Thursday, 31 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #27: Quadrophenia (1973)

At number 27 is Quadrophenia, The Who's second rock opera and their penultimate entry on the chart.
Although Who's Next (1971) had become the band's most critically acclaimed album to date, Pete Townshend remained frustrated. The album had resulted from the collapse and termination of the Lifehouse project, an overambitious multimedia production designed to push the boundaries of rock and film to the limit. The project, which only Townshend ever fully understood, almost claimed his sanity. But The Who returned to the road in good spirits, touring the States over two legs through the remainder of 1971, and being dubbed 'The Greatest Show on Earth' by The Los Angeles Times.¹ By contrast, 1972 was a quiet year for the band. Townshend took six months off to reflect on the band's success, releasing a solo album, Who Came First, and two records dedicated to spiritual leader Meher Baba. Keith Moon's reputation for excess increased no end, punctuated only by his cameo in Frank Zappa's bizarre road movie, 200 Motels. While Roger Daltrey renovated his newly-bought Burwash estate and began recording his first solo album, Daltrey (1973), John Entwistle released Whistle Rhymes (1972) and began initial recordings for Rigor Mortis Sets In (1973). After playing to half a million people in Paris in August 1972, the band returned to the studio to begin recording Townshend's latest project, tentatively titled 'Jimmy'.²

Things don't start well. 'I Am The Sea' is 2-and-a-bit minutes of perfectly produced but rather unsettling sound effects. The sound of the waves may set the scene for this opera - just off the coast of Brighton - but the snippets of brass and echoed vocals that wash up are downright confusing. The success of 'Baba O'Riley' on Who's Next, with its long, radio-unfriendly intro, seems to have prompted Townshend to go further with his overtures. This time, it clearly hasn't worked. The overture to Tommy (1969) was crisp and clear - this is convoluted and bizarre.

Thankfully, this is soon rectified with 'The Real Me'. This is a hell of a track, kicking off with razor sharp guitar work from Townshend. Moon is on proper form, using every last inch of his already sumptuous kit to fill up the sound with fills where no other drummer would find the room. Entwistle is playful and jazzy, hinting at his later work with Alembics to create a wonderful, treble-ish melody. But the true highlight is Daltrey, whose range continues to grow while losing none of its raw power. On the contrary - at times here the energy coming off him as scary.

The title track, which segues in from 'The Real Me', completes the scene-setting as far as we are concerned. It is now clear that this is very different to Tommy; instead of some artistic fantasy, this is grittier, earthier and richer, exploring the often dark roots of the Mod movement which made The Who famous in the first place. The quadrophenia in question is a four-way split personality, to represent the four very different band members fighting under the single personality of The Who. Musically, this is a strange but elegant combination of synthesisers and acoustic, which actually works out quite well.

Having established our setting and the symbolic illness in question, our character can now step forward into the limelight. 'Cut My Hair' introduces us to Jimmy, the quadrophenic London Mod in question, stuck living with his uptight parents in an age of poverty and social change. Townshend takes lead on the verses, backed by smooth piano chords and Moon's ride cymbals. But on the chorus it is Moon and Daltrey all the way, with lines like Dressed right for a beach fight/ But I just can't explain being growled savagely. This song has good lyrics, but sharing them out has made it something of a hotch-potch. Some could say it symbolises the different sides of Jimmy, but if that were really the case, where are Moon and Entwistle?

No such fears abound on 'The Punk And The Godfather'. This bursts forth from the 6 O'Clock News with immense attitude and huge torque; the opening chords will cause you to turn your head as if a gun had fired closed behind. Daltrey is back on lead and is in swaggering form, delivering Townshend's lyrics with a sardonic snarl. His voice is still raw and savage, but his ability to crest high notes with sufficient force has improved no end since Live At Leeds (1970, #68). When things do quieten down, Townshend takes over, but soon Daltrey smashes back with his passionate OKAY! which greets the crowd of Mods dubbed in. This is brilliant stuff.

'I'm One' returns to Townshend and brings acoustic guitar to the fore. Because, or perhaps in spite of this, this is another very, very good song. The riff may be more ponderous and complex, but you're not fooling anyone if you say this is directionless. Even on the quiet opening section, before Moon's snare fires up, you can sense a hidden energy under Townshend's singing. The rest of the song is all Townshend, with Moon subdued but still magical, and the third verse is completely self-deprecating:

I got a Gibson without a case
But I can't get that even-tanned look on my face
Ill-fitting clothes, I blend in the crowd
Fingers too clumsy, voice too loud

After sufficient introspective musings, 'The Dirty Jobs' returns us properly to Jimmy, this time focussing on the dead-end world of working-class work. The synthesisers return to the foreground, and after what seems like a long absence, so does Entwistle. Our hero (or anti-hero) goes from feeding pigs to driving a bus-load of miners and a great deal besides, always being put down and pushed round, but always vowing not to sit and weep again. Daltrey captures this sense of defiance tinged with despair to a tee, and the whole group feels tight and agile. We also get the huge end section from about 3:39 onwards, which completes the package.

The first big slip-up on the album is 'Helpless Dancer', also known as 'Roger's Theme'. Townshend wanted to compose a theme for each of the four members, which is fine as an idea. But the execution of the idea in this case falls short. For a start, we get the same muffled brass section that we had on 'I Am The Sea', and the same oh-so-dramatic piano. Then the piano is reduced to loud, blunt minor chords, and Daltrey's rapid-fire vocals about frustration and identity are severely compromised by the tricksied-up production.

It's a good thing, then, that the next two songs make up for this. 'Is It In My Head?' is chock full of emotion. Here the piano is sweet and saddened, Daltrey is allowed to sing straight-face, and Moon is back with a vengeance. The lyrics describe the mental deterioration of Jimmy, as his addiction to amphetamines begin to mess with his mind and make him act completely out of character. This song is a symbol of what Townshend is capable of if he really concentrates - it's powerful, elegant, unpredictable and honest. As is 'I've Had Enough', for that matter. Moon and Daltrey lead as before, as the former beats the living daylights out his tom-toms in some spectacular fills, and the latter graces the top of his voice with a sense of wrath and cunning. Once again, Entwistle has to take a back seat, but otherwise this is fabulous. Daltrey's scream of LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE is the perfect way to end the first half.

The second half begins as tentatively as the first, with the sound of train doors closing. Then the opening chords of '5:15' begin and we launch longingly into the first truly amazing track on here. This is a riot in which all four members are wrestling for control in this section about Jimmy making the trip, in more ways than one, from London to Brighton (Out of my brain on the train). Townshend provides the jangly, dynamic guitars, Entwistle the intelligent horns and subtle bass lines, and Daltrey pushes himself still further with every passing lyric. But in truth, this song is all about Moon. From the first hit of the snare, you have a picture of him wheeling around the kit with a huge grin on his face. It shows so openly in his playing, lighting up the already-potent mix with an impish, rebellious charm, all the time keeping things tightly unpredictable. As we will see, there are many tracks which merit the title of tour de force, and this is surely one of them.

'Sea And Sand' finds Jimmy considering his future. Having been finally kicked out by his parents, he find himself in Brighton, and about to be caught up in the riots of 1965. But for the moment, all he can think of are his parents - who celebrated his eviction by getting drunk - and his perfect dresser girlfriend. This is a great opportunity for Townshend to let loose some more personal potshots, again being self-deprecating about his inability to dress like the 'Ace Face'. Musically, The Who are now fully into their stride, with rip-roaring riffs and toe-tapping drum beats. But now, at last, Entwistle's bass has been cranked back up to the deafening level that it was on 'The Real Me'.

'Drowned' is a big duffer, I'm afraid. The piano which accompanies Townshend at the start is just too twinkling and sanitised. This taints the rest of the sound, which isn't helped by the fact that his lyrics come up short too (I'm travelling down cold metal/ Just a tear in a baby's eye? Come on.). This doesn't feel like a thoroughbred Who song at all. It feels like a sub-standard piece of 1970s piano rock with Keith's part from another song dubbed over it.

Speaking of Keith, we know get back on track with 'Keith's Theme' - 'Bell Boy'. Thanks to Moon's wonderful drumming and tongue-in-cheek vocals, this would become a huge live favourite, as seen on the film from Charlton Football Ground in 1974.³ Moon may not be a singer at heart, but he knows a thing or two about comedy characters and timing, going from the loud-mouthed ex-Ace Face to tender boy wonder and back again. The others are on similar form, particularly Townshend who has finally made the synthesisers blend with The Who's sound as well as they did on Who's Next.

'Doctor Jimmy' is the longest track here, at 8:36. This is partially because it incorporates 'John's Theme', a.k.a. 'Is It Me For A Moment?'. We have heard snippets of it before, but here it is in full, sandwiched with no hint of awkwardness between two fiery salvos from Roger Daltrey. In a flash, all the playfulness of 'Bell Boy' is gone, blown away by the sea breeze at the start of the track. The band start muted, but soon they build, like Jimmy's fury, into something enormous. Daltrey and Jimmy become one huge, angry visceral young man, spitting out lines like insults and retorts made in mid-fight with a Rocker. The chorus is Townshend at his most vitriolic:

What is it?
I'll take it
Who is she?
I'll rape it
Got a bed there?
I'll need it
Getting high?
You can't beat it

It's the last two tracks, though, where things get really good. 'The Rock', which interpolates from 'Doctor Jimmy', is on first impression just a reworking of the title track. The riffs are similar, the tempo is the same, and the time signature is the same. But after the first 13 seconds have passed, all idea of retreading old ground evaporates as Moon comes along and takes control. He famously hated drum solos, and this certainly isn't one. What it is is a wonderful instrumental interplay between drums and guitar, chronicalling Jimmy's journey (or 'trip') to an island off Brighton in a lonely motor boat. Townshend's Les Paul sings out sadly and seriously in the silence that is the middle section, but throughout this is counter-balanced by Keith's endless invention and creative appetite. Any other drummer asked to play along with this would have created something pedestrian - but Keith moves with Townshend, teasing the listener and again making you smile, not just in laughter but in reverence at how euphorically he is playing.

If you want real euphoria though, you want 'Love, Reign O'er Me'. It opens with the distinctive, heavenly piano chords, which thunder down through the pouring rain right into the heart of the listener. Here we end as we began, with Jimmy alone on Brighton Rock, watching his life flash before his eyes, wondering what it all means and who he really is. Townshend surpasses everyone's expectations - including his own - on his 'Theme', and not just on the ethereal opening. After so many snippets of themes and riffs which served to confuse the listener before, here it all comes together; the synthesisers provide the violin-esque backdrop as Daltrey (and Jimmy) bears his soul. And boy, does Daltrey respond, capturing the essence of Townshend's lyrics about empathy and introspection and turning them into one of the greatest love songs ever written. It is never clear whom he is delivering this song to - God, his lover, his parents, the other parts of himself - but what is always clear is that he means it. If the rest of the album made you confused and frustrated, this will give you a deep, spiritual thrill which deepens every time you hear it.

While it may not have translated all that well to the live circuit, there is no doubt that Quadrophenia is a proper Who album, if not the definitive Who album. There is so much in the way of substance on offer, whether in the gnarled, gritty realism of Townshend's London, or in the deep, soul-inspiring poetry which he conjures up in the midst of this. This is certainly superior to Tommy, not because it is more realistic, but because the narrative is never allowed to excessively interfere with the music. While on Tommy we had to put up with songs like 'Miracle Cure' and 'Tommy's Holiday Camp' for the sake of continuity, here the narrative is allowed to weave in and out of the concept as it sees fit. This creates a more exciting, more all-rounded result, still uneven in places but that is the nature of rock opera. Cited by Townshend as the pinacle of The Who's achievements on record, it still stands today as one of the most compelling, intriguing, and thrilling albums of the 1970s. Anyone who cares even faintly about music should own it.

3.94 out of 5

¹ Robert Hilburn, quoted in Andy Neill & Matt Kent, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who, 1958-1978 (London: Virgin Books, 2007), p.276.
² Pete Townshend, quoted in Roy Carr, 'Pete Townshend: Who Came First', NME, October 7 1972 - cited in Neill & Kent, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere, p.313.
³ Accessed on August 30 2008.

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