“Musically, Quadrophenia is the densest, most complicated material Townshend ever produced, but it seems to lack the resilient recurring themes that made Tommy memorable despite its shortcomings. The music also marks a retreat from the no-bars-held hard rock of the last two albums into more moderately rocking stuff….tempos are more languid, songs tend to float rather than thrash…it’s like an entire record based around ‘The Song Is Over’…quiet, melodic opening, bombastic rocking section with an overweening chorus that never takes off completely, all of it ornamented by Pete’s neverending bag of guitar tricks and various synth noises. ‘I’m One’, ‘Is It In My Head’, ‘Cut My Hair’, ‘The Dirty Jobs’, ‘Sea and Sand’…they’re almost all the same song. They serve the story, I suppose, but they sound about as similar as American beers taste. Add to this that Moon especially is hamstrung into playing ‘beats’ the whole album through and I still can’t hear the bass work most of the time and it all adds up into sounding very important, but ultimately only dimly memorable.”
The debate between Tommy vs. Quadrophenia pisses me off to no end, partly because Who’s Next and The Who Sell Out (a scrapped concept and half-concept, respectively) would be better candidates for discussion than this one against Tommy, but mostly because I think a lot of the people who pick Quadrophenia do it because the concept is less stupid. (But the lyrics don’t matter, right?) The only thing about the Who that pisses me off more is the noticeable gradual decline of their respect that coincides with the decline of progressive rock’s stock (what, with the recent Pitchfork best songs from the 1970s list dishearteningly lack of Yes’ “Roundabout” or Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”), to say nothing of the decline of classic rock in the eyes of the vocal, jaded, hipper-than-thou crowd. They’re a great band, they made great music. This one has some of that greatness, but just less of it than those three albums – more on that latter.
To address the concept: it is true, this is more “relatable” than a blind, deaf and dumb pinball wizard who gets touched by his uncle: here, Jimmy – real original names, these guys – goes through every-person problems of getting your hair cut, losing your women, losing your mind; it all culminates with Jimmy deciding to end his life before the epiphany that living is better. It doesn’t matter that the story takes place in 1960s Britain: that sort of bildungsroman is basically eternal, and it doesn’t matter too much that the selling point that Jimmy’s multiple personalities all represent one of the members of the band because I’ve never been able to discern each members’ personalities through the music of the band – unlike say, the Beatles to use the easiest example.
But CapnMarvel also points out that the stories behind Tommy and Quadrophenia are second to the music. He’s right, but that’s just the thing: the music here is problematic: there’s nothing here that approaches the sweet melodicism of “1921” or rocks as hard or fast or tightly as “Pinball Wizard” despite this album being much louder (to say nothing about those other two albums; “Love Reign O’er Me” isn’t as cathartic as “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and its synth part – while lovely – isn’t exactly a “Baba O’Riley” either). It’s at this point where the Who resign themselves to the hard rock stuff that they’ve always been good at except for some reason the hard rock always plods here. Daltrey yells a lot more than he sings; the volume knob of Keith Moon’s unmistakable drum-rolls has been turned up to maximum, making him sound like a one-trick pony (and making me yearn for the more understated work of Big Star’s Jody Stephens).
Actually, everything sounds like it’s been turned to the maximum volume, making certain elements sound like mush and giving us such little breathing room that the double album becomes overbearing before you even get to the second disc. And when you finally get a hard-earned rest (ie. “Cut My Hair”; “I’m One”), the song always shifts into another merciless plod; “5:15” is similar in structure, but that song is the best here, so it doesn’t count. Elsewhere, “Helpless Dancer” starts with a stately trumpet melody and then throws it out the window for the ridiculous piano clomp thirty seconds in – the best parts of that song are available elsewhere; the horn melody on instrumental recapitulation “The Rock” and a sample of “The Kids Are Alright.” (Speaking of quoting your first album, “5:15” references “My Generation”; this would’ve been the perfect swan song.) Same goes with “I’ve Had Enough,” which is only good for the “Love Reign O’er Me” sections (which it doesn’t even try to transition into, it just sounds like a fucking mess), and hearing Daltrey belt out “You – were under the impression / That when you were walking forward! / That you’d end up further onward! But things ain’t quite that simple!” sounds like he’s a street preacher instead of a physically powerful singer.
The main highlights are stuff that other people introduced me to; my driving instructor turning up “The Real Me” during a lesson and a first year university friend telling me she liked that “inside outside” song by the Who (prompting me to download a best of compilation and eventually end up here). The former might not be doing much with the horns other than accenting the most obvious places, but that’s okay because of how much energy is here: Keith Moon and Pete Townsend are both slashing at their respective instruments, and John Entwistle’s bass hits like a train. And “5:15” is their last great song: the absolute swagger of the horn riff; the back-and-forth’s of the vocals (“The ushers are sniffing! Eau-de-cologning!”); the one-note piano chorus pulse. Yes! Yes! It’s even better than “Love Reign O’er Me!” (Which is still great, and as best we can hope for to close out the mostly dragging second disc. But the “That falls like TE-EEEES from on high” is a real sour note, n’est pas?)
Other positives: the melodicism of the verses of “Cut My Hair” (the first two lines are delivered so beautifully! You don’t have to care!), and Entwhistle’s lovely bass in that same song; the rising bombast in the choruses of “The Punk and the Godfather” in the internal rhyme scheme; the playful piano in “Drowned.” But the non-praised parts of “Cut My Hair” and “Drowned” both sound like everything else around them, to say nothing of some of non-praised songs: “Is It In My Head?” puts way too much stock in its choruses, which don’t catch fire; Keith Moon’s “Bell Boy” loses my interest as soon as the histrionics start (which, I suppose was the point, but it’s not exactly something that invites listens). And I’m almost positive nothing would’ve been lost had this album started out with its de facto 6-minute overture (as on Tommy) and saved us two minutes by scotching “I Am the Sea.”
When I first heard Tommy, it blew my mind – as I’m sure it did for a lot of people in 1969; the prospect of a rock band doing something Very Serious by way of merging opera and rock in a way that was more complete than Sgt. Pepper’s – like listening to classical music without listening to classical music! This one tries very hard to blow your mind – it’s louder, there’s more instruments, there’s less acoustic guitar. It tries so hard that it doesn’t at all.