Monday, January 7, 2013
Classic Albums: The Who, Quadrophenia
Concept albums are tricky things. Some of my favorite albums are concept albums, but the organizing concepts behind them are loose enough that they don't overwhelm the songs. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper only really sticks with the concept at the start and at the end of the record. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon seems to drop and pick up the concept at will. Even concept album stalwarts The Who let the whole commercial radio broadcast concept fade away on the second side of The Who Sell Out. That record is significantly better than Tommy, which I've long found to be clunky and overrated. That record lacks The Who's fire, and has too many mediocre songs driving obscure plot points along. (Live versions of Tommy, where the band lets loose and drops extraneous songs, are actually pretty damn cool. Just check out this version of "Sparks" from Live at Leeds.)
Quadrophenia was The Who's second crack at a rock opera, and even though it sticks hard to the concept and uses songs to tell a cohesive story, it works a whole helluva lot better than Tommy. The main reason it works is that instead of some story about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a religious leader, Pete Townsend wrote a story closer to home. It's the tale of a teenage mod in 1965, the type of kid who showed up to the band's shows back then. He's going crazy, kicked out of his parents' home, unable to find steady work, and already feeling that life has passed him by. Coming in the midst of 1973's oil crisis and economic recession, the elegiac mode implies a kind of funeral for the 1960s and all the youthful hopes wrapped up in that decade.
The mournful tone is set from the start, from the album's monochromatic gray cover to the spare piano chords over the sound of crashing surf that open the album. Things kick into high gear pretty quickly after that with "(Can You See) The Real Me," where Jimmy the narrator discusses his mental illness. This track is one the more ferocious up-tempo songs in the Who's repetoire, and one whose nervous energy embodies Jimmy's fractured mental state. I first got into this album at exactly the right time, when I was in the midst of a bit of a mental trough myself. It was during my junior year of college; I put on about twenty pounds and grew a scraggly beard to match. I felt pretty damn confused about where my life was heading at that point, and this song gave me a feeling of kinship. Too bad that confusion about my future lasted for another fifteen years or so.
Quadrophenia is a double album, and I have always preferred the first disc. The songs are more cohesive, and set mood more than they do drive plot. The instrumental "Quadrophenia" showcases The Who's use of synthesizers, which they probably did more ably than any other traditional rock band at the time. "Cut My Hair" is a wonderfully tender song about the difficulties of fitting in. "The Punk and the Godfather" rocks awfully hard, and is one of those rare moments when rock stars acknowledge their ambiguous relationship with their fans. "I'm One" is one of those anthemic ballads that Townsend does better than anyone this side of Bruce Springsteen. It's a beautiful song about finding solace in your own ostracism from others, and being proud of being unique. (This tune was used to amazing effect in a scene from Freaks and Geeks.)
The second disc has always felt a little stretched, since there are more songs moving the plot along of Jimmy going down to Brighton (where the mods and rockers used to tustle) in order to find himself. There are some real gems here, though. For example, "5:15" and its overpowering horns really swing. "Bell Boy," with its hilariously goofy Keith Moon singing, uses that silly surface to mask one of the most devastating songs ever written about giving up on one's dreams. (Jimmy spots the "ace face" of his mod days working as a bellboy, resigned to his fate.)
The album ends with "Love Reign O'er Me," a bombastic ballad whose effect depends on how you feel about Roger Daltrey's signing. He really lets it all hang out, and the result can sound a little overwrought in places. That said, when he belts out the line about "nights are hot and black as ink" I get a little chill down my spine. Having listened to Pete's demo of the song, his interpretation of the song is more sensitive, and probably more fitting.
Quadrophenia is a true Who record, since it is flawed, like the band, but its flaws magnify its greatness. Great music can't be made without a little daring and taking some risks, qualities that this record has in spades. When I listen to it I remember the balm it provided for the confused young man that I used to be. Nowadays I just appreciate its stellar musicianship, which I guess makes me more of a mod than a rocker.