I first discovered Quadrophenia in the midst of my great Who exploration. Turned on by Dad’s cassette copy ofWho’s Better, Who’s Best, I began grabbing every Who album I could find. They were harder than anything I had ever heard, and after digging on Live at Leeds, Who’s Next, and the early singles, I didn’t have much of an initial reaction to Quadrophenia. Some of it was too symphonic and some was too subdued. It was nice background music. Then came the second semester of my first year of college.
As with Catcher in the Rye, you need to get into Quadrophenia at the right time. I was 18 and just entering that stage where I understood how fucked up the world is (and before I’d learn how fucked up it isn’t, too). My parents were divorcing, two of my pets would be killed within the next eight months or so, and I was having a late-adolescent identity crisis. When I heard Daltrey scream, “Can you see the real me?”, I knew I had found the cathartic expression that I couldn’t get out myself.
I’ve yet to find another album with this kind of musical and emotional range. I’ve consoled myself with “I’m One”, restored myself with “Love, Reign O’er Me”, and rocked the karaoke crowd with my green-haired, mic-stand-straddling rendition of “5:15” (or at least I choose to believe I rocked them). There’s a track on Quadrophenia for every emotional and spiritual state you can find yourself in. Much of the album concerns itself with adolescence, but the emotions evoked are ones you shouldn’t let yourself grow out of.
Musically, the Who reveal not so much a change of direction as they do a new revelation of their style. Since matching the early three-chords-and-feedback hits with “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, the Who had traveled an increasingly artsy and sonically diverse path. Tommy cemented the rock opera in the pop culture pantheon. Who’s Next came from a failed attempt at another, more ambitious opera, which is now available in various forms as Lifehouse. That album lacked the orchestral structure, but used synthesizers and keyboards and even a Keith-Moon-produced violin solo to approximate the artistic vision that Pete Townshend had been driving toward.
Each member of the group is at his best on Quadrophenia. Moon’s drumming is simply astounding. He plays with all the abandon imaginable, and if you doubt that, just listen to the final second or two of the album, in which he manages to hit every piece of percussion in the studio. At the same time, his rhythms are complex and powerful. He’s as tight and steady as you’d want, but no more so. Entwistle, always the best member technically, also shines. “The Real Me” contains one of the greatest bass moments in all of rock, and he doesn’t let up much after that. On the Who’s 1996 tour, Entwistle’s solos in “5:15” were amazing — if you haven’t yet, you need to hear some of the live takes from that tour (and perhaps, like me, you’ll end up becoming a bass player). Daltrey sounds great, meaning that his voice cracks and he misses notes, but for all that, no one could have sounded better. I still goosebumps every time I hear him scream “Looooove!” at the end of Quadrophenia. Townshend, on the other hand, almost never has the spotlight as a musician. Instead, his songwriting genius is more apparent than on any other album he’s ever done. At one of those 1996 shows that made me entirely re-think what a concert could be, Townshend came out with a solo acoustic version of “Drowned” that put any other guitar playing I’d seen to shame, and put me to shakin’ all over.
Quadrophenia merges these musical developments with the band’s continual lyrical themes: frustration, the pressures of style and conformity, the emptiness of daily life, and the quest for a secure spiritual foundation. After this album, the Who would never again pull these ideas together (except for scattered tracks including “Who Are You”), and they would never have as much power as they did here. The second half of the band’s career (by which I mean the last 30 years or so) was more marked by ennui than by fire, but Quadrophenia is an emotional inferno.
For me, that emotional power puts this album at the top of my list and has kept it there. As good as the songs work one at a time, they’re even better allowed to build up over the course of 80 minutes, whether over a little dorm-room stereo in the dark, or through scratchy car speakers on a long drive home. Only this album can take me through so much confusion, rage, frustration, and self-destruction, and leave me screaming up to God for love, emptied and expectant.
Eight years after my discovery of Quadrophenia, I don’t play it nearly as much as I used to. That’s probably true of the relationship most people have with their favorite albums, and the fact that my life is going so well now probably has something to do with my keeping the record on the shelf. I’ll even grant you that it might not be the greatest rock album ever recorded. Still, it’s the album that’s most a part of me. It moves me, cleanses me, and inspires me. And (this is as important as anything) it gets me rowdy, jumping around the house, drumming on furniture, and bouncing on couches. Quadrophenia turns all of me loose without ever letting go of any of me, and I don’t plan on letting go of it.