The Who – Quadrophenia – Classic Music Review
I’ve had several requests to give Quadrophenia a shot, and my response has always been “Ugh.” I chalked it up to Tommy Trauma Syndrome: the fear of having to suffer through another Townshendian trip into pretentiousness, of having to deal with another cast of loathsome characters bound together in a rat’s nest of a plot. I resented the identification of Tommy as the first “rock opera” (it wasn’t). I dreaded the commercial compromises that marked Tommy, such as writing “Pinball Wizard” for an influential critic who liked playing pinball and had been unimpressed by the demo of Tommy that Townshend presented to him.
My initial engagement did nothing to calm my fears. Let’s begin with the contrived and faulty description of the lead character contained in the liner notes:
A tough guy, a helpless dancer
A romantic, is it me for a moment?
A bloody lunatic, I’ll even carry your bags
A beggar, a hypocrite, love reign over me.
Schizophrenic? I’m bleeding quadrophenic.
Simple library research would have told Townshend that schizophrenia is not split personality, making his discovery of quadrophenia a ridiculous and uninformed leap of ignorance. It’s suspiciously handy that our hero has four different personalities, as there were . . . let me see . . . one, two, three, four . . . yes, there were four band members who made up The Who. Finally, a little digging revealed that around the time of the recording, The Who attempted to build a recording studio that could handle what they thought was the next big thing . . . quadrophonic sound.
Townshend went even further, integrating the marketing jive into the lead character’s DNA, for lo and behold, he’s a Who fan! Who woulda thunk it?
This primitive attempt at branding and clumsy effort to capitalize on The Next Big Thing heightened my fears and raised my hackles. It seemed to me that Quadrophenia was another example of flim-flam from an overly-ambitious musician who didn’t know when to quit. I privately cheered when I learned they couldn’t pull off quadrophonic technology and had to drop out of the music industry’s latest race to the moon. Still, Townshend had gone too far in his commitment to quadro-everything to change the name of the album to Stereophenia.
I was ready to chuck the possibility of doing a review down the crapper, and probably would have had I not engaged in my annual spring ritual of getting rid of the useless junk I’ve accumulated over the previous year, during which I ran across an ancient copy of a book I treasured as a child, a book I consider the greatest contribution ever made to world literature:
“I do not like green eggs and ham! I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”
“You do not like them. So you say. Try them! Try them! And you may. Try them and you may, I say.”
Fucking Sam-I-Am will haunt me until the day I turn into compostable material.
I have to admit that John Entwistle’s bass part on “The Real Me” also urged me forward, as that is my favorite bass part ever, hands down, no lie, no shit, don’t fuck with me on this one. After some more hemming and hawing, I finally decided to go full monty and bought a copy of the deluxe edition. While I did get a generally pleasant hit from the original release, it was Pete Townshend’s carefully mapped out demo versions that triggered my aha moment.
All that stupid quadro-marketing was completely unnecessary. The entire quadro-concept was a nonsensical distraction. Strip away that crapola and you have a thematically coherent (though not entirely lyrically coherent) and sometimes moving coming-of-age psychodrama built around the struggles of a young man, one that could have culminated in a perfect ending with some disciplined editing. The tale of Jimmy’s journey through peer pressure, music culture and piss-poor parenting is related through the music of a band working at their professional peak, on top of their game individually and collectively. Yes, there are times when Townshend goes overboard with the repetitive motifs and foreshadowing, and other times when musical gaps are filled with tried-and-true Who-isms. Sometimes the songs simply do not work because they fail to advance the plot or develop the character. Quadrophenia could have been a great album had they eliminated the filler tracks and abandoned the obsession with double albums that dominated that period in popular music history, but even with its flaws, Quadrophenia is a pretty solid piece of work that would have been better served by a low-key marketing approach.
The opening segment of Quadrophenia features two forms of overture surrounding one great song, “The Real Me.” The first, “I Am the Sea” is a musique concrète piece integrating a field recording of waves crashing against a Cornish beach with snippets of songs that form the “four themes” (the four aspects of Jimmy’s personality). The other, “Quadrophenia” is a more traditional overture compiling the primary musical motifs. As “I Am the Sea” establishes the dominant metaphor and encompasses the intro to “The Real Me” (which establishes the central character and hints at the plot lines), “Quadrophenia” seems a superfluous waste of recording space, a sop to the wannabe snobs in the listening audience who needed a few classical music tropes to confirm the album’s status as a gen-u-ine rock opera, serving to raise their own status in the process.
But “The Real Me” is the real deal, the kind of explosive bash that brought out the best in the band. Keith Moon, unchained from the restrictions imposed by Glyn Johns during the recording of Who’s Next, reverts to his naturally maniacal style, a perfect complement to Jimmy’s panic-ridden angst. Daltrey confirms his reputation as one of the great interpreters of rock, imbuing Jimmy with high-powered anxiety and immeasurable frustration as he realizes that the people who are supposed to help him aren’t doing dick. Townshend takes on more of the conductor role, facilitating the beat with sharp power chords while letting the others work their magic. The lead magician here is John Entwistle, who supplied the horn arrangements that add an extra layer of excitement to the arrangement and . . .
Wow. Just wow.
Entwistle’s bass work on “The Real Me” is the rock equivalent of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” a virtuoso performance that is almost impossible to replicate. Accomplished in a playful mood and in a single take, flipping between rhythmic support and arrhythmic fills, his most notable contributions come when he’s playing call-and-response to Daltrey’s vocal, forming patterns that raise questions and doubt (by ending on slides to higher notes) and express disappointment (through a combination of slides to lower notes or patterns that simply collapse in frustration). His uneven staccato on the choruses where he picks at high-speed while occasionally eliminating notes sounds like a heart monitor on the fritz, another echo of Jimmy’s fragile psychological state.
Our first encounter with Jimmy finds him in the office of a therapist, one whose therapeutic technique can be summed up in two succinct phrases: “blank stares” and “our time is up.”
I went back to the doctor
To get another shrink.
I sit and tell him about my weekend,
But he never betrays what he thinks.
His mother isn’t much help beyond a shrug of a shoulder and the observation that mental illness “runs in the family.” His girlfriend is now his ex-girlfriend, no doubt due to his perceived mental instability. His last stab finds him running to a preacher “full of lies and hate,” who finds Jimmy frightening, probably because there’s nothing in the good book about how to deal with mod angst. Jimmy is going through what most adolescents go through—the process of individuation, the search for self in relation to others, the quest to find one’s true identity independent of parental influence. What makes him interesting is that he oscillates between the roles of observer and participant, providing cheeky observations of the world around him and direct expressions of raw teenage emotion.
In “Cut My Hair” Jimmy questions the notion of going along with the crowd (in his case, the mods) in the context of the mod-rocker clashes over Whitsun weekend in May 1964. He frets about fashion, the pressure to fight and “that uncertain feeling still here in my brain.” The arrangement reflects Jimmy’s internal split, flipping from sweet-and-mellow to the sharp punctuation of the “Zoot suit” chorus. There are some remarkable performances here from both Moon and Entwistle, but what really stands out is Townshend’s guitar as he leaves the power chords behind for sweet, clear picking that sounds remarkably empathetic. The appended bridge is sung over a reenactment of a BBC broadcast describing the weekend battles in Brighton and environs, a narrative that dissolves over the sound of a tea kettle fighting the bulletins for attention.
“The Punk and the Godfather” seems to break the narrative, so Townshend felt the need to explain what the hell was happening in the liner notes to the deluxe edition demos:
If it was never revealed that Jimmy was once a frustrated musician I realised that, once this song was written, it didn’t matter. What matters is that he looked up to his heroes in The Who, young men critically a few years older than he, and felt let down by what they’d become, and what they had allowed to happen to their music. I quoted my own song “My Generation” as an example of the promise that Jimmy felt had been broken.
Glad to hear Townshend kinda-sorta acknowledging that “hope I die before I get old” was nothing more than deliberately provocative bullshit. Townshend’s lyrics don’t entirely sync with his explanation, though, as is often the case in many a narrative attached to a rock opus. Musically speaking, the song is well-constructed, kicking ass with explosive power chords and enthusiastic drive from Entwhistle, while Moon displays remarkable discipline balancing caveman power and gentle cymbal work in the sweeter passages.
The song that reveals Jimmy as frustrated guitarist comes next in the form of “I’m One,” featuring a rare extended acoustic guitar passage that highlights Townshend’s nimble fingers. Part of me wishes that they hadn’t turned on the power switch midway through the song, as the acoustic passage is quite entrancing, but Townshend’s choice to turn on the juice is true to Jimmy’s character, a guy likely to explode any time he feels frustration—which turns out to be most of the time.
Circling back to the narrative in “The Dirty Jobs,” Jimmy does what almost every kid does in their quest for independence—winds up in a shit job. His chosen occupation of dustman (garbage collector in American English) turns out to be quite the learning experience, as he interacts with adults in other shit jobs while making the rounds. The bus driver is particularly perceptive, commenting on Britain’s dying industries and the impact of a rigid class system:
I am a man who drives the local bus
I take miners to work but the pits all closed today
It’s easy to see that you are one of us
Ain’t it funny how we all seem to look the same?
The idealistic whippersnapper isn’t having any of it, and Jimmy pushes back against “this is the way things have to be” while trying to buck up the old farts:
I am a young man, I ain’t done very much
You men should remember how you used to fight
Just like a child I’ve been seeing only dreams
I’m all mixed up but I know what’s right
The music here is driven by rhythmic contrast, with synthesized staccato strings handling the basic thrusts and Keith Moon displaying restless power as he pounds away at will. Daltrey is excellent once again, his phrasing clear and his command of the fluid emotional content absolutely first-rate. There is another lengthy patch of field recordings after the song, featuring men shouting in rhythmic unison as if on strike, and a brief passage from John Philip Sousa’s The Thunderer. This was something of a compromise, according to Townshend: “No sound effects were available to get the stink across so we used a brass band. Incongruous enough?”
Works for me!
“Helpless Dancer” (Roger’s Theme) begins with dramatic continuous piano and Entwistle’s luscious French horn before dissolving into insistent piano block chords. The arrangement is pure musical theatre with Daltrey coming out of either channel to mimic theatrical dialogue. This aspect of Jimmy’s personality rants about virtually everything that is wrong in the world, from war to rat-infested housing to homophobia to racial tension to the depersonalization inherent in modern society. If it sounds overwhelming, well, it’s supposed to be—this is Jimmy awakened to the ugly truth about the world, an awakening that smashes his shiny ideals into smithereens. When he finally gets to the impact of a society gone mad, that impact is expressed through a long pause in the vocal where the dramatic piano and French horn return to build sufficient tension before Daltrey delivers the clinching phrase:
And when a man is trying to change
But only causes future pain
You realise that all along
Something in us is going wrong . . . .
. . . you stop dancing.
As if to mock the freedom we feel when dancing to rock ‘n’ roll, Townshend inserts the opening to “The Kids Are Alright” over the sounds of a live audience. We also get the foreshadowing of “Is It Me?” (John’s Theme), part of the structural design intended to link the four disparate aspects of Jimmy’s personality.
Having expressed himself with unusual clarity, Jimmy begins to doubt the validity of those insights and questions his sanity in the song “Is It in My Head?” The lyrics describe someone with unusual sensitivity to the world around him, an affliction that has led many artists to attempt or succeed at suicide. Some of his perceptions are paranoid, but most are unconsciously insightful as he struggles with the age-old mystery of opposites:
I see a man without a problem
I see a country always starved
I hear the music of the heartbeat
I walk and people turn and laugh
Jimmy does fall into the trap of believing that intelligence has more validity than emotion by simply asking the question, “Is it in my head or in my heart?” If I could leap through the speakers, I’d slap some sense into him and scream: “It doesn’t fucking matter! Both are valid!” Of course, if I did that, I’d be interrupting one of the strongest arrangements on the album, a tightly-played mix of melody, harmony and power that strangely manages to lift my spirits . . . perhaps just considering the possibility that I’m going off the deep end is a healthy thing to do.
No comments from the peanut gallery re: my sanity.
“I’ve Had Enough” opens with The Who operating on high power, Entwistle’s bass pumping away, Moon getting ready to blast away . . . then . . . wait a minute . . . did they just switch to the non-synthesized interludes of “Won’t Get Fooled Again?” Hold on . . . now we’re covering Jimmy’s fashion choices . . . again? Oh, wait . . . why are they foreshadowing “Love Reign O’er Me” here? Holy shit! Now they’re ripping off “Tom Dooley!” Anything worthwhile in the lyrics? Hmm . . . Jimmy’s into nihilism now. Thanks but . . . I think I’ve had enough.
Purple hearts go well with nihilism, so Jimmy gobbles them up while riding the “5:15.” Love the horn section, love the interplay between Townshend and session pianist Chris Stainton, but the rock ‘n’ roll feels a bit too slick and there’s not much story movement beyond Jimmy’s escape to Brighton to renew his spirits after having smashed up his scooter. Meh.
The second Brighton experience is covered in the song “Sea and Sand.” Once the seagulls and waves have faded into the background, Jimmy thankfully fills in the many plot holes that have accumulated over the last few songs:
I just couldn’t face going home
It was just a drag on my own
They finally threw me out
My mom got drunk on stout
My dad couldn’t stand on two feet
As he lectured about morality
Now I guess the family’s complete
With me hanging ’round on the street
Or here on the beach
The arrangement reflects his warring feelings—soft arpeggiated guitar and restrained bass for the anguish, amped-up power to express disgust and justify his decision to split. A new musical theme is introduced in the following verse where he talks of his girl’s expectations, similar in mood to the soft passages in the opening verse but with different chords and melody. There we learn that the girl is into fashion and that Jimmy still hasn’t escaped the power of someone else’s expectations, vowing to “match her.” This brings on a third passage, the same truncated verse that appeared in “I’ve Had Enough,” which now qualifies as the worst-ever act of foreshadowing. More back-and-forth between disparate parts follows, with the damned seagulls squawking away, and you finally realize that “Sea and Sand” is one of those suites that people were so enamored with in the early ’70s. Unfortunately, I am immune to the charms of piecemeal thinking, and to my ears, “Sea and Sand” is pure patchwork. Too bad, because there are some promising possibilities there.
It’s followed by “Drowned,” a strange twist on even more nihilism, uncomfortably supported by rollicking piano and upbeat rock ‘n’ roll . . . and because that wasn’t working, the song fades on the sax theme from “5:15.” Townshend admitted the song didn’t fit on Quadrophenia, remarking “When the tragic hero of Q sings it, it is desperate and nihilistic. In fact, it’s a love song, God’s love being the ocean and our ‘selves’ being the drops of water that make it up. Meher Baba said, ‘I am the Ocean of Love.'”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. Move the fuck on.
As he strolls down Brighton Beach, Jimmy takes a trip down memory lane back to the good old days when mods and rockers were bashing each other’s brains out. He runs into a personage referred to as “ace face” in the prose narrative contained in the album booklet, a mod leader he admired for his sawn-off shotgun and fearlessness in shattering glass.
Charming fellow, I’m sure.
Thankfully karma has claimed another worthy victim, and Jimmy is surprised to see the guy he looked up to “always running at someone’s bleedin’ heels” in his role in “Bell Boy” (Keith’s Theme). There isn’t much musical variation on Quadrophenia; for the most part, it’s patented Who music played very, very well. That’s why Keith Moon’s exaggerated Cockney and the dissonant harmonies of the phrase “bell boy” grab the listener’s attention. Even when Moon drops the Cockney to sing a verse in his natural voice, it’s a welcome diversion from the norm. Oh, how the mighty have fallen:
Some nights I still sleep on the beach
Remember when stars seemed in reach
Then I wander in early for work
Spend the day licking boots for my perks
While Moon’s vocal qualifies as comic opera, he really does manage to express the bitter humiliation and disillusionment of a young man who was on top of the world when free of adult responsibility, brought down hard by the socio-economic order of things.
The Who then make a remarkable comeback from suite-form failure with “Doctor Jimmy,” an exceptionally strong composition delivered with passion and precision. The howling winds and crashing waves that open the song tell us that despite his effort to achieve self-understanding, Jimmy’s soul remains in turmoil. The dignity of Entwistle’s French horn gives us a tiny bit of hope that Jimmy may recover his own sense of dignity, but Moon’s assertive drums wipe out that possibility in a heartbeat. Daltrey’s vocal, full of bite and bravado, confirms it: Jimmy remains a confused young man afflicted with a severe case of toxic masculinity, aggravated by substance abuse:
I’ll take on anyone
Ain’t scared fo a bloody nose
Drink ’til I drop down
With one eye on my clothes
What is it? I’ll take it.
Who is she? I’ll rape it.
Gotta bet there? I’ll meet it.
Getting high? You can’t beat it . . .
You say she’s a virgin
Well, I’m gonna be the first in
Her fellah’s gonna kill me
Oh, fucking will he?
Roughly midway through the song we get a brief glimpse of the vulnerable side of Jimmy through “Is It Me” (John’s Theme). The transition from the core song to this passage is well-executed, with Townshend providing just the right number of measures to allow the listener to catch their breath and get comfortable with the decelerated tempo. The moment of vulnerability vanishes in two lines, as Daltrey makes a sharp turn from the gentle voice of self-reflection back to the rough voice of a violent past that Jimmy is unable to escape:
Is it me for a moment?
The stars are falling
The heat is rising
The past is calling
After returning to the main theme and wrapping up the song proper, we encounter an extended fade that begins by restating the musical themes but eventually collapses into a chaotic melange of sound, as if Jimmy is close to losing his hold on reality. “Doctor Jimmy” is a stunning work balancing drama and discipline that should have been the perfect set-up for a grand finale.
Of course, Townshend had to fuck it up by inserting another useless restatement of Quadrophenia’s musical themes in the form of “The Rock.” This is classic double-album filler, with no ostensible musical or narrative purpose that completely breaks the listener’s connection to Jimmy at the worst possible moment.
It certainly weakens the impact of “Love Reign O’er Me,” which now feels detached from the disturbing revelations in “Doctor Jimmy.” That detachment highlights the fundamental problem of a narrative that requires the listener to consult the liner notes to know what the hell is happening. Townshend wasn’t the only songwriter guilty of this error; Ray Davies did the same thing on Soap Opera, forcing the listener back to the liner notes to discover the essential truth of Norman’s identity. As for the song itself, Daltrey is great, the synthesized strings are now quite tiresome and I think Townshend’s use of the poetic contraction “o’er” is fucking ludicrous. I will give him credit for his decision to leave Jimmy’s fate hanging in the balance, for ambiguity is what it means to be young.
As double albums go, Quadrophenia doesn’t have near the excess of The White Album, but proves to be an even more frustrating experience because it is a lot closer to perfection. Reduce the tracklist to the ten or eleven songs essential to the narrative (allowing for an intelligent rewrite of “Sea and Sand”), insert a brief lyrical passage that explains Jimmy’s state of mind and gets him into the goddamn boat, and you have a masterpiece that wouldn’t have needed a milligram of marketing hype to entice people to buy the album and cement The Who’s status as musical artists of the highest order. The musicianship on Quadrophenia is outstanding . . . as for the composition . . . well, it’s a lot better than Tommy, but still a fair distance from nirvana.