Here's the review of Quadrophenia from my Who Music Guide book. Again, my thanks to Ed Hanel for his contribution.
If Tommy was a career turn in The Who’s history, representing a changeover from a mod or pop singles band into an album orientated rock band, Quadrophenia represented an equally significant change. The Who had now moved from being a democratic rock group to becoming Pete’s foil. Lifehouse proved that when no band member stepped in to suggest a way forward, the project fell apart. Instead, the other three were prepared to wait for Pete’s next big idea. In hindsight, Quadrophenia was almost completely Pete’s baby, indicated by the lack of any songwriting contribution from John or the use of any other outside sources.
The general rock audience and most Who fans were probably unaware of these developments because so little (at the time) was known about the collapse of Lifehouse, out of which had come one of rock’s greatest albums. Quadrophenia can now be seen as leading directly to The Who By Numbers, generally accepted as a Townshend solo effort featuring The Who. All of which leads to the question: just what is Quadrophenia about?
The Who were often accused of being obsessed with their own history, and while ‘obsessed’ might be too strong a word, there is no doubt that their experiences as a band – and a band’s experiences of life – offered Pete Townshend a rich seam of subject matter to chronicle in his songs. No better example can be found in The Who’s catalogue than Quadrophenia which brought together several essential elements of Townshend’s style: the song cycle, the synthesizers he’d pioneered on Who’s Next, adolescent frustration, the search for spiritual contentment and an effort to try and reconcile his own past, especially the Mod experience which he’d observed in 1964/65 and which was so closely wrapped up in The Who’s story. In doing so Townshend produced his most mature masterpiece, probably the most underrated Who album of all, and one which continues to fascinate new converts several decades after its initial release.
Unfortunately, while the timing for the release of Tommy was prescient, Quadrophenia arrived at a time when lengthy rock works were beginning to lose their charm. In 1973 rock fans seemed less inclined to sit through and assimilate so much material at one stretch as they were in 1969. By 1976, three minute explosions – courtesy of the punk vanguard – would be au courrant and works like Quadrophenia roundly vilified; not that The Who hadn’t blazed a trail with three-minute explosions of their own, of course, but that was conveniently forgotten by their critics.
There were also problems playing Quadrophenia live. At their best The Who were a free-flowing, high energy machine, capable of improvising at will and flying off at remarkable tangents, usually on the spur of the moment at Pete’s whim. The backing tapes of synthesizer music, which were needed to present a substantial chunk of Quadrophenia authentically on stage dictated a different approach, a more rigid style, which allowed little room for The Who to play together in the manner in which they excelled. When the tapes didn’t gel with The Who, or The Who didn’t gel with the tapes, or – even worse – when the tapes came in at the wrong time and threw everyone off balance, Quadrophenia came crashing down, reducing Pete to a spluttering rage. The other three, eager to please but concerned that Pete occasionally aimed too high, grew equally frustrated. So, too, did the fans. Eventually, rather like Tommy, Quadrophenia was edited down, and only four songs: ‘5.15’, ‘Drowned’, ‘The Punk And The Godfather’ and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ survived as live pieces, though special mention must be made of ‘Bell Boy’, Keith’s vocal spotlight which would remain a crowd favourite while he was around to perform it.
One interesting proposition is whether The Who gave Quadrophenia sufficient time to work out its presentation problems. What would have happened if the band had added a keyboard player in 1973 for its live appearances? At the time, The Who (and Led Zeppelin) seemed to be the only major rock groups who declined to supplement the core group with back up or other studio musicians on stage. The successful 1996/97 (and subsequent) Quadrophenia tours, with their ‘cast of thousands’ demonstate the success and public acceptance that might have been achieved earlier.
Quadrophenia is the story of the journey of a Mod by the name of Jimmy, whose restlessness, frustration, and ultimate disillusionment drive him almost to suicide. It takes in many Mod concerns – clothes, style, Brighton trips, pills and even a Who concert – and ends on a note of triumph when Jimmy somehow manages to free himself from the shackles of the cult. Each member of The Who has his own musical theme in Quadrophenia and each represents one facet of Jimmy’s ‘quadraphonic’ personality, although this aspect of Quadrophenia is never fully explored. Of course, none of The Who were true Mods. Roger and John were rockers at heart, Keith was the likeliest candidate but he was more into surf music than soul and R&B and really wanted to be a Beach Boy, and Pete was an art student with an inquisitive mind who latched on to Mods at the suggestion of early manager Pete Meaden as a way to further the band’s career. But this didn’t stop Pete from observing the Mods’ way of life, their rituals and dances, and sympathising with their attitudes. Quadrophenia was his debt to the cult of Mod and, importantly, the album and film have become lasting Mod icons, the film especially a historical record of the Mod heritage.
Quadrophenia was immaculately packaged in a handsome black and white gatefold sleeve, complete with extensive liner notes telling Jimmy’s story and a 22-page book of evocative black and white photographs illustrating his personal odyssey. Released to coincide with The Who’s first UK & US tours for two years, it reached number two in both countries’ album charts.
As far as technical upgrades went, MFSL remastered a gold disc in the US but it had a disappointing overall sound (Roger and John often complained about their parts in the original mix of Quadrophenia). The remixed and remastered CDs have their proponents, but frankly don’t sound as good as the original Japanese vinyl release.
Finally, for those who consider Quadrophenia just a little too far ahead of its time, think about the album’s title. In the early seventies, quadraphonic sound was touted as the next big technical development in the music industry and Pete was clearly aware of it as an influence on his project. In 1973, the process proved too complicated and unworkable. At the time of writing, a planned upgrade that will involve a SACD hybrid version of Quadrophenia, hopefully with the addition of out-takes, playable in 5.1 surround (quad by any other name), may finally present Pete’s troubled meisterwerk as he wanted us to hear it in the first place.