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The Who - Quadrophenia CD (album) cover


The Who



4.50 | 589 ratings

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5 stars When this arrived in the mail several weeks ago it marked the first time I had sincerely listened to Quadrophenia as a serious work of art. That's embarrassing, being a huge Who fan, but it's the honest truth. When I bought the LP in late '73 my head wasn't much into hard rock any more so, after a few cursory spins, I shelved and eventually sold my vinyl copy. What led me to reexamine this landmark album was the adoration I found in the reviews on this site and I'm glad I did because, other than the few cuts that get played on classic rock stations, I realized that I barely knew most of the songs. Yet it's not the high-octane, energetic music that has garnered my respect as much as the subject matter and that's what I want to address in this review.

Rock & roll has been a pressure release valve for teenage angst since Bill Haley sang "Rock around the Clock," eventually evolving through punk, grunge and some forms of emo. That's no revelation. But an objective, realistic walk through the world of a young person's societal and hormone-fueled anxiety has rarely been taken on. To my knowledge (some of Pink Floyd's darker material notwithstanding) only Pete Townsend and Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) have strolled down that shadow-filled alley. One finds that, with few differences, the manic Mod of the mid-sixties and any one of a host of sunken-eyed juveniles of the late 2000s have a lot in common. Both are disenfranchised souls that can't find a purpose for being. Their type seem destined to slink around the outskirts of every new generation from now till eternity. In "Anesthetize" on "Fear of a Blank Planet" they're "lost in the mall, shuffling through the stores like zombies" while in Jimmy's world they're out of their brains on the train. In both cases their tales climax in a contemplation of suicide on one hand and baptism in water (life- redeeming, purifying faith in the unseen creator) on the other. If there's a line of demarcation between them it's that today's choice of pills makes kids apathetic, lethargic and uninvolved whereas the uppers and downers that Jimmy mindlessly ingests only make him unsatisfied, rebellious and extremely angry.

While this was initially to be a story of an almost Frankenstein-like guy, sewn together with pieces of the four different personalities in the Who, Townsend changed his mind and made Jimmy into a tragic everyman, assailed on every side by technology, mutating styles and trends and the ever-present struggle to be special. The ocean is never far away and the album starts with the sounds of waves crashing ashore as mysterious snippets of musical themes dart in and out of the wet spray. The serenity of the moment is interrupted by the frantic rhythm track of John Entwistle and Keith Moon as they lead a full horn section through the torrid "The Real Me." Here the stage is set as Jimmy asks his doctor, his mother and his priest if they can help him through the puzzle of identity crisis but none of them can because they don't know how. "Quadrophenia," an instrumental overture, follows and it effectively plots the course that lies ahead with tasteful synthesizers and a sophisticated arrangement. In "Cut My Hair" Jimmy states his general dissatisfaction with the way things are. "Why do I have to move/with a crowd of kids that hardly notice I'm around/I have to work myself to death/just to fit in," he complains. Pete's lighter vocal approach and his duet with Roger Daltrey capture Jimmy's hopeless mood as the tune flows through varying phases. At some point cock an ear to the incredible runs John is playing on his bass and you'll find out why he was so pivotal to their sound.

Roger and Pete embody opposing sides of an issue on "The Punk and the Godfather," an evocative argument between Jimmy and the leader of the band he followed. He feels they've become conceited, ungrateful jerks. "You only became what we made you" he cries. "No surprise/I told lies/I'm the punk in the gutter," the rock star shrugs, adding "and yet I live your future out/by pounding stages like a clown." (A brutal self-assessment?) Jimmy turns away in disgust and, accompanied by a simple folk- rock air on "I'm One," avers his intention to find himself and his destiny alone. However, stark reality rears its ugly head on the melodic "Dirty Jobs" in which he has to face his extremely limited career options. I love the "chirping" strings throughout and the sarcastic circus aura at the end. Nice touch. On "Helpless Dancer" Daltrey sings superbly as the tension builds steadily over a basic piano and French horn track. The protagonist's growing desperation is evident. "When a man is trying to change/but only causes further pain/you realize that all along/something in us is going wrong. you stop dancing."

Jimmy's drug-induced paranoia creeps in on the plodding "Is It In My Head?" where, unfortunately, Moon's sloppy drumming drags. Thankfully it's only a dip in the trail as it leads directly to one of the best songs on the album, the exciting and very intriguing "I've Had Enough." Once again Roger and Pete blend their unique vocals into this song that employs no less than three separate melodies and feels. Jimmy's rage is front and center. "You were under the impression/that when you were walking forwards/you'd end up further onward/but things ain't quite that simple," he snarls. "There's a millionaire above you/and you're under his suspicion" he growls. He goes on to list the many things he's given up on like living, dying, smiling, crying and, ultimately, trying to love. Jimmy's landscape is bleak, to say the least. His solution? Get high as a kite and go ride the "5:15" where "nowhere is home." Numbing, self-induced sedation is an option whether it's 1964 or 2064. Some things never change. You gotta admit, though, this hot tune's a hell of a rocker where Keith gives his drum kit a wallop and guest Chris Stainton plays a mean piano. It's one of the tightest tracks they ever recorded.

Once Jimmy crashes, however, the ocean beckons him. In "Sea and Sand" he must face the fact that he's now homeless (having been thrown out of his parent's house), the girl he was infatuated with has waltzed off with a rival and his bed is the beach. The strong, high-energy "Drowned" finds him with nothing to do but contemplate his empty life as he stares across the bay. In contrast to his sobering situation, the Who turns the song into a spirited jam of unbridled enthusiasm led once again by Stainton's hot piano licks. Jimmy takes yet another hard hit on "Bell Boy" when he runs into a former fellow nihilist that he used to look up to for being a rebel unshackled by convention, but is now nothing more than a lowly baggage humper. Moon's portrayal of the half-snockered, slobbering dolt groveling for quarter tips and "always running at someone's heel" is spot on. For Jimmy it's another illusion shattered and he reacts by falling headlong into Quadrophenia where his romantic, violent, lunatic and hypocritical natures clash together in "Doctor Jimmy." He's in a tailspin and he lashes out with unadulterated resentment.

"The Rock" is a brilliant musical wrap-up that melds all the themes into a six and a half minute prog epic. It's fantastic and drives us to the dramatic finale where Jimmy returns to the seashore to sink or swim in "Love, Reign O'er Me." Here Roger pours every drop of his blood, sweat and tears into the vocal performance and when he sings the bridge of "I can't sleep and I can't think/the nights are hot and black as ink/Oh, God, I need a drink/of cool, cool rain" we easily envision Jimmy nearing the edge of the eternal ocean. He has a choice. Survive or succumb. It's hard to name a song more emotional or more appropriate as the concluding note resounds like God's booming foghorn.

I'll be the first to admit that there's a certain "sameness" to the overall atmosphere throughout this long album that contributed heavily to my dismissing it all those years ago. The group's usual wide selection of styles that characterizes most of their previous output is scarce on Quadrophenia but I believe that Townsend was trying to emphasize the lack of variety in Jimmy's life. I'm not saying it's dull in any way, shape or form. It's not. The Who just asserts their focused, unrelenting force of will to most effectively present a musical documentary about the harsh but all-too-real teenage wasteland that we all must grow up in and out of. But, as with a great novel, you can't rely on the Cliff Notes or, in the case of Quadrophenia, my inadequate review to recognize and comprehend the genius. You have to totally immerse yourself in the lyrics and music to fathom the author's answer to "why?" and nothing less will suffice to understand what makes this a masterpiece of progressive rock.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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