Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff Edition: Third Section: Arts and Film
NEW YORK -- Pete Townshend has called it »probably the best record that The Who made.« But the 1973 conceptual album that is »Quadrophenia« -- a pun on quadraphonic sound and an evocation of a young English Mod's confusion, a bloke whose personality is split four ways -- was one The Who botched when they tried to tour with it more than two decades ago. Audiences familiar with »Tommy« and »Who's Next« found the narrative incomprehensible and the new songs foreign; the technology of the era did not permit the staging and sonic sophistication we routinely find today. Unlike »Tommy,« the standard to which it was held, »Quadrophenia« spawned no hits.
The Who is pretty much a done deal, but Townshend decided to kick the 90-minute opus up again last month for the Prince's Trust charity concert in London's Hyde Park. Fellow Who cofounders singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle joined. Drummer Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son, filled the late Keith Moon's spot -- wholly appropriate, as Starkey learnt his craft from the chaotic Moon, not from his time-keeping dad. There were many supporting players, including Pete's brother Simon, who handled electric guitar with Geoff Whitehorn as the elder, hearing-impaired Townshend stuck to acoustic.
The show has crossed the Atlantic, and was unveiled Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the first of six sold-out performances. It was an expertly synchronized rock extravaganza -- supporting video (some from the 1979 Franc Roddam film adaptation of »Quadrophenia«), between-song, looking-back narration/explanation by (now) fortysomething Phil Daniels, who played the film's protagonist Jimmy; powerful emotional enhancement via an A-level, »Oz«-like light show; and an ultra-tight musical performance from the troupe, which included a four-piece horn section, three female backup singers and percussionist Jodi Linscott, a former North Shore-based musician. There were cameos from Gary Glitter, as the campy, mike-stand-swinging, pompadoured Godfather, and Billy Idol, as the Mod leader Ace Face, who is later revealed (and reviled) as the bellboy, a toady at a resort hotel, a poseur of a rebel, the embodiment of hypocrisy. You gotta like this casting.
Those are some of the technical, logistical particulars. The setting is London 1964. The conflict is the clash between the ultra-neat, pill-popping Mods and the tougher, greasier older Rockers. The inner struggle is that of Jimmy -- smart, but messed up, hormonally powered, semi-isolated, in love with the soothing power of the sea, trying to assert his individuality even as he clings to a group identity.
What makes »Quadrophenia« resonate today, so long after its inception, is its powerful, universal theme and its killer songs, many of them simultaneously bombastic and introspective. Inner angst meets arena rock; power chords mesh with quasi-operatic singing; sentimentality runs headlong into stridency. It's no wonder that Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder cites »Quadrophenia« as a seminal album. It was a surprise that Daltrey whipped up 20 minutes of it on his 1994 tour, as »Quadrophenia« was never a massive hit. After the Great Woods show, Daltrey talked about how much he loved the album and how he wanted to sing as much of it as he could while his vocal cords could bear it. With no Who reunion in sight, he figured he'd take the risk and the liberty.
There is still no bona-fide Who reunion -- these six shows are the extent of it and Townshend doesn't even like to call it The Who. Still, Daltrey must be in heaven. The 14,000-strong Garden audience (a quarter of the house seats weren't sold due to staging) went bonkers over »Quadrophenia« -- and got an unexpected encore treat with »Behind Blue Eyes,« »Won't Get Fooled Again« and »Magic Bus.«
»Quadrophenia« hit its stride right away with »The Real Me,« confusion as anthem, with strong leads from Entwistle, Starkey, Daltrey, both Townshends and the five-piece horn section. (Ol' Pete did manage a windmill and a scissor-kick near the end.) A vibrant balancing act -- maintained throughout with kudos going to longtime Who sideman keyboardist John (Rabbit) Bundrick. Daniels soon entered, reminiscing about the Mods and their amphetamine obsession. Daltrey sang »Cut My Hair,« about the conformity of the subculture; and Daniels talked about going to see the High Numbers (The Who's early moniker), saying »they weren't exactly Mods« but close enough.
Glitter came on to strut, rant and rave with Daltrey in »The Punk vs. the Godfather,« accompanied by video clips of a young Townshend smashing his guitar -- to wild applause. Idol showed up later, arrogant in his first role as the Mod leader, humble in his second as a lackey. Both were cameos. Said narrator Daniels, as Jimmy, chronicling his disillusion: »My folks had let me down, rock had let me down, women had let me down.«
In »Doctor Jimmy,« the cockiness and bravado come front and center. The future is pondered during the instrumental »The Rock.« The conclusion follows in »Love, Reign O'er Me,« where Jimmy may find some solace in the rhythm of the sea, even if he contemplates suicide. (In the film, he appears to ride his scooter off a cliff.)
Here, in concert as on the album, Townshend wants to dangle the possibility of redemption. By virtue of the fact that he's chosen to have an older Daniels serve as narrator, it's clear Jimmy has survived, however battered.