Review: 'Quadrophenia' by the Who, Live at O2

Part 2 of 3 rock-opera-related articles by Tim Bustin

Released in 1973, 'Quadrophenia' has become one of The Who’s greatest albums. A “rock opera”, the music tells the story of mod culture in early 1960s Britain, focused around a young mod named Jimmy, with a “Quadrophenic” personality – like schizophrenia, but with four personalities rather than two. The album spawned a cult film and is now being toured in its entirety by the two surviving Who members, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and their support band.

Being just one soul in a room of about 20,000 Who fans seemed to be the ultimate testament to Quadrophenia’s legacy in time. Despite the average age being in the fifties, the atmosphere inside the O2 arena was electric even hours before the show started. Looking around, all that could be seen wherever you glanced was that same iconic logo: the blue, white and red circles, representing both the Mods and The Who. Even with half the seats still to be filled, there were chants of “We are the Mods, we are the Mods, we are the Mods!” and whispers of stories being passed around; “When did you last see The Who play?”, “What hits do you think they’ll play?”, murmurs that filled the great space of the arena and seemingly echoed forever.
'Quadrophenia' hasn’t been played in its entirety since 1997, discounting a one-off 2010 performance for the Teenage Cancer Trust, but its fans haven’t lost any of its spirit; Pete Townshend (Who lead guitarist and songwriter) himself confessed it to be his finest work, surpassing (in his mind) even such classics as Tommy and Who’s Next?And with fans eager to hear this epic composition, whether because of the sheer brilliance of the music or because of the story of the “rock opera” of Jimmy, the Mods and “a way of life”, or because they’re new fans (like myself) who want to hear the remains of this amazing band before Townshend goes deaf and Roger Daltrey’s voice crackles and fades away, or simply because they’re die-hard Who fans, it was only a matter of time before a 'Quadrophenia' tour had to be done.
Blues-pelting warm-up band Vintage Trouble did a superb job of getting the already-excited crowd into a wild frenzy, with an impossibly good James Brown sound-alike fronting cool rifts and action-packed drums and bass. It took the first faint sounds of “I Am the Sea” to calm everyone into their seats. Traces of crashing waves and a rainy street in background to the four "themes” of 'Quadrophenia' held us in anticipation, until finally on Daltrey’s cry of “Can you see the real me?” the music exploded into our ears; the melody created by the heavy bass of Pino Paladino took lead, supported by the crazed drumming of Scott Devours (filling for regular drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son), a blaze of horns and subtle piano, all essentially backing to Townshend’s power guitar and Daltrey’s scream, showing they really have still got it. The energy emanating from the stage seemed for all to almost equal the power The Who possessed as a live band in the 70s.
  Of course, The Who never would be the same without the chaotic genius of Keith Moon “The Loon” or the unbelievable talent of John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle (although we were treated to a staggering bass solo on the song “5:15”, complete with video footage (see below) showing Entwistle  standing almost perfectly still (“The Ox”) except for his fingers, which moved with incredible speed), but that didn’t mean The Who still didn’t go full out on the performance; Daltrey swung his microphone, as Townshend did his signature “Windmill Strum”, though there was no smashing of guitars or blowing up of drum kits. The two instrumental pieces were performed beautifully, surprising given their intense complexity and use of synthesisers. The whole performance was a masterpiece reborn, the story played out in the background on video screens, all of the musicians working perfectly with one another (including Pete’s brother, Simon), bringing a classic back to life. Even after getting through the whole album they kept on going to play some of their greatest hits, only pausing in between for a bit of stage banter and to announce it was “Karaoke time!”. “Who Are You” got a full 20,000 people singing their hearts out, “Pinball Wizard” showed the Kaiser Chiefs how they should’ve performed it at the Olympic closing ceremony, whilst “Baba O’Riley’s” beautiful mix of synthesisers, acoustic and electric, drums and piano wasn’t lost – the video screen displaying in bright green the phase “Teenage Wasteland” for all to sing in its serenity – whilst Daltrey replaced the violin solo with a stunning rendition on harmonica.

The activity escalated to the power anthem of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, climaxing after eight minutes on Daltrey’s scream. And, although “My Generation” didn’t get played, the final song was perhaps the most elegant and wondrous of them all: simply Daltrey and Townshend, the final two, Townshend on acoustic guitar, Daltrey singing a song of beauty, pain, loss and the effects of time. “Tea and Theatre”, from their 2006 top-ten album Endless Wire, recounts the end of a tale: “The story is done - 's getting colder now/A thousand songs - still smoulder now/We played them as one - we're older now”. 'Quadrophenia', after all, was written years after the end of Mod culture in Britain – it was an attempt to bring The Who back to their origins. Now, playing that album, they remember that, though at heart they are still the rebellious rockers who claimed to “hope I die before I get old”, it’s a reminder that they have been changed by time, although, of course, that doesn’t mean that they’ve lost any of their spirit and that they, and we, will always have that incredible music.

For more information on Quadrophenia, look out for my article in the Portsmouth Point: Fight Club magazine, issued at the end of term