Pete Townshend talks to the Stone‘s Jann Wenner in 1968.
Rhino Records has just issued a triple-DVD set chronicling not only live performances of Tommy and Quadrophenia, but two very different configurations of the reunited Who touring band. Though the purpose of the set is to archive the live versions of the two famous rock operas, the DVDs inevitably show the right way for the Who to have reunited and toured, and the wrong way to have done it.
In 1989, the Who staged a full tour after a seven-year layoff. I was fortunate enough to catch them that year, and at the time, I was awestruck upon hearing them open the concert with a fully fleshed out overture from Tommy. Through the sheer joy of seeing the Who play during my lifetime, I was willing to overlook the excesses of that tour. And God were there excesses! Three background vocalists, a percussionist, a second guitarist, and a full horn section which strayed too often into Phil Collins territory, it was a lot to swallow for fans of a band who used to encapsulate the lean, mean, less-is-more theory of noisemaking.
The DVD has the Los Angeles “all-star” performance of Tommy, a Vegas-revue version of the Who that hasn?t aged well. The drummer at the time, Simon Phillips, was much more Neil Peart than Keith Moon; his over-drumming doesn?t serve the arrangements well. The guest stars for the most part turned in okay performances; they can?t be faulted for the bombast.
Mike Myers Will Play Keith Moon in an upcoming biopic. Too bad Myers is already ten years older than Moon was when he died. Jason Schwartzman should’ve got the role.
The Who is my favorite band, and has been since I saw The Kids Are Alright documentary as a kid. In high school I got into the habit of listening to my own version of Quadrophenia in its entirety every other day (alternating it with The Wall for the ultimate teenage angst experience). I had painstakingly created an amalgam of the studio album and the far-superior-fidelity movie soundtrack album on cassette tape.
By 1990, I owned every Who album that had been released on CD, including the unlistenable Who’s Last and the awful box set that was released after their 1989 reunion tour. I had even bought up every bootleg and out-of-print record I could find to feed my obsession.
Brothers and sisters, I gotta testify; my name is Tom, and I’m a rockaholic.
I place the blame squarely on Pete Townshend’s shoulders. Roger, John, and Keith are just as guilty, complicit as they are in catalyzing my conversion. But the songs were Pete’s, so he gets the lion’s share of the blame. I was only seven—my resistance was already low—when an album pushed me completely over the edge of rock fandom from which I will never emerge.
My very own rock opera
In 1979, my father received an 8-track recorder from my uncle, who had just made the upgrade to cassettes. At the time, Saturday Night Fever was still huge, so my parents borrowed the soundtrack record from my uncle and taped a bunch of Bee Gees, Tavares, and Yvonne Elliman onto the first two sections of the blank 8-track tape that came with the recorder. [FYI for the kids: 8-track tapes were divided into four sections (“programs”) with room for several songs on each program—Ed.] But on the remaining two sections were the greatest songs I’d ever heard in my seven years of life: a deaf, dumb and blind kid who had an evil cousin, the Christmas he couldn’t appreciate, a quack doctor who couldn’t cure the kid, and of course, the kid was a pinball wizard.
Jeff Tweedy interview in the Stone: “Abba records sound amazing now. And the Who doesn’t really hold up.”
Quick: What do Madonna, Ozzy, Alice Cooper, Pantera, The Who (original lineup), Rob Zombie, AC/DC, Kiss, and Britney Spears have in common?
Chances are, the answer that you’ll reach, undoubtedly fanciful, will not be right. If it is right, then it may seem odd that you’re reading this website.
One might argue that we are now experiencing the loss of those who have built the framework of much of rock as we know it today. It wasn’t all that long ago, relatively speaking, that we were writing about the death of George Harrison, the generally underrated guitar player who was fundamental to the Beatles. And now it’s John Entwistle, who was even more elementary to the Who. The report is that he went because of a heart attack in a hotel room in Las Vegas, where he was because the Who had a now-canceled gig at the Hard Rock Hotel in that town. Age, 57. Hell of a place to go. Just a few days ago, a professional baseball player, Darryl Kile, died; he was more than a couple of decades younger than Entwistle. Heart disease, apparently. A point I make simply because no one who is reading this should imagine that health problems—fatal ones—are the concern only of those who haven’t died before they got old.
Enough of the public service announcement on the health front.
Bass players seem to be those in a band who don’t get a whole lot of attention for their bass playing: It is often for something else. Think, for example, of Entwistle’s contemporary, Sir Paul. No one (unless he or she happens to be a bass player, I suspect) has a mental representation of Paul = Bass player. Or there is the case of Sting, who has undoubtedly had a much bigger run with a public persona in which the bass is merely an ornament (yes, he can play the instrument, but it really isn’t what is the focus of his performance post-Police). I remember seeing the Faces with Ron Wood playing bass. Not surprising that he picked up a six string to join the Stones. (And in announcing their current tour, the Stones stood on stage sans bass player. Wyman is otherwise disposed.)
Some people will cite Entwistle’s “Boris the Spider.” Others, “My Wife.” But I’d suggest that they’re not it. Not close. Sure, he tended to stand stock still in concert. Some of that was undoubtedly to avoid being hit by a windmill from Townshend or a swinging mike from Daltrey. Self-defense through stillness. But really, Entwistle’s contribution was the ability to put the bottom on the music, especially after Moon passed.
Put on Quadrophenia. Crank up the bass. For those of you with a quadraphonic system: You know where to sit.
“Then a scream that sounded like Satan on the rack, followed by menacing guitar chords and an epigram — ‘Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss’ — that I would hear repeated in some manner every day the rest of my life.” Musing on Who’s Next, from Salon.
In a recent issue of AutoWeek (11/19/01), GloNo‘s own sab created a brilliant piece of writing, essaying the Vespa ET4 scooter, which begins, “For all of you Ace Faces who don’t fancy grubbing up your trousers tinkering with a fiddly and ancient Italian scooter, your day has arrived.”
While it might strike some people as log-rolling to give props to one of our own on this site, I should note that (1) I have personally caused sab undoubtedly the most grief vis-à-vis his prose renderings and have no intention of stopping and (2) it seems to me that a “brilliant piece of writing” is something that causes you to be sufficiently gobsmacked so that you are forced—yes forced—to take action as a result of your reading.
And in the case of the Vespa piece, it drove me to pull out Quadrophenia.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the reference (or as sab describes them in the Vespa piece, “Above Average Joe/Jennifer Jobsworth, you who might think Quadrophenia is something you take Zoloft for”), it is the quintessential Who recording. Whereas Tommy has unquestionably greater visibility and acknowledgement (disc, film, and even Broadway stage spectacular), and while it has been uniformly lauded for being the first “rock opera,” Quadrophenia is beyond comparison. (Which could bring us back to the argument about whether a group’s most popular recording is its best, but I won’t trod down that path for now.) Superficially, Quadrophenia is about the Mods, the likes of whom ride scooters (“I ride my GS scooter with my hair cut neat”) , and the Rockers. Townshend identified with the Mods, who tricked out their scooters in a manner analogous to the way that Civics are being tuned in SoCal today.
While listening, again—and again—to Quadrophenia, I began to think about what makes it such a phenomenal piece of work. It has little to do, I think, with the form, with the fact that whereas most groups circa 1973 were turning out recordings that were discrete bits under four minutes and The Who was out there with something that arrived on two black discs that has a story arc. Rather, I think that what Townshend had exactly put his finger on is something that is rarely captured in music, at least semi-popular music: the feeling that many young men (yes, I realize that this is a sexist approach, but I know no women who are as taken with Quadrophenia, so I can only posit this from my point of view) painfully experience, regardless of time and place.
Consider: Pop music about Women + Men + Love tends to equal something wherein (a) everything is wonderful, (b) one of the parties misses the other who may have fallen out of Love with the other, or (c) well, there doesn’t seem to be a (c). In this formula, the parties are equal. But in Quadrophenia, Jimmy realizes that he’s not equal, that there is a longing for a girl:
The girl I love
Is a perfect dresser,
Wears every fashion
Gets it to the tee.
I got to match her
She knows just how
She wants her man to be
Leave it to me. (“Sea and Sand”)
“She knows just how she wants her man to be,” but it becomes clear that despite his best efforts—
My jacket’s gonna be cut and slim and checked,
Maybe a touch of seersucker, with an open neck.
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat,
Wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet. (“I’ve Had Enough”)
—he isn’t going to achieve what he’s looking for. There is always something that isn’t quite right in his attempts, he’s always frustrated. He asks himself,
Why do I have to move with a crowd
Of kids that hardly notice I’m around,
I have to work myself to death just to fit in. (“Cut My Hair”)
Yet note that he is working to fit in. What else can he do? The girl he loves clearly moves in a crowd that he’s not a part of, a crowd where the people are somehow different. He asks,
Where do you get
Those blue blue jeans?
They hold secrets so tight.
Where do you get
That warcoat so neat?
Your shoes and your shirts
All just right. (“I’m One”)
Even though he has his own wartime coat, one that he was undoubtedly proud of when he got it, he recognizes that it somehow doesn’t measure up. He knows that his jeans aren’t quite what they should be, especially as the girl he loves “Is a perfect dresser.” And who among us hasn’t had this experience, this personal questioning, at a dance when we were in our teens:
So how come the other tickets look much better?
Without a penny to spend they dress to the letter.
How come the girls come on oh so cool
Yet when you meet ’em, every one’s a fool? (“Sea and Sand”)
Somehow it is the other guys who have been able to pull it off. Somehow the other girls—well, given their rejection, we can only be dismissive of them in order to hold onto a shred of our own ego. “They are stupid, not worth it,” we tell ourselves. Otherwise, we have doubts. . .
I’m dressed right for a beach fight,
But I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain. (“Cut My Hair”)
…we have that “uncertain feeling.” He asks, “Why should I care, why should I care?” and he knows, as we all did, that it goes back to the unrequited love. We dress up. We act the part. We drive the scooter. We act tough. We do what we think will make the different. Yet often,
Here by the sea and sand
Nothing ever goes as planned (“Sea and Sand”)
I can remember clearly when Quadrophenia first came out. I was in my first year of college. And I think my behavior, actions, attitudes were not far away from these. I still see Her every now and then. None of it worked. And I am better for that.
How can rock and roll change your life? I don’t exactly know, but I do know that as I listen to Quadrophenia, sometimes a knowing chill runs down my spine.
Thanks for making me listen again, sab.