Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #14

The Who – Quadrophenia

When “The Breakfast Club” was released in early 1985, I saw it in the theatre twice during opening week. I was 20, floating in life, a university dropout, underemployed, pining for an embarrassingly long time over an ex-girlfriend (first heartbreaks are hard – I’m not crying, it’s eye sweat!), and connected intensely with the confusions of characters just a bit younger than me. Then I saw it again a few years later, and, having gotten my shit together to some degree, their constant whining annoyed me to no end. Stop complaining, I thought. Do something about your problems.

For me, “Quadrophenia” is “The Breakfast Club” of rock records.

Let’s step back for a moment. Growing up in the 1970s in Cape Breton, I had a passing familiarity with The Who. Radio was where I mostly learned about bands and I just don’t remember them being that popular with the disc jockeys at CJCB. They weren’t very prolific, so hits were spaced out and not numerous: there was the weirdness of ”Squeeze Box” and the obviousness of ”Who Are You?” and I don’t recall much else. Culturally, I knew that Keith Moon’s death was significant, and the tragedy at Riverfront made for a compelling episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati”. But I simply did not appreciate what a big deal they were.

In September 1982, I moved to Ontario to attend university. That fall, The Who were on a farewell tour (the first of several such “you’ll never see us live again” tours) that was set to end in Toronto on December 17. My roommate was a big fan, and while I can’t remember if he had tickets to the concert, its mere existence was an enormous deal to him and his circle of friends.

If I were a different sort of person, I could tell here the story of how I then became a fan of the band, and have in the almost 40 years since dug deep into their catalogue and charted their subsequent comings and goings. Alas, I am not that kind of person, so this will not be that tale. Instead, this will be the tale of how “Quadrophenia” blew me away on first listen, but I have become less and less enamoured of it with each repeat play and dig into its back story.

Rock bands often seem to go off the rails when they take themselves too seriously, and a rock opera is about as self-important as a band can get. The line between creative genius and self-indulgent pretension is razor thin and overreaching can sully a nice collection of songs by trying to make them seem like more than they are. What works as a guiding principle should probably not evolve into a mission statement. The original release of ”Quadrophenia” included notes explaining the plot for journalists, which might be a clue that maybe the songs haven’t accomplished what you set out to do. It’s the story of a disaffected mod struggling with mental health issues, drug abuse and a series of personal failures. So, maybe not someone you want to spend an hour and a half with. 

None of the songs really stands out – they don’t pop, which is likely why the singles that came off the album failed to become even modest hits. (“Love, Reign O’er Me”, easily the most impressive song for me, peaked at #31 in Canada, and much lower in the U.S.) They’re all good, but none of them are great or at least not great in the way that makes you want to keep hitting repeat. It isn’t prog rock, but there is a sameness across the record, an almost blandness that comes perhaps from the attempt to create a unity that ends up shaving off those rough edges that can make a great record so invigorating. (Pete Townshend’s demos, which come with the ”Super Deluxe Edition” of the album, made more of an impression on me.) It’s, well, pleasant to listen to, which is a pretty damning statement about a rock record. The Sex Pistols are not pleasant. Nirvana is not pleasant. The Who shouldn’t be either.

In the end, I don’t feel any connection to this album. The air of youthful confusion, of trying to find your place in the world, is palpable, but not anything that I’m all that interested in. I really should have encountered this in 1982, or 1985. I have bigger concerns right now.