It’s the last post of the semester folks, and to finish off this blog series with a bang I’ve decided to end with a profile of The Who’s legendary rock opera Quadrophenia. Released in 1973, Quadrophenia was the third and last of Pete Townshend penned rock operas for The Who following Tommy in 1969 and the aborted Lifehouse project which became the wildly successful Who’s Next album in 1971. As a rock opera, the double album tells a single narrative story with recurring lyrical and musical themes. The story’s protagonist is a teenager named Jimmy, who lives in Britain in the mid-1960’s and is a member of the trendy Mod subculture. Back in the early 1960’s the Mods were a fashionable British youth scene that helped to popularize The Who.
The main feature surrounding the story and ideas in Quadrophenia is the number four. Quadropenia was written by Pete Townshend with the intention of having it play in quadrophonic (four speaker) surround sound. The album’s name itself is a play on words with the mental disorder schizophrenia, or dissociative personality disorder, often called multiple personalities. The protagonist Jimmy displays four separate personalities, each embodied by the four band members of The Who. Throughout the album, these four lyrical and musical themes repeat themselves as the story progresses. So without further ado, let’s dive into Quadrophenia!
The first song is the short piece I Am the Sea, it is a form of overture that introduces each of the lyrical personality themes in a ghostly/echoing manner as recordings of the ocean play over them.
Suddenly the listener is shaken awake to the track The Real Me. For a band as rocking as The Who, it’s impressive that this is one of their hardest rockers. It begins the story of young Jimmy Cooper, with poor Jimmy trying a doctor, his mother, and a preacher to help him with his emotional issues, hinting at his multiple personalities from the start. The song is known for John Entwistle’s bass guitar performance. Entwistle was unparalleled as a bassist and showcases his talents well on this track.
The next song is the instrumental title track. The song Quadrophenia introduces all of the musical themes that repeat throughout the album and as such is a more fleshed out companion piece to I Am the Sea, w. When compared to the instrumental tracks on the Tommy album, the change that The Who had made in the few short years between the recordings is evident. Whereas Tommy was based around acoustic and electric guitars interplaying with Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon’s rhythm section, Quadrophenia is much more oriented around synthesizers and piano to go along with Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon’s regular instruments.
The next song is Cut My Hair, which details Jimmy attempting to fit into the Mod’s fashion culture. Jimmy wants to belong with his friends but can’t seem to find any solace in the scene. The chorus has a call back to The Who’s song I Can’t Explain, their earliest hit back in their Mod days. The track ends with a recording of a radio report detailing the fights between rival Mod and Rocker groups.
The final song on the first side is The Punk and the Godfather, and contains another lyrical reference to an early Who song, this time My Generation. The Punk and the Godfather slyly enough is talking about The Who themselves, as Jimmy sees one of their concerts in their early days and remarks how they became successful only thanks to the support of their Mod fans as they made fools of themselves destroying their equipment every night. It’s another source of disappointment for Jimmy, who had idolized and followed the band.
The second side of the album begins with I’m One. Sung by Pete Townshend, the song shows Jimmy at a crossroads. He is admits having issues but still has the optimism that he can turn things around for himself as his life is slowly deteriorating. When played live, Pete Townshend would often perform the song solo, with only his acoustic guitar.
Turning the vocal reigns back to lead singer Roger Daltrey, the next track is much more of a Who rocker. The Dirty Jobs describes Jimmy’s attempts at getting by now that he has been thrown out of his house. With his newfound resolve being tested by various circumstances that keep forcing him to find new employment, Jimmy keeps on trying to improve his situation.
The third track on side B is Helpless Dancer, and it is lead singer Roger Daltrey’s personal theme. Accompanied by beating piano and John Entwistle’s French horn arrangement, Daltrey sings about Jimmy’s further grief that is making it harder and harder for him to keep on pushing ahead, and eventually quitting altogether. The song ends with a recorded playing of one of The Who’s early hits, The Kids are Alright.
Following up Helpless Dancer is the song Is It in My Head? Where Jimmy further questions his mental problems that have made him quit working to support himself. The track itself contains instrumental arrangements very similar to Who’s Next material, with the acoustic/electric guitar and synthesizer in the background.
The first album ends with the furious rush of the song I’ve Had Enough. The song begins with a reprise of Jimmy’s theme declaring his yet unwavering support of the Mod movement. Following that is the first instance of the ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ theme outside of the instrumental tracks, which will further be utilized in the second album. The song is fairly self-explanatory, with Jimmy declaring that he is finally through with his Mod lifestyle and everything surrounding his alienating adolescent upbringing. The song ends with Roger Daltrey screaming that Jimmy has “had enough of trying to love,” beckoning the listener to the second album to see where the story will go from here.
The second album begins with a surge of energy in the form of the song 5:15. The song describes Jimmy hopping on a train to the Brighton beach, where he had his best memories as a mod that he seeks to relive. The song is a rip roaring and rollicking piece that captures Jimmy’s mood as he rides the train hyped up on drugs towards the beach. Intercut with tender and introspective moments, the song manages to balance both the light and heavy elements of the thematic material unfolding.
The second track is Sea and Sand, taking place on the Brighton beach and following Jimmy’s thoughts as he contemplates all that has gone on so far. He laments the loss of his girlfriend as well as his complete isolation from his Mod group, who he once completely identified with. Sea and Sand is almost a mini-version of the album itself, telling much of the story and Jimmy’s internal issues. It ends with Daltrey singing lines from one of The Who’s earliest tracks, I’m the Face, back when the group itself was synonymous with the Mod scene as the band The High Numbers.
The following track is Drowned, a rocking tune that is sequenced with Jimmy contemplating renting a boat to go drown himself in the ocean and find peace for his tortured mind. The song was originally written by Pete Townshend for Meher Baba as early as the Tommy album in 1969. Baba was a spiritual guide of Townshend’s and contributed one of the two names to the hit Who song Baba O’Riley.
The final song on the third side of the album is Bell Boy, drummer Keith Moon’s thematic song. In the story, before Jimmy can get to rent his boat he runs into ‘Ace-Face,’ one of the chief Mod leaders who Jimmy used to look up to. Moon himself infamously sang the vocals of Ace-Face on Bell Boy which was a huge crowd pleaser. Jimmy is aghast that Ace-Face has degenerated from a leader of Mod gangs to the titular bell boy of the hotel that they used to take advantage of. Jimmy now finds himself absolutely disgusted with the Mod lifestyle that he used to proudly subscribe to. Jimmy finds no solace in his trip to Brighton to find some kind of reconciliation between himself and his past as a Mod, and is now even more distraught after seeing the fallen Ace-Face.
The last side of the double album contains only three songs, but they are a very hard hitting finale to the album. The first song on this quarter of the double album is Doctor Jimmy, a furious and bombastic surge of energy and (warning) salty language. Jimmy gets a bottle of gin and drowns his sorrows along with more pills, and at this point in the story has gone mad. Between his compulsive rages where he echoes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide with his Doctor Jimmy and Mister Jim, he has moments of clarity, where he asks himself which part of his personalities is the real him. The “Is it me” lyric is bassist John Entwistle’s theme on the album, and the song itself features much of his French horn accompaniment. The whole album really displays a much better use of Entwistle’s French horn skills, which aside from Tommy only really was utilized in a campy manner.
The bridge between Doctor Jimmy and the finale is the instrumental piece The Rock. It contains once again the suite of musical themes that represent all of Jimmy’s personalities with new inflections. The song is a great work at displaying The Who’s collective musical talents. As the track is instrumental, there aren’t any lyrics to tell the story, but Jimmy has followed through with his plan to buy a boat and go out to sea. Instead of drowning himself he lands on a rocky island, but after going ashore his boat has floated away, stranding him.
The album closes with the sounds of rain that bring on the song Love Reign O’er Me. It is guitarist Pete Townshend’s musical and lyrical theme and the finale to Jimmy’s story. After finding himself alone on the rock with life’s pressures no longer driving him mad, Jimmy realizes that he has been wrong to reject love. He knows that by going back to land he will have to endure the life that has so far plagued and haunted him, but he must go back in order to experience love. Jimmy realizes that love, even if just a fleeting moment of it, is the most powerful spiritual force, and to experience it makes life worth living. The song offers a climactic finale to the album and features Roger Daltrey’s finest vocal performance, in full rock god mode he screams at the top of his voice as the music crashes all around him like the emotional storm Jimmy has endured during the events of the record.
Quadrophenia often plays second fiddle to The Who’s first and more well-known rock opera Tommy, however among fans who have listened to both, it is hard to find any consensus. One thing I will say is that in instrumentation and mixing in general, the five years in between the release of the two albums saw huge advances in The Who’s abilities, specifically Pete Townshend’s ability to write, arrange, and record complex music and lyrics. The album is a tour de force of powerful emotions and a compelling story of struggle and ultimate triumph over the crushing disappointments that life can throw at the lonely and alienated youth of the world.
Since it’s the last week of the semester this is sadly my last post of the year. I’d like to thank everybody for reading my weekly series The Goldmine. It’s been very fun and exciting to contribute to the KCR blog. I’d like to thank blog leader Jewell Karinen for making everything happen. I hope to return next year to the KCR blog with a new series to work on. Hopefully I’ve spurred you the reader into listening to some of the albums I’ve written about. I’ve often found comfort in these albums, music opens up doors to places you never knew existed. I hope you’ve found something deep in the heart of The Goldmine of classic rock that I’ve unearthed for you.
Thank you for reading,