Let's take a trip back in time, to the era of classic rock. In the fall of 1973, The Who released their sixth album, Quadrophenia. It was quite a success commercially -- it reached #2 in both the US and UK -- but more importantly it is probably the only rock album conceived as a whole that has appreciated in artistic merit over the years.
When I say conceived as a whole, I mean the entirely of the album is designed for a certain effect or around a certain theme -- conceptual theme, not just commonalities in song titles or genre. The first prominent example of this that I can think of in rock is the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed from 1967. (I know, Sgt. Pepper was from ‘67 but it was never intended to be conceptual. For that matter neither was Abbey Road. The Beatles never did a concept album.)
The Who really glommed on to the idea of such thematics. Their third album, The Who Sell Out, a contemporary of the Moody Blues' Days… was structured as a pirate radio broadcast with jingles and fake commercials in between the songs making it a concept album in a more gimmicky sense, but also contained a short song that was identified as a mini-rock opera. A rock opera was where The Who went next with Tommy three years later.
A rock opera is really just a concept album with a narrative. Tommy was not the first rock opera; there had been a couple released in the late sixties to little acclaim or commercial success. Tommy, in contrast, was an astounding success. I recall "studying" it in Junior High School English class, for some reason. (Probably because all the public school teachers fancied themselves cool rebels who knew what was hip. Now I decry it as dumbing down, but back then I would have had zero interest in, say, Samuel Johnson. Also, get off my lawn.)
Enormous success aside, I don't think Tommy has fared all that well over time. The songs are still good quality pop songs and the hits get plenty of classic rock airplay, but it just doesn't hit home as a piece of art. The theme of the rise and fall of a false god is a little strained. Anyway, gods don't rise anymore, they just fall. The movie featured some interesting covers of the songs, and Ann Margret, but it really just a curiosity more than anything else.
The Who moved on, changing tone entirely to the monumental Who's Next, which is so loaded with enduring classics that it's probably the album you hand to someone from Mars who never heard classic rock. Also it marked a shift to more personal songs. The Who always had anger in their songs, but with Who's Next, the anger became more pointed and personal.
So in that sense, Quadrophenia was sort f the culmination of the development of The Who: An angry, desperate, deeply personal rock opera. The story is somewhat autobiographical: a mod named Jimmy is a standard rebellious working class kid in early 60s England. He is generally a wastrel, hangs out with his wastrel friends, doing wastrel things and such as popping pills and getting in gang fights. Just another disaffected youth. In fact, just the sort of person the The Who played for in their early years as a mod-hero band, and to some extent just the sort of person they were. In fact, Jimmy was described as a young man with for personalities -- Quadrophenia -- each corresponding to a different member of The Who.
The four personalities thing is pretty much unnecessary. Jimmy is a confused adolescent swimming in a sea of hormones and chemicals. Rare is the human male who won't identify. This is a key difference from Tommy. It's not detached allegory, it's something very relatable and genuine.
But the thing that really elevated Quadrophenia was that the story was clarified by the non-musical ephemera that came with it. On the cover was a narrative, written in the voice of Jimmy, in perfect colloquial mod voice -- it was quite lovely. You can read it here. It's a few paragraphs that put you deeper in Jimmy's head and voice for very nice effect. Also in the package was a large photo book, filled with black & whites depicting Jimmy at various points in his journey, that really captured the look and feel of working class England in the early 60s. This youtube vid walks you through the photos. They are really quite astounding.
If this makes it all sound more like a multi-media exercise than a record album, it is; but that's not to say the music is insufficient on its own. The music is a remarkable blend of the standard Who agro-power with what is probably the most melodic and sensitive arrangements they ever achieved and interwoven with moody natural sound effects. It's the sort work you can hear a hundred times and pick up something new every time.
All this is in my head at the moment because I recently saw a documentary about the making of Quadrophenia on Palladia, one the nine million eight hundred and thirty-two channels I get on Charter. (It's actually a couple of years old. I think it aired in 2012 on the BBC.) It was jam packed with interesting details on the state of the Who at that time. To summarize, Keith was so messed up on drugs that he actually collapsed on stage and they brought in someone from the audience who could play a bit of drums to finish the set. Their producer was so messed up on drugs that Pete fired him and took on the entire workload. The workload was so huge because, and this was something I didn't know, Pete's process to create a record was to write the songs and record all the parts on tape at home, the present the entirely to the rest of the band who would interpret it. So basically he was doing everything.
The rest of the band however, did not appreciate that and often bristled, feeling like they were being treated as nothing more than session musicians. It is not the case at all that they were glorified session musicians, of course.There is no way the Who would be what they were without the other personalities and talents -- you don't hire session musicians that can bring such distinction and style as John and Keith had. Roger asserted himself by forbidding Pete to be in the studio when he recorded his vocals. In fact the animus between the two was so great that Pete threw punches at Roger and Roger uppercutted him to floor. More interestingly, Pete was not a fan of Keith's drumming. He wished there were times when he would just keep the beat instead of being a madman. This was bad thinking. When Keith died he was replaced with exactly such a drummer to no good end musically.
And, like the standard rock and roll cliche, out of all this bedlam came a tremendous pile of music. In the words of Pete, "Quadrophenia was the last great album we did."
And great it was. I hope I'm not coloring it with my nostalgia, but I really think when all is said and done and we look back at the second half of the 20th century it will be one of the pieces that stands out as a top ten musical work. So, recommendations: Listen to the album, try to find the ephemera, watch the movie, see the documentary. All worth your time.