Welcome to our Second Disc Holiday Gift Guide, in which we review some titles we might have missed over the past few weeks! The titles we're spotlighting in this occasional series just might be candidates on your own holiday shopping list!
It was a most unusual moment on June 6, 1993 when the winners of the Tony Award for Best Score of a Musical were announced. John Kander and Fred Ebb, the Broadway legends behind Cabaret, Chicago and “(Theme From) New York, New York,” picked up the statuettes for their work on Kiss of the Spider-Woman in a tie. Their company that evening in the winners’ circle was none other than Pete Townshend for his musical The Who’s Tommy. No doubt classic rock fans and theatre fans alike were a bit bewildered as the rock icon shared the stage with the elder statesmen of the musical. But the line from the work of Kander and Ebb to that of Pete Townshend wasn’t as difficult to draw as many might have thought. Townshend had been writing songs for characters and situations in long forms for roughly 25 years when he picked up the Tony Award. Never has his work as a dramatic craftsman come into as sharp focus, however, as it does now with the remastered reissue of The Who’s 1973 opus Quadrophenia. Widely seen at the time as the proper follow-up to the original 1969 Tommy, Quadrophenia also used the format of a “concept album” for a Townshend rock opera about a troubled youth. But, especially in its lavish 4-CD/1-DVD Super Deluxe Edition (Polydor/Universal 277840, 2011, a case can be made for Quadrophenia as the stronger, more compelling work, both musically and dramatically. This comprehensive “Director’s Cut” box set, produced and copiously annotated by Townshend himself, is one of the most engaging and revelatory sets of its kind yet. It’s also quite heavy, in both senses of the word! “Bigger is better” could be the music industry’s tagline nowadays, but in this case, it’s also true! (The original, remastered album and a small selection of the demos are also available in a basic Deluxe Edition from Universal.)
Through and through, the original Quadrophenia proved Townshend to be one of the rare composers who can marshal pure and true rock in service of a story (however intentionally sketchy, and he goes into detail about that in his notes.) In the beautiful new remastering by Jon Astley, crisp sound and stereo spatiality bring the story of Jimmy (the Mod) into sharp focus. Townshend envisioned telling the story of a mod youth’s coming of age through an examination of four of his personality traits, each trait corresponding to a member of The Who. (A four-channel surround sound experience was also envisioned from the earliest conception.) Jimmy experiences up and downs, including experiences with drugs and alcohol, as he seeks to find just who he really is.
The Opera: Is It In My Head?
In delving into Quadrophenia, it’s apparent how well-constructed the opera is, with use of recurring themes (or leitmotifs) for each band member, and each character. (If you only know “5:15” the single and are hearing the album for the first time, it’s a pivotal moment when the “Why should I care…” motif is introduced in “Cut My Hair,” early on! Similarly, the “finale” “Love Reign O’er Me” recurs.) When Roger Daltrey’s ghostly tone pierces from a distance in “I Am the Sea” as echoes of music we’ve yet to hear fill the soundscape, the effect is positively haunting. When the piece segues into the proper opening, “The Real Me,” Daltrey’s thunderous vocal, full of character and fire, practically explodes from the speakers. You can easily picture him taking the stage, spot-lit, in a prologue to the extended instrumental Overture. The visceral guitar and keyboard interplay is very much of the work of the same band that created the hard rock of Who’s Next, but the ambition of the music is lofty, indeed.
Townshend knew when to deploy each singer, including himself. His sensitive lead on “I’m One” (“Ill-fitting clothes/And I blend in with the crowd/Fingers so clumsy/Voice too loud/But I’m one)” enhances his honest adolescent anthem and perfectly complements John Entwistle’s rock-steady bass and Keith Moon’s perfectly controlled-yet-uncontrollable drums. For Townshend, acting as producer with the entirety of The Who, knew that the sound had to come first on a rock album, and made sure the instrumental interplay and textures were as exciting as the songwriting. The strings and piano on “The Dirty Jobs” will take you by surprise, much as the brass band interlude and piercing piano on “Helpless Dancer” will. Daltrey’s vocal travels on “Dancer” from speaker to speaker, the grand mock-operatic vocals contrasting with the ripples of Townshend’s guitar and the subtly-commenting horns.
Amazingly, even the lesser-known songs on Quadrophenia could have been singles, so melodically accessible and forcefully played are they. Lyrically, Townshend addresses themes of anger and paranoia, but he doesn’t condescend about youth and its confusions. In the disaffected “I’ve Had Enough,” Daltrey’s vocal grows more intense with each verse as he sings of a simply-expressed truth: “You were under the impression/That when you were walking forwards/You’d end up further onward/But things ain’t quite that simple.”
“5:15” might be the centerpiece of Quadrophenia, and it’s one of the most perfect Who songs ever, adding frenetic horns and pounding piano to the band equation. Amazingly, this most intricate of songs was written on the spot in the studio, based on some of the musical content found elsewhere in the opera. It captures Jimmy’s train journey in the story, those tight, ferocious guitars and drums keeping the anxiety level high. On “Sea and Sand,” which follows “5:15,” Townshend’s music adjusts as each verse depicts a changing state of mind for Jimmy. The verses beginning “The girl I love is a perfect dresser…” and “I see her dancing, across the ballroom…” are more reflective before the music returns to the crunchy rock chords; even without the lyrics the music would reveal the character.
Water is another major element of Quadrophenia, most explicitly in the desperate “Drowned” (“I want to drown…in cold water”) in which Jimmy loses himself to a spiritual flood. Although Townshend didn’t elect to do mod pastiche for Quadrophenia (effectively, he would have been pastiching his own sound from a few years earlier), there’s a touch of an even earlier style – vaudeville – in Keith Moon’s performance on “Bell Boy.” As Moon croons in his best Cockney drawl as an older man who Jimmy finds even more pitiable than himself, the keyboards shimmer.
“Doctor Jimmy” was reportedly inspired by Moon’s real-life rages (“What is it? I’ll take it! Who is she? I’ll rape it! Gonna bet there? I’ll meet it! Getting high? You can’t beat it!”) as Jimmy exposes his most unbridled, untamed and wild side. The character asks many questions throughout the album: “Is it me?,” “Is it in my head?,” “Why should I care?,” and so on. This track is an epic explosion.
By the time the water washes over Jimmy as the opening piano chords to “Love Reign O’er Me” begin, the listener is both exhilarated and exhausted. Townshend has spoken of the importance of keeping the story sketchy enough so that listeners can insert themselves into it; one can conservatively say that he most definitely succeeded with the double album Quadrophenia.
We delve into Pete Townshend's demo recordings, this box set's raison d'être, after the jump!
The Demos: Wizardry
The two CDs of the original album are joined by two more containing the crème of Townshend’s demo recordings. These 25 rare and unheard songs are smartly arranged like an alternate version of the opera, hewing to the final running order but adding the excised songs where they might have appeared. In his notes, Townshend writes, “I am not trying to fix the story by doing this, or make more sense of what might one day appear on the musical theatre stage.” Of course, he’s done just this, and wonderfully so. The cut songs offer a completely new perspective on the characters and “plot” of the rock opera. On a purely musical level, the demos as a whole are a reminder of why Townshend is so rightfully renowned for his demos; these sound like full-fledged productions in most cases. The composer offers track-by-track notes on each demo, and his notes are essential reading as one listens. “The Real Me” (October 1972), he reveals, was originally written independent of any specific project, and we hear an intricately arranged demo with ARP synthesizer. He was aiming for a funk sound (“although not as tight as Earth Wind and Fire,” Townshend dryly notes) that The Who completely transformed.
Townshend’s notes aren’t afraid to jump headfirst into technical territory as he explains how he utilized eight tracks for “Four Overtures,” but still managed to achieve a symphonic sound by carefully layering synthesized strings and horns with drums, piano, bass and guitars. He subjects himself to compositional analysis as well: “a change in the bass note in the final verse [of “Cut My Hair”] from C to A converts C major to its relative minor also changes Jimmy’s exaltation of his Mod days high on pills to the pathos and self-pity of the come-down that would inevitably follow.”
“Cut My Hair” finds Townshend experimenting with internal monologues and setting naturalistic dialogue to music; he reveals that it was one of the first songs written specifically for Quadrophenia. In the cut “Get Out and Stay Out,” a short, piano-driven interlude for Jimmy’s admonishing parents, he ruefully observes that “this scene was a very common one in the lives of boys like us.” Another unheard song, “Quadrophenic – Four Faces,” was written for the spot that eventually went to “The Real Me” before that song was absorbed into the album. Its lyric (“I got four heads inside my mind/Four roads I’d like to ride…And I don’t know which one is me”) plays on the number four but might have been too on-the-nose at the end of the day. “We Close Tonight” is an internal monologue (“I haven’t got the guts to let her see the real me”) as Jimmy tries to justify lying to his sweetheart that he’s really in a jazz group. One of the cut songs here, “You Come Back,” has been reprised from Townshend’s Scoop collection. Its romantic melody (“worthy of the Platters,” per its author) was intended as a “lighthearted” song for early in the opera. In its self-performed style, it reminds one a bit of the blue-eyed soul pastiches Todd Rundgren was creating around the same time. (It was surprising to find Townshend himself reference Rundgren in his notes when describing “Joker James,” but that comparison is apt, too.)
“Get Inside” and “Joker James” are two more selections in the brace of outtakes. The latter is a pop song with intricately arranged backing vocals and a classic Who sound even in demo form. Townshend rightfully defends his decision to excise the songs, but couldn’t some of these pieces find their way into an eventual expanded stage version of Quadrophenia? (Another cut song, “Ambition,” is referred to in the box set but only available in the online area called “Q-Cloud,” accessible by inserting a disc in the box into your computer. It was replaced by “Dirty Jobs” on the final album.
The song “Anymore” was cut for its redundancy to “Is It In My Head?,” though its “Is it me for a moment?” leitmotif was retained for “Dr. Jimmy.” It’s a fascinating detour to hear this melodic idea (inspired by Harry Nilsson) explored further. “Fill No. 2” is a short (minute-and-a-half) solo piano composition and “Wizardry” a mildly funky electronic excursion, though “5:15” took its place as the story developed. Before “Bell Boy,” there was “Is It Me?” on which Townshend adopts different (overlapping) voices in this duet that was discarded for its “mock operatic” nature that clashed with the more outright rock sound the album had adopted . In this song, he intended to contrast the the drug-abusing Mods with their alcohol-abusing parents.
Even the demos of familiar songs have much to offer. Though the early draft of “Drowned” predates Quadrophenia (March 1970), the melodic fragment that was incorporated into “5:15” was present even in this most embryonic state. “Finale – The Rock” would have taken advantage of four-channel sound capabilities, with each leitmotif introduced a different speaker; then, all four themes would come together in mono to the center of the sound field and then flutter back to each individual speaker; wouldn’t it have been great if this concept was finally realized on the DVD-Audio disc? Alas, maybe next time! Townshend notes that he was inspired by Dame Shirley Bassey as he wrote “Love Reign O’er Me,” and listening to his demo, the mind explodes with the possibility of such a cover version! All of this amounts to a full, alternate Quadrophenia as performed by its primary architect. (On two tracks, “I’ve Had Enough” and “Sea and Sand,” Townshend has added new drum parts.)
But yet another valuable perspective on the album is offered via its DVD-Audio version. The biggest, indeed the only liability, of the DVD-Audio disc is that the surround mix is incomplete, containing only eight songs for a near-45-minute running time. That said, those eight cuts are presented in pristine sound that only true high resolution can deliver, and the mix skillfully creates an exciting soundscape using all channels. Although Bob Pridden and Richard Whittaker’s mixes are in 5.1, not 4.0, this mix seems closer to the spirit of the original conception for Quadrophenia than is possible in stereo. It’s about the closest we can now get to the original Who surrounding us, their instruments on fire, metaphorically if not (yet) literally! Even in unfortunately truncated form, this Quadrophenia EP deserves a standalone release. The dynamics already present in songs like “5:15” come to even bolder life in the sonic assault that only surround can deliver.
The Presentation: Get Inside
Supporting the five discs of music is a thick 100-page book that could be referred to as The Quadrophenia Bible. It contains the original story as contained in the LP, over forty pages of Ethan A. Russell’s photos, a recording diary, complete lyrics, and a 25+-page essay entitled Two Stormy Summers written by Townshend. It’s an incredibly detailed look at each aspect of the project that became Quadrophenia, and the author’s recollections are funny, keenly observed, candid and revealing. He’s not afraid to be critical, but also sharply defends his work from its detractors, especially those who have criticized the story, or lack thereof: “…Quadrophenia taught me that the ‘story’ in rock music is not the same as the plot-driven stories we are used to in movies, novels and TV series, and must never try to obey the same rules,” he asserts. Perhaps this is why Townshend has been one of the few successful writers to tell a compelling musical story using true rock rather than a watered-down version of it. And although he wished to be unencumbered by plot conventions, he ended up with a powerful collection of songs that could, indeed, function in a more traditional musical theatre narrative, and likely one day will. (One stage version has already been produced, and Townshend notes in his essay that a definitive stage adaptation is still in development.)
In a cheeky “Why Now?” chapter (shouldn’t this question be answered by every producer of a Super Deluxe Edition?), the author mentions a possible 2012 Who tour of the album, the still-in-development stage musical, the upcoming premiere of an orchestral score that will make the piece viable for concert orchestras, a Blu-Ray of the film, and more. This box set makes a fitting monument to the album that made all of those spin-offs possible.
Of course, no Super Deluxe Edition is ever complete without random swag. You’ll find a poster, and an illustrated folder containing replicas of Townshend’s arranging notes for the Overture; handwritten lyrics to “5:15,” Townshend’s drawings, the first page of his draft of Jimmy’s story; a prototype press release/presentation; a rare color shot from the sessions that yielded the album cover; and a 7-inch single of “5:15” b/w “Water” as originally issued on the French Polydor version. The way-cool rear sleeve art showcases contemporary logos for Verve, MGM, Track, RSO, Bell, Stax and more! The CDs themselves are smartly and safely housed in the coffee table-style book. It follows the template of last year’s Live at Leeds box set, but is even more impressive in both scope and presentation.
Whenever Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey take to the road under their old band name, the question is frequently raised of whether there truly is a Who, with John Entwistle and Keith Moon both up there in rock and roll heaven. Even as Townshend and Daltrey keep the spirit of their youth alive, the Super Deluxe Edition of Quadrophenia stands as a monument to the power of those four individuals. All four aspects of The Who remain alive and well within this sturdy box. Close your eyes and let the waves of their music wash over you.