Quadrophenia is the Who at their most symmetrical, their most cinematic, ultimately their most maddening. Captained by Pete Townshend, they have put together a beautifully performed and magnificently recorded essay of a British youth mentality in which they played no little part, lushly endowed with black and white visuals and a heavy sensibility of the wet-suffused air of 1965.
Nonetheless, the album fails to generate a total impact because of its own internal paradox: Instead of the four-sided interaction implicit in the title and overriding concept, Quadrophenia is itself the product of a singular (albeit brilliant) consciousness. The result is a static quality which the work never succeeds in fully overcoming. Townshend has taken great pains with the record, has carried it within him for over a year, has laboriously fitted each piece of its grand scale in place. Yet in winning the battle, he’s lost the war and more’s the pity.
The hero of Quadrophenia is Jimmy, a young motor-scooted Mod in the throes of self-doubt and alienation. Unlike Tommy, to whom he’s destined to be inevitably compared, Jimmy is no simplistic parable or convenient symbol. His loner qualities set him apart from both friends and foes, and though he’s more than willing to be led, somehow even that security seems to elude him. Torn between identities, Townshend has gifted him with four, all competing for top seed in Jimmy’s confused psyche. In one he is forceful and determined, a master of his fate; another finds him full of brazen daring and rollicking jingoism; yet another softens and romanticizes his nature, giving him a quiet inner strength; and still another reveals him as insecure, searching, the promise of salvation granted and hovering over the next hillrise.
Such is quadrophenia, schizophrenia times two, and Townshend maneuvers this conflict on several levels, each to noticeably good (if fairly evident) effect. Most important of these manifold hooks is the Mod generation out of which the Who sprang, and only secondary (though admittedly the most personally interesting) is the Who itself, four themes (“Helpless Dancer,” “Bell Boy,” “Is It Me?” and “Love Reign O’er Me”) wrestling, congealing, splitting apart throughout the album. As for Jimmy, his frustration at being unable to resolve his separate selves suddenly overwhelms him, so that he smashes his scooter, flees to Brighton on the shore, finally putting to sea in a boat with the vague aim of suicide. This is where we find him at the beginning of side one, lost amidst his flashbacks and disjointed memories, and this is where we leave him, on a note of spiritual uplift and transcendence, at the end.
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These are not new concerns for the Who, by any means. Whereas the Kinks always seemed preoccupied with the staid and comfortable middle class in an archetypal love-hate relationship, Townshend and Co. early on turned an affectionate camera eye to their contemporaries, culminating in such landmark classics as “Substitute,” “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” and a flailing “My Generation” yet to be equaled in definitive power.
Quadrophenia, in taking that time in retrospect and examining its implications, lingers over the artifacts of the period as if they might in themselves provide a clue. Tea kettles whistle over the ominous voicings of the BBC, hints of the Who in concert cut in and out of Jimmy’s fragmented dreamings, slim and checked jackets mingle with seersucker and neatly cut hair. To the American mind, Quadrophenia might thus seem as strange as portions of American Graffiti could appear to English experience, but it’s to be assured that the appeal of semi-nostalgic shared memories must perforce work as well for one as the other.
It is to Townshend’s credit that his is not a disengaged overview, pious and self-righteous after all these years. In seeking to understand Jimmy, he apparently is also trying to understand the roots of the Who, its attraction as rallying point and its eventual rejection by such as Jimmy (“The Punk Meets the Godfather”) and — more appropriately — himself. To set the stage for Jimmy’s final leap to faith, Townshend must question why the religion of rock & roll (as well as GS scooters and purple hearts) had to be replaced by something less temporal and untrustworthy, detail the steps toward the higher goal, describe its draining holocaust.
The interior episodes where all this is hashed out are the most successful on Quadrophenia, impeccably outlined by Townshend and stunningly executed by the Who. Jimmy attempts to mesh with his family, his peer group, his girl, and yet remains an outsider, wondering why in his just-so clothes “the other tickets look much better/Without a penny to spend they dress to the letter.” Meeting an old idol on the beach, now reduced to subserving as a local hotel bellboy, he is moved to remember: “Ain’t you the guy who used to set the paces/Riding up in front of a hundred faces?”
An effective moment, yet when judged against the broader scope of Quadrophenia it seems as if all Townshend has constructed is a series of such effective moments. Pete, for better or worse, is possessed of a logic riveting in its linearity, and if in effect we are being placed in the mind of an emotionally distressed adolescent, neither the texture of the music nor the album’s outlook is able to rise to this challenge of portraiture. Despite the varied themes, Jimmy is only seen through Townshend’s eyes, geared through Townshend’s perceptions, and the aftermath as carried through four sides becomes a crisis of concept, the album straining to break out of its enclosed boundaries and faltering badly.
This is reflected in the songs themselves, vastly similar in mode and construction, running together with little differential to separate them. Only a few stand on their own as among the best the Who have done (“The Real Me,” “Is It in My Head?,” “5:15,” the Townshend theme of “Love Reign O’er Me”), and of those it’s interesting to note that several are holdovers from the lost Who album Glyn Johns and the band worked on before the onset of Quadrophenia. Also, given the inordinately complex personalities that make up the group, little is sensed of any Moon, Entwhistle or Daltrey contributions to the whole. Their roles are subdued, backing tracks when they should rise to shoulder the lead, pressed on all fronts by the sweep of Townshend’s imagination.
On other Who albums this might be acceptable, even welcome; surely Pete has been the Who’s guiding force, their hindsight and hellbound inspiration. It is his mastermind that has created the tour-de-force recording breakthroughs of the album, the realistic and panoramic landscape of pre-Carnaby Street England, arranged the setting so that each member of the band could give full vent to his vaunted and highly unique instrumental prowess. Indeed, it might easily be said that the Who as a whole have never sounded better, both ensemble and solo, proving unalterable worth and relevance in an age that has long passed others of their band’s generation into fragments of history.
But on its own terms, Quadrophenia falls short of the mark. Jimmy Livingston Seagull, adrift on a stormless sea, with only his shattered wings and sharded memories to keep him company — so close, and yet so far.