Strait to the Point: THE WHO – Quadrophenia (1973)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 2/5

A gigantic monument to the blinding power of self-importance. Has its moments, though.

In my reviews of The Who’s discography so far (which can be found here), I’ve had very little but kind words for Moon. I’ve a drummer friend who complains about his lack of technical chops, and I understand that, but his drumming is an essential component of The Who’s style on their best albums. The job of a drummer, usually, is to keep time and thus keep the band grounded, but Moon was never content with that; instead, he preferred to be the rocket engine that propelled The Who into the sky, lending them an inescapable sense of size and gravitas that helped their best music sound so joyous and expansive. When The Who’s early music sounded like it was bursting at the seams with youthful energy, a good portion of it was always him; when they started constructing mountains on Who’s Next, he was not just the foundation but a substantial part of the granite centre on which the surrounding landscape was painted. Without him, I firmly believe that The Who’s name would be rather more apt than it has turned out to be, and the classic rock world would lack one of its greatest heroes.

So why am I so fucking sick of him?

There’s something infuriating about his work on Quadrophenia, see. I had difficulty working out what it was for a while, but then I concentrated and I figured it out. Moon, on this album, spends way too long acting like an ordinary rock drummer. Most of the beats he plays on this album are entirely normal, basic and dreadfully uncreative 4/4 beats with little embellishment or character, and that’s annoying; more annoying is his consistent and nearly intolerable habit of announcing his presence with an equally generic and uncreative drum fill, banging loudly and quickly on a few snares before falling in line and playing a dull-ass drumbeat for the remainder of the song. It’s so intolerable not only because it’s deeply repetitive, but also because it’s so unjustifiably arrogant. It’s like a superhero arriving at the scene of some supervillainy, pompously saying “I’m here – the day’s saved!” while unimpressively attempting to flourish his cape, and then accidentally flying into a wall and knocking himself out – it’s all a bunch of big, vaguely depressing pompousness that ultimately heralds the arrival of nothing useful. Moon, on this album, has started to believe his own hype while simultaneously becoming so lazy as to no longer deserve it – and there’ll never be a better microcosm for the album than that.

It’s better than Tommy, of course. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Townshend had listened to some of my criticisms of that record when he was making this one, because there’s none of those old shitty sub-2-minute interludes to be found here. I can’t claim that any of the songs are as lazily nonexistent as most of the shit on Tommy, either; they’re all perfectly competent rock songs with a decent number of moving parts and, usually, at least one musical idea. Nothing here is anywhere near as bad as “Christmas” or “Underture”, and there are more good songs, too. And the story (because this, if you didn’t know, is another one of them rock operas) is better, I guess; I still stopped paying attention about halfway through, but I gather it’s a fairly simple and relatable story about a young man looking for social acceptance and finding it in a subculture, specifically the mods if I’m not mistaken. That’s all nice, but I still have some problems.

For one, it’s not just Moon that’s lost his mojo – it’s everyone! Entwistle’s pretty much a non-factor the entire way through this album, and that’s just disconcerting, because what’s a Who song without a ridiculous Entwistle bassline roiling underneath it? He’s not even got any songwriting credits on the album! I’ve not liked one of his songs in a while, but I still feel like something’s amiss here; the dude’s had at least one song on every album since the sophomore, and his absence from this album is strange, like losing an old cushion from your sofa. Then there’s Daltrey, who has fully completed his transformation into the stereotypical rock vocalist and thus spends the entire album emitting a series of histrionic roars, low growls and showmanly screeches that almost never fail to make me wince, flinch and retch like a bulimic fulmar. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Mick Jagger, insincere demonic jester that he is, but Daltrey’s got all of his flaws and none of his endearing qualities here, and I really cannot stand him. Whatever became of that boyish rebel on My Generation? Hell, what became of the deftly creative Townshend on My Generation? His guitarwork here is fine, I guess, but it lacks the muscle a good Townshend riff can carry and it rarely manages any of the chiming soft goodness he can sometimes convey in his gentler moments. All the riffs here are big, like everything else: big concepts, big ambitions, big album (82 minutes!), and big, big hubris. 

It introduces itself pretty well, though. The first track is a fairly pleasant two minutes of sea sounds, with a bunch of faint keyboards in the distance and some wordless vocals, until eventually a bunch of notable lyrics and melodies from the album are distantly sung in succession, and I’m sure you get the idea: it’s a prelude, portentously foreshadowing all the developments to come. Sure, that’s fine, and the next track is one of the album’s highlights; “The Real Me” is a blistering, catchy rocker with possibly the best musicianship on the album, some great horn arrangements and some of Daltrey’s least annoying rock showmanship. I’m not entirely sure what it has to do with the story, but the lyrics are general enough that I feel no obligation to care; it’s a good song with nice lyrics about teenage disaffection, and that’s all I need to know. S’all good, but at the same time it’s undeniably all a bit self-important; Daltrey sounds very much like he’s excitedly announcing a big event, and the horns do add an air of affected grandiosity. “Here comes somethin’ big”, it’s saying – “this is our masterpiece!”

Still, I’m enjoying myself so far. Then the title track comes in, and it’s a 6-minute instrumental that spends its entire runtime trying to sound as portentous, important and epic as possible – and I’m just left rubbing my brow and thinking “Guys, the movie’s started! You don’t need to show me another bloody trailer!” The damn thing spends a good half its runtime foreshadowing motifs that’ll appear later in the album, forgetting to develop any real identity of its own or, really, any well-defined structure; it’s all a big mess of cheesy synths, self-impressed guitar solos and melodies that’ll be done better later, and I just can’t see the point. It’d have been a poor intro anyway, but placing it third on the tracklist is a particularly baffling move. I expect the presence of songs like this one is why some call Quadrophenia “The Who’s prog rock album”, and I’ll confess I was fooled for a bit, too, but then I listened closer and realised that there aren’t any interesting time signatures, cleverly unusual riffs or cool structures here. Naw, there’s just a load of unimpressive instrumental wanking married to a ton of pretentious self-importance – in other words, it’s exactly what prog sounds like to people who don’t like prog. P’raps the term was originally applied to Quadrophenia as an insult? 

Problems like this haunt the album at every turn. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this thing without bumping into a bunch of massively-played guitar chords, or some huge drum fills, or some giant vocals, and it all ends up becoming utterly numbing. Look, Who’s Next worked because the vastness was inextricably married to smallness; those were really big songs that signified really little things, carrying all the more genuine import for it. “Baba O’Riley” felt like a giant Sequoia springing from the heart of a humble young man, and “Bargain” was about the unfathomable depths of one small man’s personal faith; even the most unapologetically huge song there, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, felt like it was rooted in a very human sense of dissatisfaction. This album, though, is so concerned with telling a big, important story that it forgets its human heart; this thing is a hollow mountain, full of no goblins or Balrogs but pure empty air. The human heart here is meant to be the young boy who propels the story, but this album is just so impressed with the fact that it’s telling the story that it never actually shrinks itself down to a level where I can appreciate his emotions; I’m observing him from on high, watching dispassionately as he goes about his business while angels play guitars and blow horns to herald his every move. It’s overwhelming and, in the end, impossibly boring.

Aptly enough, I finally realised how much I hated this thing on the track “I’ve Had Enough”, which starts out as the umpteenth tolerable-but-uninspired rocker in a row before transitioning, for what seems like no reason at all, into another prelude to “Love, Reign O’er Me”. It’s not as jarring as the transitions on “Christmas”, from ol’ Tommy, but it still doesn’t fit and accomplishes nothing. This is what rock operas do, see: they are inherently ruinous concepts, pushing songwriters into making musically nonsensical decisions for the sake of a story that is, inevitably, uninspired-at-best, because if these rockers were any good at writing stories they’d be working in the fuckin’ TV industry instead of twanging on guitars. There are some acoustic ballad segments here, too, but they sound as insincere and self-impressed as Moon does when he opens the fucking song with yet another pathetic fill (by this point I wanted to go back in time just so I could kill the motherfucker myself with his own drumsticks), and the entire thing drags on for six vaguely infuriating minutes before finally petering out with an affected scream from Daltrey. All the individual elements of this song are, I guess, competently-done, but they certainly aren’t any more than that and they have no business all being jammed together in this mess. When the next song opens with Townshend forlornly singing “Why should I caaare?”, all I can do is nod my head in despondent agreement – why should I? What have I got to care about here?

Side three on this album is a particular chore, laden with such an assortment of mediocrity that I have to wonder if Townshend intentionally chose it as the dumping ground for all his worst failures on the album. We’ve got, in order: “5:15”, which tries to have primal rock swagger but is just too fucking grandiose to pull it off; “Sea and Sand”, which sounds, at its best, like “Bargain” but worse in every way; “Drowned”, which is saved from total nondescript dullness only by some pretty good horn riffs at one point; and “Bell Boy”, in which Moon tragically attempts to recapture some of his old genius by playing diet-“The Ox” type solos on a track that is entirely the wrong tempo for them, resulting only in embarrassment for everybody involved. All these tracks are at least five minutes long, too, which means I was about ready to shoot myself by the end. Five minutes is totally the worst length for a rock song, anyway – either go all the way and make an 8-minute mini-epic or shrink it down to three minutes of pop goodness, but for the love of God, don’t bombard me with dreary five-minuter after five-minuter like this. Nothing happens in any of these songs! The melodies are average, the riffs are forgettable, the musicianship is bloody dull and the story had long since ceased being of any interest to me. This sorta shit is why people these days are starting to look down on classic rock – to be this impressed with one’s own mediocrity is something not even the wackest rapper could manage.

It’s a shame, because there are moments of promise everywhere. “Cut My Hair” is, honestly, a pretty good song – it’s got a good set of melodies and a strong hook, and it’s one of the only tracks in which Moon actually performs pretty well the whole way through, though he still lacks the finesse he can manage in his best moments. Also, Townshend gets a lot of vocals here, and his singing on this album is far less irritating than Daltrey’s. That’s why many of the best moments here are softer ballad moments, on which he usually sings. “I’m One” kinda reminds me of Townshend’s earlier, brilliant “Sunrise” in places, even though the rock segments are merely serviceable. “Is It In My Head”, similarly structured, ain’t bad either, and I feel no real ill will towards any of it; it doesn’t stick in my head, but it’s a pleasant enough experience while it lasts. Then there’s “Helpless Dancer”, which I actually think is pretty great! It kind of sounds like what that “Eyesight to the Blind” on Tommy wanted to sound like: rhythmic lead instrument stabs backing up a fairly excellent vocal melody, with some vaguely intriguing social commentary in the lyrics (though I gotta say, “And bombs are dropped on fighting cats/ And children’s dreams are run with rats” is an incredibly corny couplet). The melodramatic melody and vaguely operatic singing also lend this a sort of pop-musical, Les Misérables air, which certainly works in context. The problem is that it ends on a brief, distant snippet of “The Kids Are Alright” from My Generation, which does two things. Firstly, it reminds me of how much better The Who used to be and makes me dislike this album more; secondly, it adds yet more arrogance to the already overflowing pot of it they’ve concocted on this album. “Ay yo, aren’t we writing a musical about the mods? Weren’t we a mod band? Well, we’re gonna need some period-setting sound effects – why not include ourselves in one of those? That way, children listening to this will get the impression that we were among the most indispensable parts of the subculture, even though we were, if anything, latecomers to the scene and an integral part in its commercialisation and subsequent death! History is written by the victors, after all!”

All that ridiculous arrogance spends most of the album tragically unjustified, but what’s more tragic is that the three songs on the final side actually go some way towards justifying it and thus give us a tantalizing glimpse into an alternate universe. What if all the songs on the album had been as good as “Doctor Jimmy”? All the melodrama actually works here, see, and that’s mostly down to Daltrey. This is the first time he’s actually conveying some of the emotional complexity that typified his best moments on Who’s Next; he’s not just a generic, strutting rockstar but a regretful, lost youth lain low by his own excessive machismo. Just listen to him in the chorus, falling victim to his own primality and descending helplessly into barbarism: “What is it!?/ I’ll take it!/ Who is she?/ I’ll rrrrape it!” The grandiosity here is actually earned, since those big, mournful horns are accompanying a moment of genuinely catastrophic emotion. And that moment when the melody resolves itself into “He only comes out when I drink my giiiiin”… well, it’s just gorgeous, and possibly the only moment of real, total melodic bliss on the entire album. I love it, and it always gets stuck in my head – it’s just a shame I stopped caring about the story about seven songs ago…

“The Rock” is pretty good, too, actually. It’s just a reprise of the title track, but it’s better, partly because Moon is being pretty inventive in parts (he plays these little dense beat clusters that are actually really cool) and partly just because the riff they stick with from about 2:45 to 4:40 is great. Then it transitions into a buildup to “Love Reign O’er Me”, a song that by now has been foreshadowed, hinted at and built up to so much you’re almost sick of it when it actually arrives. When it finally starts, though, it’s with a moment of shocking humility for this album – the piano notes are actually quiet, reflective, and deeply human, so that when the vast chorus finally does arrive – the anguished, justly famous scream of “LOOOOOOVE, REIGN OOOOO’ER MEEEEEE!” from a Daltrey that finally sounds like he really, totally cares – it feels completely and wholly justified. It all gives me goosebumps, actually, especially that tearfully descending guitar line. In recognising its own humanity and humility, the album finally grounds itself well enough to reach into the heavens it has been aiming for the entire time, and achieves its lofty goals. The result is one of the finest things Townshend ever wrote, and one of The Who’s truest highlights. It’s beautiful, brilliant and utterly fantastic – I just wish I hadn’t had to sit through seventy five minutes of intermittent quality, overwhelming arrogance and mediocre musicianship to get there. 

Why do The Who always do this to me? Except for their first album, all their albums have fallen at least some way short of their potential. They’re capable of making some of the best music anyone’s ever made, but so often they just, I dunno, don’t. Sometimes they’re too cautious and safe, writing a bunch of good songs instead of great ones, like on The Who Sell Out; sometimes they’re overambitious, shooting too high and collapsing in the atmosphere, like here. I’d love to love them dearly, to hold them close to my heart as one of my favourite bands in the world, because they’ve certainly got the chops for it – but one thing you gotta have in your relationships is consistency, and The Who just offer moments. Beautiful, perfect, ascendant moments – but always, it seems, just moments. So I’m sorry, Townshend, but I’m done – we’re through. I need a man I can rely on. Oh, love, reign o’er me…
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Author: tomymostalas

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