When I wrote about The Who a while back, somehow, I managed to leave out their masterpiece, Quadrophenia, which is stunning. I played the hell out of that album in my early 20’s. It is, in fact, probably a far superior album to the rock opera Tommy.
The album tells the tale of Jimmy, a teenaged boy in mid-60’s London who is caught in the middle of the violent rift between Mods (the fashion-obsessed fans of The Who’s style of music) and Rockers (leather-jacket clad blues lovers). Jimmy gets kicked out of his parents house after a fight, falls in love with a girl who rejects him, and is disillusioned to realize his Mod idol is working as a bell boy “licking boots for my perks.”
Pete Townshend describes Jimmy as a thoroughly screwed up individual. The title, in fact, is a play the word “schizophrenia,” the “Quad” referring to Jimmy’s for distinct personalities, all based on members of The Who. Jimmy is having a helluva time trying to figure out who he is. The album opens, first with Jimmy walking along the beach, snatches of the songs from the album fading in and out before Jimmy (or rather, Roger Daltrey) growls “Can you see the real me? Can you? Can you?”
And then the real beginning of the album thunders from John Entwistle’s bass. Jimmy’s not doing so well. His shrink says nothing. His mother tells him insanity runs in his family. The girl he used to love doesn’t give him the time of day. A preacher “full of lies and hate” is only scared of him.
Jimmy can’t handle his alcoholic parents. He longs to fit in. He tries everything, wearing all the right fashions and driving GS scooter “with my hair cut neat.” A double album, the final side shows Jimmy’s ultimate deterioration when he meets Ace (the name given in the 1979 movie, but not on the album). Ace, who was something of a god to Jimmy, turns out to be a lowly bell boy at a hotel. Ace is played both boisterously and sadly by Keith Moon, one of his few lead vocal turns with The Who. Jimmy is treated to Moon’s loud, cockney bravado (“You should see me dressed up in my u-nee-form!”). Moon switches with to a quiet lament about wandering in early to work “spending days licking boots for my perks.” It shatters Jimmy’s illusions about the world. He gets drunk and takes on all comers (“Dr. Jimmy”), boasting, even threatening people. (“I’ll bet she’s a virgin/Well, I’m gonna be the first in!/Her boyfriend’s gonna kill me/Oooh! Fuckin’ will he?”) He flees to a beach, depicted by the epic instrumental “The Rock” and Jimmy’s fate is left ambiguous in the album’s finale, “Love Reign O’er Me.” Did he kill himself? Townshend says only the listener knows for sure.
Quadrophenia is the one Who album embraced by progressive rock fans for its non-linear story and almost classical structure. It also proved a nightmare for Townshend, who struggled to get the album done the way he wanted. He was then given only two weeks to prepare for the supporting tour. He pointed out in a documentary on the album that people were not initially receptive to Quadrophenia and that The Who never did anything like it again until 2006’s Endless Wire. By then, only he and Roger Daltrey remained.