You might have noticed that I like starting these articles by talking about a different album to the one I’m actually going to be reviewing. Well, this time, I will be doing exactly the same thing again.
The Who are very famous for releasing a groundbreaking rock opera called Tommy, about that deaf, dumb and blind boy who can sure play a mean pinball. They actually made a film of Tommy. A film of an album. Ambitious, I know. Me and a group of a few others at Aidan’s went through a phase of watching films that were meant to be shite, to see whether they were or not. My suggestion was the film of Tommy.
To cut a long story short, maybe there’s a reason why people don’t tend to make albums into films. As far as we could tell the story went like this:
A woman has a baby while her husband is at war, the husband apparently dies so instead she has an affair with Bill Sykes from Oliver!, who then murders the husband when he turns out not to be dead. They tell the kid “he didn’t see it” which he takes literally by somehow becoming blind and pouting at the camera a lot. Then it’s very briefly Christmas, then he suddenly and very quickly grows up to be Roger Daltrey, they go to the church of Marilyn Monroe (where the priest is Eric Clapton) then he gets waterboarded by his cousin and has naughty things done to him by his creepy uncle Keith Moon, then Tina Turner gives him some LSD and dances round him whipping her hair around and drooling… Can I point out that this was being sung all the way through! …Then he somehow gets good at pinball and has a competition against Elton John wearing giant boots, then they go and see Jack Nicholson for a bit and he’s all suave, then his mum rolls around in a pool of melted chocolate for ten minutes for no reason whatsoever, then Daltrey gets cured, goes for a run round Portsmouth, plus a volcano, then they start a cult, there’s a riot, and he somehow ends up in the Lake District climbing a mountain. Again, all while singing.
It was exhausting. Half the people watching gave up once we’d passed the hour and a half mark.
My point being, that while Tommy was considered groundbreaking it was actually deeply flawed. Musically it doesn’t gel particularly well and lyrically it’s a mess. Luckily the Who released a second rock opera, and a much better one.
Out of this top ten, if I had to pick a single album as my number one, it would probably be this one. If we define an album as a set of songs that work together musically and lyrically, then I think it’s perfect. The lyrics tell a story, but also interlink between each song. So does the music, which has a lot to do with the way Pete Townshend, the Who’s primary songwriter, wrote the album.
The concept behind Quadrophenia is much easier to follow than Tommy. It’s the early sixties. A young mod named Jimmy is gradually let down by everybody in his life, eventually leading him to lose all hope and go on a rampage. Cheerful story, I know. It’s a double album, the first half being set where he lives in Battersea; the second being set in Brighton, the last place where Jimmy was truly happy.
But Jimmy’s defining feature is that he has four way multiple personality disorder (in the seventies, four way schizophrenia, or Quadrophenia, if you like.) Conveniently each personality matches up with a member of the Who: a tough guy (Daltrey), a romantic (bassist John Entwhistle), a lunatic (Keith Moon) and a begging hypocrite (Townshend himself). Townshend wrote a musical theme, or leitmotif, for each personality and wove them between the songs. This means that a lot of songs share parts; sounding similar, but at the same time different. Clever stuff.
Another thing that crops up a lot in Quadrophenia is sound effects. Sound effects in albums have to be used with caution, I think. They’re hit and miss. They have to be there for a reason. Example of a miss: Pink Floyd, on their difficult 1987 album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” threw a lot of random sound effects and snippets of speeches, which was awful, because it sounded like they were trying to sound like themselves. But there wasn’t a concept, there was no need for them, so it just sounded… confusing and a bit fake. They need to be used carefully. Quadrophenia, on the other hand, is definitely a hit. Sound effects are used but none of them are out of place. They make sense.
So the album begins, and it begins with the sound of the sea. Swusssssshhh-scuDOOSsshhh. And drifting in, as if across the water you can hear distant, tiny versions of the four themes. A little horn phrase for Daltrey. “Is it me, for a moment?” wonders Entwhistle. “Bell boy…” chants Keith Moon. “Love… Reign o’er me…” howls Townshend. They sound diminished, little fragments of what’s going to come. Then, we hear Daltrey singing: “Can you see the real me? Can you? CAN YOU?”
BANG. The first song, The Real Me, is a barnstormer. It’s a song that strikes a particular resonant chord in adolescents. Everybody struggles with their identity at some stage in their lives. Jimmy, our mod hero with four personalities, is particularly confused and frustrated, and that frustration comes out in a song that grabs you by the testicles and whirls you round its head like a madman while howling at the top of its voice. It’s brilliant.
It then runs straight into the title track, which weaves the four musical themes into a single instrumental, and does so very well. It’s very very listenable, unlike a lot of similar pieces produced in the early seventies. Pete Townshend described it as the most musically complex thing he had ever written.
Next a wash of radio static, followed by Cut My Hair, another particularly resonant song with misfit teenagers. “Why should I care/if I have to cut my hair?/I’ve got to move with the fashion/or be outcast…” Jimmy sings with Townshend’s voice, more like a gloomy raincloud than Daltrey’s lightning storm style. It’s quite downtempo, but at the same time, it’s intercut with high-velocity flashes of how exciting it was to be a mod in the sixties. Jimmy isn’t a glamorous mod. Like so many of us, he was on the fringes, trying to fit in. It’s a constant theme throughout the album.
The original album came with a book of black-and-white photos showing the bleak world that Jimmy inhabited, and much of the first half of the album explores this world. Riff-driven rocker “The Punk and the Godfather” looks at his connection to his idols (The Who themselves, of course) and how easy it is to be shot down by the people one admires. “I’m One” looks at his devotion to the mod cause, while “The Dirty Jobs” watches Jimmy struggle with the daily grind. “I’m being put down/I’m getting pushed round/I’m being beaten every day,” he wails.
And his personality’s still a problem too. “Helpless Dancer,” Daltrey’s theme, shows his angry side escape to the surface amongst stabbing piano chords and lyrics spat out by Daltrey about the still alarmingly right-wing mid-sixties attitudes. “Is It In My Head?” cements the confusion, then at the end of the first side Jimmy finally cracks. “I’ve Had Enough” is long, fragmented – like Jimmy’s personality – hard, and angry. “I’ve finished with the fashions/and acting like I’m tough/I’m bored with hate and passion/I’ve had enough of trying to love” The song finishes. Well, finishes. Daltrey screams the last word at such a sudden, deafening volume that anybody not expecting it is liable to jump a foot in the air and hurriedly pull out their headphones. It’s the sonic equivalent of the Scary Maze, that flash game somebody made you play at school where if your mouse touched the sides of the maze, a huge picture of Regan from The Exorcist suddenly popped up into your face scaring the proverbial out of you.
The second half of the album opens with “5.15,” a fun track driven by a brass riff about the perils of taking amphetamines whilst on the train to Brighton. I’d like to talk here, though, about the Who’s bassist, John Entwhistle. He has frequently been called the greatest bassist of all time, being for the bass guitar what Jimi Hendrix was for the regular one. I mention him here because when the Who played 5.15 live, halfway through, Entwhistle would launch into the most obscenely talented bass solo imaginable. His left hand moves so fast that it seems impossible for him to know what exactly what he’s playing, more likely just having a general idea and just going for it.
The second half of the album is truly excellent. As many emotional chords are struck as power chords. “Sea and Sand” is particularly devastating: Jimmy, now homeless, wanders up and down Brighton beach, remembering the girlfriend he loved to pieces and was hopelessly outclassed by. Sounds of the sea itself interweave the song: sound effects used right in place again. “Drowned” follows this, where Jimmy contemplates suicide beneath the waves. “Drowned” is another song where live versions are the real treat: Townshend uses a single acoustic guitar to demonstrate why he’s often been named the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time.
Next, “Bell Boy.” Jimmy meets his hero, Ace Face, the chief mod, only to find he is actually a lowly bellhop in the seafront hotel. Unusually for the Who, drummer Keith Moon takes the vocal for the part of Ace Face. Keith Moon, as well as being a remarkable drummer, was well known for his offstage antics, which included driving a rolls-royce into a swimming pool… on the second floor of a hotel; crashing into a stadium dressing room through the ceiling bang on the moment somebody asked “Where’s Keith?”; getting his friend to dress up as a vicar so that Moon could beat him up to shocked looks from passers by; and, most infamously, flushing lit explosives down any toilet he came across.
“Bell Boy” is a pivotal moment: until now, Jimmy has, despite everything, clung to his mod lifestyle as a lifeline. Upon seeing the fall of his idol, he now has nothing to live for at all. Result? He goes on a motherfucking RAMPAGE.
“Doctor Jimmy” chronicles this. It’s an epic song. Between driving rock sections where Jimmy drinks and smashes his way towards oblivion, the guitars peel away to reveal the howling, trapped soul behind the vicious mask. It gives me goose-pimples to listen to. Compare it to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, where the protagonist suffers a similar breakdown, but implodes rather than explodes leading to an album that fizzles horribly towards the end rather than Quadrophenia’s spectacular climax.
We’re not done yet. Jimmy, higher than a stiltwalker up Kilimanjaro, steals a boat and takes it to a rock out to sea, through a track called “The Rock” which, like the title track, takes all four musical themes and weaves them into a single piece. It was impressive enough that Townshend managed to do that once, let alone twice on the same album. The track cuts out with a clap of thunder and the sound of falling rain.
Jimmy’s drugs have worn off. He’s alone, stuck out to sea, everything he ever believed in gone. He’s probably quite wet as well with all that rain. The last track of this magnificent album is where Jimmy finally has a moment of clarity and realises that his split personality defines who he is, rather than divides who he is. The song, “Love, Reign O’er Me” was written by Townshend to be a broken whimper. Daltrey ignored him and howled it like someone would howl if the love of their life died in their arms. It’s a spectacular finale.
It always takes me a moment or two to emerge after listening to Quadrophenia. It’s immersive, it’s incredibly well-written and it’s difficult to see how it could be surpassed. I hugely admire anyone’s ability to craft a piece of music, a piece of art, to such high calibre. (Townshend did aim even higher at one point – but that’s another story.) If you only listen to one of the albums I suggest, make it this one. Definitely, definitely on my top ten.