Many people look at “Tommy” as the most significant milestone ever reached by Pete Townshend and The Who. While it was certainly groundbreaking as a concept, I look at their next “rock opera”, the magnificent piece “Quadrophenia” as a much more powerful and more impressive musical creation performance, by all of the band. A double album just like “Tommy”, “Quadrophenia” is structured as a full story performance, complete with overture and recurring themes in music and story.
Set by the sea and opening with the instrumental piece “I Am The Sea”, the album explodes with “The Real Me”. This song is absolutely spectacular, and if I had to play one song by The Who to demonstrate how good they were musically, this would be it. John Entwistle’s bass line is from another world, and he is matched by the frenetic and insane drum pace of Keith Moon. With Roger Daltrey’s powerful vocals and Townshend’s omni-present power chords, this song just rocks. It flows right into the title track and overture for the album, and the story of Jimmy, the confused and struggling mod trying to find his way through life.
I really love the high caliber and musical excellence of this entire record, but even with all of these great songs, there are a few that stand out. One of the most compelling songs is “I’m One”, featuring Townshend on lead vocals. A simple and beautiful acoustic lead-in gives way to another explosive Who classic. Another highlight on the first half of the two-record album is “Is It In My Head?”
Side three, which I consider the beginning of the “second act”, is another of the band’s very best tracks, “5:15”, an ode to an evening train from London to Brighton. The horns on this song really take it to a higher level, and all of the band continue to shine at their very best. The advancements in production from “Tommy” are notable. “Sea and Sand”, “Drowned”, and “Doctor Jimmy” are all of the same high quality, and I just never lose interest or momentum with this album, even as a double record.
The album continues to build towards another powerful climax with “The Rock”, which feeds into a dramatic, emotional and very moving closing song, “Love Reign O’er Me”. This may be Roger Daltrey’s high point as a vocalist for The Who, and the orchestration and middle bridge of this song always moves me tremendously. In classic Who fashion, the song crashes to the ground in fierce fury with Keith Moon’s raging drums and one last power-chord from Townshend as the song fades to close. I have seen the band several times in concert, and my last memory of seeing them live was watching Pete and Roger perform this song with their supporting band, in the driving rain. It was an emotional reflection of a lifetime of seeing The Who in concert, dating back to my first show with them in 1982. They really are a very important and significant act in my life as a rock music fan, and I consider this album to be perhaps their finest overall moment, even over “Tommy” or “Who’s Next”. If you take those three albums and add in “Live at Leeds”, you have 90% of what you would ever really need to know or understand about The Who.
So yes, even though it isn’t as highly acclaimed on some of these “lists”, I highly recommend “Quadrophenia” as a complete piece. If that’s too much, at least listen to “The Real Me”, on a high-quality sound system to embrace the sheer power this band brings to the stage and the studio.