As I think I have stated before, I was far from a huge fan of The Who. Sure, I liked their singles – “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was, is, and always will be, magnificent – but unlike many of my contemporaries the band themselves never grabbed me as an album act.
Then – and sadly I can’t remember where – I heard “Quadrophenia” for the first time. For whatever reason it really struck a chord with me and is now – if had just one choice – the album I would want with me for musical comfort on that fabled ‘desert island’.
By itself, the album kindled in interest in finding out more about the band – crazy and flamboyant drummer Keith Moon in particular – and researching the mid-60’s “mod” music the story revolved around. It’s fact that, as I have grown older, it has been sixties music I have found myself listening to more than anything else, all – I think – as a result of the influence this album’s backdrop conjured up. So much so that I often joke that I was born 10 years too late, and would have LOVED to have been a Vespa-riding teenage Mod.
I’m being honest with you when I state that I have tried writing this particular post/retrospective review a half-dozen times before. Each time I have somehow stalled, finding myself unable not to go off on long-winded tangents that bear no relevance to the album, or that could ever be of interest to you, the reader.
I think that’s because this album is just so ingrained in my psyche and so very loved by me that I find it hard to be fully objective. With that in mind, I shall keep any overtly ‘gushing’ comments somewhat brief.
If you discount the “A Quick One” project, “Quadrophenia” was guitarist Pete Townshend’s second rock opera opus. Where “Tommy” was about a disadvantaged deaf, dumb & blind kid (who sure played a mean pinball) “Quadrophenia” followed the fortunes (or lack thereof) of a disaffected teenager growing up in a 1964/65 South of England.
Jimmy Cooper, for that is his name, is supposed to be a Quadrophenic, an enhanced (and made up) interpretation of schizophrenia, wherein he is apparently burdened with four personalities.
He lives at home with his perpetually arguing parents and holds down a menial job which pays him just enough to run his scooter and buy the music and fashionable clothes his ‘mod’ lifestyle demands. Track by track the tale unfolds…
“I am the Sea/The Real Me“, the segued opening cuts, try to set the scene, with Jimmy going to the doctor, hearing his mother tell him that mental illness runs in the family, letting us know about his job and his lost girlfriend and hinting at drug use.
“Quadrophenia”/”Cut My Hair“. This pair of cuts, with all their lush orchestral flourishes, then pad out the story a little, informing us of his leanings towards ‘mod’ and his participation in the mods vs rockers fights that occurred almost every Bank Holiday weekend down on Brighton’s seafront. It culminates with him arguing with his parents over drugs and leaving home.
“The Punk & the Godfather” is supposed to represent Jimmy going to a rock concert, then, wacked out on ‘uppers’ trying to meet the band backstage. The band blank him and he decides that music is just another element of his life that has let him down. This may just be THE finest song The Who have EVER recorded. A personal opinion, yes, but I don’t think I’m wrong.
In “I’m One” Jimmy tries to reinforce his own love for the mod lifestyle he has chosen and how it brings him out of himself and “Dirty Jobs” finds Jimmy getting into trouble at work, disagreeing with his colleagues before walking out.
“Helpless Dancer” gives us Jimmy’s angry side. He seems angry at…well, the entire world in general. As if to somehow qualify his anger “Is it in my Head?” is Jimmy blaming either the drugs or all the injustices he has been exposed to all his life.
“I’ve Had Enough” is something of a pivotal track where Jimmy sees his ex-girlfriend with another guy, then smashes up his beloved scooter in an act of frustration. Depressed and drugged up, he then catches the train – captured perfectly in “5:15” – down to Brighton in an attempt to recapture some of the energy and excitement had last time he was there.
Whilst “The Sea & the Sand” finds Jimmy quite optimistic, the gloom soon reappears in “Drowned“ where he is, quite possibly, at his lowest ebb, contemplating suicide as a way out.
“Bell Boy” is Kimmy’s final ignominy as he chances across a fellow mod “face”, who he once hung around with and admired, schlepping bags around for customers at a seafront hotel.
Jimmy then descends into a drug hell in “Doctor Jimmy” before stealing a boat and sailing it to a lone rock in the middle of the sea (“The Rock“/”Love, Reign O’er Me“) and finally finding spiritual redemption. Redemption which, dependent on your own interpretation of things, either finds him dying or obtaining strength to carry on.
Reading that back makes “Quadrophenia” sound like an UTTERLY depressing album doesn’t it? The weird thing is that the album sounds – musically – very joyous and vibrant by comparison to the storyline with only a handful of slow numbers interrupting the excitement.
I didn’t want to say too much about each track individually as this is one of those rare albums which demands to be listened to in its entirety. Whilst the hit single “5:15” is undoubtedly great on its own, it actually makes little sense outside of the story structure where it becomes an intrinsic element. Along with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, “Quadrophenia” was one of the first albums I ‘properly’ listened to. By that I mean I sat down (usually at night with the lights out) and listened to how it was recorded, which instruments went where in the mix and how the story unfolded.
Sonically, it is an utterly immense piece of work, the entire band contributing some of their very finest recorded output, Keith Moon most certainly. I have always said that if anyone is training to be a drummer they should spend a few months listening to “Quadrophenia” and nothing else. I never fail to be shocked when Moonie is overlooked for being “the best drummer ever” in music polls when, to my ears anyway, his drumming was as natural and instinctively played as (for instance) any of Hendrix’s guitar work. Keith’s tricky little fills alone put other drummers to shame.
Then there’s John Entwistle’s bass playing. Playing it like a lead guitar, something he could have written the manual for. His death in 2002 – despite it being the ultimate rock & roll death… a cocaine-fuelled heart attack whilst romping with groupies in a Las Vegas hotel suite – hit me as hard as Keith Moon’s 24 years earlier.
For me, the band died along with Keith in 1978 and whilst I didn’t necessarily begrudge them trying to continue with three original members, now doing so with just two feels like an utter travesty for which I’d really like to punch Pete Townshend in the face. I know he might consider it “his band” and yes, OK, it’s his material and everything, but I just find it disquieting that – for some time now – he has done little more than shill The Who’s finest material to whomever turns up at his door with the fattest cheque. I can’t believe that he or Roger Daltrey can be ‘that poor’ they have to undermine the band’s body of work by allowing it to be constantly used for TV ads or theme tunes. I’m most certainly with (the late and very great) comedian Bill Hicks when he said “Do a commercial, there’s a price on your head, everything you say is suspect and every word out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink”
Now, see that’s one of the tangents I can’t avoid going off on when I talk about “Quadrophenia”. It’s a TERRIFIC, AWESOME & BLOODY BRILLIANT album – and I make absolutely no apologies for the ALL-CAPS screaming – but Townshend has been such a money-grabbing prick in recent years that, sadly, I now find it very difficult to listen to it with anything like the regularity which I once did.
If, as rumours suggest, “The Who” are going to play the prestigious half-time show at next years Superbowl, yet another turd will plop into my drink. I wish Townshend – for all his writing props – would realise that the LEAST talented musicians of The Who are the ones that survived and that calling themselves “The Who” is remarkably pathetic and self-delusional. It’s not even “The Who Lite”… it’s more like a karaoke/covers band turning up at your local pub while you’re trying to watch the game.
Anyway, yes… “Quadrophenia”… fantastic album, should be in everyone’s collection, by far the best rock opera ever, is perfect… etc., etc. If you’ve never heard it, may I invite you to my isolated little desert island – far away from ‘shilling pete’ and his apparent CSI fixation – for 81 minutes of sheer musical bliss.