03 April 2014

"Now it’s just the bare bones of what I am."--Quadrophenia at 40

Brighton is a fantastic place. The sea is so gorgeous you want to jump into it and sink. When I was there last time there were about two thousand mods driving up and down the promenade on scooters. My scooter’s seen the last of Brighton bloody promenade now, I know that. I felt really anonymous then, sort of like I was in an army. But everyone was a mod. Wherever you looked there were mods. Some of them were so well dressed it was sickening. Levi’s had only come into fashion about a month before and some people had jeans on that looked like they’d been born wearing them.


1973 was a mixed year for music. Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon. David Bowie became the first rock artist to perform at Earl’s Court. Malcolm and Angus Young performed as AC/DC for the first time. Queen released its first album. Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii special was broadcast to over 40 countries worldwide. Jim Croce and Gram Parsons died. Ronnie Lane left the Faces. Ian Gillan quit Deep Purple. The Everly Brothers broke up.The 1973 oil crisis caused a vinyl shortage and many records became unavailable until the following year, damaging holiday sales for the entire industry.

And Pete Townshend had had enough.

1972 had been a terrible year for The Who. They hadn’t performed in over twelve months; sessions for the follow-up to Who’s Next had produced two singles (one of which wouldn’t be released for two more years), several middling demos, and a lot of rethinking. Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle were working on solo albums and their attention was very much not on the band, and Keith Moon was  . . . Keith Moon. Meanwhile, Pete was still studying the teachings of Meher Baba and wondering what it all meant, this rock and roll game he’d been playing for the last ten years. What was it worth, all this aimless rebellion and destruction? How long could you let such a lifestyle tear you apart until you broke into pieces? When did you leave it all behind and grow up a little? Could you do that, and still keep your audience happy? Most importantly, was it more vital to give the audience what they wanted, or continue to challenge yourself and your expectations--and by association, theirs?


On the second night I saw the posters going up outside the Odeon for a WHO concert. I’d seen them down at Brighton. They were a mod group. Well, mods liked them. They weren’t exactly mods but mods did like them. They had a drummer who used to play with his arms waving about in the air like a lunatic. The singer was a tough looking bloke with really good clothes. If I hadn’t have seen him near home I would have said his hair was gold. Real gold I mean, like gold paint. The guitar player was a skinny geezer with a big nose who twirled his arm like a windmill. He wrote some good songs about mods, but he didn’t quite look like one. The bass player was a laugh. He never did anything. Nothing. He used to smile sometimes, but the smile would only last half a second and then it would switch off again. My friend Dave said he smiled a lot more at his sister, they were engaged I think. His bass sounded like a bleeding VC10.


The abandoned Who’s Next follow-up that eventually became Quadrophenia shares some odd funhouse-mirror parallels with the abandoned Lifehouse project that eventually became Who’s Next. Lifehouse started as a follow-up to the Who’s best album to date (Tommy), and was a deeply personal project whose technical limitations proved insurmountable. The sheer scope and ambition of Lifehouse nearly broke Pete Townshend’s mind, and the wreckage was salvaged into Who’s Next.

Rock Is Dead--Long Live Rock! started as a follow-up to the Who’s best album to date (Who’s Next); it was not really a concept album per se, save for a mini-opera that appeared to be a mostly-nonserious biography of the band in the vein of The Who Sell Out. But Townshend, unhappy with the work thus far, wanted to reach for something more, something deeper. This desire evolved into Quadrophenia: a deeply personal conceptual project that taxed the technical limitations of the new studio the Who built specifically to record it, and whose sheer scope and ambition proved fractious for the band.

Hardships continued. The aforementioned vinyl shortage meant that a lot of fans couldn’t get their hands on the album until months after it was released. Lack of sales kept it from climbing the charts, ruining any momentum radio play might have built. The subsequent tour found the Who under-rehearsed and feeling constrained by performing to backing tracks (more on this later), and the resulting  tensions fractured the band’s gestalt, to the point where they would never write or record as successfully together again. The worst aspect of this was that it caused the band to practically disown the album for most of the next quarter-century.


I never ever felt like I blasphemed. You know, in an old fashioned sense. But I was in a pretty blasphemous mood when I left for Brighton. Brighton cheered me up. But then it let me down. Me folks had let me down, Rock had let me down, women had let me down, work wasn’t worth the effort, school isn’t even worth mentioning. But I never ever thought I’d feel let down by being a mod.


Quadrophenia is a song suite (or “rock opera” if you prefer) about a young man named Jimmy, a “mod” in mid-60’s Britain who doesn’t get on with his family, doesn’t have friends he can rely on, whose girl has broken up with him, and whose addiction to pep pills is accelerating his mental illness--a form of multiple personality disorder so pronounced he calls it “quadrophenia.”*

Quadrophenia is a story about the Mods in Britain in the early and mid 1960s--a subculture that grew out of the bohemian “trad jazz” scene. Mods became typified by their tailor-made clothes, affinity for R&B music, and dancing all night while high on amphetamines, which they called “leapers.” Mods were also closely associated with rioting in seaside resort towns in 1964, where they clashed with rival gangs of rockers, notably in Brighton. The mod scene largely disintegrated by 1966, split into subgroups that were absorbed by other facets of British youth culture--notably Swinging London, the West Indian “rude boy” scene, and interestingly, the skinheads.

Quadrophenia is an album by the Who, about the Who. Coming off the greatest commercial success of their career, they were taking stock of where they had been, and where they were going . . . and were coming slightly undone at the seams in the process. Money issues had led to the ouster of manager Kit Lambert. . . but Pete Townshend insisted on keeping Lambert around as a sounding board for his ideas. (One of those ideas was to endow the Jimmy character with four personalities that reflected each individual band member.) The studio they built to record Quadrophenia was half finished when recording started, and equipment had to be borrowed to get tracks on tape. The weather was so bad and the ceiling so leaky, water was practically pouring down the walls. And all this chaos found its way, in one form or another, into the album.

Quadrophenia is about feeling disillusioned with aging; about trying to recapture past glories, and failing; about realizing that those glories were never really all that glorious in the first place; about the realization that what you’ve made of yourself is not necessarily what you wanted for yourself; about fighting the urge to go on as you always have because it’s all you know; about lashing out at others in anger you should be directing at yourself; about being sick at heart and soul and not knowing what the cure is, so you keep treating the symptoms with pills; about the loneliness of crowds; about the loneliness of solitude; about the loneliness of trying to be yourself when you don’t know who you are.

Quadrophenia is about a young man stuck on a rock in the sea off Brighton, caught in a torrential rainstorm, feeling and thinking all of these things and trying to articulate them, not so you will understand him, but so that he can at last understand himself.

Most of all, Quadrophenia is about moving past all this, and growing up.


It used to be alright at home. My dad would get pissed out of his brain every single night, and when the telly finished he’d storm out of the house like a lunatic to get to the Eel and Pie shop before it closed. He’d come home with enough for an army. I never liked the eels, just the pies and mash, and the liquor. My friend Dave said that eels live on sewage. My dad must be full of it, he used to eat five bleeding cartons of eels a day. I don’t think he ever twigged I was doing five cartons of leapers every day. Each to his own sewage.


When Keith Moon overdosed on horse tranquilizers at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on Nov. 20, 1973, it was symptomatic of a lot of things wrong with the Who at the time.

. . . that probably needs some background, doesn’t it? Okay, here goes:

Pete Townshend: “Someone handed Keith Moon six pills backstage before the show and told him, ‘These are horse tranquilizers. If you take one with a glass of brandy, you get a very interesting high.’

“And Keith said, ‘One?! Sod that, I’m Keith Moon!’ And took the lot!”**

Moon made it an hour into the show before collapsing. He was dragged backstage, stuck in a cold shower, given a cortisone injection, rallied, and came back out to thunderous cheers . . . only to collapse again three minutes into the next song.

Moon was taken to the hospital, and a clearly irritated Pete Townshend stepped up to the mic to ask, “Can anyone here play the drums? I mean, somebody good!”

As luck would have it, a drummer named Scot Halpin was in the front row with his buddy. Said buddy talked Scot’s way onstage for him; Halpin was seated behind Moon’s kit, and given a pair of sticks. After some instructions from Pete, Halpin played three songs with the band to help them finish out the show in something better than ignominy.
Rolling Stone magazine later named him their pick-up drummer of the year. Moon was back behind the drums for the next show, the tour went on, and now you have your background.

And it was symptomatic, as I said, of the way things were with the Who, and with rock music in general in the 1970s. The youthful exuberance of the 1960s had largely faded, and the rot had set in. What hadn’t gone away was a feeling of invulnerability--despite the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin within a few years of each other. Rock stars, especially the big ones like the Who, the Stones, and Zeppelin had become insulated from the realities of their own lives to a large degree. Part of that was a natural outgrowth of being part of a huge shambling juggernaut of managers and handlers and hangers-on, who were only too happy to hand you a half-dozen horse tranquilizers with a wink and a nod. This led directly to the other part of it: the fog of rampant, day to day partying that birthed and/or fed addictions, destroyed talents, and wrecked careers. Townshend had seen it firsthand, first with Jimi Hendrix’s death, then again with Eric Clapton’s bout with heroin addiction.

Surely this was weighing on his mind as much as his memories of the Mod scene as he wrote the music and lyrics for Quadrophenia. There’s a bitter helplessness to many of the lyrics, a sense of futility, of good things just out of and forever out of reach. This alternates with a druggy, hazy feel in other sections--an acknowledgement of that removal from reality I mentioned above. The song “5:15” is an essential example, where Jimmy takes so many pills before boarding the train to Brighton that he essentially has an out-of-body experience--much to the dismay of his more staid seatmates, I’m sure.

This alternation between bitter reality and druggy fantasy is essential to the album, and to Jimmy’s character--because it shows the ultimate pointlessness of losing oneself in the numbness of drugs, and of trying to escape from, or just to augment, reality for a while by taking a pill with a glass of brandy for an interesting high.

Keith Moon could tell you all about that, if he was still around to do the telling.


What a laugh. It must be alright to be plain ordinary mad. About halfway over I took a swallow of this Gilbeys gin I’d bought. Booze never did help me much though. On the boat it did me right in, especially on top of the pills and the come-down. Anyway, the sound of the engine turned into this drone, then the drone turned into a sound like pianos or something. Like heavenly choirs or orchestras tuning up. It was really an incredible sound. Like the sort of noise you’d expect to hear in heaven, if there is such a place. I pinched myself and I wasn’t really drunk anymore. I was floating. I felt really happy. I must have looked bloody stupid as it happens. I was waving me Gilbeys around in the air and singing in tune with the engine. The sound got better and better. I was nearly delirious when I got to the Rock. I switched off the engine and jumped onto it. When the engine stopped, so did the music. And when that beautiful music stopped, I remembered the come-down I had, I felt sick from the booze, the sea was splashing all over the place and there was thunder in the distance. I remembered why I had come to this bastard Rock.


Quadrophenia did not sell as well as the Who’s previous albums. There was the vinyl shortage and the mixed reviews (Rolling Stone: “Superbly performed and produced, exquisitely packaged, and extremely boring.”). There was also the muted audience reaction to the new material the subject matter of which was so unfamiliar to Americans that Townshend and Roger Daltrey felt compelled to explain them between songs on tour, certain death when you’re performing arena shows. The pre-recorded backing tracks of synthesizers and horns (used due to Pete’s determination to have the Who and only the Who on the stage) were plagued by miscues and often didn’t work--and when they did function they tied the band down rather than freeing it.

And there was the sense that the album was something of a mis-step, especially in America. 1973 was the year of, among others, Pink Floyd’s sweeping Dark Side of the Moon, Elton John’s sparkling Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road, Alice Cooper’s over the top Billion Dollar Babies, and Led Zeppelin’s sprightly Houses of the Holy. Amongst all that here came the Who with a double album about some crazy mod kid having flashbacks on a rock in the ocean, with monochrome album art as grim as that sounds. The songs were complex, multilayered compositions about aging and losing a youth you can never regain--challenging stuff , especially for American listeners who were still mostly getting high and grooving to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” without thinking about what it really meant.

Audiences were puzzled by the sound of the album as well. Townshend worked with different guitar effects than he had used before, and Entwistle’s bass was in a higher than usual register on many of the songs. The vocals were mixed down (much to Roger Daltrey’s irritation), and even a remix a few years later didn’t seem to help. It’s not hard to see how all this played into the perception at the time that Quadrophenia was something of a dud. Audiences, US audiences in particular, wanted the old Who--and a disillusioned Townshend soon relented and began giving them what they wanted. He felt he’d completely miscalculated on everything to do with the album, and aside from a film adaptation in 1978 Quadrophenia remained mostly ignored, the red-headed stepchild of the Who’s oeuvre.
All of which is a shame, as Quadrophenia is a stone classic. It stands with Tommy and Who’s Next at the apex of the Who’s output. Like those other two albums, Quadrophenia shows the band firing on all cylinders, churning out one killer tune after another, and finishing with one of the greatest power ballads ever written. Today, Pete Townshend regards the album as the best thing the Who ever did.

Looking at it now, forty years on (good lord), hindsight and an improved remix lends Quadrophenia a lot of benefits. For one thing, Pete Townshend’s songwriting was never, ever better than it is here. The individual songs are strong, some of them simply goddamn amazing--”The Real Me,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5:15,” “Drowned,” “Doctor Jimmy,” and “Love, Reiogn O’er Me,” for instance--and each one stands on its own very well as an individual composition. Even the one genuinely mediocre song, “The Dirty Jobs,” is guilty at most of being incredibly obvious and earnest. And even it has a sweet melody and chorus.

Take the album as a whole, as a series of interconnected compositions, and close listening reveals a wealth of interlinking and repeated themes and images. They play off of each other, reinforce each other, and unify the album into a cohesive unit. Individual leitmotifs crop up again and again on the album: First we have the vaunted “four personas” represented by the Who--the “Helpless Dancer” fanfare (Daltrey), “Bellboy” (Moon), ”Love, Reign O’er Me” (Townshend) and the exquisite “Is it me for a moment?” chorus (Entwistle), which is in my opinion the single loveliest thing Pete Townshend has ever written. Even beyond that, the songs quote each other regularly. Lyrics from “I’ve Had Enough” show up in “Sea and Sand,” the melody of “Cut My Hair” serves as the intro to “5:15.” “5:15” and “Drowned” both quote each other. And as if this wasn’t enough, the songs quote earlier Who songs from the mod era, such as their old High Numbers chestnut “Zoot Suit.”  “My Generation” crops up more than once, usually in sardonic, mocking fashion and so does a snippet of “The Kids Are All Right.” The truly amazing thing about it is none of this feels forced. Each of these moments flows naturally through the music. By the time the penultimate track “The Rock” comes around, and Townshend starts weaving these themes together so that they play harmoniously next to one another, signifying Jimmy’s personas collapsing inward into a cohesive whole, you realize that you are in the presence of some serious genius. Even Tommy’s  considerable compositional strengths pale beside what Townshend did with this album. I believe it’s safe to say he took a lot of lessons from the abandoned Lifehouse project and applied them here.

Second is the power of the story itself. Jimmy is very much an everyman (or maybe “everymod”) character, and his story is the story of a lot of disillusioned kids trying desperately to belong, only to have their asses handed to them--by work, by their parents, by their boyfriends or girlfriends, by their heroes, by their music, by their drugs. The tale is a common one: Jimmy loses his faith in life and goes seeking past glories, only to be shown that those glories are nothing to have faith in either--”you can’t go home again,” as a certain Mr. Hardy once noted. Jimmy rages against this realization, reaches a crossroads--or in his case, a lonely rock in the sea--and battles the hardest thing to fight--himself, and his own failed expectations. The epiphany Jimmy achieves in “Love, Reign O’er Me” (and Townshend leaves it open ended as to whether Jimmy walks away from this epiphanic battle or not, though he later asserted Jimmy survives) is one that many of us face in our lives, with varying degrees of grace and success: Move forward and grow, or stay where you are and wither on the vine. Townshend pulls this off sublimely, both in his lyrics and in his first person liner notes, written from Jimmy’s perspective. Again, Pete seems to have taken his lumps from Lifehouse and used them to his benefit.

Finally there is the music. Aside from some issues with song sequencing (“Drowned” seems to happen at the wrong time chronologically, and the “Quadrophenia” suite happens too early and almost derails the album), and an over-reliance on synthesizers (which would later trip the band up severely in concert), Quadrophenia shows the Who at their peak. This music is vital, urgent, approaching manic--even the acoustic numbers and ballads seem to tumble over themselves to get out. A lot of this is Townshend’s songwriting, but an equally large part of it is Keith Moon--his drumming was never more dynamic than it is here. Once the lovely “I Am the Sea” mini-ture gets out of the way and “The Real Me” slams into the room, you understand that the Who means business. The album all but grabs you by your lapels and shouts in your face to pay a-fucking-ttention, dammit. And that never really lets up, even as “Doctor Jimmy” shifts gears for another heartbreaking chorus of “Is it me for a moment?” It’s a relentless, almost savage album that somehow encompasses yearning and gentleness at the same time.  

Never are those twinned qualities more evident than in the album’s climactic song. “Love, Reign O’er Me” is widely acknowledged as one of the Who’s classic songs. I am going to take that a step further and tell you, here and now, that it is very probably the best song Pete Townshend ever wrote. It’s a rare, genuine ballad from the man who spent the early part of his career smashing guitars to pieces; it’s a searing, desperate cry for love at the heart of a storm; it’s an ache for balm in the midst of anguish, and is itself the balm it aches for. It has an exquisite melody, a breathtaking middle eight, and like just about every other song on the album it is a powerful, urgent song, surging like the tide and the waves Jimmy sings it to, demanding your attention, commanding you to acknowledge it. And that’s before Townshend’s brief, wrenching guitar solo.

The album ends as it begins: in thunder and pounding surf, this time represented by Keith Moon’s drums and a crashing brass chord courtesy of Entwistle. And the listener, if he/she comes to it sufficiently open, leaves changed--possibly even renewed, as Jimmy on his rock is. The destructive fires within him have been banked, his disparate selves united and made whole, tempered like steel, forged into a newer, more mature version of himself. He has flensed himself down, and now what you see is the real him, just the bare bones of who he is. And through him, who Pete Townshend is.

Through Jimmy, Pete Townshend challenged rock music to grow up.

Forty years later, we’re still waiting for rock to answer the challenge.


I didn’t know then what I was up to, but I know now.

*Yes, I know that isn’t how schizophrenia or MPD works, but that wasn’t widely known at the time the album was recorded, so please give me and Mr. Townshend a break. Thank you.

**Source: video interview with Pete Townshend for 30 Years of Maximum R&B documentary. Couldn’t find a link, so quoting from memory.

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