Published in Issue 88 of The Leither, my article about the 'second coming' of the mods, unfortunately coinciding with my nascent punk days
The Who, or at least, surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, have announced their intention to tour the Quadrophenia album this autumn. Obviously their hit single 'My Generation,' with its signature line "Hope I die before I get old" was never meant literally, but you suspect that if they’ve been able to see 50 years into the future they might have been appalled at extent of the irony – two rock musicians with a combined age of 135 embarking on a nostalgic road trip.
The Quadrophenia reference transported me to my own youth. I was 16 when the film version was released in 1979. I was certainly not a fan of the band. At the tail end of the punk revolution, millionaire rock bands like The Who were regarded as part of the 'rock establishment.' The closest I got to them was a healthy devotion to The Jam, although I always preferred the rebellious rock ‘n’ roll image of The Clash. In fact, by 1979 and London Calling, the latter had eschewed dyed hair and spray-painted clothes in favour of quiffs – much more akin to the mods heated nemeses, rockers.
That was the thing about youth in the 70s. The music you listen to and the fashions you favoured corralled you into a particular box. A lot of this was to do with the limited choices you had in terms of hearing bands on the radio. Decades before downloads, you saved up to buy vinyl. Becoming a fan was far more of a personal commitment. After Teddy boys, mods and skinheads, teenagers still gravitated towards cults – there was no homogeneousness. There were strict parameters about the singles you purchased, and if you found yourself attracted to a disco song in the charts you kept this quiet.
This led to an organised square-go in Princes Street Gardens. I’ve no idea what the shoppers made of the pitched battles in Edinburgh city centre that Saturday.
At a time when Adam and the Ants sang about sadomasochistic sex rather than dandy highwaymen, their obsessive followers wore tartan or PVC. Crass devotees adopted militaristic garb. Northern soulboys, in many ways the forerunners of the 80s soccer casuals, dressed smartly and were into dancing and dishing out kickings to punks. By 1979 many of these soulboys, as well as punk defectors, had got so into the Quadrophenia film they started dressing like the 60s mods. Some went the whole hog, zooming around in Italian scooters.
A crowd of us went to see Quadrophenia at the old ABC on Lothian Road. During the climactic scene where the mods engage the rockers on Brighton beach, the film broke down – a far from freak occurrence in those pre-digital days. When the house lights went on, I was aghast to see several hundred parka-clad mod wannabes standing up to vent their spleen in the direction of the projectionist. Although my pals were a mixture of punks, mods and neutrals, those of us wearing biker jackets and striped mohairs found ourselves sinking deeper into our seats lest we take the place of the motorcycle gangs who'd just been taking such a pounding on-screen.
My interest in punk went beyond fashion. It was more about uncovering fantastic news sounds on John Peel's Radio 1 show, or the excitement of frenetic live music. We despaired at mates who 'turned mod' as that youth cult seemed preoccupied by farcically strict dress quotes – obsessed with labels and lapel lengths. The 60s mods danced to some brilliant music – The Kinks, Small Faces, Rolling Stones, as well as ska. Their 70s copycats listened to puerile pop – The Lambrettas, Secret Affair, The Merton Parkas. Worse than that, the anti-rocker bloodletting that was such an integral part of the original mod scene had created a mindset where non-mods were considered fair game in 1979.
On Edinburgh's westside, Friday was disco night at the Merchiston Boys Club ('the Merky'). Mods from Tollcross would congregate while a hardcore of punks would always front them up. Pogoing to the subtle strains of 'New Rose' by The Damned became less a celebration of exuberant rock ‘n’ roll as a giant red rag. During one altercation a punkette was attacked. This led to an organised square-go. Instead of pistols at dawn it was 'our gang versus yours in Princes Street Gardens.'
I’ve no idea what the Saturday shoppers made of the pitched battles in Edinburgh city centre that September afternoon. At one point I got separated from my lot and wound up being chased along Bread Street by about 40 mods (at least that was the figure I gave to my mates afterwards.)
A postscript? Returning from a Killing Joke gig, me and two pals came upon a mod waiting for the Haymarket traffic lights, astride a scooter resplendent with mirrors and fluttering pendants. When he clocked us he shifted nervously, revving, ready to jump the lights in case we charged him. Instead we flashed peace signs. He returned the gesture. I can’t think of a more inspiring moment during those months of tribal stupidity!