The Who Quadrophenia

The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ Shines Brightly on Its Golden Anniversary

A tale of UK Mod culture and failed dreams, Quadrophenia is easily the Who’s best album, and perhaps, it’s the best rock opera ever.

The Who
Track / MCA
29 October 1973

The Who‘s second album-length rock opera, Quadrophenia, is much less well-known than its first, Tommy. Plus, it sold far fewer copies in the United States than Tommy, Who’s Next, or Who Are You. But Quadrophenia is the Who’s most cohesive work, showcasing the band at the height of their musical prowess and Pete Townshend at his compositional apex. Fifty years later, Quadrophenia still sounds vibrant, fresh, and exciting. 

As an excellent opera should, Quadrophenia tells a great story and envelops the listener in its complete musical world by repeating memorable themes. Though its plot isn’t the easiest one to follow, it’s way more relatable and real than Tommy’s tale of a messianic, pinball-playing “deaf, dumb, and blind” kid. While it’s difficult to downplay the genius of Who’s Next, the Who album released between Tommy and Quadrophenia, there’s no storyline tying that album together, though there was meant to be one. Many of the songs on Who’s Next were supposed to be part of another rock opera, Life House. The recent boxed set Who’s Next: Life House fills in many of the missing plot pieces of that long-lost work, but even after listening to its nearly ten hours of music, its narrative still isn’t very clear. Plus, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a film version of Life House, let alone one as enjoyable and easy to watch as the Quadrophenia movie (1979). 

Starting with an overview from 30,000 feet, maybe the best way to understand this opera’s plot is to hear its composer describe it. Pete Townshend says Quadrophenia is about “a young man who is in the Mod period, so it’s 1961, ’62, ’63”. He’s living in London and having “a bit of” a “nervous breakdown”. This character, named Jimmy Cooper, has “lost a very good job”, is “in love with a girl who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings”, feels that “he’s a misfit”, and thinks he “doesn’t fit in”. Quadrophenia traces his “journey”, which is “transformed” into something like “a spiritual quest”.

Perhaps one of the elements that makes Quadrophenia so successful is Townshend following an old adage typically attributed to Mark Twain: “Write what you know.” The album focuses on the early 1960s UK Mod scene. Specifically, the plot centers on fights between the Mods and a rival subculture, the Rockers, that took place in seaside towns like Brighton — conflicts that the media appear to have sensationalized and exaggerated at the time.

Whether the Who were committed to the Mod lifestyle is disputed, but their popularity within that scene is undeniable, as are the Mod credentials of their first manager, Pete Meaden. Following Meaden’s death in 1978, the group dedicated the Quadrophenia film soundtrack to him, and that movie became an essential part of the late 1970s Mod revival. Meaden even claimed that the story told on the record and in the film was based on his personal experiences. Whatever Townshend’s connection to that story was, it was powerful. He’s reflecting on his teen years by telling the story of a fictional character younger than him but not much younger than he was then. Significantly, he’s doing so from the more mature vantage point of age 28 — just past 27, when a number of his rock star peers from the “hope I die before I get old” generation passed away (folks like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Janis Joplin).

When the Mod (Modernist) movement began in the 1950s, it was musically focused on Modern Jazz (as opposed to Traditional “Trad” Jazz), as described in the classic novel Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes (1958). As the 1960s progressed, it retained much of what was described in that novel — an attraction to stylish Italian clothing and scooters and an aversion to people like the Rockers, who loved rockabilly, motorcycles, and leather biker jackets — but its musical attention turned to American R&B as well as British bands that played in a similar style, such as the Who. Mods would dance to that kind of music all night, energized by amphetamine pills. Eventually, some elements of Mod culture (such as the miniskirt) were adopted by the British mainstream, especially during the “Swinging London” period of the late 1960s, and Mod came to be seen as less of a distinct, separate subculture. At the same time, the psychedelic hippie style grew in influence, impacting the look of Mod bands, including the Who. This transition can easily be seen by comparing the band’s outfits and hairstyles in various televised performances from 1965 to what they wore at Woodstock four years later.

Something about this album that has little to do with the Mods is its title, a play on the idea of schizophrenia. The concept is that the lead character, Jimmy, has four personalities, each represented by one band member. Bizarrely, the Beatles had toyed with — and then abandoned — a very similar concept when they considered turning the screenplay Shades of a Personality by Owen Holder into a film. The song “Four Faces” explains this element of the Quadrophenia story, but it was left off the 1973 album, appearing for the first time on the film soundtrack in 1979. For that reason, among others, the concept doesn’t really stick. 

Though seeing Jimmy as someone with four personalities isn’t essential to understanding his story or enjoying the album, the thoughts, feelings, and musical themes attributed by Townshend to those four personalities are important. Townshend gives himself the personality of a hypocrite and a beggar, deems singer Roger Daltrey a tough guy, names bassist John Entwistle as a romantic, and reserves the lunatic role for drummer Keith Moon. In Rolling Stone’s original review of the album, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye described the four personalities as follows: “insecure” and “searching”, with eyes on “the promise of salvation granted and hovering over the next hillrise”, “forceful and determined, a master of his fate”, “soft” and “romantic” with “a quiet inner strength”, and “full of brazen daring and rollicking jingoism”.

Opening Quadrophenia is “I Am the Sea”, a short, atmospheric track that includes vocal lines by Daltrey previewing important songs in the opera. Its importance to the plot isn’t evident without reading the liner notes, but in the spirit of “no spoilers,” that will be covered below (for now, please read on).

Quadrophenia then segues right into “The Real Me”, which kicks the proceedings off with a bang. Flying along at a breakneck speed of nearly 150 beats per minute, it brings us into Jimmy’s world. It reinforces a key point about what often made the Who so unusual and compelling, especially on this album: Entwistle’s bass and Moon’s drums, not Townshend’s guitar, are the lead instruments. They display blinding melodic and rhythmic virtuosity rivaling that of a great jazz combo, stretching out to a point just short of chaos while Townshend holds down the rhythm. Here, we learn that Jimmy knows he’s not doing well emotionally but fails to receive the help he needs — from his mother, from a psychiatrist, from clergy, or from the girl he likes (who has rejected him).

Up next is the fully instrumental title track, “Quadrophenia”, which serves as the opera’s proper overture, introducing its four major melodic themes, later carried by the songs “Bell Boy”, “Doctor Jimmy”, “Helpless Dancer”, and “Love Reign O’er Me”. Though it might sound boring — compared with a traditional, three-minute, vocal pop song — it’s very compelling due to the strength of Townshend’s songwriting and the band’s supple, emotional playing, particularly Townshend’s guitar and keyboard lines. 

One of Quadrophenia‘s strongest songs from a lyrical standpoint, “Cut My Hair” provides many key pieces to Jimmy’s story. He has to “move with the fashion or be outcast,” working himself “to death” to fit in as a Mod, and he’s ready for a “beach fight” though his peers “hardly notice” he’s around. All the while, he “can’t explain” the “uncertain feeling” that’s still in his brain. In other words, he’s really not sure about this Mod thing. According to Townshend’s comments in the liner notes, at this point in the story, Jimmy has been home for a week from Brighton, where he participated in the aforementioned “beach fight”. Carried by Townshend’s plaintive vocal, the verses are built on the same melancholy, descending chord sequence that powers another, more famous, later track on the album (“5:15”), building to rollicking choruses anchored by a staccato keyboard riff (presumably played by Townshend on the ARP 2500 synthesizer, his go-to keyboard on this album).

Jimmy’s questioning of his Mod lifestyle carries into the next song, “The Punk and the Godfather”. Townshend’s comments in the liner notes clarify the somewhat obscure lyrics, which describe Jimmy going to see a rock band play, trying to meet the stars backstage, and being rudely rejected. “He suddenly realizes that there’s nothing really happening in rock ‘n’ roll,” Townshend notes.

The song is strangely self-referential, as the group the song describes Jimmy as going to see is undoubtedly the Who. The moment that’s clear is when Daltrey describes himself as “the punk with the stutter” and then slowly sings, in a distorted voice, the words “my, my, my, my, my generation”. He explains that the Who, playing the part of the “new president” and “phony leaders”, “blame”, “framed”, and “own” its Mod fans, who thought they were “chasing a destiny calling” but “only earned” what the band gave them. The song’s cynicism fits the original concept of what became Quadrophenia: an abandoned, nine-song mini-opera called Rock Is Dead—Long Live Rock, which was planned as a reflection on the Who’s history. It also channels the skeptical spirit the band expressed in the final lines of Who’s Next’s closing song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” For Townshend, rock stars didn’t set their listeners free in the 1960s, they just became their new overlords.

The chorus of “The Punk and the Godfather” is one of the most memorable of Quadrophenia’s many musical highlights. Here, another of Townshend’s staccato keyboard riffs surfaces, and Entwistle’s bass pushes against it, his fingers flying up and down his fretboard. Riding the building wave of tension between these two, Daltrey’s voice soars higher and higher until it peaks.

Though Jimmy is starting to feel the Mod lifestyle isn’t where he will find meaning, he clings to it in the following song (“I’m One”) simply because he feels he has nothing else. He describes himself as “a loser” wearing “ill-fitting clothes” who feels loneliness “sinking in”, but he promises that in the future, he’ll redeem himself as a Mod, and others on the scene will “all see I’m the one”. With Daltrey absent and Moon and Entwistle playing supporting roles, this record is a Townshend guitar tour-de-force, from soft, folky picking to hard-edged country twang.

If Jimmy isn’t going to be fulfilled as a Mod, he will surely not be as a working-class laborer, as described in “The Dirty Jobs”. Jimmy and those like him are being “put down”, “pushed” around”, and “beaten every day”, whether they’re looking after “the pigs”, driving “a local bus”, or collecting garbage (the occupation Townshend and Daltrey say he’s pursuing in this song). Though Jimmy admits to being “all mixed up”, he’s clearheaded enough to know “what’s right,” and that if he accepts this misery as his lot in life, he has only himself to blame. It’s hard to imagine the Clash hadn’t listened to this song when they wrote, in “Clampdown” six years later, about the need for a “boy” to “get running” from the “old and cunning” men at the factory who are trying to “steal” the “best years” of his life. Townshend’s simple, catchy, ascending keyboard riff keynotes the track, married to another effective staccato riff, and Moon’s relentless fills push it into overdrive towards the fade.

Centered on Entwistle’s five-note French horn riff and Townshend’s staccato keys, “Helpless Dancer” — which serves as Daltrey’s theme — is short and sweet but powerful, as Daltrey and Townshend trade impassioned, call-and-response vocals. Here, again, Jimmy is fighting various enemies — such as his “boss” and “computers” — and moving closer to the end of his rope, “trying to change” but experiencing only “further pain”. This song segues right into the next one — “Is It In My Head?” — one of the less memorable tracks on Quadrophenia. Though somewhat vague, the lyrics mainly provide further evidence that Jimmy is confused about his place in the world. Its most important message, perhaps, is that Jimmy won’t find answers in his confused mind but instead in his heart.

Finally, in the aptly-titled “I’ve Had Enough”, Jimmy breaks down. The song whipsaws between three different lyrical themes: trying to succeed as a Mod (“ride a GS scooter with my hair cut neat”), giving up on everything (“had enough” of “living”, “dying”, “smiling”, “crying,” and “childhood”), and finally, in a preview of the opera’s conclusion, finding redemption in love (“love reign o’er me”). Unsurprisingly, each lyrical theme is matched with a musical one: raucous rock that would’ve fit in on Who’s Next, folky banjo fingerpicking, and the emotive synth line of “Love Reign O’er Me”, the album’s final song.

“5:15” details Jimmy’s trip on a train back to Brighton, the scene of his beach fight. He’s totally lost (“nowhere is home”) and “out of his brain” due to his psychic break, the “uppers and downers” he’s taking, or both. One of Quadrophenia’s best-known songs, “5:15” was released as a single in the UK in 1973 (reaching #20) and then in the US in 1979, alongside the film (hitting #45). After a lovely introduction featuring interplay between Townshend’s guitar and session musician Chris Stainton’s piano, Moon’s stomping four-on-the-floor drives the uptempo rhythm, with the melody primarily carried by Entwistle, who handles both bass and horns. Towards the end, Townshend delivers a ferocious solo nearly a minute long, the rest of the band bashing away behind him.

Back at the beach, Jimmy fills in much of the plot on “Sea and Sand”. He explains that he has been kicked out of the house by his drunk parents and is yearning for a girl he doesn’t have, feeling “high” when she’s around and wanting to die with her “near” (in the liner notes, Townshend describes him as reliving an “evening on the beach with his former girlfriend”). This is the first we’ve heard of her since “The Real Me” at the start of the record, although she features prominently in the film and a song on the soundtrack, “Joker James”. The “ride a GS scooter” section of “I’ve Had Enough” is repeated here, though the second time it appears in this song, the lyrics are a bit different, with Jimmy wondering how the other Mods can be penniless but dress better than he does — and how the girls can “come on oh so cool” though every one of them’s “a fool”. Musically, “Sea and Sand” alternates between gentle arpeggios and thunderous power chords, concluding with a long Townshend solo.

“Drowned” is Quadrophenia’s musical peak, with the band firing on all cylinders, backed on piano by Stainton (who also played with Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Joe Cocker). Stainton’s catchy piano riff anchors the track, a riff more-than-slightly borrowed from Cocker’s 1969 version of “Hitchcock Railway” (which Stainton had played on). From that starting point, Entwistle and Moon take off at nearly 125 beats per minute, turning the tune into a long, frenetic jam still rolling at the fade. It’s easy to understand why the Who frequently played this song live, stretching out with lots of solos.

Lyrically, this track is just as good, functioning on two levels at once: a spiritual desire to be “set free” by the water (inspired by Townshend’s guru Meher Baba) and a more fatalistic urge to be devoured by it (“I wanna drown in cold water”). In the liner notes, Townshend describes the ocean as “God’s love” and people as “drops of water that make it up”. But Jimmy is seriously in despair and considering suicide. Thinking of drowning himself, he divorces this action from his conscious self (“I am not the actor, this can’t be the scene”) while acknowledging its reality (“but I am in the water, as far as I can see”). 

“Bell Boy” makes it clear that Jimmy hasn’t quite tried to drown himself yet, as he meets up with a “hero” whom he says in “Drowned” he hasn’t “seen a sight of” in Brighton. This “hero” — played memorably by a young Sting in the Quadrophenia film — is otherwise known as the “Ace Face”, whom Jimmy “used to follow back in ’63” and sees as “the only soul in the world that’s real”. Jimmy remembers him setting “the paces”, riding “up in front of a hundred faces”. But things have changed, and “Ace Face” is now a “bell boy” in a luxe hotel — one whose doors he helped smash back in his Mod days.

“Bell Boy” is Moon’s theme, and he owns it — not, in this case, with his drumming, but his vocals. Moon plays the “Ace Face” turned “bell boy” by singing in a thick Cockney accent with panache and deep pathos. Moon’s character seems to have given in to the type of low-wage labor Jimmy ran from in “The Dirty Jobs”. The “Ace Face” is “newly born” as a “bell boy” with his “lip buttoned down”, always “running at someone’s heel”. At one point, Moon drops the Cockney accent and sings in his own sweet voice, expressing deep vulnerability. He sings about sleeping on the beach and remembering when “stars were in reach” before going to work, where he spends the day “licking boots” for his “perks”.

After encountering the “bell boy”, Jimmy is even more despairing, lashing out with extreme anger in “Doctor Jimmy”. This powerful track — the longest on Quadrophenia, clocking in at nearly nine minutes — is really two songs in one, a Doctor Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde, so to speak: the very aggressive “Doctor Jimmy” of the title, and its flipside, the gentle “Mr. Jim”, expressed by Entwistle’s theme, “Is it Me?” The repulsive “Doctor Jimmy” side of Jimmy, who “only” comes out when he drinks gin, will “take on anyone”, steal anything, “rape” any girl, and “meet” any bet. He can’t “beat” getting “high” and is so “restless” that he’s seeking “something stronger” than the gin he’s drinking.

His bitterness towards women, perhaps specifically the girl he was formerly with, is expressed as an extremely disturbing, violent threat. “You say she’s a virgin, but I’m gonna be the first in,” Daltrey sings. “Her fellah’s gonna kill me? Oh, fucking will he.” Townshend’s synthesized fiddle two-note staccato pattern leads the charge on the verses, paired with Moon’s heavy crash cymbal and ferocious fills. Entwistle’s horns dominate the choruses but drop out for his “Is it Me?” theme. In these softer segments, the musical tension is released, the busy instrumentation falls away, and we’re left with just humming synths, cymbal accents, and understated basslines. “Is it me? For a moment,” the pensive, sensitive “Mr. Jim” part of Jimmy reflects, observing that the “stars are falling”, the “heat is rising”, and “the past is calling”. 

Up next is “The Rock”, which functions as a second overture of sorts, the song “Quadrophenia” part deux. Fully instrumental, it essentially just repeats the opera’s main musical themes, but close to the end instead of near the beginning. On the album, it doesn’t make much sense…unless you know what part of the plot it’s supposed to represent. “It’s getting in a boat, going out to sea, and sitting on a rock waiting for the waves to knock him off that makes him review himself,” Townshend explains about Jimmy in the liner notes. “He ends up with the sum total of frustrated toughness, romanticism, religion, daredevil – desperation, but a starting point for anybody.” So, it turns out that Jimmy actually does try to drown himself, rowing out to sea on a boat and ending up on a rock (in the film, Jimmy’s aborted suicide involves riding his scooter towards the edge of a cliff but getting off before it tumbles to the rocks below).

Incidentally, it’s only by reading the liner notes that it’s evident almost the entire album — like the film — is a flashback (the two-minute “I Am the Sea”, which opens the album, is also supposed to take place with Jimmy clinging to the rock). It’s a bit odd that “Drowned” doesn’t come after “Bell Boy” and “Doctor Jimmy” — as it would make sense that Jimmy would try to drown himself after encountering the one-time “Ace Face” and drinking himself into a stupor — but those songs stand on their own (considerable) merits, regardless of the sequencing. That can’t really be said for “The Rock”, though, which in spite of the Who’s fine playing, could easily have been left off the album altogether. 

The Who rebound, however, with the opera’s concluding and redemptive track, “Love Reign O’er Me”. The second single, this song barely cracked the charts (reaching only #75 in the US), but some have called it the Who’s best-ever track, and there are reasons for that assessment. Townshend explains in the liner notes that it’s “similar to ‘Drowned’ in meaning,” as it refers to Meher Baba’s thought “that rain was a blessing from God”. Jimmy now wants to be drenched in God’s love (the “rain” that “makes you yearn to the sky” and “falls like tears from on high”), not die drowning in the ocean. He gets through the “suicide crisis” in one piece, “in danger of maturing” in spite of his difficult life circumstances (which he’ll still have to face).

Musically, the song is built around two Townshend riffs — a keyboard riff that ascends and then doubles back on itself and a guitar riff that descends down a scale — but really, it’s a showcase for Daltrey, one of the most significant in his five-plus decades of singing. He sings the verses fairly straight-ahead, but on the choruses, he explodes, swooping high, swinging low, giving it all he’s got (and more). The opera’s final word — “love,” sung at the very top of his register — goes to Daltrey in the album’s climactic final minute.

What does the listener walk away with after more than 80 minutes of Quadrophenia? There’s a meaningful story, one to which many people can easily relate, about a young man learning to grow up in the face of significant difficulties. There’s a very high proportion of compelling songs, from both a lyrical standpoint and a musical one, and this is true to such a great degree that they stand on their musical merit alone, plot be damned. There’s top-notch musicianship, with one of the best bands of the rock era operating at the peak of their power. Easily, Quadrophenia is that band’s best rock opera, if not their best album, and perhaps, it’s the best rock opera ever, full stop. After five decades, Townshend and Daltrey — who are still with us — should feel prouder than ever of what they accomplished.