The Who – [Album]

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Quadrophenia is always described as The Who’s second rock opera, but I have always thought of it more as a rock novel. Why a novel? First, it just feels more like a novel than an opera. Its scope, its characters, its focus all feel novelistic. When I break it down, I can list definite reasons why it fits the one genre over the other, especially if I compare it to Tommy:

  • Tommy is plot driven, Quadrophenia is mainly a series of episodes.
  • Tommy is a philosophical piece, Quadrophenia is more of a character study.
  • Quadrophenia is also a study of a particular moment in history (the Mod era in Britain), which, again, is more suited to a novel.

Those are all strong enough arguments in their own right, but the primary difference – that which makes Quadrophena more a novel than an opera – is the point of view. Tommy has an omniscient point of view with multiple narrators – and that makes it possible to stage as an opera. Quadrophenia has a single point of view, that of Jimmy, the main character. There are only two songs (“The Punk Meets the Godfather” and “Bell Boy”) in which another character speaks, and in both of those the character is speaking directly to Jimmy, preserving the point of view. If Quadrophenia were to be staged, it would be primarily a solo show.

As an album, Quadrophenia still stands up strong after all these years. Musically, it still sounds fresh. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this album represents a pinnacle of rock music; a demonstration of just what the form is capable of. It’s exciting, it’s emotional, it grabs you and makes you both think and feel. Sonically, the reissue has even more punch and power than before.

Ironically, by focusing so closely on one period of time, Townshend makes it timeless. Again, compare Quadrophenia with Tommy; Tommy is inextricably tied up with the somewhat mushy philosophies of the late Sixties. It couldn’t have been written at any other time, but Quadrophenia escapes this trap. First, it acknowledges its historical perspective – it is about the Mod years of the mid-Sixties but, by already looking back at that time, it frees itself from time. This is not 1973’s view of the Sixties, it is Townshend’s personal view; he could easily have written it today.

The bonus material, a selection of Townshend’s demos, provide an interesting look at the genesis of the record. First, most are fully formed versions of the songs. It is apparent he could have pulled this off as a solo project, but it is to our benefit that he did not. While the demos contain the essence of the songs, it takes the full band to really bring out their power.

Those demos also provide some insight into the genius of Townshend’s songwriting skills. While most of the demos are close to the final versions of the songs, there are some noticeable differences, in both structure and lyrics. The revamped songs fit the feel of the album better and, in all the cases of rewriting the lyrics, Townshend has brought them closer to the themes of the album; some of the original songs are general tunes, which could stand on their own. In every case, Townshend rewrites them to fit Jimmy’s circumstance and personality.

For those of you who already love Quadrophenia, this is a chance to reaffirm that love. For any of you who are not fully familiar with it, this is your chance to discover one of the true masterpieces of rock music.



The 40th Anniversary edition reissue of Quadrophenia by The Who is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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