“Why should I care?”
The “rock opera” Tommy elevated the status of the band. Touring in support of the record-making a captured-for-all-posterity stop at Woodstock, the Who’s live machine was in full gear, and their reputation was rising. Their playing had become ferocious, the interplay nuanced and arguably more powerful than anyone else in rock. They had put in the ten thousand hours of playing live, making them outliers. All four members achieved new plateaus using their instruments. Daltrey found his voice hidden in his now permanently on-display six-pack.
Live at Leeds captures the Who during this period in all their power. My Generation, a two-minute single, became a fifteen-minute improvisation incorporating snippets of other songs. Young Man Blues has more bite than anything previous, showcases the extraordinary tightness of the band, and is a precursor to the punk attitude which came nearly a decade later. “A young man ain’t got nothin’ F’ off!”
Give a listen to the Deluxe Edition of Leeds, and it becomes apparent that Tommy was a bit of live Albatross. Songs like Christmas, Go to the Mirror, and Sally Simpson, while advancing Tommy’s ” plot “, are, in the end, not Pete’s best compositions. Worse, these songs didn’t translate well live.
Pete knew this, and the pressure to outdo himself must have been immense. We all know what happened next: the Lifehouse fiasco and its crumbs, which became their most celebrated release, Who’s Next. This is all captured on Classic Album Who’s Next. One of the best of that DVD series.
Quadrophenia, surprise, is the Who’s highest charting US release. Fellow Brit Elton John had a double LP of his own, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, that kept the Who’s album from the number-one spot. No number one for the Who in the US.
“Is it in my head?”
Quadrophenia is Pete Townshend’s Pet Sound. Like Sounds, it is busting with musical ideas that are all executed well. One great unexpected melody after another. Strings, horns, sound clips, and the sounds of the sea! Elaborate arrangements that go way beyond anything Next.
Where Brian Wilson had LA studio aces The Wrecking Crew on Sounds to execute his musical vision, Townshend had only himself and the Who. While Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye may be an excellent rhythm section, they can’t generate the power of John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Moonie and the Ox turned out to be a wrecking crew of their own. Quadrophenia incorporates the band’s “controlled recklessness” live interplay in the studio better than anything before or since.
“move with the fashion, or be outcast.”
Daltrey is in excellent voice. Entwistle’s playing on the Real Me alone takes the bass further into melodic complexity while simultaneously keeping the bottom. Plus, he provides a remarkable amount of horn support that significantly deepens the music. Sadly, this is the last hurrah for Moonie, who, if you listen carefully, is beginning to lose some of the snaps found on Leeds and Next. He will never again be this good. Check out his fills on I’m the One – utterly brilliant. His vocals on Bell Boy, one of his only vocal appearances on a Who record, are oddly touching.
The show ultimately is Pete’s. These songs were all composed and performed initially by himself (some of these demos later appeared on Scoop). Pete plays guitar, sings, synthesizes, and adds some terrific piano (Chris Stainton guests on four tracks). This may be Townshend’s best guitar playing. Acoustic, electric, finger-picking, rhythm, lead, volume pedal, power chords – it’s all here from the most underrated guitarist in rock history.
Most astounding is that the concept behind the record works. It may not make any sense – a teen with four personalities personified by the four members of the Who – but it works. The evidence is that Quadrophenia works best as an album, not merely a collection of songs. In particular, the two long instrumentals, Quadrophenia and The Rock work entirely within their contexts, introducing melodic themes and moving the “story” along. They function as active overtures and interludes in a classic sense. What is clear more than anything, like Brian Wilson in Pet Sounds, Pete Townshend is more than a songwriter; he is a composer.
While Who by Numbers and Who are You have some highlights, they are unfocused. Fame, and more importantly, drugs and alcohol, had taken over the role of Muse for the band while their instrumental abilities diminished. Ironically, Moon eventually died of a drug overdose from a drug to fight alcoholism. After several Who reincarnations with other drummers, Entwistle also died of a drug overdose. Such a sad and tragic end for two innovators and geniuses of their instruments.
Townshend, the genius behind it all, has had Broadway success with Tommy, an uneven yet admirable solo career, and recently written some terrific songs for him and Daltrey on a new “Who” CD, Endless Wire. The Who marches on, I suppose.
“You stop dancing!”
Quadrophenia was turned into a decent film, a cult classic of sorts, notable for a cameo by the then-emerging star Sting. It was recently reworked into a stage production, although recently closing, and may not share the success of Tommy.
Quadrophenia, like Pet Sounds, may be the last great moment from the Who. Perhaps Townshend has a Smile somewhere in the vaults? We can only hope.