Cork man who inspired the Who: ‘There’s no Quadrophenia pension. Life’s not like that’

Retired postman Jack Lyons was the inspiration for The Who’s 1973 album

Jack Lyons: “I was a struggling mod. A failed mod. I never had a scooter with 24 lamps or wing mirrors.” Photograph: Seamus Murphy

Jack Lyons: “I was a struggling mod. A failed mod. I never had a scooter with 24 lamps or wing mirrors.” Photograph: Seamus Murphy

 

It was 1962 and Jack Lyons, a painfully shy 19-year-old from Cork, sneaked out from his aunt and uncle’s London home to go to his first dance.

“There was a wedding band called the Detours. They had black suits, white shirts, ties and three-cornered handkerchiefs. They were playing everything by The Shadows. They even had the dance steps.”

It’s hard to believe now, he says, but the band would later change its name to The Who and become one of the hottest tickets in rock’n’roll .

And Lyons, who was just a young man with a mop of curly hair, lamentable dress sense and a thick Cork accent, became an unlikely inspiration for the acclaimed album Quadrophenia. “At the time Roger Daltrey played lead guitar and trombone. John Entwistle was on bass and trumpet,” says Lyons. There was “a singer called Colin Dawson who modelled himself on Cliff Richard, and Pete Townshend played a rhythm jumbo guitar. The Detours was Roger’s band, really, and if you disagreed with him on band policy you could get a bunch of fives”.

At the time Lyons was a clerk with the London Electricity Board, filing documents – the job “Jimmy” has in Quadrophenia. After seeing the band perform, Lyons was transfixed.

“There was just something about them. I was there on my own, feeling very self-conscious about my height – I’m just five foot seven – my curly hair and my accent. I was too embarrassed to chat to anyone,” Lyons says.

“But I focused in on this guy playing guitar: six foot, straight hair, probably even has a girlfriend . . . . I just keyholed him afterwards and introduced myself. “Hello, I’m Jack from Shepherd’s Bush,” I said.

Townshend replied in that cockney twang, “Hello Jack from Shepherd’s Bush, I’m Pete from Ealing.”

Even though Lyons was two years older than Townshend, he looked up to him as if he was an older brother.

Band mascot
He became, he says, a kind of band mascot, travelling to early gigs in a van to Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham. He helped with selling tickets or helping to set up.

“I wasn’t a roadie. I’m a bit of a snob like that. I never got paid, and never looked for money. I became a friend of the band. It was around this time the manager, Kitt Lambert, christened me ‘Irish Jack’. They were actually calling me that before I became aware of it.”

Soon Jack was doing his best to kit himself out in the mod gear that became the uniform of the band’s followers – with mixed results.

He recalls the moment he saw a mod cruising through Hammersmith on a scooter with chrome crashbars, spotlights, a six-foot aerial, feet pointed out sideways, wearing a parka jacket over a suit.

“It was like seeing Caesar on a Roman chariot,” he says. “Just sublime. But I was a struggling mod. A failed mod. I never had a scooter with 24 lamps or wing mirrors.”

After returning to Cork in 1967, Lyons met his future wife Maura. She too was a big Who fan.

Lyons settled in Cork and became a bus conductor and, later, a postman. But he kept in touch with Townshend, visiting him in London occasionally.

The singer later acknowledged in interviews that Quadrophenia was based on a character Irish Jack.

Character parts
“He was collecting character parts about me through the years,” says Lyons. “I suppose I see a bit of myself in Substitute, written about someone who’s trying to be someone else.

“The germ for Quadrophenia was a song called Long Live Rock. It has the lines, ‘Jack is in the alleyway selling tickets made in Hong Kong / Promoter’s in the pay box wondering where the band’s gone / Back in the pub the guv’nor stops the clock / Rock is dead they say.’

“I never made a penny out of it. Was I ever supposed to? I never took a copyright on my name. My grandchildren might talk about it all in years to come. I’m 69 – but there’s no Quadrophenia pension. Life’s not like that.”

Lyons admits he felt deep shock when Townshend was investigated over possession of child pornography in 2003 – but says he was relieved when police cleared him later.

The singer said he had been doing research for his autobiography as the singer claimed he had been sexually abused as a child. “It was an unwise thing to do, but then he’s always been on the edge of reason.”

Lyons is still in occasional contact with the band. He’s due to meet them again when the band plays Quadrophenia in Dublin next month at Dublin’s 02 arena, 40 years after the album was released.

Sharp suit
Today Lyons is still a mod at heart. He’s the proud owner of a scooter – a Piaggio, 49CC – and still wears a sharp suit and polo neck. “People walk down the street and see me and say, ‘Is he in theatre’, or ‘Jesus, he’s a mod!’

“I’ll always be a mod. I’ll take it to the grave.”