Every Song On The Who's 'Quadrophenia' Ranked From Worst to Best: Critic's Picks
On this day (Oct. 26) in 1973, The Who released their biggest and best rock opera, Quadrophenia. Spanning four sides, the album tells the story of a disillusioned working-class Mod while probing the inner psychology of the band’s guitarist and songwriter, Pete Townshend.
The main character, Jimmy, is emblematic of the youth culture that spawned the band itself. He “rides a GS scooter with his hair cut neat,” pops amphetamines and spoils for fights. But Townshend’s character begins to unravel. Finding no relief from drink, drugs or his shrink and unable to blend into his surroundings, Jimmy sails away and lies down on a rock by the seaside, contemplates death and finds spiritual redemption.
Since at least 1966’s A Quick One, Townshend, a self-described victim of abuse as a boy, has used the canvas of a rock album to explore his traumas and insecurities. But if their first rock opera, Tommy, was a quirky patchwork of songs that hid darker hues, Quadrophenia kicked open a door into Townshend’s mind.
Each member of the Who was equally critical to bringing his feelings to the light. Singer Roger Daltrey, the most authentic Mod of them all back in the mid-’60s, hollered identity-crisis anthems like “The Real Me” and “The Punk and the Godfather” like it was the end of the world. Bassist John Entwistle put his orchestral abilities to work; the triumphal horn parts on jams like “5:15” are his. And their outrageous drummer, Keith Moon, turned what could have become a pretentious high-art document into a sustained explosion.
In honor of its 45th birthday, here is every song on the Who’s double-disc masterpiece, ranked from worst to best.
17. “Doctor Jimmy”
The least-convincing song on Quadrophenia appears near the end. Simply put, all of its ideas had been established on better songs, sequenced earlier in the program. “Doctor Jimmy,” itself a tired riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, mostly seems to exist so Townshend could have Jimmy say ribald things. “You say she’s a virgin? / Well, I’m gonna be the first in” isn’t the only cringe-inducing couplet.
16. “The Rock”
This instrumental is meant as a bridge from “Doctor Jimmy” to the majestic closer “Love, Reign O’er Me.” It mostly does the trick. “The Rock” is supposed to evoke a young man contemplating the end on a precipice overlooking the sea; the stormy sequencers and crash cymbals anticipate Quadrophenia’s triumphant end. Until Townshend’s impossibly goofy faux-medieval guitar lick takes over, pulling you right out of the misty, existential vibe.
Quadrophenia’s title track comes in early to establish the rest of the album’s moods and motifs. No Who fan jumps immediately for this instrumental track as opposed to the full-fledged tunes it foreshadows, but then again, “Quadrophenia” is meant to be heard in context. The show begins.
14. “I Am the Sea”
If the instrumentals and interstitial works on Quadrophenia seem unfairly shoved to the back of this list, it speaks less to their out-of-context worth than to the enormity of the songs they connect. The opening track, “I Am the Sea,” is a wonderful portal into Quadrophenia’s universe, mostly just distant sound effects and half-heard foreshadowing.
13. “Is It In My Head?”
Not a major track, but it fleshes out the disenchanted Jimmy’s headspace. He surveys a world where countries can starve, but still see “a man without a problem.” He weighs matters of the head versus those of the heart; are the two mutually exclusive? “Is It In My Head” mostly succeeds on its gleaming, Badfinger-sounding harmony from Townshend and Daltrey.
12. “The Dirty Jobs”
At this point, we know all about Jimmy’s alienation from the status quo, but where’s it come from, exactly? His POV is well-explained in “The Dirty Jobs,” in which Jimmy observes the neighborhood men who “look after the pigs” and “drive a local bus” in order to butter their bread. (“Ain’t it funny how we all seem to look the same?” they crow.) Like Marlon Brando slurring “Whaddya got?” when questioned about his motivation to rebel in 1953’s The Wild One, Jimmy sees resisting grim, working-class conformity as an operating principle: anything but this.
11. “Bell Boy”
In Quadrophenia’s original liner notes, Townshend detailed “Bell Boy” and how it represented a crossroads for Jimmy. “He meets an old Ace Face,” he wrote, referring to the leader of the Mods, ”who's now a bellhop at the very hotel the Mods tore up.” Then, as the story goes, Jimmy exiles himself, feeling let down by his rebellious old leader going soft and servile. Regardless of the dramatic arc, “Bell Boy” (also called “Keith’s Theme”) is full of fun moments, especially co-singer Moon’s ridiculous Cockney impression when describing the Bell Boy’s menial life: “I goh-ah keep runnin’ now! / Keep my lip buh-ened down!”
10. “Helpless Dancer”
The title of Quadrophenia doesn’t just refer to, as Townshend described it, a “naïve understanding of schizophrenia.” The album’s division into quarters was also supposed to represent the personalities of the Who themselves. “Helpless Dancer,” also called “Roger’s Theme,” is an acidic little vignette, with Townshend stabbing the piano and roaring about the ills of society: “Bombs are dropped on fighting cats / And children's dreams are run with rats!” That would seem to sum up Jimmy and Daltrey both; tough guys with strong consciences.
9. “Cut My Hair”
“Cut My Hair,” sung by Townshend to a jazzy backdrop, sets the scene for Jimmy’s unhappy identity crisis: “Why do I have to move with a crowd / Of kids who barely notice I’m around?” The Zoot-suited youth heads to school dressed to the nines, but still, an “uncertain feeling” persists. His home life isn’t much more fulfilling; his mother found a “box of blues” in his room, meaning Dexedrine pills, and there’s hell to pay. Something’s got to give.
Musically, “5:15” is a stone-cold rocker powered by Entwistle’s horns. Lyrically, it finds Jimmy on a chemically assisted train trip to Brighton. It seems to run on the same operating system as Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” in which the flying-high narrator surveys the straight world and deems it contemptible. Except here, Daltrey sneers at “the ushers sniffing / Eu-de-Cologning” and “pretty girls digging prettier women.” The paranoid, questioning vibe of “5:15” was beautifully renderedin the film version of Quadrophenia; as the song plays, Jimmy (played by Phil Daniels) boards his commute looking a tad worse for wear.
7. “I’ve Had Enough”
One of the most gorgeous moments on Quadrophenia comes somewhere in the middle of “I’ve Had Enough.” It lets up the energy for a soft, glowing raga about mortality. Townshend and Daltrey sing in harmony about being ready to leave the cycle of life altogether: “I’ve had enough of childhood / I’ve had enough of graves.” Somehow, these old friends don’t sound grim and fatalistic singing their death song together, but impossibly sweet.
In 1968, Townshend declared himself a disciple of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who claimed to be a human avatar of God. Almost immediately, the songs of the Who adopted prayerful overtones, with Townshend imploring a higher power to sand away his rough edges and bring him peace of mind. The climactic “Drowned” is one of his best in that lane; it’s about reaching enlightenment in an oceanic netherworld, with a funky, bluesy backing to bring the whole thing back to Earth.
5. “Sea and Sand”
The reflective “Sea and Sand” begins in a solitary, beachside setting for Jimmy, where “nothing goes as planned.” Then, the band uses this introspective scene as a launching pad, changing tempos and moods at a breakneck pace without ever losing momentum. Meanwhile, things are bleak for Jimmy -- he’s been thrown out of the house by his soused parents. He even calls back to a classic Who axiom: “I’m wet and I’m cold / But thank God I’m not old.” Every second of this dynamic, enveloping song works; it transports you to Jimmy’s new refuge among the seagulls and crashing waves. The climax of Quadrophenia begins here.
4. “The Real Me”
A psychological rocker from the vantage point of a therapist’s couch, “The Real Me” boils down a central theme of Quadrophenia: identifying your true self in an indifferent, uncomprehending world. Daltrey is in blazing, confrontational form on the mic, taking Townshend’s inward-looking poetry (“The cracks between the paving stones / Look like rivers of flowing veins”) and lobbing it like a missile. In the context of Jimmy’s story, “The Real Me” indicts every major figure in his world: the preacher, the shrink, his mother and father all fail to understand his true self. It boils over at the very end: Daltrey lets loose his finest scream this side of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” These are fighting words.
3. “I’m One”
Townshend’s most riveting songs were always written from the perspective of savants and loners; it gave the band an existential air that most of their ‘70s hard-rock peers lacked. And “I’m One” could be the template for all of it. It begins with moody, Travis-picked acoustic guitar and weeping synthesizers, with Townshend describing his glum self-image: he’s a loser, no chance to win. But listen to how he pumps himself up when he sings that title, rolling that two-word phrase in his mouth until it becomes a war cry. That’s Townshend’s superpower as an artist: at the Who’s peak, he could reach into his deepest, most insecure places and find strength and bravado. “I’m One” distills that magical process of self-actualization into ferocious rock.
2. “Love, Reign O’er Me”
Nothing a listener’s previously heard on Quadrophenia can steel him or her for its resplendent closer, “Love, Reign O’er Me.” It wraps up Jimmy’s spiritual journey with a question mark. Does Jimmy find last-minute solace or a new lease on life through the power of love? Whichever the case, it’s their most overtly spiritual song without becoming hectoring or tiresome: all dynamics, all atmosphere, and Daltrey’s lead vocal is pure godhead. Townshend later said that the Who would never make another work at the caliber of Quadrophenia again, and there’s some truth to that. If this is really the last call for the Who at their explosive, brainy peak, then what a finish.
1. “The Punk and the Godfather”
It’s no question that “Love, Reign O’er Me” is the pièce de résistance of Quadrophenia from a production, vibe and narrative standpoint. “The Punk and the Godfather” is just the quintessential Who song of the program. It even breaks the fourth wall by taking place at a Who show itself; in Marc Leaman’s original liner notes, he describes Jimmy as going to see “the top Mod band at a live show -- The Who, of course,” before he realizes the band is “nothing more than a reflection of their audience.” With all due respect to Sgt. Pepper, had any other rockers of the era broken the fourth wall and questioned their own role in song? It’s an argument between generations, between the Who and their audience, of authenticity versus inauthenticity. And Townshend even swoops into the frame to tell disillusioned Mods “I’ve lived your future out / By pounding stages like a clown.” Then, Daltrey screams, “Okay!” A massive Moon fill overwhelms. The crowd goes wild. And Quadrophenia truly lifts off.
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