Pete Meaden holds a distinct place in the story of the mod subculture. Arguably one of the first to help define the pure mod lifestyle and to push the joys of modernism overground, to a wider audience. Even after his untimely death in 1978 aged just 36 he has continued to intrigue succesive generations of mod disciples.
There are those for whom Meaden encapsulates everything about mod. For these people he was ‘the face’ that introduced Pete Townshend and The Who to the concept of mod, restyling them as a genuine mod band and in turn launching a career that would span the proceeding decades. Others find his place in the story overstated, out of proportion with his contribution. It is however impossible to dispute the facts, he was a central figure on the emerging scene at the time, he did completely re-style The Who and his famous line on mod being an aphorism for ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ can still read like poetry to some. Even after all the years as a description of a youth based lifestyle obsessed with Narcism and optimism its difficult to beat.
It’s the idea of the myth that either captivates or confuses. A myth built on such a seemingly small contribution over such a short amount of time, yet a contribution that can be seen as a flashpoint for the commercial rise of mod and its continuing influence. I like the myth and the way it has slowly developed over the years as much through the lack of solid information as for the snippets of insight revealed first hand in autobiographies by friends and associates as well as books on the sixties period itself. Best of all was the NME article by Steve Turner, the interview (conducted just three years before his death) and accompanying text remains the best thing written on Meaden.
The recently released paperback ‘I’m The Face’ written by Pete Wilky and John Hellier does nothing to alter this. It’s a real shame as Meadens story deserves much better. The books authors promise the ‘official biography’ but in truth it’s barely a book – the bulk of it relying on previously published material and quotes. These actually make up the best parts of the book – paragraphs from Steve Turners aforementioned piece, over nine pages of text lifted from journalist and Meaden associate Norman Joplings book ‘Shake It Up Baby’, reminisces from Andrew Loog Oldham, other people’s interviews and an insightful foreword by Pete Townshend.
These flashes of inspiration do offer up insight into Meadens career (to their credit the authors have compiled writing and quotes from across the years, not just the mid sixties) but with much of this already available and presented here with little comment or context by the authors it feels like they’re filling space.
I was looking forward to more info on Meadens PR work and time in advertising, more on the work in this area he did with Andrew Loog Oldham. More from people who met Meaden on a regular basis in around the clubs and streets of Soho. Over the years the mod Meaden of the sixties has been painted as a slick jive talker, a finger poppin’ zealot for the life, as always ON, always out and about, hustling and hassling, preaching his mod manifesto to anyone who would listen yet this book offers virtually nothing in the way of personal accounts and encounters from others on the mod scene from the time. Meaden detractors often point to his failings – he was repeatedly on the wrong end of cut-throat, music business shenanigans, pretty much everyone he worked with walked away and moved on yet there’s is very little on the toll this may have taken on Meaden himself. This lack of journalistic research, any compulsion to delve, to discover a Meaden outside of a pre-fixed perception does the man and his story a disservice. It’s the books biggest problem. It in no way feels like a biography – any kind of ‘full’ story.
Wilky especially seems happy with the myth. His thinking is repeatedly far too narrow, his obsession with listing shared characteristics between himself and Meaden rendering him incapable of any objective, external viewpoint. The repetition of this internalised single idea makes, at times, for a desperate, uncomfortable read. Chunks of text are either incoherent or unnecessary – we get a chapter on the history of drugs, along with the authors opinions on legislation, his disdain for modern day, manufactured pop workings (there’s an interesting link here – the key Meaden story being that he took a band, told them what to wear influenced there sound and wrote their debut single). Too many of the authors concerns cloud any attempt to shed light on Peter Meadens contribution to the projects he was involved in.
What is clear in the fumbled telling of this story is that Meaden did contribute, was an enabler in the careers of a number of musicians and the style scene he believed in and that he undoubtedly paid a personal price for the path his life lead. I was hoping for a fuller story on Pete Meadens life.
One of the interesting things about Meaden was the way he handled rejection. His business career repeated the story of him picking up bands and musicians, breathing life in to them, creating them into a viable commercial product only to lose out as these bands looked elsewhere – lured by a quicker, easier route to the money. In pretty much every instance he appeared to yield immediately and walk away. In a period that birthed the idea of pop svengalis and made careers for money and fame hungry hipsters, people able morph in to ruthless business creatures when required Meaden suffered. Maybe a correctness of style, a purity of sound, the actual art of it all were all he genuinely cared about. Despite the release of this messy, muddled book it feels that Meadens story remains to be told.
I’m The Face – The Official Peter Meaden Story is published by Light & Dark and available online here