Like Bob Dylan and a few others, Peter Townshend understood the 20th century version of the successful artist, which combined the cultivation of a pop sensibility and the cash it brought with some vein of purity in exploration. As the Who has recycled a long strong of Townshend’s pearls – on TV, in advertising, in compilations, on their latest geezer tour, and in the new biopic Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who which premieres in the U.S. at the Paley Center for Media next week – so to has its master creator continued to explore.
Townshend’s latest rock opera, The Boy Who Heard Music, took shape as a blog, a dissembled convocation of voices brought together online. Earlier this year, Townshend put the algorithm behind the synth opening for Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again online and let musicians (including me) upload pieces of recorded music and get back synthesized loop patterns. The Who made the cash, and a commercial legacy that keeps in giving, but throughout the band’s 20-year dry spell Townshend worked as an artist, and still works into his 60s.
Was Townshend’s best work was in his 20s? Perhaps, like Dylan’s. But he keeps on, like Picasso an aging combination of pop sensibility and persona, continuing to work. Paul McCartney, a comtemporary, wrote his own epitaph, a grand old painter’s evocation of his death. Townshend still flays the guitar and his Internet explorations – at present, silent – have given his work a new flavor, and a direct channel to his audience.
But Townshend’s finest work was his most complete as an artist – and not particularly successful commercially, but it endures. Quadrophenia is the one Who record I still return to year after year; a complete story with recurrent themes, and a fantastic composition and performance. Quadrophenia grows and I grow with it. Into my 40s and Townshend’s 60s, it still feels relentless and lasting.
Cast in the early 60s, executed in the early 70s, it has shaken nostalgia off like a dusty zoot suit. Quadrophenia is a massive, exhausting work. You can hear the endless hours of writing, the many demos – tossed and kept – and the thousands of studio hours. Townshend did Tommy to financial acclaim and always mourned Lifehouse, the massive opera that became Who’s Next in bits and pieces.
But Quadrophenia is Townshend’s most lasting work. You can easily imagine bands in some futuristic concert hall in 2273 playing the music and remembering the artist behind the work – much as we do the for the classical composers. I suspect those performances two centuries from now won’t have the emotion to carry the strength of the work. Reason: Keith Moon. His wild, bombastic, scattershot percussion propelled the songs and brought cohesion to the overall work. Moon pushed Townshend to his most percussive work and the guitarist played off the drummer. Throughout Quadrophenia, you always wait for Moon to come back in – the drum roll, the stroll along the toms – it’s a unifying force. (No accident that a similarly-gifted Zak Starkey has reenergized Townshend’s desire to play his songs live again).
My favorite theme in Quadrophenia is the sea – water permeates almost every song and the seaside settings of the songs prove more timeless than the brief Mods versus Rockets riots of the early 60s UK. I listened the Quadrophenia while walking the beach last week and drank in the humility that comes with the sense of mortality every man feels by the ocean. And Daltrey sang:
Here by the sea and sand, nothing every goes as planned…