The Who brought their latest update to the live presentation of Quadrophenia to Los Angeles this week, the third such tour since the album’s 1973 release. While it’s not their most famous album, or even their most popular rock opera, it does happen to be one of the works most suited to the Who in its current state, with two original members backed by assorted friends and family.
Although conceived by Pete Townshend as a new vehicle for live performance to top Tommy and Who’s Next, Quadrophenia has never had a truly satisfying stage production before this. The band’s 1973 tour was fraught with problems as the band gamely attempted to keep in time with backing tapes which regularly malfunctioned. It didn’t help that the show was regularly stalled by Townshend and Roger Daltrey’s mumbled attempts to explain the plot particulars between each song; it’s impossible to communicate anything more complex than “Hello Cleveland” to an arena audience, especially one that must have been as zonked out as any 1973 had to offer. By mid-1974, its presence in their live set had dwindled to around four songs, and by late 1975 they had dropped it completely.
They tried again, following a lengthy retirement, in 1996. That show – originally billed under the name “Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey Present Quadrophenia”, changed back to “The Who” when they realized no one was buying tickets to see something called TED – had Townshend playing acoustic guitar, with a small orchestra of additional players, a marginal sonic improvement from their unsatisying 1989 “Who On Ice” tour. The unnecessary plot explanations were now pre-recorded on video tape by a young British actor and no less iritating for being completely audible. Guest starring Billy Idol as the cool Mod and Gary Glitter as his nemesis the leather-clad rocker, it was kind of comical, and nice to see the three original members onstage again, but ultimately less than hard in its rocking.
For this round, the group wisely avoided over-staging and over-explaining, giving a complete reading of the four-sided work that emphasized its strengths, as well as the strengths of the players still around to play it today.
Quadrophenia is one of the albums most of often cited by hardcore fans as the one that really means something personal to them, including – especially – the Americans. Even though the story is about a kid growing up Mod in early sixties Britain, the specific cultural references aren’t as important as the underlying theme of finding one’s identity through a subculture, trying to make choices about how to be cool and not a fool, at a time when confusion reigns supreme. It’s essentially the same subject matter as “I’m Eighteen”, explored at length, and something anybody can relate to, even if they never wore a zoot suit or rode a scooter. We all saw the cool kids we looked up to turned into lackeys, aka fools. Maybe we became something like lackeys ourselves and said, that’s just part of getting older. But it’s hard not to take it personally when Jimmy, the mixed-up kid with quadruple personalities at the center of the story, tells us, “You men should remember how you used to fight.” We may not be able to fight like we once did, but we can remember. Rock and roll is good for that.
And the Who are still very good at certain things, despite all the compromises the years have forced on them. They’re short a pair of key contributors, and on some of the material, that loss really stings. John Entwistle and Keith Moon weren’t just phenomenal musicians – creatively, they provided a counterpoint to Pete Townshend’s guitar, a rhythmic and harmonic background that was able to shift at will as Townshend found other paths to explore. A decade of full-time work had made them virtually telepathic improvisers by the time they made this album, and they took the more jam-oriented numbers like “Sea And Sand” and “Drowned” into completely new territory onstage (check out this foaming version from Philadelphia in 1973).
This time around, they simply can’t do that, or won’t. While bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Zak Starkey are first-rate players, capable of reproducing the album parts of their predecessors with no problem, they don’t have the natural chemistry and orientation to follow Pete when he wants to go off-script, and so he tends not to go very far out. To a long time observer, that’s the element most sorely missing from the current band.
But to someone who never saw them before, this loss of improvisational capacity would not be obvious, and a carefully orchestrated work like Quadrophenia has relatively few points that suffer for it. Even while keeping it inside the box, Pete’s playing great, inspired solos, occasionally handing off the lead work his brother Simon, who took over on most of the tricky instrumentals where note-for-note recreations were needed. To the extent that they have good and bad nights now, you can usually tell by Pete’s facial expression and guitar solos in the very first few numbers which one you’re in for, and he both looked and sounded to be in very good spirits.
Daltrey’s powerful voice, at its peak on the original LP, proved to be mostly well intact. While a couple of keys were dropped, he seems to have won the struggle to maintain power at his high end, which nearly did him in on the band’s 2006-07 tour. Since throat surgery a few years ago, he’s made quite a comeback, performing with more of his old range, timbre and tone than any other singer his age I can think of except for John Fogerty. Quadrophenia’s one of the most challenging works in his back catalog, and to hear him go at it with even 80% of the capacity he had forty years ago is still very impressive.
Starkey was on fire tonight, playing perhaps the best set I’ve heard him do in the seventeen years he’s been playing with the Who. Without resorting to mimicry of Moon’s parts, he caught the groove and the spirit of the material better than anyone in the band’s succession of drummers ever did. Palladino played assertively but wasn’t particularly audible, even on our side of the stage, right next to his amp. Had we been that close to John Entwistle’s amp, we would have had a hard time hearing anything else. The assortment of keyboard and horn players, musical-directed by Daltrey’s bandleader Frank Simes, stuck to re-enactment of the complex album parts, though sometimes re-assigning synthesizer parts to the horn players. No guests, no chatter, just the album from front to back as it should have been from the start. The visual projections on the back of the stage were decent enough but unnecessary, although the effect of bringing up Keith and John on the giant screen for momentary appearances in “Bell Boy” and “5:15”, respectively, made for a nice, unexpectedly touching addition to the show.
For another forty-five minutes, they soldiered on with the expected set of crowd favorites that completely overlooked their own Mod-era catalog, instead focusing on their “epic” seventies period – “Baba O’Riley”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from Who’s Next, plus “Pinball Wizard”, and “Who Are You”. After the full band left the stage, Townshend and Daltrey played the self-referential acoustic duet “Tea And Theater” which has closed every Who show since its 2006 release on Endless Wire. Graceful and earnestly sung, it was perhaps the most truly alive moment of the entire set, the only song that wasn’t a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and the one in which the two principals invested the most heart and intensity. The Who have always played their best when they’ve had something to prove, when they’re not just plowing through “Baba O’Riley” for the millionth time but when they’re trying something they’re not yet sure the audience will love.
That desire to get over, which charged Quadrophenia’s numerous deep album tracks, was less evident during the greatest hits segment, and what was planned as a big, powerful close had less power than the opening set, until they turned the power off. Instead of re-enacting the Civil War, they reduced it to two guys playing a sentimental song together, a scene you might see in any Irish bar any night of the week, indulging in the simple joy of singing us a chune about the good old days. It reminded me of Jimmy at the conclusion of “Sea And Sand”, having just had multiple identity crises in the 24-hours after getting kicked out of his parents’ house, which ends up with him screwing the girl of his dreams on the beach. As he hollers “I’m wet and I’m cold but thank God I ain’t old”, he walks down the street kicking a can, singing “I’m the face if you want it babe”, a song about how cool it is to be a Mod. Sometimes when you’ve just finished something big, you want to sing a little song about what you just did.
Check out Brian Michaels’ photo gallery from the show.