of a predominant working-class demographic. Their influence would scatter through British fashion and music for decades to come. 

They turned towards Europe for inspiration, donning tailored suits and parkas for riding their over-accessorized Vespas. They listened to ‘modern’ music, or jazz, championing acts such as James Brown and the Ronnettes. They feuded with the rockers, who were into leather jackets, snarling motorcycles and, of course, rock music. Their violent riots, interest in purple hearts and swinging moralities led to intense media coverage, which was eventually coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen as the infamous ‘moral panic’. 

The Who attempted to immortalise this period in their gargantuan double album, Quadrophenia. It was a play on quadrophonic sounds and schizophrenia, splintered into four distinct personalities. In the liner notes, these were as follows: a ‘tough guy’, a ‘romantic’, a ‘bloody lunatic’ and ‘a beggar’. The album remains one of the best concept albums to date, landing at #267 on Rolling Stone’s Best 500 Albums and #56 on Q magazine’s 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. However, there was just one problem: the actual narrative itself was so confusing that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey routinely bored audiences attempting to explain it. 

Enter Franc Roddam. He was tasked with directing Quadrophenia, translating its confuddled narrative into a retrospective of the mod movement. The Who weren’t unknown to the film industry; their previous album had been turned into a musical film, Tommy. Coupled with a successful second album, a wealth of relatively unknown kids and a small budget, the stakes were high for Quadrophenia. Little did he know the impact it was going to have on music and culture.  

Fast forward forty years on, Quadrophenia has spawned a jaw-dropping musical legacy that other films would dream of. It singlehandedly inspired the mod revival, the era of Britpop and launched the careers of the baby-faced, sharp-cheek-boned Sting (Ace Face) and the fiery Toyah (Monkey). Even Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols gunned for the role. So what makes Quadrophenia so beloved in music history? 

To understand the movie’s impact on music, we have to understand the role of music in the film itself. One of the interesting artistic decisions Roddam made was to distance the film from the album. This is what made Quadrophenia so dedicated to the mod culture in all its facets. Roddam chose not to use the whole double album as the soundtrack, opting instead to include tracks from the period, too. This is also evident in the attitude of the cast members to the album. Whilst Leslie Ash (Steph) names ‘5:15’ and Toyah names ‘I Am The Sea’ as their favourite Quadrophenia tracks, there’s more affection for the mod music that accompanies the movie. This is especially true of Toyah, who was a punk-rocker, and thus on the opposite end of the spectrum. Did she find it difficult to film, having little connection with the music – and if so, was there a song that turned her on to mod music?

“There was no question of like or dislike, because as an actress, you just absorb into what you’re meant to be doing," she says. “Interestingly, it was always ‘Green Onions’ that we were always asked to dance to. I grew up with that song, I was born in ’58. But where there was polarisation was that I was very much a punk rocker and very fearless, so to move back into something I recognised to my sister (who was 8 years older than me) …  I’m an actress, you just do it, there’s no ‘I’m not dancing to this music because I’m a punk rocker’.”

Quadrophenia was committed to capturing the era outside of the double album, and it was more than just the music; it was the looks, too. Phil Davis believes this is where Britpop heeds its influence from – in particular, Blur. “If you look at Quadrophenia, one of the opening scenes is the band cross-section playing ‘High Heeled Sneakers’. If you take a snapshot of that and took that to Blur’s stylist, then that’s what you’ve got,” he notes. “If you listen to Paul Weller, The Jam… he decided that that was the look. Once they had the look, everything else followed, and that happens with a lot of music.” Quadrophenia intersected with Blur in more than just fashion; most notably, Phil Daniels nabbed the role of performing vocals for Blur’s hit, ‘Parklife’ (although Trevor Laird tells me it was their mutual love of football that got him the role instead).

The movie was also influential for the other side of the Britpop coin: you only have to look at the trademark parkas of Oasis for evidence. But Roddam believes that the movie appealed to the Gallaghers for a different reason. “It is a working-class British film,” he stresses. "If you’re in the north and you go to Manchester or Liverpool, they have a strong working-class ethic. What I mean by that is they see themselves as a tribal group, they see social injustice and there’s certain things they will accept and will not accept. It’s all about experience. People like to see their own experience being dramatised on the screen. Quadrophenia was not unlike the experience of Liam and Noel Gallagher when they were growing up.”

Roddam grew up in a working-class family in Stockton. Notably, the film captures the heyday of the mod movement, which was set in Brighton. Why Brighton, and not north-east seaside towns like Seaham? “There’s an English movie called Genevieve which was made ten years earlier than Quadrophenia,” Roddam explains. “It’s about toffy English actors who go down to Brighton and drink sherry and go to bed and breakfasts. The working class didn’t have transportation, they had money for the first time, they had tailor shops and their own radio station. When they got their scooters, they knew Brighton belonged to posh people, and they said ‘well, we’re going to fuck it up!’.” Added with its relative distance to London, places like Brighton, Margate and Clacton became hot destinations for the young mods to congregate.

The movie went way beyond working-class representation, too. Trevor Laird (Ferdy) was the only person of colour in the main cast (or as he jokingly puts it, "I’m the black one”). It was momentous for recording the POC experience in musical subcultures. You’d expect Laird’s filming experiences to be different, perhaps a bit more alienated. But Laird maintains that the opposite happened. “Before ’74 – which is where I went to Anna Scher’s and met Phil [Daniels] – we all mixed in because we were into acting, and we were black, white, purple, Asian, whatever. Black kids stayed to themselves, white kids were into Bowie at school, we were into soul, and it was never an issue because it didn’t come up. We all stayed there, they all stayed there. And then they got into punk rock, where suddenly they lauded reggae music and light black people and that made the mix. So by the time we made Quadrophenia, there was a mixture anyways’

Quadrophenia was also notable for the way it flipped gender stereotypes. It wasn’t women pining after the men, it was Jimmy longing for the indifferent Steph. It wasn’t Steph stripping naked, it was Jimmy filmed in the bathtub. Could Quadrophenia have impacted the way film industries treat women, too? After much deliberation, Leslie Ash thinks not. “I think it was just in those days it was still in the old days, it just happened by accident that Steph didn’t have to get her kit off, but I think it’s still happening.”

Roddam elaborates in: “During this period, it was such a strange period. I would get offended by the way people were treated. What happened was there were commercial companies, I knew one in London. Friday afternoon, there’s nothing going on. They’d say, ‘let’s have a casting session for underwear’. They’d bring all these girls in, just to look at them, and they weren’t even making a commercial, they were just having a fag and a drink! If you have people like that – and they were at the extreme end – if you have people like that, things needed to change. Steph was the one that didn’t care; to make her a modern girl, it was an obvious move. We wanted to make something fresh: let’s have male nudity, let’s put these ideas into the atmosphere.”

As Phil Davis cheekily adds, “more important was the reversal of saying ‘come on, it was just a shag, grow up!’”

So why was representation in Quadrophenia so important in understanding its legacy in music history? The film sought to realistically depict life in post-war Britain. There were no glib portrayals of the working-class; there was no mockery, no satire. Instead, the movie was committed to accuracy, and it was this determination that echoed with the future stars of British music. 

Quadrophenia exceeded its purpose as a snapshot of the mods; after all, when the film was released, mods had nearly died out. Its central themes of identity, love and loss countered typical Americanised narratives of hope and achievement. It celebrated being a failure, but not in a pitying, self-deprecating way. Rather, it said, it’s ok to lose sometimes. It’s tiring to win. And this central theme isn’t just indicative of mod culture; it’s central to all musical subcultures that flow in our timelines. 

Simply put, Quadrophenia was an organic, realistic portrait of a generation; one that was proudly working-class, liberal and unabashedly British. For musicians and music nerds alike, that was more than enough to win their hearts and earn its place in history. 

Quadrophenia Reunited: 40 Years on airs on Sky Arts on 21 September 2019. 

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Photo: Frank Connor