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How The Who’s 'Quadrophenia' birthed Britpop

1979 was quite an unusual year in music. In the undulating waves of subcultures, it was a moment that happened to be at the precipice of the violent rise of punk; a snarling explosion that reached the rarefied stratosphere so quickly it was bound to burn out any minute. And when it did, John Cooper Clarke, and indeed many others, claim the “last real youth tribe” went with it. Interestingly, however, punk’s devilish detonation held all the hallmarks of the revived past itself. 

If the psychedelic bandwagon was coasting along through the ghettos of the States and council estates of Britain in a Rolls Royce touting unrelatable notions of ayahuasca epiphanies and the search for inner peace amid the drone of the universe, then punk pulled up alongside it in a Mad Max-style convoy, and it had a generation of disenfranchised youth clambering to be there to witness the birth of the next big thing to call their own.

Thus, it might seem somewhat of an oddity that Quadrophenia, a mod film centred around a six-year-old album, had such an impact on what was to follow as it boldly stood amid the maelstrom of punk and not only managed to withstand the storm but thrived so much that it spawned a new generation of culturephiles. In truth, this is because both punk and the mod movement looked to the past for inspiration, despite punk seeming like a Frankenstein invention borne from the fevered and fetid imaginations of the marginalised youth. The main binding tie being that they were both definitively working-class youth movements, even if they did seem tribally different. 

By the time of the early 1990s, the past would be candidly revived once more with the Britpop explosion. It is largely thanks to Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia that the latest craze was born. The movie took the narrative of the album and gave it the all-important aesthetic and story that defined the rules of the game. As the film’s frontman, Phil Davis, once said: “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.”

If punk was indeed destined to be short-lived, then Quadrophenia boxed-clever by riding the wave of its energy but surfing on something a little bit more manageable. For many kids, a little bit too young to be asking for a mohawk at the barbers, but nevertheless enthralled by the movement, Roddam’s film offered up something that looked like a thrilling version of their own life. All the while, the music of The Who that intersperses the soundtrack alongside old sixties mod classics opened up a bohemian back catalogue for nineties kids to explore and brought the likes of The Kinks and The Small Faces into the future Britpop sound. 

As Roddam said himself when looking at how influential the movie seemed on the likes of Oasis who followed afterwards: “It is a working-class British film. 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.”

Many youthful people identified with the movie, with what it had to say about social consciousness, and with the aesthetic too. In fact, Liam Gallagher identified with the film so much that he recently remarked that if he could only watch one movie for the rest of his life, it would be Quadrophenia. While that much might have been clear from the Parka’s and Lambretta’s that have become part of the Oasis iconography, it is also readily apparent in the attitude of the band. Both Britpop and the film share a warts-and-all depiction of working-class life that remains uncompromising without ever being cynical. 

A review in the New York Times upon its release read: “A slice-of-life movie that feels tremendously authentic in its sentiments as well as its details.” Looking back, Britpop seems largely the same. It didn’t try to parody, satirise, glamourise or colour working-class life as banal; like the film’s view of the mod scene in 1964, it simply looked to offer up a movement with fidelity and couldn’t help but be adrenalised by the sonic wave of punk.  

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