An enduring rock opera, 40 years later
“They are no longer kids, but they have not forgotten.” So Ellen Willis, the late cultural critic and pop music reviewer, mused about the Who. Back in 1969. Having finally achieved American success with Tommy, they had more than one rock opera in them. So Pete Townshend sought to prove. After his Lifehouse project floundered in the early 1970s, Townshend chose to adapt the band’s four personalities into another double-LP rock opera. This time, the characteristics of the Who, with Roger Daltrey as the “helpless dancer”, John Entwistle as the romantic, and Keith Moon as the “bloody lunatic”, contended with Pete, “a beggar, a hypocrite”, as various leitmotifs dramatized. At the time, quadrophonic speakers were the audiophile’s innovation; these combined and contrasted with the schizophrenic nature of one Mod’s attempt to reconcile his fractured self, set more or less a decade earlier, when the Who emerged (if briefly) as the premier Mod ensemble. About 10 years into their career, Quadrophenia found the godfathers of arena rock squaring off against the punks.
The original 1973 vinyl has been fussed over and remastered and reissued already. The 1979 film adaptation found Entwistle manipulating some of the songs for new mixes. The album has been played live more than once, originally with poor results. This may account for it being toured less often than Tommy, which perhaps outlived by its own cinematic version its initially fresh impact. Quadrophenia benefits by comparison, with Jimmy’s less outlandish story (enriched in the original gatefold LP by a narrative booklet of photographs, here available in a deluxe edition version), a more sophisticated integration of orchestral elements as Townshend mastered the synthesizer, and a more relevant storyline set in London when music mattered and fans proclaimed allegiance to their faction, their fashion, and their bands. Issued at what may have been a low point for mainstream rock music, it signaled a revitalized band at its creative peak, eager to take on the challenge of staying so, after so many years at the top, alongside the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as Britain’s most famed bands.
Forty years later, this double-CD live concert from London’s Wembley Arena on July 8, 2013, about two hours long, proclaims that sprawling, complicated album. Daltrey moves his voice down a peg from the high notes he can no longer attain, but on “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Helpless Dancer”, both demanding challenging vocal range, he manages fine. The former song also slows down in its opening, allowing Townshend to tinker with the arrangement slightly. He integrates deft touches on guitar often, as on an extended “5:15” closing the first disc. He sprinkles updates into the synthesized voices and effects throughout which thickened the original album, as when he fiddles with voice chimes into the overture “I Am the Sea”. It’s now a female, and she’s a haunting touch that gently enhances the earlier version.
For a live concert, it marches along with additional instrumental support. Pino Palladino on bass, Scott Devours on drums, and Pete’s younger brother Simon on second guitar deliver solid backing; Simon sings lead on “The Dirty Jobs” in a thinner voice than Roger. Frank Simes, John Corey, and Loren Gold earn keyboard credit and backing vocals; Dylan Hart and Reggie Gresham fill in on horns. Veteran listeners to this album will realize neither Keith Moon nor John Entwistle are present in person, but they emerge. Entwistle’s bass solo remains on “5:15” “via video recording” while Moon’s “Bell Boy” vocal from the original studio album is wisely incorporated. The subtler 2013 differences highlight rather than detract from the respectable, solid, if at times workmanlike, delivery.
Some of the band’s big hits fill out the rest of the concert. “Who Are You” and “You Better You Bet” catch Roger a bit winded. The keyboards continue to hold up well, but the playing of the guitar, bass, and drums does not lift these later songs up much from their earlier renditions, live or on record. “Pinball Wizard”, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” offer competent versions of these warhorses. A song from another partial song cycle, Endless Wire (2006), a “Tea and Theatre” which recalls the Kinks in style if not voice, closes this live album in a more acoustic, reflective manner.
Fans of the original may enjoy a chance to hear how Pete and Roger meet the onstage task of reining in operatic material so as to focus on both its orchestral heights and its rock foundation. This may not replace the 1973 album in any collection, but like the 1979 soundtrack, it merits recognition for its own insights into its enduring appeal, long after Mods or Rockers themselves mattered. The band continues to strive to do justice to melodic and intelligent material. The Who, however it survives, repeats that that youthful concerns and ideals matter, no matter how long the band or we endure.