What Does The Word Quadrophenia Mean?

28 May 2018, 06:00

It’s the May Bank Holiday, the day when the Mods used to head down to Brighton to tangle with the rockers. But what’s the meaning behind The Who’s classic Mod rock opera.

Quadrophenia - it’s an album and a film. But what does that title mean?

The Who’s classic double LP from 1973 looked back at the previous decade and the Mod culture that spawned the band in the Shepherd’s Bush area of West London. It follows the tale of the troubled teen Jimmy, whose immersion into the Mod world of late nights, parties, cheap stimulants and tribal violence against their bitter rivals the Rockers quickly leads him into trouble.

Some genuine mods, 1964
Some genuine mods, 1964. Picture: Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The album got to Number 2 in the UK album charts - being kept off the top by David Bowie’s set of cover versions, Pin-Ups - and the story was turned into a film with the same title in 1979.

Roger Daltrey on the set of Quadrophenia, 1978
Roger Daltrey on the set of Quadrophenia, 1978. Picture: John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Starring a young cast of then-unknowns, Phil Daniels took the role of Jimmy, while Sting (about to become a megastar with The Police) was the “Ace Face” and Leslie Ash (later of Men Behaving Badly fame) played Jimmy’s girlfriend.

Also in the cast was a young Ray Winstone, who played an old school friend of Jimmy’s who - shock! horror! - turns out to be a greasy rocker, with leathers and everything.

The film caused a brief revival of Mod music and styles at the end of the 70s, but one element of the story that’s not so clear to anyone who’s only watched the film is: what does that title mean? The film doesn’t elaborated, but the explanation is buried in the sleevenotes to the original album.

Audiophile couple, 1974
Audiophile couple, 1974. Picture: Chris Ware / Getty Images

Remember Quadrophonic sound? No? It was an early attempt to create “SurroundSound” using four speakers rather than the usual two for stereo. The equipment was costly and didn’t catch on, but for a time in the early 1970s, it was a luxury item for audiophiles.

Some albums - Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn and John Lennon’s Imagine, for example - were mixed and released in quadrophonic editions.

The Who - Quadrophenia
The Who - Quadrophenia. Picture: Press

So, in 1973, when Pete Townshend was writing his rock opera about a confused young man coming to terms with his identity, he picked on both the hi-fi lingo and some outdated ideas about mental illness.

Back in the 60s and 70s, schizophrenia was characterised with the cliched “split personality”, rather than as “a mental disorder characterised by abnormal social behaviour and failure to understand reality”.

As the confused, weary and stimulant-driven Jimmy explains in the sleevenotes: “It must be alright to be plain ordinary mad… Schizophrenic? I'm bleeding Quadrophenic.”

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