American Grandstand: If You Hate Rock, Skip 'Quadrophenia'

'Quadrophenia' is special to the group's fans, but to anyone who doesn't care about rock, it's completely meaningless

Pete Townshend The Who
Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Pete Townshend of The Who
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In the sixties, American rock & roll kids grew up with an image of England as a land whose streets were littered with electric Gibsons and souped-up Marshalls – a paradise. There was plenty we missed or looked at without comprehension, Mod most of all. To most Yanks, Mod meant Carnaby Street, a clothing fad – like Macy's selling punk haberdashery – or the music of such pre-power-pop bands as the Who and Small Faces. It was only later, if ever, that we discovered that the flashy Carnaby Street gear would never have done (Mods wore mohair suits and pinstripe shirts, not fancy polka dots), and that what was really being played in the clubs was the full-tilt R&B of Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, a lot of Motown and cooler British R&B singers like Georgie Fame.

If we read about the bash-ups between Mods and Rockers at Brighton Beach on bank holidays, they seemed to have no more to do with the scene than the rumbles you could find without trying in the parking lot of any stateside drive-in. But Quadrophenia, both in the Who's original LP version (1973) and in the new film directed by Franc Roddam, certainly makes those brawls seem significant. For Pete Townshend, at least, Mod was a turning point between the time when rock and all that went with it could be a momentary kick, and the era when the Moment became institutionalized as a lifestyle – a lifestyle personified by the Who.

Album Review: Quadrophenia

In a more general way, Quadrophenia rebuffs the idea that this epoch's rock ought to be (or ought to return to) just plain fun. When Jimmy (the central character, played by Phil Daniels) and others like him can no longer stop at the weekend – when the collective frenzy of the Brighton action becomes desirable all week long – rock stops being just a leisure-time propellent. As a result, the fourth side of the Quadrophenia soundtrack, a selection of old hits by girl groups and soul masters, seems so quaint. At the very least, the institutionalization of "fads" like Mod spelled the end of innocence in rock – and once lost, innocence, like virginity, can never be regained. (So much for the Knack.)

The original Quadrophenia LP failed to articulate any of these ideas. Part of the problem was Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend's quirky, lavishly detailed production, which left Roger Daltrey's voice naked above the band. Worse, Townshend's story line was no more coherent than the one he used for Tommy. The film script at least gives the movie a strong narrative base (the visualization of "5:15" is particularly striking), but Roddam's direction does have problems: the motivations of these characters are never completely explained, and this is a movie about motive. Unless you're a terminal Anglophile or Who fan, what goes on doesn't consistently make sense, although it all adds up at the end when Jimmy metaphorically smashes his guitar.

Quadromania: The Who Fuss, Fight and Hit the Road

Oddly, given the flaws of the original album, the new soundtrack LP for Quadrophenia gets its point across precisely because of the music. I can't think of another rock movie in which the songs supply so much of the narrative – Tommy wasn't a rock movie – and the new recordings and remixes of the older material lend the songs the punch they've always missed, onstage as well as on the original LP. "5:15" now sounds like the hit single it was always meant to be, and Roger Daltrey's singing on both that song and "Love Reign O'er Me" make him sound as tough as he's always acted like he thought he was. (The musical equivalent, I suppose, of an American Grandstand that actually made rude noises and then punched you in the lip.)

Like the Who's recent shows at Madison Square Garden, Quadrophenia is special for the group's fans, if only because it promises that the group can carry on at its old energy level (something that's hard for a lot of us to admit, but can't be ducked once you stare it in the face). But even for people who don't care much about the Who or what really happened in Britain during the middle Sixties, there's a lot to be learned from this picture about what happened to rock in general. To anybody who doesn't care about rock, Quadrophenia will be completely meaningless, which is another kind of recommendation, if you think about it.

This story is from the November 29th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 305: November 29, 1979
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