The Who’s “Quadrophenia” is the story of Jimmy, an emotionally lost teenager in early 1960s England. It’s also the story of the band, songwriter Pete Townshend and any kid sufficiently battered and confused by the endless questions that come with growing up.
In many ways it’s a familiar story, an oft-used theme, but Townshend took it so far over the top with “Quadrophenia” that the familiar elements somehow became more powerful. The album is probably overly ambitious and in some ways compromised, but it’s also suffused with a deeply felt humanity.
For many, it’s The Who’s best album. Not despite its flaws, but because of them. After 40 years, the music’s scale and sense of creative urgency — in the writing, performances and production — remain absolutely compelling, and overcome all else.
Patrick Hallahan, Who fan and drummer in My Morning Jacket, is fairly obsessive about “Quadrophenia,” which has steadily clawed its way to his short list of favorite albums.
“I came to the album a little later in life, but it’s such a deep concept that I think it takes a little more life lived to really understand it,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger. I think it’s a natural progression that you appreciate this album more later on in life.”
The Who, now down to Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey, will perform “Quadrophenia” in its entirety Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center as part of its “Quadrophenia + More” tour. Zak Starkey will play drums, Pino Palladino is on bass and Simon Townshend is on guitar.
Hearing the album complete and in sequence is crucial. “Quadrophenia” works best when taken as a whole, and it’s only by living through Jimmy’s entire story that you get the emotional payoff of “Love Reign O’er Me,” the grandly potent closing song.
And it could be argued that that payoff, that cathartic moment, is among only a handful of times — to that point, anyway — where Townshend isn’t hiding behind humor and instead stands revealed. Not explained, but naked, and vulnerable.
In early 1960s England, a post-war youth movement was blossoming and rock ’n’ roll was its soundtrack. The Who was part of that movement, first on a street level and then from the stage.
That’s the period mined by Townshend when writing “Quadrophenia” a decade later. Jimmy is coming of age at a time of drastic change, and all of the usual obstacles are complicated by what now appears to be schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Townshend takes it a step further, postulating that Jimmy’s drug and alcohol abuse bumps him up a notch to Quadrophenia. Not only that, but each of his personalities reflects back on a member of The Who, and the band is actually part of the narrative — Townshend was meta way before meta was cool.
Here’s the conclusion of Townshend’s original liner notes, capitalization his, which cannily begin as what appears to be a personal reminiscence and turn out to be from Jimmy’s perspective:
“A tough guy, a helpless dancer. A romantic, is it me for a moment? A bloody lunatic, I’ll even carry your bags. A beggar, a hypocrite, love reign over me. Schizophrenic? I’m Bleeding Quadrophenic.”
Jimmy has aligned himself with the Mods, fashion-conscious pop-art youths who are at odds with the Rockers, greasers still emboldened by early rock ’n’ roll. But he doesn’t quite buy into it, and still feels isolated despite the many voices in his head.
As the slight story unfolds — again, this is driven by emotion, not plot intricacies — Jimmy battles his parents, a growing dependency on pills, and an increasing awareness that the Mods aren’t the answer, but just another illusion. Throughout, The Who is referenced either via lyrics or soundbites (a snippet of a song from their Mod days appears).
At album’s end, Jimmy finds himself at the seashore, contemplating suicide but also aware that his salvation is possible. He realizes that love is what he’s missing and desperately needs, but can he accept that challenge when he’s been let down time and again?
Some are certain that Jimmy kills himself, but Townshend has said that he believes Jimmy returns to his dreary, fragmented life where he tries to make it whole. And he should know.
The Who's finest hour?
When “Quadrophenia” was released in 1973, The Who was at its commercial and critical apex. “Tommy” had been an international sensation in 1969, “Live at Leeds” was an enormous hit in 1970 and “Who’s Next” arrived in 1971, recognized immediately as a landmark achievement.
In retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been worse for “Quadrophenia.” What could possibly follow such a triumphant three-year run? What could the band do that wouldn’t be seen as a disappointment?
Because it was so anticipated, “Quadrophenia” initially sold well despite lukewarm reviews. But the tour that followed was, Townshend has said, a disaster that further deflected attention from the album. The band tried to play along to prerecorded tracks of keyboards, strings and sound effects, delivering only a hint of the music’s power. The band returned to playing “Tommy,” and “Quadrophenia” languished.
“When you have so many amazing albums, the instant classics kind of stand out right away,” Hallahan said, “and then you have the rest of this incredible catalog that sort of peeks out its head later on.”
Time has been the album’s friend, and many now see it as Townshend’s statement piece for The Who. It has a more coherent story than “Tommy,” the music is among Townshend’s most sophisticated, and its overall impact only deepens with age. Townshend’s writing afterward would get more personal, letting people behind the curtain, and it’s difficult to believe that “Quadrophenia” didn’t impact that decision.
To immerse yourself into “Quadrophenia” is to understand a little more about how and why The Who exists, the uncertainties we all have to face down, and the healing power of love. It’s one for the ages.