A Beach Is A Place Where a Man Can Feel

QuadropheniaLike 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…

Comments 10

  • Quadrophenia shares the water theme with another 20th C. artist and Faber editor: see T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (note the tetraphic name).

    I daresay Eliot surpasses Pete’s lyrical gift, but not by nearly so great a margin as that by which Pete outrocks the Possum.

    There are numerous other Townshend-Eliot connections, which I’d love to see developed by someone with access to the resources necessary to get at the root of them. “Drowned” from Q and The Sea Refuses No River from Pete’s solo work are part of the answer here (as, I suppose, must be his later solo work, “All Shall Be Well”, echoing Little Gidding echoing Julian of Norwich). I think there’s a reason the lyric “Teenage Wasteland” isn’t “Teenage Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night”.

    Someone who knows how Townshend came to work at Faber could doubtless contribute to this important study. My effort to raise it, years ago, on the U. of Missouri’s T.S. Eliot listserve went over like a Led Zeppelin.

  • TK – this is the right venue, and you’re the right developer…

  • I was on Brighton Beach just a few weeks ago, singing that same song as I walked under the pier 🙂

    And I remember a Who exhibition at the ICA in about 1980… and of course seeing them live at Wembley in 1979. Townshend spoke to every disaffected adolecent – he certainly spoke to me. And Quadrophenia is definitely his finest work – got to agree.

  • Tom, let me see what I can dig out of Faber – I know the CEO 🙂

  • One of the best midnight movies from my youth, as much as I can remember. The apex of Sting’s career. Great album for the songs, especially ‘5:15’ and ‘Cut My Hair’. Not a big fan of ‘rock opera’, concept albums, or the book of any traditional opera either for that matter. Still if I had to take a ‘rock opera’ into space with me, I could do a lot worse (Preservation Act 1, anyone?).

    Q: Are you a mod or a rocker?
    A: I’m a mocker.

    –Not from the picture of the same name.

  • Amen, Brother.

    Quadrophenia is a work that transcends its subject matter and will continue to remain relevant long after Pete is gone.

  • Quadrophenia is novel set to music, a human story about real people living real lives in post-war England. Tommy, equally brilliant, was about spiritual enlightenment and was filled with heavy-handed allegories. But Quadrophenia hits you where you live – troubled youth trying to figure out how to rebel, fight and survive in the adult world. It’s about discovering who the hell you are and whether you even want to stick around in this crazy world of mods and rockers, pills and drink, cold angry parents and condescending adults. The ocean is his connection to Nature, to the timeless universe, a glimse into the mystery of life itself. The working class hero yearns to make something of himself without the benefit of art school or trips abroad on daddy’s dime. Hard to believe that the album is neither played or mentioned in “The Kids are Alright” documentary. They have been neglecting it on recent tours it seems as well. Shame. In “A Hard Day’s Night” a reporter asks Ringo if he was a “Mod or a Rocker” to which Ringo replies “I’m a Mocker”.

  • Agreed on all counts. However, the bleedin’ ‘oo can still rock. I really liked their last album “Endless Wire”; especially the song “Man In A Purple Dress”

  • I think Quadrophenia is the most poignant evocation of teenage angst that’s ever been put on vinyl.

  • Rough Mix, recorded with Ronnie Laine, is damn near perfect. Never gets old for me.