Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Quadrophenia' is The Who's forgotten rock opera

The Who produced a lot of great music over the years, but one of their best selling albums seems to have been forgotten as time as passed. Quadrophenia was a follow-up of sorts to the hugely successful rock opera Tommy. After Tommy, main songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend felt the need to deliver a second rock opera, and Quadrophenia was the result.

However, it was not easy. The initial follow-up was called Lifehouse, but the project eventually collapsed. The bulk of the music from that project appeared on Who's Next in 1971, as well as on singles released in 1972. Heading into 1973, Quadrophenia took shape and when released, it reached the highest a Who album would ever reach in America, topping out at number two on the album chart (five years later, the Who Are You album would also reach the number two spot).

Despite the sales, the album was never embraced in America like the Tommy album. There are several reasons. For starters, the plot was threadbare. If Tommy's storyline had gaps then Quadrophenia's was like steam disappearing into the air. It is very difficult to follow a progression of events despite having some great individual songs.

Secondly, the setting of the album was in the Mod culture of mid-1960s England. This was the setting in which The Who began, and it was obviously very dear to them. However, most Americans had no idea how to connect with that culture.

Thirdly, as the album title states, the story's main character, Jimmy, did not just suffer from schizophrenia. He suffered from 'quadrophenia,' and the album's efforts to show the four sides of his personality lacked any real depth. Each of the four personalities was meant to represent a member of the band. 'Love, Reign O'er Me' was Townshend's theme. Singer Roger Daltrey's was 'Helpless Dancer.' Bassist John Entwistle's was the 'Is It Me?' portion of 'Dr. Jimmy.' Drummer Keith Moon's was 'Bell Boy.'

Each of those songs is excellent when taken singularly, but as part of a storyline, it is confusing how these fit in with the overall album.

Because of these issues, Quadrophenia seemingly has not had the staying power of Tommy. The two singles from the album ('Love, Reign O'er Me' and 'The Real Me') both failed to crack the top 70 of the singles chart. Tommy, on the other hand, had three singles reach the top 40 ('Pinball Wizard,' 'See Me, Feel Me' and 'I'm Free').

That said, Quadrophenia has several things going for it. From a production standpoint, it is a much better sounding album compared to Tommy. The Who was finally able to harness its live sound in the studio on Who's Next and it carried over to this album.

Additionally, there are some tremendous songs on Quadrophenia. All the previously mentioned songs are first rate, as well as several others like 'I'm One,' 'Drowned' and '5:15.'

If all these songs are accepted as just individual tracks on an album, then Quadrophenia can be viewed as a triumph. Unfortunately, the band had much higher ambitions, and those ambitions were not met.

Because of this, an album that almost topped the American charts has almost none of its songs played with regularity on the radio. That is a real shame because there is some great music to be heard.


Tenn Irish said...

Enough of the Who...let's chime in on Paul McCartney. Upcoming post, perhaps?

Chris said...

Less of the Who? If nothing else, I should have more of the Who. Daily updates on what Pete Townshend had for breakfast. What does Roger Daltrey prefer...cats or dogs?

But seriously, you comment is noted.

Tenn Irish said...

The Who were wise to be cynical about politics (We Don't Get Fooled Again), but where would we be without Sir Paul to tell us who to vote for?

alfred said...

>>>but where would we be without Sir Paul to tell us who to vote for?>>>

“If you're listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you're a bigger moron than they are.”-Alice Cooper