Just as The Who are one of the core bands that forged the classic rock tradition, Quadrophenia is one of the essential albums with which they did it. For Pete Townshend himself, it was not only the bands last great album, following on from Tommy and Whos Next, but the one I am most proud of. This directors cut of Quadrophenia, produced, authorized and overseen by Townshend using his own archives, seems very much a labour of love out of what was originally a highly personal project back in 1973.
To some extent it was a return to the double-album rock opera format of Tommy, an ambitious sort of concept album with overlapping lyrical and musical themes running through its 17 songs, with a loose story full of incident featuring a colourful cast of characters. Quadrophenia is a persuasive portrait of working-class life, with young people in dead-end jobs escaping at weekends into sex, drugs and rocknroll, touching on personal development, inter-generational conflict and mental health issues.
At the centre is Jimmy, a troubled Mod teenager caught up in fights with rival Rockers in mid-’60s London and Brighton. In this rite of passage he ultimately comes to reject both the conformity and the confrontation of tribal youth sub-cultures to find his own individual identity. The album title is a twist on schizophrenic, with the protagonists personality split in four, each one supposedly reflecting, or being reflected by, each of the four members of The Who although this was very much Townshends baby.
Some fans prefer the earlier Who output, when they were producing a string of irresistibly catchy three-minute pop-rock numbers like Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, My Generation and Substitute, which helped to define the spirit of youthful rebellion in the swinging ’60s. By the ’70s, their songs had become longer, more complicated, even a bit bombastic. But when you listen to this superbly remastered version of Quadrophenia its clear just how much Townshend had developed as a songwriter or composer both musically and lyrically, while the whole band was still at the top of their game. Townshend may have been the driving force behind the album but the other three all made vital contributions to its success.
Though Quadrophenia is undeniably a rock animal, its a very sophisticated breed. Townshend’s use of leitmotifs helps to give it much more of a dramatic unity than most albums straightforward tracklisting. Its probably significant that the single 5.15 is not among the best known by The Who as this record is about the overall immersive experience not stand-out hit tunes. Even if there are no string arrangements, and only minimal horns, it has an almost orchestral sweep, with any flights of grandiosity undershot by muscular riffs and pulsating rhythms. In addition to the usual guitars, piano and drums, Townshend makes creative use of synthesizers and sound effects to create a powerful ambience, with waves of emotion as strong as the tide on the south coast.
The Super Deluxe box set of five discs certainly does Quadrophenia proud: on the first two, the original album is newly remastered in even more crystal clear detail than in the 1996 version; 25 demos of songs, some of which made the cut and some that didnt, are on the next two; and theres a 5.1 surround DVD mix of eight songs (yes, finally Quadrophenia goes quadrophonic). In addition, there is a retro vinyl single of 5.15/Water, a 100-page hardback book containing an extended essay by Townshend about the making of the album and previously unseen personal notes, photographs and handwritten lyrics, plus a poster. But at over 70 this is probably only going to appeal to hardcore Who fans or Mods with the mostest.
The stripped-down two-disc version costs less than a fifth of the price. Though it has only 11 of the demos, it gives an insight into Townsends songwriting process. All the various instrumentation is performed by Townsend, including guitars, keyboards, synths and drum machines, with Roger Daltreys vocals soaring majestically above. The song structure, melodic lines and lyrical content are all basically in place but although the sound quality has been cleaned up well, the tracks seem like a pale prototype of what they became when the whole band recorded them.
There are some interesting demo liner notes from Townshend. Anymore, the earliest song here (November 1971), seems really promising but was left off the original album simply due to lack of vinyl space, while the Townshend-sung Is It Me? was deemed too mock-operatic. Amazingly, the memorable closing song on Quadrophenia, Love Reign Oer Me, which seems the perfect emotional climax for Jimmys epiphany, was apparently not originally written for the album; somewhat bizarrely, it was an expression of the teenage crush Townshend had for Shirley Bassey when seeing her perform with his fathers big band in the ’50s!
With all its dramatic qualities, its not surprising that Quadrophenia was turned into the famous 1979 film by Franc Roddam, which inspired a Mod fashion revival of Vespas, parkas, sharp suits and Brylcreemed short hair. And after a stage musical version toured the UK successfully in 2009, there are plans for it to open on Broadway. But, inspired by Townshend and Daltreys live performance for the Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall last year (which may lead them to take it on the road in 2012), this project puts the album itself back on centre stage where it belongs.
The six-disc Super Deluxe Edition and the two-disc Deluxe Edition of The Who’s Quadrophenia is released through Universal on 14 November 2011.