Quadrophenia? Ah! The first difficult Who album. To what degree? As early as 1975, Rolling Stone described it as 'superbly performed and produced, exquisitely packaged, and extremely boring.' John Atkins recently contended that it must be regarded 'as the Who's finest achievement. During the mid-90's re-mastering of The Who's catalog, Quadrophenia alone was re-issued with not one word of further explanation. No retrospective by a noted rock critic, no exegesis by an avid young fan, and above all, no further enlightenment from Mr. Townshend. Intended or not, the message seemed clear: everything that needed to be said about this album has been said. Yet this is one Who effort that always merits a renewed examination.
November 1973: Shemya Air Force Base, Alaska. Out at the end of the Aleutian Islands, I am four months into a year long isolated tour. Wind, rain, fog, and crashing waves from the Bering Sea are constant companions. Desolate and lonely, I can stand on the shore of the tiny island and imagine a huge wave washing all of us away, and no one would know about it for days.
This first week of November, my girl friend has sent me an eagerly awaited package. Ever since I had left 'the real world'the previous July, she had faithfully checked a local record store each week, to see if The Who had finally released their new Lp. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the progression from Tommy through a phenomenal live Lp and the powerful majesty of Who's Next had raised my expectations to where I believed The Who were capable of anything.
I retreated to my room and put on the first side to be greeted by -- The 101 Strings? Surrounded by sea and wind and rain day after day and hearing all that duplicated in my speakers did little to grab my interest. Although I have never wanted to admit it, the first crack in my hero worship of The Who has just appeared.
Anyone who wishes to gain a critical insight or historical insight about the album can look to several excellent sources. Richard Barnes, The Who: Maximum R&B, (re-published Plexus, London 1996), Dave Marsh, Before I Get Old: The Story Of The Who (Plexus, London 1983), and John Atkins, The Who On Record: A Critical History, 1963-1998 (McFarland & Co, Inc., North Caroline 2000) provide detailed background. Despite the variety of perspectives (The first is a personal friend of Pete, the second is one of rock's most articulate critics, and the third, a super-fan.), all three tell a pretty consistent story.
In mid 1973, The Who had just gone through a long, relatively inactive 12-month period, giving fans only two singles and little chance of seeing the band perform. Behind the scenes, John and Roger were working on solo efforts, Keith was ruining his marriage, and Pete was merely trying to write the unified theory of rock. If someone had informed Pete that Einstein had failed to pull off a similar stunt in physics, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Pete, after aborting the Lifehouse project, apparently felt compelled more than ever to push The Who and its audience forward. But, forward to what? Accepting the inevitability of letting the past go? Facing up to accepting responsibility? Live At Leeds and Who's Next hadn't expanded rock horizons as Tommy had, and so Pete returned to a story concept to explain how a mod, too wrapped up in his past, now faced suicide or maturity. For the blissed out children of the 60's, such a challenge was a pretty gruesome choice. Why couldn't we remain teenagers forever?
Regardless of the approach they take or the opinions they express about the album, Barnes, Marsh, and Atkins all give the reader a strong impression that this was not a particularly fun time to consider in Pete's life or The Who's career. They set forth a number of logical factors that indicate why. The outside solo work drained attention away from the band. (Although one wonders if John and Roger were trying to help by staying out of Pete's way. After all, they had never figured what Pete was on about in the Lifehouse project.) The band had decided to build its own studio (Ramport) in Battersea, and began recording even before it was finished. Business affairs, specifically mismanagement by the Who's first serious manager, Kit Lambert, had disrupted whatever harmony the band was sharing after Who's Next. At the same time, Pete insisted that he needed Kit to act as a creative sounding board. Pete's insistence eventually antagonized Glyn Johns, who had salvaged the tapes that eventually became Who's Next, thereby disrupting their working relationship. Pete now found himself playing Orson Wells -- writing, recording, mixing, and producing the whole damn thing himself, but out of necessity and not ego. In his spare time, he played guitar and recorded keyboard loops.
All of this would have been forgotten ('You are forgiven!'), of course, if Quadrophenia went on to be the cultural success that befell Tommy. While initial sales were good enough to push the album to #2 in both the United States and the United Kingdom, it never quite panned out. If the failure of I Can See For Miles to reach #1 was annoying to its author, the growing realization that Quadrophenia wasn't working its magic on audiences must have be deeply disappointing.
June 1979: Naples, Italy. Stationed in a near-by U.S. Navy base, my efforts to negotiate an arrangement in which The Who would play aboard the aircraft carrier USS EISENHOWER have just collapsed. The band's management would have been allowed to film the event for its own publicity. In return, the band would play an additional concert ashore for the commands and family members in the Naples area. The second concert was the deal breaker.
Disappointed, I take my secretary's note, written in Italian and asking to see any available Who records, up to my favorite record haunts in the Vomero shopping area. As I drive up a winding road, I turn off and face a sandstone wall. On it, in large black letters, is painted, 'Love, Reign O'er Me.'
Chris Charlesworth, Townshend: A Career Biography, Proteus, London (1984) and Joe McMichael & Jack Lyons, The Who Concert File, Omnibus Press, London (1997), provide a good insight into why the awkward and unsuccessful 1973 stage presentation of Quadrophenia as a full scale 'rock opera'failed to free the band from resorting to its older material to satisfy the concert audience.
Before Moon's death in 1978, The Who famously never shared a stage with side players or back up singers. Well, maybe an occasional drummer should Keith Moon be indisposed, but even The Beatles substituted a drummer now and then. Considering the band's recent history, perhaps this rigid approach represented a misplaced sense of pride that unnecessary interfered with Pete's efforts to create something new. Perhaps it is hard to understand today, but to fans at the time, the thought of a fifth person on stage would have been sacrilegious, unless it was sound man Bobby Pridden who would get dragged on stage and ragged on (often unfairly) about whatever was upsetting Pete.
The only logical alternative for a live setting required the use of pre-recorded keyboard tapes, which Pridden and the band had to coordinate on cue or the song would (and did) go horribly wrong. In a post Milli Vanilli world, with production capabilities that can render the term 'live'to be almost meaningless, it is hard to recall or understand the integrity Pete displayed in his struggle to present his material in such a way that could be attributed only to The Who and no one else.
There was also some thought that Pete's story was too complex, at least for American audience who most likely were unfamiliar with the British mods movement in the early 60's. This was important because, from Tommy onward, The Who's attention became more and more focused on its American audience. If anything, however, the story line is one of impression, not of linear plot, and therefore incredibly simple. Jimmy is a young man, who goes to Brighton in an effort to re-capture the excitement of his teenage years as a mod. After various difficulties and emotional crises, he apparently finds himself on a rock in the sea. (So the band would explain to audiences.) There he contemplates a decision to jump in and drown himself, or return to London and face whatever awaited him. We never know what he decides. The complexity resides in Pete's effort to interweave four themes, each representing a personality of the band, into Jimmy's character.
In the years following Quadrophenia's release, various theories have been advanced that the album suffered from a mix that drowned Roger's vocals, or under-emphasized John's bass, or lacked the production of Who's Next. Subsequent re-mixes, such as John Entwistle's 1979 effort or Jon Astley's 1996 re-master, haven't supported those views. (Sorry, Roger and John.) Regardless of what the listener thinks about the ëmix' on Quadrophenia, no can deny that it opens loudly and roars on over four sides (or two CD's) without let up. The Who, however, prided themselves as a loud band. Why would this be a negative factor? Richard Barnes has suggested that the album's 'lack of shade'makes it difficult to absorb in its entirety, but explains why individual songs such as 5:15 or Drowned work well in a concert context with other songs. If I understand Barney's view, Spinal Tap never had a chance. To hell with eleven. Pete turned the amps up to twelve for I Am The Sea and kept it there throughout Quadrophenia.
And yet, I continue to be puzzled at the apparently widespread reluctance (including my own) to warm to this particular album. All the more frustrating is the underlying sense that I should be able to sort out a rationale by which I reach a consensus with John Atkins' assessment; but I can't get there.
I think the problem is that Pete has shoved his subject matter right in our face. Rock clearly had dealt before with weighty matters such as life and death. Those of us heading for our 60's, whether chronologically or in musical tastes, need go no further than Ray Peterson's 'Tell Laura I Love Her', Jan & Dean's 'Dead Man's Curve'or The Shangri-Las' 'Leader of the Pack'to flash back to death rock in all its glory.
The fact remains that such songs had a snappy sound, a good beat, and made for great make-out atmosphere. ('Hey, earth angel! For you, I would go running back into my burning hot-rod on the railroad tracks to recover your ring, and watch over your dad while he spreads your sweater above our tombstone as our song plays on forever in heaven. And I will never tell the guys what we did tonight except for my best friend ó whadda mean you want to leave RIGHT NOW? Like all of a sudden, I am DOA?') It was easy to enjoy the thrill of such songs, understanding the premise that the awful events sung about worked to gain our sympathy while happening to someone else. Like the sad songs about teenage break-ups, rock music ultimately made us feel better.
Down to the present day, any effort to shock or upset the general public by a musical group, rock or rap, ultimately translates into a call for a good time. For all the talk about how bad the situation is in the ëhood, or how badly my mother's boyfriend, organized religion, or my boy/girl friend mistreated me, the typical CD and concert performance remains a variation on the perennial youth orientated desire to have a good time. (As Kiss called on us to do: Rock and roll all nite.) In many ways, such music merely replicates the ending of Gone With The Wind. No matter what has happened to us today, there will always be another tomorrow (blithely overlooking our consistent track record of screwing up yesterday).
Pete's song writing also used this approach prior to Quadrophenia. Regardless of subject matter, from 'I Can't Explain'through 'Pictures of Lily'and 'The Seeker', his efforts were presented so that we could identify with his concerns, but rejoice at the same time in the emotional release of the moment. The ending of Tommy typified this on a grander scale. We are left with an image of Tommy, rejected and alone but unbroken, while we hear what Pete should have titled, Listening To You, which is a rousing, uplifting anthem that says somehow everything is going to get better.
Quadrophenia, I believe, took an entirely different approach. There was not one song that called on us to celebrate and feel good about ourselves. Instead, Pete presented us with the ultimate and biggest insult possible for the 'Don't trust anyone over thirty'generation. Instead of a call to party, Pete was asking his band and fans to grow up. And he was dead serious about it. As such, Quadrophenia is a work of maturity. By definition, that removes it from the realm of rock music. No matter now mixed, no matter how loud, the album is a call to wake up and realize that we can't stay young forever. Instead of giving us release, Pete delivers a message that challenges our intellect at the cost of lacking appeal to our emotions.
This is not to suggest that Quadrophenia lacks emotion. But Pete's presentation makes it more difficult to grasp. In Tommy, our hero is assaulted by the outside world while he possesses an inner peace. In Quadrophenia, the travails of our protagonist's exterior world pale in comparison to the agony within his soul. Again, the audience can readily identify with the joy of Tommy as he becomes aware of the world around him. It isn't quite as much fun to be told to confront the demons we all carry within.
I suspect that many of us, should we come face to face today with a person in Jimmy's situation, would brusquely tell him to get a life and then move on as quickly as we could. Pete was always more sympathetic than that. He understood the urge to look back and refuse to move forward. In that sense, Jimmy's story was much broader than of a UK mod, as Pete had insisted from the start. By forcing us to look at ourselves without pretension and without giving us a reason to cheer, Pete was challenging us to grow up with him.
At some point during the US Quadrophenia tour, Pete expressed concern that in the two years the band had been away, he had missed how much the band's audience had changed. In hindsight, it was Pete who had changed. Instead of us accepting that change, Pete was subjected to innate calls from the front row to jump as if it was still 1965. Despite his affinity for the plight of those who wanted to hang on to perceived glories of the past, he was ready to leave it all behind. All made for a final irony that most of us fans missed. As Pete grappled with the inability of his audience to appreciate what he was trying to do, he became essentially the Tommy character so commonly associated with Roger. Viewed in this sense, perhaps we can appreciate the frustration Pete experienced as his band mates and fans forced him into a golden oldies tour that in some ways has never ended.
October, 1996: Tacoma, Washington. Quadrophenia is billed in its own right, and featuring former three members of The Who. Some 17 or so guest stars and supporting cast, as well as a well-produced video presentation, make for a very enjoyable show. Without The Who billing, the Tacoma Dome is only half full. This unintentionally re-creates the intimacy of seeing the band in the pre-Tommy, pre-stadium rock era. The fans punch their fists in the air and call out song titles. Hey, it's time to get down and party, man!
Twenty-seven years later, it certainly is much easier to understand the mod context of Pete's call to maturity, but it remains emotionally cold at heart, a piece that demands that the listener engage the mind, not the emotions. A comparison to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets springs to mind. Eliot's poems address and interweave four themes, all the while struggling with exploring man's place in the universe. A mature work, it is highly rated by most critics, but not nearly as gut wrenching as Eliot's earlier 'singles'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or The Wasteland. There is yet another parallel between the two works. Once Townshend and Elliot asked the big question about the meaning of life, even without providing an emotionally acceptable answer for the general audience, where could they go next? Any subsequent artistic effort had to be a step back from the grand vision previously offered. In this context, the band's next proper Lp, By Numbers, merely reflects the growing rift between Pete and his audience's expectations.
Hardly boring, but emotionally unsatisfying so as deny status as the Who's finest achievement, how do we measure Quadrophenia? As with Eliot's quartets, it is not the author who has failed his audience. Eliot and Townshend simply had the temerity not only to grow up, but also to expect their audience to do the same. We are left to measure such works by accepting the challenge to grow up ourselves. How unfair. As to how one goes about doing that, I can't explain.