The Who were ambitious in many things they did. They had an ambitious sound not to mention an ambitious songwriter, but it didn’t get more ambitious than their 1973 release Quadrophenia, a double album and the band’s second rock opera. Released during the height of their success in the mid-70s, Quadrophenia was the bands most complex offering both thematically in terms of the concept behind the album and performance with the sound and production of the album making it very hard to replicate on stage.
The concept of the album involves the social, musical and psychological aspects of coming of age in London and Brighton during the mid-60s from the perspective of a teenage boy named Jimmy, who also happens to be slightly schizophrenic with multiple personalities. This is when the concept gets a little complicated. Taking the idea of multiple personalities Pete Townshend then used the term Quadrophenia to refer to the four distinct personalities of Jimmy, with each one also set to represent the four individual members of the band and used this idea to create four separate musical themes on the album in order to link the songs together and stretch the concept across the entire album. The four musical themes or motifs were contained in four individual tracks “Helpless Dancer”, “Doctor Jimmy”, “Bell Boy” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”, but also appeared in some form as recognisable musical motifs on other tracks on the album, which included the four motifs being mixed together on two instrumental tracks “Quadrophenia” and “The Rock”. So, in a nutshell, the lyrics of the songs deal with Jimmy, mod culture and teenage angst, while the musical motifs link in the idea of Jimmy having multiple personalities whilst also ensuring some form of connection between the individual tracks.
Moving away from the ambitious concept behind the album, musically speaking Quadrophenia is classic Who and sticks by in large to their 70s hard rock sound that they had become famous for. There are power chords aplenty, ferocious bass lines, wild drum fills, and layers of synth sequencing, everything The Who are good at, and what in a sense contributes to their trademark sound. This album also contains some wonderful songs, some of their best in the form of “5:15” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”, as well as some underrated and lesser-known gems like “Sea and Sand”, “The Punk and the Godfather” and “I’m One”. Despite containing everything that is good about The Who’s sound, I feel at the same time that Quadrophenia sounds quite different to their other albums and in many ways stands on its own musically as being quite distinctive. Aspects of the album that contribute to this feeling for me include how many of the songs are structurally all over the place with some containing no choruses, the recurring thematic motifs, and the experimenting the band does especially with synths on the instrumentals. I guess also the lack of big hits, or singles (there are no CSI tracks to be seen) ensures that Quadrophenia stands alone as a single entity or collection of songs rather than just an album containing a handful of big hits along with some filler. This is probably a good thing as it allows the theme/concept behind the album to come through strongly on the material and ensures that all the songs tie in together to the theme. Other concept albums have been guilty of containing songs that don’t link in with the theme of the album and in turn often appear out of place. This is certainly not the case on Quadrophenia with each song in some way linking in to the albums overall concept whether it be lyrically, musically, or even via the use of sound effects which in this case took the form of waves crashing on Brighton beach, and a radio report from 1965 reporting on mod’s and rockers clashing.
Since its release, the album has been turned into a successful film of the same name released in 1979, while the band is also currently playing the album in its entirety on their 2012-2013 tour. Pete Townshend himself declared it “the best music he’s ever written” and “the best album he will ever write”, but this is not surprising when you considered he came up with the idea for the material and has also become the albums biggest defender within the band. Quadrophenia is my favorite Who album and I prefer it to their other highly regarded rock opera Tommy which I feel was a bit uneven in places even though there were some good songs on it. Quadrophenia for me is more interesting musically and as a single piece of music if you consider the rock opera confines of the album is more coherent and consistent. It achieves its purpose well of portraying the theme behind the album, while the individual tracks link nicely together to tie into this theme. The concept in places maybe ambitious and hard to understand, but the music is interesting and contains some of the bands finest moments. I’d definitely recommend it to classic rock and Who fans alike everywhere.