My music purchases in recent years fall under three types: The Road Less Travelled, artists/groups whose music I don’t have much of, or at all; Filling in the Corners (LOTR callback!), those that I do have in depth, but want to complete my collection; and Long Sought, albums that I’ve always wanted but never got around to buying, for whatever reason.
The Who’s “Quadrophenia” fell under the last of those headings. I enjoyed the music of Townsend et al back when it first hit the charts in the mid ’60s — “I Can See for Miles,” “Magic Bus,” etc. — loved “Tommy” and “Who’s Next” and eventually got those on CD, and also own a greatest hits compilation.
But despite the fact that two cuts from the 1973 album are on that greatest hits disk — “Love Reign O’er Me” and “5:15” — and are among my favorite Who songs, I never got around to adding “Quadrophenia” to my collection. That was remedied earlier this year, and I listened to the album a lot for months.
I would have been partial to that Who LP regardless, because I like the “rock opera” concept, for the same reasons I like album and progressive rock and concept albums: the ability to explore lyrical and musical themes in greater depth. The Who are perhaps the only group to do two rock operas — although “Tommy,” contrary to popular opinion, was not the first such album. That distinction generally goes to “S.F. Sorrow,” released by the Pretty Things a year earlier (which might be better remembered if it had included a single like “Pinball Wizard”).
As with “Tommy,” the double-album format allows the Who plenty of room to develop the themes in “Quadrophenia” — mostly, the travails of a member of the “mod” subculture in the United Kingdom in the mid-’60s. The “mods versus rockers” conflict adds an element of interest for American listeners, because we didn’t really have a dichotomy like that; the closest parallel might be hippies versus bikers, but that’s not really analogous, either.
Several of the songs illustrate the herd-instinct fashion obsession of that part of British youth culture at the time — “Why should I care/If I have to cut my hair?/I’ve got to move with the fashions/or be outcast” — and help us understand what was going on in a society that is in some ways like America’s, but also quite distinct. Anyway, the reading of a news item about one of the “mods versus rockers” dustups (at the end of “Cut My Hair”) is a nice touch, and one of several “musique concréte”-like flourishes on the album: sounds of the sea, a bird flying by, what sounds like a calliope at one of the seaside amusement parks frequented by the mods and rockers.
But it’s the songs, of course, that carry the album. Many have the same sweep and majesty of “Love Reign O’er Me,” but there are also flashes — in “Bell Boy” and “The Dirty Jobs,” for instance — of the sarcasm and humor (humour, if you must) seen in earlier Who works. The musicianship is what we’d come to expect: Daltry’s raw vocals, Moon’s furious drumming, tasty guitar licks from Townsend, John Entwistle’s bass (the solo on “5:15,” for example).
There’s more, though. The piano riffs — credited on “5:15” and two other songs to Chris Stanton, but otherwise coming from Townsend — always caught my attention. Townsend wrote and composed everything — showcasing one of the geniuses of rock music — for the first time and learned to play the cello just for the album; Entwistle wrote the horn charts.
I expected that “Quadrophenia” would have ranked higher than middle-of-the-pack on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, but a number of rock critics did credit “Quadrophenia” as Who’s best album ever. Townsend himself stated it was the last great album the band had done, and said in 2011 that the group “never recorded anything that was so ambitious or audacious again.”
Not going to argue that point with Pete. The Who recorded some good stuff post-“Quadrophenia,” but nothing quite so sweeping as that LP and “Tommy.”
Thought I might have a chance to see what’s left of the group — Entwistle and Moon having left the planet some time ago — this fall. The Who’s 50th anniversary tour was supposed to make a stop here in Wisconsin, but that and other concert dates were cancelled because of Daltry’s illness; haven’t head any makeup dates yet.