Tommy was first. The Who’s 1969 opera legitimized the improbable union of rock abandon and extended narrative, and marked guitarist Pete Townshend’s great leap forward as a composer and as his band’s conceptual general. But Quadrophenia, released in 1973, was a superior tale with more-taut songwriting; it was grounded in Townshend’s memories of growing up angry, anguished and mod in the early Sixties, and produced with the panoramic tension of Who’s Next. Tommy was precedent; Quadrophenia was coherent spectacle. At the time, Roger Daltrey claimed his vocals were too low in the mix. In this remastered edition, when he hits the “Out of my brain” chorus over Keith Moon’s runaway drum rolls and John Entwistle’s thunderclap bass in “5:15,” you clearly hear the singer – and his lyricist – going off the rails.
Quadrophenia was the redemption of Townshend’s long-form dreams after the collapse of his intended Tommy follow-up, the multimedia beast Lifehouse. Like his deaf, dumb and blind kid in Tommy, Townshend’s scooter boy Jimmy (a composite of the four personalities in the Who) finds identity, then disappointment in cult life: the top-dog mod reduced to carrying tourists’ bags in “Bell Boy.”
There is rebirth, too: the final, magisterial cleansing of “Love Reign O’er Me.” But where Townshend wrote parts of Tommy in too-literal operatic form, he edited Quadrophenia with a film director’s hand, evident in the two CDs of his original demos included in this box set. The tapes are fascinating for their detailed home-studio arrangements; the band replicated most of them with the appropriate fury. The demos also reveal what Townshend left out on the way to the ’73 double LP, such as the ill-fitting verse about rock-star anxiety in “The Real Me” and a run of numbers in the first half – the teen-crush waltz “You Came Back” and an early character sketch, “Joker James” – that would have slowed down the action. Instead, on the LP, Townshend cut right from the kitchen-table revolt of “Cut My Hair” to the real generations’ warfare in “The Punk and the Godfather.”
It still sounds like the right decision. Like the subtitle here says, you get the work’s birth in full, including an epic prose account by Townshend. But Quadrophenia, as delivered the first time, is still one of his, and the Who’s, greatest albums – and the better opera.