The previous two Quadrophenia tours, staged in 1973 and 1997, were stifled by overwrought presentation, but this time Pete Townshend left the creative decisions to Roger Daltrey, who wisely stripped out any narration or guest singers. Not a word was spoken during the 90-minute Quadrophenia portion of the show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Wednesday night. The Who played the album from top to bottom, this time adding only five additional musicians to their current lineup. Every note from the album was reproduced, down to the boiling tea kettle and British newscast before “The Punk and the Godfather” and the squawking seagulls before “Sea and Sand.”
From the opening notes of “The Real Me,” it was also clear that Roger Daltrey’s voice, a bit rocky on recent Who outings, has benefited tremendously from his recent medical treatment. Furthemore, bassist Pino Palladino was appropriately high in the mix. This is crucial. The Who’s late bassist, John Entwistle, played bass like it was a lead instrument, and its thunder was a critical part of their unique sound. Palladino is a formidable musician, but over the past decade he’s been mixed way too low, and as a result the Who didn’t quite sound like the Who for a long time. His bass level went up and down in the mix throughout the night, but it was a huge improvement from the band’s recent tours.
On the original Quadrophenia tour, the Who played the vast majority of the double album without additional musicians, relying on primitive tape machines that drove Pete Townshend to the brink of madness. The guitarist also talked himself hoarse between songs, frantically explaining the complex story of Quadrophenia’s teen protagonist, Jimmy, to an audience that just wanted to rock out. When they tried it again in 1996, they brought along a 10-piece backing band, Billy Idol and (shudder) Gary Glitter to portray the Ace Face and the Godfather. Townshend brought in Phil Daniels – star of the 1979 Quadrophenia movie – to narrate between songs, and video screens showed footage from the movie and of the early-Sixties mod scene. The band sounded great, but Townshend overthought the presentation. He also stuck to acoustic guitar for much of the show, leaving most of his famous leads in the hands of his kid brother, Simon.
Some fans surely groaned when they learned the Who were trying it yet again on their 2012 tour, but after nearly 40 years, the band finally got it right. Screens did show archival video of mods and rockers battling on Brighton Beach in 1964, but mostly the images were completely disconnected from the story of Quadrophenia. They were largely focused on global struggles over the past half-century, from World War II through the Occupy Wall Street movement. Jimmy’s inner turmoil suddenly became the world’s.
Rather than have Palladino recreate John Entwistle’s famous “5:15” bass solo, the Who wisely opted to show video of the late bassist playing it at the Royal Albert Hall in 2000. It was a great reminder of Entwistle’s jaw-dropping virtuosity, and it fit in seamlessly. They also paid tribute to the late Keith Moon during “Bell Boy,” one of the only times in Who history his vocals were heard on an album. They showed video of him performing the song in 1974, with Moon’s vocals dubbed in from the LP.
After struggling a bit vocally during “Dr. Jimmy,” Daltrey stepped offstage for “The Rock,” an instrumental. Pete and Simon traded licks while the screens showed tumultuous moments in recent history, from the death of Princess Diana to Columbine to 9/11. Images of terrified New Yorkers fleeing the collapsing World Trade Center may have seemed exploitative (especially in New York), but it’s a song about finding resolve in the face of life-threatening danger and it was largely effective. The finale of “Love Reign O’er Me” (arguably the Who’s greatest song) is an incredibly demanding song for any vocalist. Roger Daltrey is two years away from his 70th birthday, but he returned from backstage determined to nail it. He can’t quite hit the high notes like he did back in ’73, but it was still stunning. He even hit the primal scream at the end.
There aren’t a lot of famous songs on Quadrophenia, so they packed the encore section with their biggest hits. “Baba O’Riley,” “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Pinball Wizard” have been played live roughly 50,000 times, but few songs in rock history work better in an arena setting. For the first time of the night, everyone was on their feet and screaming along to every word.
In a show that ran over two hours, with the exception of “Who Are You” (1978), “Pinball Wizard” (1969) and the final encore of “Tea and Theater” (2006) every song of the night came out between 1971 and 1973. It was a ridiculously fruitful period for Townshend, even if his mighty ambitions at the time were often greater than the ability of any band to execute them. For decades Quadrophenia has been seen by many as a slightly inferior rock opera to Tommy, and this tour seems partially motivated by Townshend’s desire to prove the two works are, at the least, equally worthy. If anything, Quadrophenia is the more cohesive and compelling work.
The show ended with Townshend and Daltrey alone onstage. As is custom at recent Who shows, they played the nostalgic “Tea and Theater” from 2006’s middling Endless Wire. Like so much Who activity since their 1982 split, it’s about looking backwards. “The story is done/Getting colder now,” Daltrey sang. “A thousand songs still smolder now/We played them as one/We’re older now.” Even Quadrophenia (written when Townshend was just 29) is about looking backwards at the Who’s early days. This endless reliving of history may have hurt the Who’s legacy (imagine if they’d split in 1978), but now that they’re reaching the end of their journey it feels truly poignant. They are survivors of a bygone era, and they have endured tragedy after tragedy. Any tour now feels like a justified victory lap.