The Who – Quadrophenia

Quadrophenia (1973)

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1. I Am The Sea 2. The Real Me 3. Quadrophenia 4. Cut My Hair 5. The Punk And The Godfather 6. I’m One 7. The Dirty Jobs 8. Helpless Dancer 9. Is It In My Head? 10. I’ve Had Enough 11. 5:15 12. Sea And Sand 13. Drowned 14. Bell Boy 15. Dr. Jimmy 16. The Rock 17. Love, Reign O’er Me

 

The Who, at least in the beginning, were obviously a band designed to appeal to teenage listeners. Which is a good thing. Rock ‘n roll was originally music for teenagers, steeped in gloriously irreverent release and rebellion. At least that’s what it was like before a bunch of assholes decided they needed to make rock music “adult” and started doing ridiculous things like writing “rock operas.” How crazy is that? It’s like, the complete antitheses of the original down and dirty mission of rock ‘n roll! The nerve of those…

Wait a minute. Who am I reviewing again?

Crap.

Quadrophenia, the Who’s second successfully completed rock opera, proves the old cliché that the more things change, the more things stay the same. As they neared a decade of existence, the band had drifted far away from the unpretentious scrappiness and brevity of their original sound. They were now full-fledged arena heroes and traded in outsized mid-tempo bombast, near-melodramatic vocal melodies, and dense synth-laden arrangements. However, Quad also saw Pete trying, perhaps as a reaction to the band’s increasingly ambitious sound, to reconnect with his original audience: Mods. The story, set in early-60s Britain at the height of Mod culture, is about Jimmy, a teenage Mod, who pops pills, rides a scooter, wears a bomber jacket, rumbles with Rockers, hangs out at Brighton Beach, has trouble with the chicks, and, of course, listens to the Who. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of kid who “My Generation” was originally written for.

Oh, and there’s probably one other thing you should know about Jimmy: he has four split personalities, each one based on a member of the Who and represented by a recurring musical theme. What, you thought Pete would be content with writing a straightforward tale of adolescence and angst? Of course he wouldn’t. He had to add some Tommy-style loopiness to the affair. But trust me when I say that the split personality aspect is a totally superfluous aspect of the story and can be ignored just as easily as the fact that the album was originally recorded in quadraphonic sound (a technology that became obsolete pretty much the exact moment it was introduced. Not unlike combination VCR/DVD players or the music of LMFAO). Personally, I don’t even think about it when I listen to the album after the opening sound collage “I Am The Sea,” in which each of the four themes (the “Roger” theme, “Helpless Dancer,” the “John” theme, “Is It Me, For A Moment?” the “Keith” theme, “Bell Boy,” the “Pete” theme, “Love, Reign O’er Me,” and the “SpongeBob” theme, “Who Lives In A Pineapple Under The Sea?”) are panned around the mix before melting into the kickbutt rock song “The Real Me.” Which, incidentally, brings the real heart of the album into focus: the universal adolescent experience. Yes, the album is about Mods and is thus set in a very specific and finite period of time and deals with a very specific culture that most people probably would never have heard of if not for the Who, and that aspect of it provides crucial details that drive the story forward. But even that becomes inessential at a certain point. Because no matter who we are or where we’re from, we can all relate the feeling of being lonely, confused, fucked up, and like nobody understands you. Songs like “I’m One” and “Cut My Hair” are absolutely brilliant at capturing this… Jimmy butts up against his parents in “Hair,” and every teenager’s been there: “The kids at school have parents that seem so cool/And though I don’t want to hurt ‘em, mine want me their way.” In “I’m One,” he tries and tries in vain to fit in: “Every year is the same, and I feel it again/I’m a loser, no chance to win/Leaves start falling, comedown is calling/Loneliness starts sinking in.” Quad captures struggles like these about as powerfully and emotionally as possible, and as a result it has resonated with its biggest fans more than any other Who album.

But wait a minute. The Who didn’t used to need eloquent lyrics and complex arrangements to capture the Essence of Adolescence™ (a new cologne I’m marketing. It smells like underarm sweat and semen-encrusted towel. The ladies will love it. It’s gotta smell better than Axe, right?). They used to do it with nothing three chords, feedback, and adrenaline. Well, they still mostly only have three or four chords to work with, but what’s the deal with all these fancy assed horns and show tune-y pianos and shit? Why so overblown? Well… isn’t that what being a teenager feels like? Everything that happens to you at that age, every thought you come up with, is momentous, and you’re overdramatic about everything. That’s what “Is It In My Head?” is about, and it’s got those big, dramatic suspended chords to emphasize the message (excellent high harmonies by Entwistle on the chorus, too). So while it’s true that Quad features almost none of the brevity or rawness of the “Can’t Explain”-era Who, I can accept the ponderousness of its presentation as a effective part of what Pete was going for here.

But my acceptance can only go so far. There was a time (when I was in high school, natch) when I would’ve called Quad not only my favorite Who album, but one of my top 10 albums of all time. But now that I’m a bearded man of legal drinking age, I can’t help but notice how recycled some of these riffs sound and how overweening some of these songs and their lethargic tempos come off. There’s also the preponderance of synths, which are unlike the pioneering, totally unique Who’s Next synths and are pretty much just regular old synths. As in, they’re mostly just standing in for real instruments instead of adding something irreplaceable to the mix. You’ll hear plenty of fake strings along the way, as well as an array of oddly proggy keyboard tones. A lot of times they’re used in interesting ways (“The Rock” is an extremely cool instrumental), but others they can’t do much to distract from the fact it’s impossible to avoid feeling like Pete has used quite a few of these mid-tempo riffs somewhere before.

Enough complaining, though. Quite a few of the greatest ever Who tracks are on here including one I already mentioned, “The Real Me,” which features an absolutely ridiculous bass part by the Ox. Who else can play like that in rock? No one. But John isn’t the star of the album. Quad is Pete’s baby, no doubt about it – he wrote everything and played all the guitars and keys himself (other than some piano by session player Chris Stainton). But, truth be told, I view it as almost as much Roger’s album as Pete’s. Rog shows remarkable range and muscle as a vocalist throughout, and trust me, this is extremely difficult material for any rock singer. He displays his typical bluster on the excellent, thundering “The Punk And The Godfather,” and captures unhinged, unchecked aggression on the eight-minute “Dr. Jimmy.” He gets impressively soulful on “Drowned” and “Sea And Sand,” and stretches his pipes to the limit on the uber-dramatic string-laden finale “Love, Reign O’er Me” and supplies what is surely one of rock’s greatest vocal performances ever. The song is also easily one of Pete’s best ever – he even plays that moody piano intro himself. Wotta guy.

It takes a while to get there, of course. Yeah, this thing’s pretty long, I guess. Especially considering the fact that the riffs all start to sound the same after a while. But despite that, I generally find the second disc to be the more exciting half (aside from disc 1’s brilliant run of songs from “The Real Me” to “I’m One” and “I’ve Had Enough,” which seamlessly transitions from surging arena rock verses to a lilting banjo-led refrain), despite the fact that disc 1 features virtually all the plot advancement and virtually all that happens on disc 2 is Jimmy walking around on the beach and pondering his life. It starts out with the gloriously hopped-up old school rocker “5:15,” in which Jimmy gets freaked-out high on a train out to Brighton, set to pounding piano and frenzied guitar work. Disc 2 also has Keith’s hilarious vocal showcase “Bell Boy,” in which Jimmy is devastated to encounter his former Mod hero, the Ace Face (played by none other than the great Stink, who is of course best known for writing the classic car commercial soundtrack song “Desert Rose,” in the 1979 movie adaptation), working in a hotel “licking boots for my perks.” What a sell out! Jimmy would surely levy the same charge at Pete if he were real. Fittingly, Quad marks the last time Pete would expend much effort on writing for an audience young and idealistic enough to call him a sell out. It’s the end of an era, and the end of the Who’s peak years. What a way to go out – overblown and repetitive, sure, but otherwise brilliant as ever.



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