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Monday, June 22, 2009

Is It In My Head

OK, after a bit of an absence (for any of you who might have noticed) and a grand total of two posts, I'm back with some brand new ramblings. I do have some random thoughts and reviews to post over the coming days but first I want to start what will hopefully be only the beginning of a series of posts dedicated to some of my all time favourite comics/ novels/ TV shows/ films and, in this case, albums.

It has to be said that I have no idea whatsoever what my single favourite album is of all time but I can usually narrow it down to three possibilities. Two of these hopefuls are always an album apiece by my two favourite musical artists, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The catch is, however, that the specific album has had a habit of changing over the years. For the Beatles, I've gone from Revolver to Abbey Road and, as it stands right now, Rubber Soul while The Stones' golden years yielded three albums that vie for my affections in the form of Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. I'm sure I'll return to all of these albums - and more of course - over the course of however long I run this blog.

The third album, on the other hand, is always the same, bringing us to the matter at hand: Quadrophenia by the Who.

Before I get into telling you why Quadrophenia is such an indispensable piece of art and why it holds such a special place in my own heart (that's right, I'm going to get very slightly biographical here), I think a bit of an introduction would be in order.

Originally released in 1973, Quad was Who leader, Pete Townshend's second attempt to follow up their massively successful breakthrough rock opera, Tommy. The first attempt, the infamous Lifehouse, could easily be considered one of popular music's great failures if its implosion had not resulted in one of rock's most played and beloved albums, Who's Next. Nonetheless, undeterred by Lifehouse's failure, Pete again set out to out-Tommy Tommy with a story that was as grounded as its predecessor's were, shall we say, esoteric.

Quadrophenia tells the story of a teenager, Jimmy, sitting on a rock out at sea, reminiscing about how he got there. To be sure, there are several elements at play, including 1960s Mod culture (basically a gang of youths who drove around on scooters in their zoot-suits and listened to American Rhythm and Blues) and the protagonist's double-barrelled "schizophrenia" (as the album's liner notes put it: "Schizophrenic? What a laugh! It must be all right to be plain old mad.") but at its heart, Quad is, very simply, all about adolescence.

And that, right there, is the secret to why it resonates so strongly with me.

The first time I heard the album, I must have been somewhere around nineteen or twenty-years old. This was an early part of my grand voyage to expand my musical repertoire beyond the exclusive relationship I had with the Beatles and their various solo careers in my formative years. Along with the Rolling Stones, the Who were the first band to really capture my attention with the explosive Who's Next but it was Quadrophenia that ultimately ensured that Townshend's music would forever be close to my heart in a way that even the Beatles and the Stones aren't.

Of course, anyone paying attention would quickly realise that I only discovered Quadrophenia and its adolescent concerns as I was leaving what conventional wisdom would call my adolescent years, thereby surely lessening its effect on me. Well, as I like to say (though mostly only in my own head) to hell with conventional wisdom!

Don't misunderstand me, my high school years were hardly free of some good ol' teenage angst. There were those terrifying physical changes that come with puberty that are too embarrassing even to write about now. There were also those psychological changes that went some way towards molding who I am today, for better or worse and at the time ensured that, like any teenager worth his/ her salt, I felt forever misunderstood by absolutely everybody. And don't even get me started about my general debilitating shyness - especially around all 'em terrifying GIRLS.

With all of that teenage angstiness though came some equally potent teenage arrogance. No one else may have understood me but I sure as hell did! Add to that a rather enjoyable high school experience, a sheltered middle-class, Jewish, white South African life and a (not so) healthy diet of frankly embarrassingly closed-minded religious beliefs and you end up with a relatively content teenager. A relatively content teenager who was about to get his ass kicked just by the simple act of graduating high school.

Teenage adolescence was, as far as I'm concerned, merely a warm up for the truly horrible adolescence that came with my late-teens/ early-twenties. It's not so much that my external circumstances changed very much (I still lived at home and I was fortunate enough to still live a nice comfortable life) but internally I was a mess. I may not have plunged head-first into the scary "real" world but it was there and I had no idea whatsoever where my place was in it. I was at a total loss as to what do with my life professionally and my arrogant certainty of who I was and my relationship with the rest of the world very quickly crumbled. Hell, spending three years in a yeshiva (for all those not in the know, that's a school of sorts where Jews spend their days involved with religious studies) didn't even prevent me from having a religious identity crisis of sorts.

It was in this state of mind that I came across Quadrophenia.

The themes that shone through every wonderful song that Pete Townshend wrote for the album resonated with me more than anything I've heard before or since. He uses the "rock-opera's" protagonist, Jimmy, as a vehicle with which to explore all the contradictory aspects of adolescence.

Jimmy has troubles with his parents, with girls and with school-hood friends and fellow gang members but it is his own inner struggle that resonates most profoundly. He tries to make sense of a world filled with injustice, with shameless compromise and with gross unfairness, all the while trying to balance his need to be an individual with his need to belong. As an individual he may have a sense of who he is and may feel uncompromised by a world that seems intent on breaking him down but with that individuality comes the inevitable loneliness. Belonging to the Mods would give him a sense of belonging and would go some way towards healing his loneliness but would cost him his integrity and his true sense of who he is. He feels like four (only four?) different people all at once and he starts to lose himself because of this. And in the end, this being a Townshend story, he does come to a spiritual revelation that ultimately saves him.

Needless to say, Jimmy's (narratively vague) story struck many a chord with me and the entire album became a fixture of my day-to-day living. I literally listened to the entire thing at least five days a week for months on end. That I don't listen to it as much these days has as much to do with having the entire thing in my head as it does with my making some headway away from those tumultuous years.

It also goes without saying that while the lyrics may have spoken to me on a very personal level, the music can hardly be ignored. After all, I could hardly have listened to it as much as I did had the music been written by, say, whoever "writes" the music for Nickleback or Creed. Pete Townshend is very simply one of the best melody writers in all of post-war 20th (and 21st, if we're being honest) popular music and Quadrophenia has brilliant musical ideas bursting out of its seems. It is moody art-rock taken to heights that even respected bands like Pink Floyd could only dream of.

Not to be outdone, while Quad may very much be a Townshend creation in conception, the entire band never sounded better this side of Live at Leeds. Pete himself uses synthesizers with the kind of subtlety and tastefulness as only he could in his prime. His guitar playing, meanwhile, may not be as upfront as it was on previous albums but he certainly makes its presence known with some powerful, heartbreakingly beautiful guitar lines that crop up all over the place.

Quad also makes a water-tight case for there being absolutely no one who could stand up to Keith Moon (drums) and John Entwistle (bass) when they were at their best and that their untimely deaths have left a gaping hole in the music world that persist to this day. The first real song on the album (the opening track, I Am the Sea, is more a sound collage than actual song) The Real Me alone showcases their incomparable mastery over their respective instruments and they don't let up for a moment throughout the rest of the album.

As for vocalist, Roger Daltrey, he may claim that he was never as at home on Quad as he was on Tommy but you would never be able to tell that from his performance here. His roaring, soaring vocals have as much power as they did on Live at Leeds (incidentally, if you haven't heard Leeds, run out and get it with Quad - it's the greatest live band ever at their very best) but he brings a tenderness and a restraint to his work here that meshes absolutely perfectly with the sometimes rocking, sometimes sweeping backing instrumentation. The occasional lead vocals from other members of the band may not be on the same level but they work perfectly for their respective songs.

I really can talk about this stupendous masterwork forever but this entry has gone on long enough. All I can say is that not only is Quadrophenia one of the greatest amalgamations of music and lyrics you will hear in your life, it is essential listening to every adolescent and, indeed, to anyone who ever went through that particularly trying period of one's life.

Get it. Now.

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