After his failure to realise his full ambition ambition with Lifehouse, Pete Townshend must have been doubly determined to get his next concept album made and for it to be an all round improvement on The Who’s conceptual high-water mark, Tommy. It needed to have a complex narrative, have all the trademarks of a landmark Who album and be utterly timeless. Hell yeah, Quadrophenia was going to be Townshend’s masterpiece.
First of all, lets tackle the narrative. Simply put, it’s too complex. If you haven’t read the accompanying sleeve notes or seen the late 70s film, then you have no chance of understanding what the bloody hell is going on. The story is over complicated, too obsessed with nostalgia at the expense of entertainment, and taken as a whole the album just isn’t as enjoyable as Tommy was, where at least some of the iconography was open to interpretation. Quadrophenia has a rigidly set narrative, and while it has parts that can be taken as a metaphor of some kind or other, it’s still too restrictive.
What Quadrophenia also lacks is great tunes. Even Tommy could boast a dozen or so brilliant tunes weaving in and out of the main story arc, however Quadrophenia tries too hard to push the narrative forward. As a result there are only three tracks here which I could rate among The Who at their very best, “The Real Me”, “5:15” and “Love Reign O’er Me”. The band are playing as well as ever, in particular Entwistle and Moon, but the tunes just aren’t there, possibly because Townshend spends far too much time faffing around with his synths. The brass section could have worked really well, but sadly it lacks punch and it’s impact is lost because it seems to be buried way down in the mix. There are flashes of genius continuously throughout Quadrophenia, but they seem to be pulling in separate directions at the expense of good music. The ideas were there, they just fell short the it came to the execution, and even the title track seems to be just another lengthy instrumental track for the sake of a lengthy instrumental track, in the same way that “Underture” was on Tommy.
Perhaps the rest of the band let Townshend have his way with Quadrophenia because they still felt bad about vetoing Lifehouse, but to my ears at least, Quadrophenia falls short of being a success in the same way that Tommy was and perhaps they should have pushed Townshend to just record the songs as a straight rock album in the same manner as Who’s Next. Like many double albums, Quadrophenia would no doubt have made a splendid single album, but only if they had abandoned the concept and allowed Entwistle to include some of his trademark lighthearted numbers. As it is Quadrophenia seems a little to leaden and self-important to be classed as one of The Who’s best albums, and it has failed to date as well as the very best of their work.