Quadrophenia by The Who
By Eamon O'Neill
Let’s be quite clear from the off; The Who are one of the greatest bands in rock history. Whether the early pop perfection of ‘The Kids are Alright’, or later stadium anthems like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, Pete Townshend, along with Roger Daltrey, John Entwisle and Keith Moon created a catalogue that has scarcely been rivalled in music. One of the most respected and decorated acts of all time, the London quartet changed the face of music, and in Townshend, had a leader who would push the boundaries beyond what anyone could have expected.
The Who may have started life as a singles band with both ‘My Generation’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’ charting in the U.K. top ten in 1965, however chief songwriter Townshend was looking beyond the 7” single format, and by the time The Who reached the middle of the next decade, he’d conceived not one, but three grandiose longform concept pieces.
The first of these, ‘Tommy’, released in 1969, was the first realisation of his wider vision. A sprawling double set that followed a singular theme throughout, the ambitious release showcased The Who as a band who had more to offer than standalone pop songs.
‘Tommy’ was both an unlikely success, and an agonising creation. Attempting to follow it with another concept piece in ‘Lifehouse’, beleaguered musical architect Townshend admitted defeat and abandoned the project, instead utilising some of its key moments as individual pieces that formed the bulk of the non-concept ‘Who’s Next’ in 1971.
It wasn’t until their next long player in 1973 that the singer / guitarist would successfully repeat the ‘rock opera’ format with ‘Quadrophenia’. Looking back to the band’s early days as mod icons, Townshend - who wrote the album entirely - told the BBC in 2012; “I had a flashback to when I was 19 years old. The Who had just played this amazing gig in Brighton. After the gig we went down under the pier, and there were all these boys in Parkas with the tide coming up around their feet. That day, nine years later, the same feeling came flooding back, of feeling lost and hopeless, and I grabbed a notebook quickly and scribbled out the story that’s on the inside sleeve of the album”.
Set in London and Brighton in 1965 - the same year that the Who rose to stardom - the story follows disaffected youth Jimmy, as he struggles for a sense of identity and belonging, all the while burdened by mental illness; “Schizophrenic? I'm bleeding Quadrophrenic!”, as the liner notes explain.
Opening with the evocative ‘I Am the Sea’, the desolate sounds of the crashing English southern coastal waves are interspersed with snippets from throughout the album that act as the perfect scene-setter.
Exploding into life proper, ‘The Real Me’ kicks things off with a raucous bang. Setting the standard impossibly high from the off, it might just be the perfect Who track. With Moon’s runaway train ‘lead drums’ on the edge of derailing but never quite doing so, Entwistle’s bass runs and tasteful soloing, and, front and centre. Roger Daltry meanwhile proves the archetypal rock god, while Townshend is almost palpable, windmilling to the song’s huge open chords. It’s simply phenomenal.
The title track arrives next, forming something of an overture, lifting key moments and musical themes from across the album to come. Barely three songs in, its high drama, and an utterly thrilling way to start things.
‘Cut My Hair’ and ‘The Punk and The Godfather’ which conclude side one, beautifully showcase the contrast in vocal styles between the vulnerable Townshend and the street fighter confidence of Daltry. This was a band grown in stature over their previous five albums, and it showed.
Side two arrives in much less formidable fashion, with the beautiful acoustic finger-picking of ‘I’m One’. Offering a respite from the thrilling musical onslaught thus far, it develops into a country / rockabilly stomp that really struts along.
With the story developing, the London portion ends with disc one’s self-explanatory ‘I’ve Had Enough’, before Jimmy boards the ‘5.15’ train to Brighton, at the beginning of disc two. It’s here where “the loser” breaks out of his mundane existence, and his confidence - and the story - really picks up. Often cited as ‘Quadrophenia’s defining moment, ‘5.15’ was the only track released as a single.
With ‘I am the Sea’ setting the scene right from the off, it’s fair to say that the whole album builds to reach Brighton. Intrinsically linked with ‘Quadrophenia’, the town now boasts a thoroughfare - Quadrophenia Alley - named after it. ‘Sea and Sand’ then, fittingly, puts the listener right on the seafront, seagulls and all, while ‘Bell Boy’ features a perfectly-placed vocal from Keith Moon as the overworked, under-achieving hotel errand runner.
With the album concluding, the dramatic twists and turns of instrumental ‘The Rock’ rise to reach a thrilling crescendo with the achingly beautiful ‘Love, Reign o'er Me’. An incredible composition, it’s arguably the finest song of the band’s career, and one that music producer and respected YouTuber Rick Beato called; “one of the finest examples of rock and roll that I’ve ever heard”. Like ‘The Real Me’, it’s a stunning example of how well each of the four musicians could work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Remastered in 2011, the currently available 180g double vinyl set faithfully recreates the original release, with its gritty monochrome 40-page photo book and gatefold sleeve the perfect visual accompaniment to the music.
The brilliant ‘Tommy’ may be more celebrated, but ‘Quadrophenia’ is nothing less than a masterpiece. Put it on, turn it up, and immerse yourself in Jimmy’s world. G.S scooter and hair cut neat; optional.
Quadrophenia was released on 26th October 1973 and is available to buy on standard vinyl at Vinyl8.
- I Am The Sea
- The Real Me
- Cut My Hair
- The Punk and the Godfather
- I’m One (At Least)
- The Dirty Jobs
- Helpless Dancer (Roger’s Theme)
- Is It In My Head?
- I’ve Had Enough
- Sea and Sand
- Bell Boy (Keith’s Theme)
- Doctor Jimmy (Including John's Theme, Is It Me?
- The Rock
- Love, Reign o'er Me (Pete's Theme)