Wednesday, 18 January 2012


ALBUM: Quadrophenia
RELEASED: October 1973


I Am The Sea/The Real Me/Quadrophenia/Cut My Hair/The Punk and the Godfather/I'm One/
The Dirty Jobs/Helpless Dancer (Roger's theme)/Is It In My Head/I've Had Enough


5:15/Sea and Sand/Drowned/Bell Boy (Keith's theme)/Doctor Jimmy (John's theme)/
The Rock/Love, Reign O'er Me (Pete's theme)

Can you see the real me,
Can you?

Okay, so starting out a blog centred on classic albums with a piece on The Who is not really a great example of delving deep into the crates. However, Quadrophenia is a less discussed and appreciated album than it’s reputation amongst die-hards might suggest. Who’s Next got the Classic Albums treatment (a fascinating episode, incidentally), Tommy received more mainstream success as a rock opera over the years, and Live at Leeds is widely recognised as one of the greatest examples of a live album ever released. In such company, the comparatively hitless double-album Pete Townshend once referred to as “the best I will ever write” often gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s an album that fascinates me though. It’s dark and it’s violent, it is progressive rock in its scope and punk rock in its attitude. It’s also an album I’d never sat down and really listened to start to finish until very recently, so it is one of the very few ‘great albums’ I could really come at with a fresh set of ears, and that seemed like the right way to kick this blog off.

More importantly than all that, however is the simple fact that Pete Townshend is right. Quadrophenia is, by some margin, the best thing he and The Who have ever done. It's not so much a snapshot of the vision, fury and musicianship that defined the band as it is the whole damn roll of film.

I'm dressed right for a beach fight,
But I just can't explain,
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain.

I’m not a fan of concept albums as a general rule. Too often the concept seems to be a contrivance to inspire song-writing, rather than a product of inspired song-writing, and the stories told are so often either too simplistic to engage anyone over the age of 12, or too complex to possibly be fitted into a suite of songs.

On paper, Quadrophenia could fall into either camp. Our anti-hero is a young man named Jimmy (coughHoldenCaufieldcough) struggling with four distinct personalities (i.e. suffering the titular disorder) loosely based on the four members of the Who – the tough-guy (Daltrey), romantic (Enthwistle), lunatic (Moon) and angst ridden hypocrite (Townshend – who at least serves himself the proverbial burnt pork-chop as writer). The listener follows Jimmy's voyage to self discovery against a backdrop of rocker vs mod violence, drug consumption and youthful frustration. It is not, it would be fair to say, a comedy. In both setting and characters it's particularly English however, at a time when the Rolling Stones were off to the Kentucky Derby and Led Zeppelin were on the road to Mordor (both literally and figuratively it turns out). This doesn't mean it is without heavy handed Hollywood moments though, with the resolution, which sees young Jimmy reaching epiphany while all at sea (literally) proving somewhat trite in the cold light of day.

It's all logical topic matter for a rock opera/concept album (at least when compared to the insanity Genesis were concocting at the same time) but until recently I'd always been somewhat of a doubter. Isn't that all just My Generation writ large?! And aren't things better when they're not spelled out?! Spending 17 tracks saying what you'd already been able to say in a three minute song seemed more Andrew Lloyd Webber than rock n roll to me.

From the get-go however, Quadrophenia manages to dance past disaster. The opening sequence of I Am the Sea, The Real Me and Quadrophenia take the listener from a hippy dippy introduction of ocean sounds and brief refrains, through a shit-kicking rock tune that introduces us to our protagonist and his troubled mind, before dropping the listener back into an instrumental that serves to conclude what is essentially the album's overture. It’s an intriguing beginning that hints at both the conceptual depths of the album to come and the potential for some go-for-the-throat rock n roll.

I Am the Sea/The Real Me 
(the rocking starts at the 2 minute mark for you ADD kids)

Any album that sprawls across four sides of vinyl (or, ummm, 187.1 megabytes of hard-drive when ripped at 320 kbps), needs more than a snappy opening sequence, and it’s the wealth of great tunes that really make the album. Nothing else rocks with quite the abandon of The Real Me, but there's an intesnity and hint of violence about so much of what the Who do, and it's on display here, along with more tender moments and some darkly comical asides. And all of this is sold superbly by Roger Daltrey. There may be four sides to Jimmy's personality, but there's only one voice, and it is Daltrey's versatility that enabled Townshend to realise his vision. Alice Cooper may be the great character of rock n roll, but Daltrey is the preeminent actor – delivering other people's words in other people's voices with absolute conviction. He can, you know, sing okay too I suppose.
I'm the new president,
And I grew, and I bent.
Don't you know?
Don't it show?
I'm the punk with the stutter.

And the playing? There's synths, piano and horns all over the place fleshing things out, but it is still Entwhistle’s bass-playing that always astounds me. Listen to anything he does and tell me how you get from good old-fashioned root-note chugging and walking bass-lines to THAT?! Throw in the dervish of fills and crashes that is Keith Moon and you’ve got a rhythm section that... Scratch that, you've got the rhythm section. It’s a foundation that allows Pete Townshend to sit back a little further than most guitarists of the era, often filling out the songs as required, rather than driving them along with Zeppelinesque riffing or a psychedelic wall of sound. It’s a deceptively simple approach that works wonders in a band of such capable, complementary musicians. Sadly, Townshend disciples often miss the point and wind up sounding tediously like Paul Weller – a crime for which only Paul Weller has any excuse, and even then not much of one.

5:15/Sea and Sand

It's not easy going though. A moment’s inattention and I’m scratching my head wondering what the hell Daltrey is on about now, and there are a number of tracks it’s hard to imagine working outside of this album. An hour and a bit tracing someone’s mental malfunctions is not necessarily fodder for repeated listening either (see also: Chinese Democracy). Conversely, some of the lighter moments do veer worryingly close to an impression of musical theatre.

However, while Townshend’s artistic vision (and demented single-mindedness) would occasionally derail the band, Quadrophenia holds itself together. Songs that might have been consigned to the b-sides bin on another recording session are given value by the story, and the strength of the performances ensures that the momentum, both conceptually and musically, is never lost.

At the end of the day it’s that flirtation with the insufferable, and that willingness to risk falling down that makes Quadrophenia for me. The world would be a fairly awful place if everybody tried to make albums like this, but on this occasion the play-write is so on form, the players hitting their marks so perfectly that Quadrophenia wound up an album no other band could have created, more than earning its seat at the big table with anything any of their contemporaries achieved.

Love Reign O'er Me

Next Edition: You best believe I'm from New York City!


  1. Great post. It's true - I'm a fairly big Who fan and have often overlooked this album. I know many of the songs from it but have never bothered to listen to it as a complete album. Also, the cover is VERY serious (cue a coked up, self-indulged Pete Townshend) (and it looks more mid-80s than early 70s). This put me off buying it more than a few times (I know, how stupid is that!?) ...

  2. The whole album is VERY serious. There are a few fun moments, mostly stemming from Daltrey's theatrical performance, but it isn't easygoing. And yeah, I'd heard songs from it too (and let us not forget WASP's awesome take on The Real Me), but they all work better in the context of the album IMO.

  3. And yeah, if I could have fitted this in, I would have... My first exposure to The Who:

  4. Michael, this is a seriously well reasoned defense of "Quadorphenia". Your writing is appealingly personalized and you put it forth with a light touch. I'm not wholly persuaded, however, that this is one of the great albums of rock and roll , or that it is a major part of the Who's canon. "Tommy", as I mentioned in the diatribe I posted on my own blog, was a double disc success, conceptually and musically, because Townsend retained the humor, verve and spark that he had become famous for; the songs were simple, melodic and super-charged. Even though that album was followed up by what I think is their greatest work, "Who's Next" (ironically composed, in part, from songs intended for a another rock opera , "Lifehouse", which Townsend abandoned), Townsend's mood significantly evolved from youthful saracasm and fecklessness to something more meloncholic,reflective; he obviously felt driven to make a major statement. "Quadrophenia", it is argued, is great because it stands for something greater than itself, that it contains a tale that is epochal and defining of a generation's attitude that cannot quite be encapsulated in words or guitar chords. Perhaps, but that, for me, does not make for a great album--it amounts only to a great explanation about what the author intended. Album greatness lies in the grooves, in my opinion, in the individual quality and collective worth of the music as music; the themes and sub themes , for me, work only as well as the structure Townsend creates for them. And I still think this record is subpar compared against the rest of their Keith Moon-era work; it sounds leaden, ponderous, drawn out. It has an element I would otherwise never associate with the Who, verbosity. All the same, your piece is a good read and it reflects good thinking. You have a quality approach regarding this rock and roll stuff.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! As with most albums (including both that I've covered so far), I can totally understand how the things I like are the same things that might turn someone else away. I think that's one of the defining characteristics of most great albums. They push right up against the boundary of something, and for those that think they fall on the right side of that boundary, it's a masterpiece... For everyone else, not so much...

  5. Mike, I love the Who, but I think that Who's Next remains possibly their best and Quadrophenia is self-indulgent prog rock and hard work to listen to (with the exception of 5.15 which is a masterpiece). There is not enough time in my life to listen to things that are hard work. So I;m off to listen to Bargain. And as you asked me to, I'll call you an idiot, although I don't think you are one. I enjoyed the blog.