White youth subcultures and Black music in “Northern Soul” and “Quadrophenia”

Quadrophenia, Northern Soul

Film stills from “Quadrophenia” (left) and “Northern Soul.”

I might as well kick off this occasional series on music and the movies with a claim bound to annoy someone: Despite the status of 1979’s “Quadrophenia” as the classic film about the English mod scene, 2014’s “Northern Soul” is an even better film about U.K. youth subcultures–especially as it pertains to the music.

If you’ve never seen either film, they’d work great as a double feature. For fans of soul music and early R&B and rock (or those who have an interest in the roots of punk culture) both are essential viewing.

The northern soul subculture deserves to be better known in the United States. The phenomena of kids in England getting obsessed with what was already unfashionable to most young white Americans–who were instead more interested in having the Rolling Stones and others across the pond feed back to them a version of what their own marginalized communities had created–serves as a reminder to appreciate and value the genius of Black American music.

But where “Quadrophenia” has a lasting status as a cult movie, “Northern Soul” has been underestimated. Take this very unfair American review that complains about the accents being too strong and the music not sounding good. Though the Lancastrian dialect is indeed thick, subtitles make the first point a non-issue. The second point is just plain wrong.

Mods were sharp-dressed, mostly working-class young people in England who were into Black American music like soul, R&B and rock. The northern soul scene, which had some overlap with mod but was its own thing, originated in the hardscrabble industrial north of England, and was focused on (obviously) soul music.

“Quadrophenia,” loosely based on the concept album by The Who, depicts a drifting, alienated working-class youth named Jimmy, who fills his time gobbling amphetamine pills by the handful, partying to rock and soul, and riding scooters with his gang. The scooter-riding mods are at odds with the motorcycle-riding rockers. Tension comes to a head when the London gangs ride to Brighton for a dance party, resulting in a teenage riot of massive proportions.

“Northern Soul,” set in the bleak industrial suburbs of Manchester, concerns Matt, a dead-end kid from a poor family whose finds purpose when he links up with John, a soul DJ and fellow juvenile delinquent. Matt flings himself into the scene, seeking friendship and the attention of a girl but also just instinctually in thrall to the power of soul music, the compulsion to dance and the mystique of subcultural belonging. Fueled by speed, Matt and John begin to make their bones as DJs, but drugs threaten to undo everything when they lead to a friend’s death.

Despite the 1979’s film’s relative closeness to the era it depicted, both were retrospectives. “Quadrophenia” is set in the early 1960s (15 years before it was made), while “Northern Soul” is set in 1974 (four decades before it was made). Despite the second film’s visual crispness, its 1970s Lancashire is as convincing as the first film’s 1960s London, and a good deal more sympathetic.

Both movies were made by people with firsthand experience of the moment, the first by the members of  The Who (who were very much on the scene themselves) and the second by British photographer, writer and director Elaine Constantine, who not only was a firsthand participant but did deep research, producing a book documenting the northern soul subculture.

There’s more than a few resemblances between their working-class, pill-popping protagonists.

“Quadrophenia,” however, suffers from a classically Boomer ethos of rebellion just for the hell of it, and occasionally embarrassing scenes like the protagonist mugging and bopping to The Who on TV while his grumpy dad looks on in disapproval. It’s self-consciously a film about alienated young people. But it’s hard not to look at it today and be struck by the apparent ease of the lives of these disaffected youth. The reasons for them to be acting out are left vague. The mods dance to soul music while mostly ignoring the music itself, party at posh houses, dress like people who are better off than them, fight with people who don’t and rarely seem to lack for money.

“Northern Soul” is far more adult in the themes it works out while looking at youth culture. The setting of course, is very different and the time period is a decade forward. These aren’t mods in sharp suits; their fashion is more exaggerated and harder-edged, involving baggy slacks and stick-and-poke tattoos. Northern England is a far cry from the cool London of the earlier film.

In “Northern Soul,” the grim prospects of a lifetime of low-paid industrial labor and the social and economic pressure youth face from their families to escape such a fate is believable, hence the alienation of a cohort of young people facing “no future” (in the famous words of Johnny Rotten, who was nearly cast as the lead in “Quadrophenia”) is grounded in something tangible.

Both films treat amphetamines as the central drug in the scene. But where “Quadrophenia” indulges in basically consequence-free fantasy around limitless pill popping, “Northern Soul” shows both the visceral freedom and the terrible risks. In the former, the police are mostly a joke the kids run circles around. In the latter they are a looming threat, close at hand to bust you. People go to prison, get paranoid, pass out and worse. They work their jaws and dart their eyes like people who are actually on speed.

One of the ways that “Northern Soul” shines is its faithful depiction of the terribly earnest and serious meaning music has to young people on the cusp of adulthood. The frenzy around handling and trading of records, the whispered lore of the latest, the search for a secret new sound, and the urgent message it communicates is palpable. Classic songs by Marvin Gaye, Frankie Valli, Freddie Chavez, Shirley Ellis, Edwin Starr, The Carstairs and countless others do more than feature prominently. They’re propelling the story as well as providing the force behind the film’s emotional tone.

Between these two very white British films, “Northern Soul” is the one that makes a good-faith try to deal with at least some of the questions raised by a working class, white subculture built around Black music, and to have a fully rendered Black character. Angela, played by Antonia Thomas (who co-stars opposite John Boyega in “Small Axe”), is as reticent as you would expect a Black person to be of serving as some soul-obsessed white kid’s fantasy. The relationship between her and Matt is something earned over the course of the film.

“Quadrophenia” is still a classic worth watching, even if you’re not a fan of The Who. The scenes of pandemonium in Brighton are utterly anarchic, and cathartic in their depiction of defiance of the police. A conflict of scooter gangs versus biker gangs has never been dramatized in a movie like this. Sting, whose music is absent here but whose arrogant vibe makes a positive contribution, plays a small but critical role as a mod leader.

Go deeper:

Check out this “Northern Soul” playlist on Spotify or read more about Elaine Constantine’s long journey to making the film.

Both films are available to stream.

As far as feature films made by a rock group go, this is easily one of the best, up there with The Who’s other movie, 1975’s “Tommy.” Jimmy, played by Phil Daniels with convincing coldness, is a fitting avatar for directionless youth suffering from what Mark Fisher many years later called “depressive hedonia”–pleasure-seeking behavior that seeks to fill a void.

The film’s most troubling moments may be melodramatic, but are deeply felt: when Jimmy’s former friend, now in a rival gang, is caught and beaten by his friends; when his cool affect of disconnection comes crumbling down after a fling with a girl turns into desire for real connection. Sting’s badass character, “Ace Face,” winds up bowing and scraping to wealthy tourists in a seaside hotel as a bellboy, is a wry commentary on the perennial issue of “keeping it real” in a rebellious subculture when life is constantly pushing you to submit to conventional expectations or pay escalating consequences.

“Northern Soul” is unique in its almost ethnographic level of attention to the details of a subculture while, at the same time, working well as a character-driven film. Elaine Constantine’s dedication and attention to detail are exemplary.

In recent years, there are signs of a northern soul resurgence in the U.S. The Motor City Soul Club in Detroit is just one example of a soul revival series in the States, notable for being based in the home of Motown. One of its founders, Dan Austin said in a 2019 interview: “We’re literally living among legends – they might not be legends here in Detroit or even in the United States, but they’re worshiped as Gods in the U.K.”

Follow writer Justin Allen at Twitter.com/_justinallen_.

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