Three years prior to Pete Meadens death in 1978 he was tracked down and subsequently interviewed by journalist Steve Turner. The interview eventually appeared in the NME on the 17th November 1979, in it along with the story of the birth of mod, discusses the importance of clothes, music and pills Meaden also made his now classic quote, “Modism, mod living is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances.”
Towards the end of his life, Pete Meaden told me that he’d read an interview in which Nik Cohn, writer of the story that became Saturday Night Fever, attributed the origins of the tale to his own memories of Shepherd’s Bush mod society circa 1963.
In particular, it was from this experience that he took the idea of The Face, an idea which focused itself in the movie when Travolta swept into the 2001 Odyssey disco to hushed whispers and respectful glances. Travolta was The Face.
The connection Meaden was making was that if the Goldhawk Club equalled 2001 Odyssey, and if The Face equalled The Face, then Peter Meaden was John Travolta. The last time something like this happened was when The Who released ‘Quadrophenia’ in 1973. He had listened to it and thought: “I am Jimmy. Townshend’s writing about me!”
Even if neither connection was justified, Pete Meaden deserved to feel that he was the stuff of legend. After all, it was he who saw the possibility of calculatedly making a rock group the focal point of ateenage revolution – The Who being the group, the mods being the teenage revolution. Without his style, his ‘suss’, it’s doubtful whether The Who would carry the cultural weight they do today and it’s doubtful whether modism would have spread so far, so fast. What Meaden didn’t have was organisational ability and a tough business edge. This saw him virtually giving The Who’s management away just as the group were making it on the strength of his ideas.
I first met Meaden in the summer of 1975. After a series of phonecalls I tracked him down. He was a patient in a mental hospital just outside London. He’d talked to the press only once before and it was as though all the history was bursting out now he’d found someone to listen. He also seemed to feel that he’d found an opportunity to establish his role in the history of The Who. Later I talked to Pete Townshend who admitted that there would have been no Who as we know them today if it hadn’t have been for Meaden. Daltrey, too, was quick to confirm his role. “He thought we could pick up on the mod thing and he was very right because mods had no focal point at all and The Who became that, we became the spokesmen. When Kit and Chris took over management they basically just took Meaden’s ideas and made them bigger.”
I saw a lot of Pete Meaden during the three years following our interview. It was a time during which he pulled himself together after years of drug abuse, a nervous breakdown and a divorce. The last time I saw him was in June 1978 when he came along to hear me read my poetry at a small theatre club in Waterloo. We went for a drink and his conversation was disjointed, abstract. All I can remember now are apocryphal visions of the end of the world and questions about religion.
Within a month he was found dead in bed of barbiturate poisoning. He was 36 and back living with his parents in the home where he’d dreamed up The High Numbers and written ‘I Am The Face’. The coroner passed an open verdict, although close friends feel that Meaden knew too much about drugs to die of a careless mistake.It seemed a very mod place to die, a cramped terraced house in an Edmonton cul-de-sac, and also a very mod way to die. Before his death he’d been feeding in ideas to the writers and producers of Quadrophenia. I think he would have liked the result, but I can’t imagine him being more than amused at the mod revival; the spirit of modism was so much against re-creating the past. Modism was pushing forward. Meaden deserved to feel that he was the stuff of legend. It was he who saw the possibility of making a rock group the focal point of a teenage revolution
Where do we begin?
“Existing is what it’s all about because with society as we know it breaking down, I think that survival is of the utmost importance. It’s all very well being immensely talented, having a good time and making great music – but not being able to sustain it. This sustaining bit is the most important of all and The Who are survivors. That’s what I’m interested in, what I’ve always been interested in. There was a long period of time when The Who didn’t have any hit records at all, but their music is survival music.”
Do you think the mod thing is still alive?
“I wonder actually, where all the old mods went – they’re probably all in garages, second-hand car outfits, scrapyards, something like that, ’cos there’s such a thing as mod suss. That’s what mods are about – suss out a situation immediately, its potential, controlling it. Rather than letting the potential control you.”
Are you in touch with any of your old mates?
“Yeah, one’s a coke-dealer, one’s in prison, and another one’s the guy who appeared on television with a shotgun – with The Who on Ready Steady Go! – he was the greatest mod leader of them all – Phil The Greek. Pete Townshend and I talk about him often.”
What do you mean when you say you “got The Who together”?
“I got them together, in that I loved the life so much I got The Who and I dressed them in mod clothes, gave them all the jingoism and all the paraphernalia of modism, right on the button, timing just right, ‘cos timing is where it’s at, you know?”
You were already a mod by then?
“Yeah, I was a mod, it was my life. There was a little club called the Scene Club, at Ham Yard, off Great Windmill Street, and there, on several nights a week the greatest records you can imagine were being played.There were records like ‘Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud’ by Tony Clarke, Major Lance’s stuff, Smokey Robinson, early Curtis Mayfield Impressions stuff, you know, which was eminently danceable.”
Did you sort of think that you were the king mod at the time?
“No. I was the feller who saw the potential in modism, which is the greatest form of lifestyle you can imagine – it’s so totally free – in so much as that there were lonely people having a great time. Not having to be lonely, not having to be worried about relationship, being able to get into the most fantastic interesting, beautiful situations, just out of music. On a Friday night I would go down to Ready Steady Go! and watch the people I was working having a great time. There’d be all the faces and people that I knew. A face is just someone you recognise, you might not even how his name, but he’s known as a face.”
That’s why you called your song ‘I Am The Face’?
“Yeah, ‘I Am The Face’ is one of the people who is familiar. ReadySteady Go! was interesting in so much as it got the vibe right out, with the right amount of grit edge on it. That would be a great foot for the weekend to start off on. That would be a nice edge, like the kickstart on a motorbike – WHOOMP and she starts firing, and you go off into the weekend.”
You didn’t sleep at all?
“No you didn’t sleep at all – you stayed up all night. I was taking pills,in so much as I’d been introduced to pills by my doctor for the anxiety thing, while I was a graphic designer for John Michael, the clothes shop. I took some Drynamil, and it kept me up for three days, and I zoomed around on that – I had such a great time, fabulous time,I would go out with ten bob in my pocket, and my doctor’s pills from the National Health, which didn’t cost anything in those days I think, she would give me 30 a month, purple hearts, the triangular ones with the linedown the middle. So, anyway, I was living this lovely life of Riley, where I was just listening to the music I liked, which was very private – I didn’t have to get hung up on birds.”
You saw The Who becoming a focal point for all this?
“Yeah, they were the focal point, because I was thinking about revolutions then, I was thinking about how society was great when you had speed, a couple of pints of cider. If you could add the visual impact of a really toughgroup, which was what I wanted, then you had The Who – you had The High Numbers in fact – and that was the focal point of mod-dom.”
You say mods weren’t into chicks?
“Not too heavily into chicks, no, because chicks, you got to remember, are emotionally stressful situations for a man, and we were free ’cause your sex drive, your libido, is taken right down low by Drynamil. You didn’t need to get too heavily into sex, or pulling chicks,or ‘sorts’ as they were called.”
Were they similarly not into sex?
“They were similarly not into sex, they were very matriarchal, they would be looked after and protected, but there’d be three girls dancing together – there’s a famous picture of them dancing the block.”
So if you took away the dancing and the music…
“Took away the dancing, well you’d have the West End, grooving around on a Saturday morning after a long night out, all Friday night. You have a couple of drinks, you drink cider or beer with your pill because you know that the alcohol in a pint of bitter makes the barbiturate in the Drynamil, purple heart, the blue or whateveryou can lay your hands on. You sat around ’til the shops open on a Saturday morning, then you go down to Cecil Gee’s although mainly you’d go to Austen’s to buy yourself another Arrow shirt, with a button-down collar, and a little button on the back of the collar, then groove around with your new purchase, and it’d be a groove!” But take away the dance and take away the music, and there’d be no point in the pills? No, you’d be a hippy, then. A hippy doesn’t depend so much on music as a mod does. A mod needs hard, fast and loose, new wave R&B.”
The pills are directly tied in with this?
“Yeah, that gives you the freedom, sustaining power. Imagine having a party which starts Friday night and doesn’t end ’til Sunday morning, and you can have it any time you want it. If you want it to start on Wednesday night, you can…”
What was your attitude towards your job during the week?
“I used to work at an advertising agency during this time, before I first started to be a mod, then I split from that, I was a graphic designer.”
Did you think it was a cop-out to be in a job?
“No, it just used to buy my clothes, and then I became a publicist.”
So you sort of used society in a way?
“No, I didn’t use society, I became a publicist.”
You said a mod takes what’s there…
“Oh, he takes what’s there, yeah…”
But a hippy doesn’t?
“The hippy doesn’t do anything except vegetate. You move off of various identification points, such as religions, which are easy to identify with, ‘cos that’s all they are identification points. I happened to pick up on mods.”
So it’s like a religion?
“Yeah, I made an album called ‘The New Religion’ with Jimmy James & The Vagabonds, which was the real purist mod band.”
And they were coloured?
“Yeah, they were coloured.”
Was there no white band that stood for the mods?
“Oh yeah, The Who.”
How did you lose The Who?
“Well, I wasn’t too hip in business. Kit Lambert came round that night at the Railway Inn in Harrow, he lied to me, he said he was a promoter looking for a band to put in his club so I give him the hard sell and so I hard-sold myself right out of a band.”
“I tried to get in touch with Pete for a few days, but strange things were happening. Pete didn’t answer his phone – he wasn’t at home. Then Roger said, ‘We’re going with this feller – let’s go and have a drink.’ Roger was the leader of the band, so Roger and I went and had a drink in a pub in Brewer Street and I bought him a drink and he said, ‘Well, listen, man,we’re gonna get paid £20 a week now.’ There was nothing more to say about it, except Kit got in touch with me. I think it was probably Pete said, ‘Look after him’ or something, ’cos I’m a fragile person, you know?”