The Who (1973)
It would be too easy to call Quadrophenia boring (or humorless). But that wouldn’t be entirely true. Because for all of its apparent monolithic singlemindedness and its dour overarching concept, Quad contains multitudes. The overall impression it leaves can be so numbing and daunting that the details of the experience and the high quality of individual songs don’t even factor in.
To some, Quadrophenia is the very definition of impenetrable, pompous progressive rock. Those people are correct. But so are the people who have acquainted themselves with this gray, convoluted musical leviathan and concluded that it’s among the most emotionally rewarding, artfully complex, thematically intelligent pieces of music they’ve ever heard. Like the main character, Jimmy, the whole production is very multifaceted and contradictory. At heart, it’s very rootsy and humble, but its themes and music are presented with such polished bombast and grandiose production that it seems drearier than it really is.
The truth is, even the most frivolous and indulgent parts of Quad have some emotional and artistic merit when put into the proper context. And that context is a story that is still relevant today, at least in its broad strokes. Aforementioned teenager Jimmy is a Mod, the 60s British equivalent of a hipster, and the whole epic is a tale of his disillusionment with the youth culture, growth as a person, search for meaning, and above all, the conflict of his many personality traits as he enters adulthood. (These are reflected by four main motifs, each representative of one band member. Roger’s theme is bold and theatrical; Pete’s is romantic and hymnlike; John’s is inquisitive and weird; and Keith’s is confrontational and fun.) These elements are presented in a truly complex, intelligent and respectful manner which combines synthesizers, art rock, and a traditional operatic mindset. This is where the innovative aspect of the work really comes into play. This style would later be hijacked in the guise of new wave music, a huge change in the pop landscape. And the Who did it first.
Quad is incredibly dense and sometimes distant, since it owes some of its details to an antiquated youth movement. (Apparently moped scooters were a hot item back then.) But its success lies in how it draws its emotion from the human condition, not the signifiers of a cultural scene. Another bonus is the relative simplicity of the narrative; it’s mostly internal action, in contrast to the convolution and overreaching scope of Tommy. I also find it remarkable how complex its mechanics can get without deviating from the arena-rock norm. For the longest time, I didn’t realize how much each song actually contained, because it all washes over you in an emotional crescendo.
It’s hard to embrace at first, because there’s so much material here, and the pace is quite languorous. Even the heavy rockers take their time. Every note is milked for its maximum potential, leading to lots of flourishes and pauses. Pete’s synthesizers, John’s rumbling bass and Keith Moon’s frantic drum rolls dominate the mix and drown the proceedings in embellishments and pomp. Despite this hyper-sensational sheen, Quadrophenia’s artfulness is a subtle, tasteful sort, such that its more impressive facets don’t always stick out from the marathon of anthemic pop. But from a distance, its accomplishments are numerous. It’s one of the high points of art rock, prog rock and synth pop all in one. It’s still growing on me to this day. Pete Townshend’s most ambitious work reveals the potential of one person, and how that one life can encompass so many truths about existence.
Key tracks: “I’ve Had Enough”, “The Rock”
See also: The Wall – Pink Floyd (1979)