Often dubbed as the last great Who album, Quadrophenia is overly ambitious, incredibly complex yet utterly brilliant – a summarisation for the music of rock heavyweights The Who.
In 1973, after creating such classic albums as Tommy, Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, there was intense pressure on Townshend to once again write something spectacular, to meet the ridiculously high expectations of The Who’s quality of music. That something was Quadrophenia: a rock opera (where the music tells a story), set in 1960’s England, where riots between rival gangs of Mods and Rockers caused violence and destruction; the main character of the story being a teenage Mod named Jimmy, who is torn between fashion and depression, different emotions of love and anger, following “a way of life” and rage at that life’s let downs.
Quadrophenia returns The Who to its Mod roots and gives insight on 1960’s culture (the film version of the album shows this better) but as a piece of music it represents the conflicting emotions and struggles of Jimmy, as a varied and emotional work of genius. The album is essentially his story and feelings.
There’s a staggering 17 songs, which are often constructed around four leitmotifs - the themes of Quadrophenia: Jimmy’s differing personalities of romantic, maniac, tough guy and depressed – hence he is Quadrophenic. These are represented musically and allow each song to take its own mood swing and hence make the album exciting and constantly developing.
The Real Me, being the first track on the album, sets the scene for the story and music. It truly shows what The Who are capable of – John Entwistle plays the part of lead guitar on his bass to the background of Keith Moon’s hell-bent drumming, as Roger Daltery screams the pain of Jimmy. Townshend refrains his electric guitar to a backing instrument but makes it fit in with Moon’s endless drum rolls. Horns blare in the background as the song blends into the intro of the next – the title track, a six minute instrumental between drums, synthesiser, background noises, piano, brass, strings and every guitar imaginable, all playing interweaving themes of stupefying complexity.
A photo booklet for the album helps to explain the story throughout, including for the second equally long instrumental, The Rock, where Jimmy takes a boat out across a stormy sea to a solitary rock far out from land, contemplates suicide, but finally returns to land, for the finale Love Reign O’er Me – a truly powerful force, at a permanent high, resulting in Jimmy’s realisation of truth that he can be who he wants. The imagery created by the music even in the instrumentals lets you visualise these events occurring – the heavy drums and high guitar screams let you feel the power of the storm; the changes from sweet depression to anger and power shows the mood swings, such as in Sea and Sand and I’m One; the raw power of the chords on The Punk on the Godfather pulse outrage.
Quadrophenia is undoubtedly the pinnacle of The Who’s career, showing once again Townshend to be a composer than a songwriter and that the sheer talent of Moon’s insane drumming, Entwistle’s genius bass playing, Daltery’s power vocals and Townshend’s musical brilliance can create both the sounds of serenity and destruction all on the same record.