Charles Shaar Murray reviews Quadrophenia, and Pete discusses it
‘Quadrophenia’: Townshend Can Explain
Quadrophenia’s here and Townshend’s hot to talk about it. This is, so is rabid Whofreak Charles Shaar Murray – and neither’s about to back down. So we compromised. Murray gets his say – and then the Birdman flies in to stir the meat and potatoes of a variety of topics…
Quadrophenia’ is a daunting proposition. Another Who double-album rock opera? About a kid called Jimmy? With a massive booklet of grainy monochrome tableaux stapled into the sleeve? With titles like ‘I Am The Sea’ and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’?
The mind boggles. And from the Desert Island Discs surf sound effect (in sumptuous stereo, naturlich) that opens the album, to the moment that the song cycle’s central character finally discovers himself on a rock, you get the feeling that Pete Townshend has tried to out-‘Tommy’ ‘Tommy’ and gone sailing right over the top.
The hero of this little extravaganza is Jimmy, the archetypal mod. He’s frustrated, inarticulate, violent, and thoroughly confused. Each member of The Who represents a different side of his character, and a recurring musical theme. Keith Moon represents the "bloody lunatic", John Entwistle is "the romantic", Roger Daltrey the "tough guy", while Townshend casts himself as "a beggar, a hypocrite". His odyssey leads him away from the constriction of his parents’ home to a dead-end job as a dustman, and by way of various other adventures, to Brighton via a pill-crazed ride on the (you guessed) ‘5.15’ train. Finally, he ends up dexed-up and pissed out of his brain on a rock off Brighton Beach, where he achieves some kind of reconciliation with himself.
Musically, some of it jars. A few of the more extravagant production touches, even after a half-dozen listens, sound about as comfortable as marzipan icing on a cheeseburger. Also, the band have dubbed on so much synthesizer, keyboard and brass that, at times, one aches just to hear some unalloyed guitar, bass, drums and vocals Who. In any case, does rock’n’roll need masterpieces, magnum opuses or "works of genius"? Isn’t intensive listening to two-years-in-the-making double albums antithetical to the spirit of true rock’n’roll?
Personally, I couldn’t care less. If you’re not prepared to listen to ‘Quadrophenia’ in the spirit that it was made, then don’t bother. If you’re going to sling it on at a party or walk in and out of the room while it’s playing, then you’re not going to get a damn thing out of it and you might as well save your £4.30 for other purposes. But if you’re prepared to work at getting into ‘Quadrophenia’, and let it work at getting into you, then you might just find it the most rewarding musical experience of the year.
‘Quadrophenia’ is both less and more ambitious than its notorious predecessor. ‘Tommy’ tripped over its mysticism rather too often for comfort, and after being the indirect godfather to everything from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to Ziggy Stardust, it didn’t seem likely that Townshend would return to the scene of his former semi-triumph. However, he has avoided most of the expected pitfalls with his customary agility.
Much of the album is simply prime cut Who. ‘The Real Me’ has a sound that’s simultaneously as uncompromisingly violent as a boot disintegrating a plate glass window at 4am, and as smooth as a night flight by 747. ‘Dr. Jimmy And Mr. Jim’, which opens the fourth side, is as good an exposition of the raucous mod stance as anything Townshend’s written since the ‘My Generation’ days. It could be described as an obituary for the mods by the band who did most to define that attitude.
The spectre of the mod era has hung over The Who for the best part of a decade, but now Pete Townshend has summed up every stage of The Who’s chequered past in one work. ‘Quadrophenia’ wipes the slate clear, leaving The Who free to follow it up with their freshest collection of new material since their very first album. It’s by no means unflawed, but it’s a triumph, certainly.
FADE TO BLACK and cut to Twickenham…
Pete Townshend opens the door, immediately preceded by a large and presumably amiable dog-named Towser (the facts ma’am, we just want the facts). Townshend is clad in bovver boots, extravagantly patched jeans and an Indian cotton shirt. He whips up a couple of coffees in large brown mugs and settles down on the sofa to get Quadrophenic.
Now, talking to Pete Townshend is always a treat. He’s intelligent, aware and articulate – qualities that aren’t as prevalent among rock musicians as one might wish. Furthermore, he’s capable of discussing the more esoteric aspects of his work with a remarkable detachment that’s totally removed from the self indulgent, egocentric ramblings of many other acts.
First off. If the word ‘Quadrophenia’ is an expansion of ‘schizophrenia’, as is indicated on the sleeve, why the missing ‘r’?
"It’s a sort of jokey expansion but it’s a bit of a mouthful with the ‘r’. It’s something of a pun on ‘quadraphonic’ as well. The whole album has been put together as a quadraphonic composition. I suppose stereo is a bit of a compromise.
"We’re fairly happy with the quadraphonic mixes we’ve done, but you know the problem with the transcription down to disc. It’s all very well on tape, but when you try and get it down onto a record, everything goes completely berserk. We were talking about a January 1st release date for the quadraphonic version, but at the moment it’s a bit of a myth. Apart from anything else, I heard The Doobie Brothers’ quad album of ‘The Captain And Me’ and it just doesn’t come anywhere near the stereo version."
Okay, onto the album itself. Is it an epitaph to mod?
"It’s probably a lot more than that. That’s right in a way, but then songs like ‘My Generation’ were that kind of epitaph in a more realistic sense. This album is more of a winding up of all our individual axes to grind, and of the group’s ten-year-old image and also of the complete absurdity of a group like The Who pretending that they have their finger on the pulse of any generation. The reason that the album has come out emotionally as it has is that I felt that The Who ought to make, if you like, a last album. I wanted to embrace The Who’s early audiences, but also to give a feeling of what has happened to rock and to the generation that’s come up with us. It’s very peculiar that this album has come out at the same time as something like Bowie’s ‘Pin-Ups’ because, although that’s a more direct thing, the ideas are fairly similar.
"What I’ve really tried to do with the story is to try and illustrate that, as a study of childhood frustrations, the reason that rock is still around is that it’s not youth’s music, it’s the music of the frustrated and the dissatisfied looking for some sort of musical panacea.
"Then, The Who have difficulty relating to the business. We’re not pure innovators, and we never really have been. We’ve always been people who have latched on to things which were good and reflected them, and I don’t feel anything at the moment.
"I mean, if someone like Bowie, who’s only been a big star for 18 months or so, feels the need to start talking about his past influences, then obviously the roots are getting lost. The meat and potatoes – the reasons why people first pick up guitars -are getting forgotten."
Harking back to what Townshend had said earlier about rock responsibility, there’s a considerable case for the view that when rock starts thinking about what it’s doing instead of simply reacting, then it’s losing something of its essence.
"The most hilarious thing about arguments like that is the fact that people put forward the arguments in the first place. It shows that they’re viewing the whole thing intellectually, that they’re arguing intellectually, and that what they’re actually doing is putting forward an intellectual argument to denounce their particular rock star for becoming an intellectual -which is what they are. And they’re blaming him for the fact that they’ve grown old.
"In actual fact, most of the American rock journalists that use these arguments are suffering from maturity, and it’s unpleasant for them, because they’re in the rock business. A pop star somehow seems able to get away with it. I don’t know why. Jagger and people like that are still able to get up on the stage and prance about like idiots.
"It’s very difficult to write like an enthused child which is really how rock should be written all the time. It’s very difficult to do that if you don’t feel like an enthused child all the time, or if you’re not a showman and can’t switch it on and off like a light bulb."
A lot of people in my profession, I point out, prefer their stars to be noble savages.
"A lot of them are like that. I’ve never been like that, there’s always been something missing. At times when I was heavily doped I never got any chicks. At times when I was playing good I never got any chicks or any dope. You really can’t have all three at once unless you’re a physical dynamo.
"In the case of Iggy Pop, I think the music suffers. Compare The Stooges to a band like The Sweet, for example. They’re probably a very straight bunch, dope-wise and wife-wise and God knows what, but I think their music does contain a lot of the tight, integrated, directed, pointed frustration of a 15 or 16-year-old, although it doesn’t quite get there and they’re a bit out of place time-wise. They should have been around ten years ago.
"But someone like Iggy & The Stooges couldn’t grasp that if they stood on their heads, because inside they’re old men. I think that applies to many people. I think in a way that is why the freshest music that you can find at the moment is very, very middle of the road stuff.
"I think that there’s an argument to be had about whether a journalist’s idea of what a pop star should be really means anything. I think that our album clarifies who the real hero is in this thing – it’s this kid on the front. He’s the hero. That’s why he’s on the front cover. That’s why he’s sung about. It’s his fuckin’ album. Rock’n’roll’s his music. It’s got nothing to do with journalists, and it hasn’t really even got anything to do with musicians, either."
‘Quadrophenia’ has been a long time in the making. Has working on it been signally different from any other Who release?
"I’ve really had more control over this album than any other Who album we’ve ever done, from the beginning right through to the very end. I’ve directed it, if you like, and certainly people in the band have contributed fantastic amounts in roles that they normally wouldn’t play.
"John Entwistle’s role has been that of a constructive arranging musician, which is something he’s never, ever done. On other albums he’s worked off his frustrations by writing a couple of songs. Well, on this, he’s done a fantastic piece of arranging work, sitting in the studio writing out and then dubbing on 50 horn parts.
"Really, what has happened is that this is the first album where The Who have used each other’s capabilities as musicians to the full. I’ve used my capabilities as a constructor and composer just to get the thing in shape, and then suddenly you realise when you play it that it’s been written with a reason, that there was a driving force behind it."
So what was the first flash that ignited ‘Quadrophenia’?
"1 think the first seed was that I thought that if we couldn’t get someone to make a film for us, then, like Frank Zappa, I’d like to do it myself. I’d like to either buy a camera and direct it myself or alternatively, do a kind of movie without pictures.
"That’s where the idea came from, the idea of casting the four guys in the band as four facets of an archetypal mod kid’s personality – I was probably more involved in the mod thing than anybody else in the band. It’s obviously a kind of schizophrenic thing that I can relate to, because I know everybody in the band.
"It started off as a loose script and gradually grew into something where I felt that the characters could be represented musically by themes. Then it became a complicated musical task.
"Musically and impressionistically I’m not so hot. I’ve had to work fantastically hard on this. Lyrics come very easily to me, but music is always very tough, and so stuff like ‘Quadrophenia’ and the ‘The Rock’ were fuckin’ incredibly difficult for me to get together without feeling that I was on a Keith Emerson trip.
"I wanted the music to be solid and really relate, and be emotive without creating a sort of ‘Big Country’ drama. It was very tricky. It hasn’t really come off, but it’s really great to hear it. It’s amazing to hear a song like ‘Can You See The Real Me’ followed by ‘Quadrophenia’."
Scanning the storyline of ‘Quadrophenia’ reveals a suspiciously strong resemblance to that of the film That’ll Be The Day, in which Mr. Moon distinguished himself. What’s the story, Pete?
Faint grimaces, "When I went to see That’ll Be The Day, I got about halfway through – to to the bit where he was on the beach – and then I walked out in complete disgust. I said to Keith: ‘You’ve been making this film all this time. Why couldn’t you tell me that the story was very similar?’
"I wasn’t irritated by the fact that it was a similar idea. I was irritated because it seems that the British rock public thinks that Brighton Pier, a fairground and Butlins holiday camps are all there really is to life. I’m a culprit in this respect, since ‘Tommy’ ends in a holiday camp, but this is how the bloody British mind thinks.
"Ray Connolly, who wrote That’ll Be The Day, is a few years older than me, and his nostalgia is a different trip. This isn’t a direct nostalgic thing, it’s more a search for the essence of what makes everything tick. I’m trying to approach the thing and find an answer.
"Brighton Pier features very heavily in this, because of the two big events that I remember really being moved by. One was when we were playing at Brighton Aquarium and I saw about 2,000 mod kids, and there were three rockers up against a wall. They’d obviously just come into it thinking that they were going to a party and they were really scared as hell, and the mods were just throwing bottles at them.
"I mean, there’s no sort of heroism in my eyes in something like that. There’s no nostalgia. It just moved me to do something to perhaps make the music elevate people a bit. I know it sounds like idealism, but those people who were kicking rockers in on the front would then come in and listen to our music. So I knew then that I had what felt like a certain kind of power. There were all the tough guys looking at me, waiting to hear what I was about to say.
"In this album, the tough kid ends up as the bellboy. Jimmy ends up gaining a fantastic amount from the experience, but also losing a fantastic amount because of loose ends being drawn everywhere.
"The problem with The Who is that if I try to draw more out of their image and their history and out of rock than rock can sustain, you end up with a situation where there’s nothing left that hasn’t been milked or soiled; any emotion that hasn’t been buggered about with; any mountain that hasn’t been climbed by some plastic, made-up geezer who climbs to the top and says, ‘I’ve seen God and He’s a pig’.
"In the end, the loser is rock, because people just look at it and say, ‘I’m not interested in this shit any more,’ and it becomes empty and it becomes Hollywood and it becomes plastic again.
"Because if the actual people involved can’t act out a fierce enough role, then the business, seeing that it’s starting to lose money, will invent people. People like Alice Cooper, good as they are, are inventions of a hungry industry. They might think they’re real. I know better."
Once again, back to specifics. ‘Quadrophenia’ was a long time in the making and a lot of assembly work must have gone into it.
"The reason why you end up with particularly strong material is that you have learned by past mistakes. I wrote about 50 songs for this and really creamed off the best. I originally had a much, much longer story. We could have made it a quadruple album. There’s still a fantastic amount of material which is potentially quite good stuff, but what I really wanted to do was to make the album something that invited you to forget The Who a little bit and make you think about other things.
"So we started off with the sea. It was a big decision to do that, because I knew that people would say, ‘Christ almighty, ‘ere we are, an epic work.’ But I really wanted that, because the actual story begins with the kid sitting on a rock. He’s gone out to this rock in a boat and he’s completely out of his brain.
"You see, it’s not really a story as such. There’s a big difference between this and something like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ or ‘Tommy’. It’s not a story, more a series of impressions of memories. The real action in this is that you see a kid on a rock in the middle of the sea and this whole thing explains how he got there. That’s why I used sound effects: to establish atmosphere. Some of the sound effects, I’ve tried to manipulate impressionistically. It’s something that’s new to me and I’m not particularly good at it, but I’m glad I did it."
A large amount of the time that went into ‘Quadrophenia’ was in post-production work.
"It took much, much longer to mix and blend than it did to record the backing tracks. It took about six months to mix. Stuff like ‘The Rock’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ were all recorded here at the house, all John Entwistle’s horn parts and everything. Extra synthesizer stuff, guitars, voices, drums and so on were added at the studio."
The Who have never been noted for their ability to make records with any rapidity. Apart from that Stones thing (‘The Last Time’ /’Under My Thumb’), which took about two days from idea to over-the-counter sales, and is thus the greatest piece of journalistic rock in the history of Western culture, they generally take an awful long time to work out what they’re gonna do and how they’re gonna do it. Elucidate, Pete.
"Doing anything with The Who recording-wise always takes a billion years. Always. Dunno why. I mean, we can rehearse a stage act and do a gig without any effort at all. 18 months after last playing together we can still walk on stage and play, but recording is something that we have to re-learn every time we go in. I think it’s because basically I want the music to embrace more ambitious sounds, and the band is a pretty simple affair -it’s bass, guitar, drums and the vocalist. What happens a lot of the time is that ideas that happen in the studio have to be continually revised before they come to anything.
"Let me put it another way. I think we’ve been far too tight on ourselves. By that, I mean that we’ve imposed so many rules and regulations on ourselves about what The Who are, what The Who can do, and what The Who can’t do… what rock’n’roll is and what rock’n’roll isn’t, what falls into our category and what doesn’t."
A curious situation thus seems to be emerging. One could put it unkindly and say that The Who were strangling on their own self-consciousness – or rather one could say that if they if hadn’t been vindicated by the excellence of ‘Quadrophenia’. But the problem is very real. What do you do if you’re in the semi-fortunate position of being one of the world’s premier rock bands, with each album that you issue a major event in the year? Pete Townshend can, one supposes, be forgiven for occasionally getting so wound up in his own worries that temporary artistic paralysis sets in.
"1 think ‘Quadrophenia’ is more down to earth. That’s why I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I could afford to take more chances with a fairly ambitious package, putting in a synopsis story and the photographs. I feel that I can talk about this thing in a far less guarded way.
"I eventually ended up with a set speech on ‘Tommy’. People always used to ask me the same questions. They used to say, for example: ‘If Tommy is deaf, dumb and blind, I assume that as a result of the miracle cure, he became the Messiah.’.
"I really don’t think it’s going to happen with this because of a conversation I had with a lawyer from the States. She had to work out the dramatic copyright, which means that you have to present the thing and show that it has dramatic structure so that, although individual songs can be recorded, people can’t put out an album called ‘Quadrophenia’ or film it.
"She was trying to pin me down as to which character was saying what, at different times. I said, ‘Well, I don’t fucking know, the whole point of it is that the geezer’s completely mixed up. He doesn’t know and I don’t know. I just adopted this frame of mind in written songs.’
"’Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim’ is more about Mad Moon than anything else. ‘What is it?/I’ll take it/Who is she?/I’ll rape it… ‘ that’s probably Keith Moon. ‘I’ll take on anyone/Ain’t scared of a bloody nose… ‘ that could be or Roger or anybody."
How about the problem of selling it to people who might not have had the chance to hear it first?
"I think we’re gonna lose a lot of sales, because if people go into a record shop and hear the first track, all they’re gonna hear is sea. It’ll be a tough one, but I’m not really bothered whether mods of that era approve of it. The whole mod detail is really because it’s an archetype and that’s what helps to build a character – the incredible thing about ‘Tommy’ is that you could listen to it thousands of times if you’re stupid enough, and you still don’t know what his clothes are like or what colour his hair is. It could be anybody."
Do you worry that some people might find the packaging a bit off-putting?
"No, although I can understand that, because I’m guilty of it myself. I played the music from this album far, far more when I just had test pressings. When you get the whole package you tend to get into the packaging consciousness.
"The reason that it’s all grey and black and scruffy is so that it doesn’t come on looking all tinsel and glitter. I’d call something like ‘Who’s Next’ a fairly straightforward album. I’m certainly not against albums like that. We’ve got a new ‘Meaty Beaty’-type album coming out soon, which is unreleased material drawn from over the years. It’ll make fantastic background music."
That seemed to be that for the time being. Back out along the embankment, looking forward to the tour.
What you think of ‘Quadrophenia’ is your problem, and whether you buy it or not is Pete’s. Anyway, having The Who back and functioning is something of a small blessing. Now – let’s see action.