Who are you?
Tonight, what's left of The Who play `Quadrophenia' at Earls Court. It's enough to make you weep - or smile.
Friday 06 December 1996
There aren't many concept albums that are worth recreating. Nor many operas that depend almost exclusively on one voice. Quadrophenia is both. Its author, Pete Townshend, The Who's main song-writer and presiding genius, is, of course, a royal pain. Never mind as a person: as an author he's deeply flawed. A bit like Dennis Potter, he is open to the charge of only being interested in nervous collapse and the idiot as saviour, themes too easy to be entirely satisfying.
Quadrophenia was released as an album in 1973, but came again to prominence as a film in 1978, when its themes of drug-destroyed youth and alienation seemed all the more apposite considering we were in the punk era, which had done for bands like The Who. It also coincided with a fashion among middle-class pseudo-intellectuals for bending over backwards to celebrate violence. When filmed, it joined Scum and something long-forgotten called Rude Boys as extremely nasty items.
Now that Quadrophenia - the story of a wasted Mod - is being revisited, these things are past. We can take it as a curiosity, perhaps as having an element of amiable absurdity. It is Retro, cubed; it is three removes from its subject matter. After all, The Who weren't Mods in the 60s; their Quadrophenia celebrated 60s Moddery in the 70s; and now in the 90s it's back out for our delectation. Townshend has never made claims to be anything really like the kids he wrote about. He probably never was much like them. In the booklet that goes with Quadrophenia, he has his little punky hero say of The Who: "They were a Mod group. Well, Mods liked them. They weren't exactly Mods, but Mods did like them." More important, it wasn't an easy affection. The band was as described by the critic Robert Sandall: "The Beatles and the Rolling Stones might have shocked the oldsters and squares, but The Who were the first band properly to perplex the kids".
Moreover, Pete Townshend may not have had the authentic working-class blues, even if such a thing could be identified. He went on Ban the Bomb marches: isn't that 'nuff said? But by God, he had and probably still has the half-baked, over-educated, well-analysed blues. His simple tales of teenage angst can be recharged by what his biographer Geoffrey Giuliano says are still "the rage, passion and pain rooted deep in his youth". For once, that doesn't sound like sleeve-note auto-babble. Roger Daltrey says he wishes Townshend was still writing, and implies he'd be well suited to write the Zimmer-blues, but perhaps it doesn't really matter because the existential horrors he wrote about are much the same at any age.
The other great thing about The Who is that they are very English. As Robert Sandall also pointed out: this wasn't R and B. It was anarchic, jangly, deliberately unattractive. The Who stood out amongst their peers. The Cream: now, they could handle a dark rhythm, and of course the darling Stones were fabulous, but both were smooth and funky compared with The Who. Buddy Holly might have seen how The Beatles were connected to him; he might have been a bit foxed by The Who.
But there's the crucial trigonometry surely: one could navigate one's taste by The Beatles, the Stones and The Who. Perhaps The Kinks were in there, but they were too chirpy by half.
In the spring, I was reminded of another hero of mine from those days: I saw Eric Burdon sing "The House of the Rising Sun" in New Orleans, and remembered how we thought The Animals (and The Pretty Things and all those Alexis Korner bands) had the right stuff. Hard, heroic, but recognisably in awe of the black, unlike The Who.
That is what put me at odds with this great band. Many of us had heard three or four blues albums, and knew that Ray Charles was the alpha and omega of popular music. Not until Bob Marley was there to be another performer who seemed to be bringing rock music real refreshment. I'd turn out for him, of course.
By the late 70s, The Who began to appeal a bit more. I heard them play at Frejus, in a Roman amphitheatre in the Alpes Maritimes (the way you do), probably during the launch blitz for Quadrophenia, the film. It was "Who Are You?" which reformed my view of them. It was grand and driving - it was distinctively a Who song, but was "proper" rock 'n' roll. I liked it as much as, say, the Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Tom Petty songs I was loving around then. But it had high seriousness, as soundly a middle-aged blues as is most Country and Western. It was, after all, about a mature wild man's pique at finding the young trying to be wild.
It may be that The Who's Roger Daltrey is a great singer. It feels more as though he is a wonderfully fortunate and quite or very talented man, as well as a full-spirited one. His luck is to have found Pete Townshend.
What an enigma! A schoolmasterly figure, Townshend has always been dogged by cultural aspirations. Few rockers have transmuted, as he did, into serious publisher; the sheer battiness of his regressing to a rocker again is appealing. I warmed to the music and the people of The Who when they, and especially Daltrey, were the subject of a Radio 2 profile this summer. Not only have they grown old, they have effortlessly been co-opted. So it's lovely that he's out on the road, quite as ridiculous as Mick Jagger. I have no idea why he needs or wants to do it. What I like is that after all that posturing about not being a road band, but a driving creative entity, all that guff about not wanting to be old, all that posing about being a bad boy, here he is, sweetly strutting his stuff, still showing off after all these years. Gary Glitter understands these urges; Shirley Bassey does.
But beyond the joke, I half expect that the music - the quality of the songs and the singing - will be surprisingly satisfying. I am hoping that now it has lost its capacity and need to shock, the music will have gained what it always had for people more sensible than me - and that's loveliness
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