3. Quadrophenia (1973)
Released in 1973, Quadrophenia has tremendous legs. It's long been the favorite of many hardcore fans and has resulted in a 1979 film and revival tours in 1996/1997 as well as in 2012 into this year: its 40th anniversary. (Phish even covered the album, in full, at one of its famed Halloween shows in 1995 and the band continues to regularly incorporate the bubbly "Drowned" into its sets.) The enduring rock opera was composed entirely by Pete Townshend, who made a demo himself before having the band listen to it.
Townshend became obsessed with the quadraphonic sound experiments going on around the time and famously cited Pink Floyd as an influence. Quadrophenia's "Helpless Dancer" could easily be on The Wall, and the album's narrative arc is very similar to Floyd's concepts in the same era. And—wouldn't ya know it? -- Quadrophenia was recorded in the Battersea area of London, where the iconic power station that graces the cover of Floyd's Animals is located.
The band converted an old church on Thessaly Road into what would become Ramport Studios and began tinkering with the sonics. They designed powerful equipment with an output of 140 decibels; some in the studio's ears and noses bled. Townsend praised the space's "bright" sound, which translates to the crispness of Quadrophenia resonant stereo snap.
Ostensibly the story of a lad named Jimmy who is trying to find his way in the world, Townshend's epic story incorporates mods, rockers, scooters, fallen heroes, love and the sea. (The latter's crashing waves appear as one of the various found sounds Townshend recorded on a reel-to-reel in and around London.)
The focus on the number four fit nicely with the members of the band, who each brought disparate, larger-than-life personalities to the story and the recording, itself. (Their brandy-fueled butting of heads hit its apex when Townshend and Daltrey physically fought.) Keith Moon appears as something of a Monty Python-informed court jester on "Bell Boy" even though Townshend -- ever committed -- wanted him to be taken seriously. Moon doubled down on the persona, collapsing from elephant tranquilizers at the first show of the U.S. Quadrophenia tour. A fan, plucked from the audience, finished the show on drums.
The record, in true opera fashion, has themes and hooks that repeat throughout. Many of the Who's finest -- and often overlooked -- songs can be found on it. "The Punk And The Godfather" has one of the most firmly righteous guitar-and-bass openings in rock history, the chorus of "The Dirty Jobs" smacks a smile on despair, and "Doctor Jimmy" contains lyrics that are still shocking today. And then, of course there's "The Real Me," "5:15," and on and on. "Love Reign O'er Me," long fodder for classic rock radio, is Daltrey at his vocal heights -- screaming as if Jimmy's life depended on it.
On “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey famously proclaims, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was 1965: Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics just as he was turning 20. Forty-eight years later, neither the singer nor the guitarist-composer has fulfilled that prophecy. Only one member of the Who did: Keith Moon, drummer and merrymaker extraordinaire, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 32. (John “the Ox” Entwistle took his thunderfinger bass licks to his grave in 2002 at the still relatively young age of 57.) Still, it’s a line worth considering in 2013. The Who is still around, and just what does that mean?
Although the Who stands as an outfit with only one-half of its original members, Townshend and Daltrey are getting away with it … and then some. Five years ago the two were knighted USA-style at the Kennedy Center and, in 2010, the Who played a raucous and underrated Super Bowl halftime show: the next level these days, it seems, after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And the band’s performance at “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” was expansive and one of the highlights of the night. Like another stand-out, Billy Joel, the group pillaged through seven songs; the Who’s set included a rendition of “Bell Boy” with Keith Moon lending his vocals via monitor. And the group is currently knee-deep in the second leg of an American tour, “Quadrophenia and More,” that takes them to Europe this summer. It could be its last ever.
So, why keep going? It seems as though they have some unfinished business. Townshend — long a troubled figure with a blazing media spotlight upon him — released a tell-all memoir last year, Who I Am. And, then there’s the issue of history: The Who has always been considered “one of” the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely “the best.” When boarding the Magic Bus, the Who has always been seated at the back while the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin fill out first-class. Townshend and Daltrey, approaching 70, are out to prove something.
And even looking outside of its recent accolades and achievements, the Who has cause for renewed consideration. This is a group that contributed to the framework of how rock ’n’ roll musicians behave: They break instruments and have bad attitudes. They brand themselves: Who wouldn’t readily identify that Union Jack target logo with the group? They make money: T-shirts on the current tour are fetching $40 a pop. They come up with signature moves (Townshend’s jumping windmill guitar stroke) and they bare their chests (Daltrey). They fight with each other like brothers, they have sex with the Western Hemisphere, and they write songs about it all. And, then, one-by-one: They die.
The band’s recordings are the heart of the matter, though, and go a long way toward reopening the case on the brilliant band. The Who has recorded 11 studio albums that have, in turn, given rise to a myriad of greatest hits collections, rare outtake compilations, and some of the best live music ever committed to tape (including the granddaddy of them all, 1970′s Live At Leeds.) Here, though, we consider those 11 LPs as a portfolio in its own right. As the Who criss-crosses the country, it’s readily apparent that, to paraphrase Townshend, the song will soon be over. And it’s these primary documents on which the Who’s legacy will be judged.
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