Friday, July 23, 2010
Mod Culture’s Commodity and Ideological Forms
Director Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979) depicts the British mod subculture of the 60s as a gang of working-class, pill-popping, scooter-riding, parka-wearing, fashionable misfits who express themselves violently at Brighton’s seaside resort. The protagonist is a character named Jimmy (Phil Daniels), an emotionally mixed up modernist who expresses himself in contradictory terms. Jimmy’s ideology is based on that of being different, to not be like everyone else, so he declares himself to be a mod. Yet Roddam’s film snubs its nose at Jimmy’s claim and goes about showing his hypocrisy. As sensitive as the filmmaker is to his protagonist, he is less so with the mod subculture. The film manages to excite interest in this subculture as well as criticize it. It’s hard not to be seduced by the mass numbers of green parkas chanting “we are the mods,” though the film’s characters are projected negatively as shallow, working-class, pill-poppers who will steal your girl when your back is turned. Dick Hebdige wrote about commodity and ideological forms, and the mod subculture can be examined in this way when connected with The Who.
The film Quadrophenia is set in 1964, at the height of the mod culture phenomena in the UK, yet the original modernist movement began as early as 1959 with the introduction of modern jazz in England. Though the fashion was thought of as working-class in its origin, according to writer Richard Barnes (the definitive book Mods! in 1979), “The earliest originators of this look were, it seems, kids from secure middle-class homes. Most were Jewish and had money to experiment; presumably they got it from their parents as a lot of them were too young to be at work.” The original mods were teenagers who rejected 1950’s conservativeness or teddy boy fashion for a look that was new, continental, and sophisticated. Though modernist culture was British-born, its expression was outwardly international. The mod ideology can be seen within intercontinental interests including American jazz/ soul and Levi jeans, French haircuts and films, Italian scooters and suits, Jamaican ska and rock-steady, and Cuban heeled shoes. By the time 1964 had come around, the modernist aesthetic and ideology had been co-opted by the press and media. The working-class youth had adopted the style as a tribal reflection of British culture and fashion labels began to market the subculture. With brands like Fred Perry (tennis wear), Ben Sherman, Harrington, Lonsdale (athletic and boxing wear), and Savile Row (suits), British labels and manufacturers began to convert sub-cultural signs into mass-produced objects as commodity forms.
If the commodity form of mod culture was sold to the British teenager under the banner of various clothing labels, then it is safe to assume that the modernist ideological form began to mutate inwardly into a new one as well. As drugs and violence began to define what was originally a fashion statement, working-class youth (who had only a minor interest in fashion) bought into the commercialization of the subculture. One need only to look at pictures of early mods and compare them to the photos found in the newspapers (that depicted mods with news of violent seaside fights) to see who were the originators and who were the followers. A true mod (who is preoccupied with maintaining a polished look) would never get into a fight with a rocker.
As mod ideology shifted from outward (continental) to inward (British), so did its musical roots. Where mods consumed jazz and soul records that were imported to England, British bands began to reflect those musical interests with their own brand of interpretation. Bands such as The Who, Small Faces, The Action, The Creation, and The Kinks began to adopt soul music and rearrange its formula into a British pop aesthetic. These bands helped to promote and sell mod culture, using lyrical affinities to the subculture. The band The Who were not originally mod, yet they were encouraged by their manager (at the time) Pete Meadon to identify with the mod aesthetic as a means to sell records. Although the song “My Generation” is seen as an anthem to mod culture, though originally it was purely a means to sell the culture through the pop charts. By the time The Who had created the album “Quadrophenia” (which influenced the film some years later), one cannot help but feel as if the band were selling out the subculture. Previous bands had written songs of mods (ie; The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” or Small Faces’ “Here Comes The Nice”), yet “My Generation” is the far more recognizable anthem.
The film Quadrophenia presents the mod subculture as being solely emblematic of The Who’s identity. Not only does the film present music of The Who, at various points in the film there are pictures, performances, and records of the band placed as points of reference and connection. The Who would also use mod pop art symbols (ie: images of targets, Union Jack flags, scooters, and parkas) as a means to sell their own records or concert tickets. The Who converted sub-cultural signs into mass-produced objects, while presenting a mythical identity to mods. The character Jimmy is presented as a rebel to British conformity, yet his daily work is (visibly) surrounded by advertisements and commercials. It’s no wonder Jimmy spends a lot of his working day throwing up, while his boss carries on holding conferences in the bathroom.
As decades and styles change, the past is often dug up to help promote the new. Just as Levi ads use icons to sell a lifestyle, a lifestyle may also be used to sell a product. This marketing strategy is blatantly visible in metropolitan cities like New York where three stores (Fred Perry, Ben Sherman and Amarcord) use mod imagery even today to sell their products. As interest in fashion and street culture continues, the fusion of rock music and mod fashion will surely endure, to help and sell some commodity goods.