Was ‘The Who’ the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the
world? At the time of the release of their second double album rock opera
Quadrophenia at the end of 1975, the answer would have probably been ‘yes’.
The ‘Beatles’ had long since gone and never played any real live concerts
as we know them today. ‘The Rolling Stones’ had just lost their second lead
guitarist in Mick Taylor, and were being led down a very disco-orientated
channel by Mick Jagger. Only Keith Richards could really claim to be a true
‘Led Zeppelin’ was still around of course, but they were
almost on another plain. So we can safely say that in the early seventies
‘The Who’ was one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll bands around. Already
with many landmark albums behind them, Tommy (1969), Live at Leeds (1970), and
Who’s Next (1972), not to mention a mass of hit singles and historic
appearances at such events as Monterey Pop Festival 1967, Woodstock, and the
Isle of Wight in both 1969 and 1970, were backed up by saturation touring to
bigger and bigger audiences all over the world.
Of course, like all of the rock greats, ‘The Who’ was
not only known for their recording and spectacular stage shows, but stories of
their on the road excesses are now part of rock ‘n’ roll mythology.
The release of Quadrophenia was the major rock release of
late 1973. It was waited for with barely concealed restraint by their millions
of fans. The album went straight into the charts at number two in the United
Kingdom and the USA, remaining in the top thirty for over six months, a
phenomenon almost unheard of for a double album in those far off days.
Quadrophenia found ‘The Who’ at the peak of their
collective powers. Peter Townshend wrote all the songs, and never before had he
put together such a continuous package of solid arrangements with such strong
emotions bursting through in every song. The story follows the early years of a
young man, Jimmy, growing from adolescence to nearly killing himself due to his
fall into the depths of depravity in the whirlwind world of the Mods and
Rockers on the south coast of England in the early sixties; a gripping tale of
youth culture from those heady days.
Peter Townshend’s guitar playing here also finally raised
him onto the same level as his peers like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy
Page. Roger Daltrey is the person who puts his throat on the line to give the
feeling to Townshend’s words. Roger Daltrey was at the peak of his powers
when he sings the final stanzas of ‘Love Reigns O’er me’ and brings the
album to its shattering climax. One wonders if he still had a larynx left.
For the one time in the Who’s career all the songs on one
album were written by their principal songwriter, not leaving room for any of
John Entwistle’s often entertaining songs. John Entwistle shows more than
ever here how essential he was to the Who with his fluid bass lines giving the
songs real substance. John Entwistle’s way of playing the bass was not only
to nail down the theme of the songs, but also as a lead instrument. On
Quadrophenia, more than any other Who album, the bass is pushed right to the
front of the mix, quite deservedly so. John’s fine French horn playing also
adds a haunting air to some of the songs.
Then driving the band ever forward was everybody’s
favorite rascal Keith Moon, not only is his drumming superb and distinctive
(only Keith Moon could drum like Keith Moon), but his vocal contribution to
‘Bellboy’ always brings a smile to your face. The fine piano playing of
Chris Stainton should also be given a mention as it compliments the other
players perfectly. Perhaps the Who should have added a keyboard player then,
instead of waiting till poor old Keith had shuffled off this mortal coil. It
would have helped the band immensely trying to play these songs on stage
instead of messing about with pre-recorded backing tapes.
The album open ups with the sound of the sea washing up on
the beaches and snatches of refrains from the main themes of what is to come.
The band comes crashing in with the rocker ‘The Real Me’ and from then on
you are taken on the rollercoaster ride of a young impressionable wannabe Mod
with plenty of highs as well as deeply disturbing lows.
One of the highs is of Jimmy actually going to see his
favorite band ‘The Who’ in concert. As Jimmy tries to emulate his heroes,
his life spirals more and more out of control. With this the band’s playing
becomes more and more frenzied, climaxing in the nine minutes of ‘Doctor
Jimmy’, where, if you listen carefully, you can hear Roger Daltrey’s
microphone being spun round the heads of all in the studio on its lead wire,
and Townshend windmills his arm around his axe, building to the next frantic
chorus. You can imagine the whole studio being destroyed at the song’s
‘Doctor Jimmy’, played in all it’s glory on stage at
Charlton Football ground in 1974 in front of 95,000 people was the highlight of
the Who’s set. The album closes out with the triumphant instrumental ‘The
Rock’, just before ‘Love Reigns O’er Me’ brings the proceedings to a
dramatic and satisfying conclusion.
Quadrophenia is a great rock band at the top of its game.
Logically, later it turned into a movie with Phil Daniels playing Jimmy and
Sting the Bellboy, which was excellent.