It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 02.01.12 in Spotlights


The Who

When I was 16, Calvin Johnson (K Records) asked me to drum for Beat Happening on their upcoming U.K.tour. I asked my parents if it was OK for me to drop out of high school and go on tour. My dad said it was, under one condition: I had to prove that I could support myself. He arranged for me to stay with my grandparents, where I did piecework in a cucumber field owned by a pickle factory. I’d had a paper route and was an experienced babysitter, but this was exceptionally back-breaking work. I made less than minimum wage and gave up after just a few days. To console myself, I took my hard earned cash straight to the record store and bought a used copy of Quadrophenia by The Who. When people talk about whether or not music should be free, I remember how hard I worked for that record, and think about how much it still means to me.

In 1973 The Who recorded a double-album about a character named Jimmy the Mod. Set in post-war England, Quadrophenia documents a slice of 1960s working-class youth culture that The Who were involved in creating. Critics gave the ambitious project mixed reviews. As a musically elaborate prog-rock-opera about mods – who generally prefer the upbeat minimalism of frenetic R&B – it’s formalistically awkward. Coming on the heels of Tommy and Who’s Next it seemed confusing, murky and second-rate. Roger Daltrey famously disliked it, getting in a fistfight with Pete Townshend which landed the less than street-savvy guitarist in the hospital. A late-’70s film version of Quadrophenia starring Phil Daniels clarified the storyline and Jimmy came to life, inspiring the mod-revival in England and connecting with a cult audience of American teenagers in the 1980s, who viewed it at late-night screenings or on home video.

Although there was a small mod revival in the U.S., the kids who discovered Quadrophenia as a midnight movie were just as likely to be rockers, theater kids or punk-rock skateboarders. Reagan-era suburban downtowns were deserted, as the centers of commerce shifted from local shops to malls, mirroring the desolate decay of boarded-up city centers leftover from the urban riots of the late ’60s. Street kids and weirdoes flocked to old movie theaters, hung out at makeshift all-ages show spaces and dug through the cultural trash of the ’60s and ’70s that filled thrift stores, searching for both cheap entertainment and larger meaning. In this pre-internet era, this was the only way for curious youth to map out a chronology of pop-culture history – as if connecting the dots would lead to some hidden treasure. Along with the DIY ethic of hardcore, this rummaging inspired kids to create their own youth culture, defining themselves through music and style. As one of these kids, Quadrophenia captured my imagination.

Born to teenage parents at the end of the ’60s, The Who is the first group I remember. As an infant, I appeared in a (pre-Ken Russell) home-movie version of Tommy. I recall listening to Quadrophenia in the rain on my Walkman and totally identifying with it. Although The Who were not from my generation, Jimmy’s sense of rage and hopelessness resonated with my own despair at not understanding how to fit in at school or get along at home.

Like the Clash movie Rude Boy, Quadrophenia is told from the point of view of the fan. By making Jimmy the hero, the Who shined a light on their audience, including us in the cultural narrative. It empowered young listeners to consider their own story. The mentally unstable Jimmy is a lost, alienated kid trapped between institutions of conformity: doctors, family, church, heterosexuality, work, school – even mod, his chosen subculture. The album’s message is that we are social creatures, that we experience our life individually but it’s society that forms us. We aren’t separate from it, though at times we may feel so disconnected from it we feel suicidal. Quadrophenia‘s central question is, “Will Jimmy live or die?” It is a story that demands contemplation, especially if you’re a kid who doesn’t experience Jimmy as a symbol of youth, but one that identifies with his plight. It’s no wonder that ’80s teens connected with it more than baby boomers.

Revisiting Jimmy the Mod as an adult moves me to grab my black-and-white Rickenbacker guitar and play it at a volume too loud for my apartment, or for the middle-aged lady version of ’80s-teen-me to walk around town in an oversized mod parka obsessing over Quadrophenia rarities on my mp3 player: “I wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet!” “We are the Mods We are the Mods We Are We Are We Are the Mods!”

I look forward to the next chapter of the story.

Tobi’s Top 10 Tunes for February:

1. The Who, “Cut My Hair”
2. Pete Townshend, “Dirty Jobs (demo)”
3. Television Personalities, “I Was a Mod Before You Was a Mod”
4. Booker T and the MG’s, “Green Onions”
5. The Small Faces, “Own Up Time”
6. P.P. Arnold, “The First Cut is the Deepest”
7. Comet Gain, “An Arcade from The Warm Rain That Falls”
8. Beat Happening, “Foggy Eyes”
9. Talulah Gosh, “Steaming Train”
10. The Wildebeests, “Rowed Out”