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Can you see the real me?

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I’m a latecomer to The Who’s QuadropheniaTommy  was the first Who album I got, and that was decades ago (on LP); Quadrophenia may have been the last, and that was a couple years ago (on CD).

Quadrophenia album cover

I resisted that one, I think, because I just didn’t find the concept that appealing. The story of drug-addicted, “quadrophenic”, disillusioned mod Jimmy just seemed so British, so male, so 1960s–I couldn’t relate.

When I finally got the album, I liked the songs well enough right off, but really couldn’t put “the story” together until I also saw the 1996 Quadrophenia Live DVD. During that concert, a Jimmy narrator (on a big screen) provides a narrative thread through the songs—even though it’s not exactly the same one intended by the original album—that sufficiently put it together for me.

But that’s when I started to realize, with repeated listening, that the “story” didn’t really matter. Because the songs just sounded so great, you didn’t need to worry about plot.

The Quadrophenia songs work as standalones–much more so than most of the Tommy ones do. They also have a universality that you might not expect of “rock opera” songs. Who doesn’t want to be seen for who they are (“The Real Me”)? Who hasn’t had to do a crappy job (“The Dirty Jobs”)? Who hasn’t felt the wish to just slide away from a bad situation, even if it’s into oblivion (“Drowned”)? Who doesn’t want to feel awash in love (“Love Reign O’er Me”)?

You don’t have to be British, or male, or a baby boomer to get it. You just have to be human.

So it’s with that background that I went to see the new Who documentary about the making of Quadrophenia, subtitled Can You See the Real Me?, at the Galaxy theatre last week.

Given previous, it should come as no surprise that the parts I found least compelling were the fuller explanations of Jimmy’s story, and what the mods were all about. Though that wasn’t all a loss, since it’s always good to learn things, and that I did. Story-wise, I hadn’t realized that “The Punk and the Godfather” was about Jimmy going to see The Who themselves in concert, and being disillusioned that they’re now big rock stars, worlds apart from him. (Because that’s something they changed in the 1996 concert version.)

As for the mods, the point that their tidy hair and neat suits made them look like smart, respectable young men at work, when it was really a form of covert rebellion (though they did need those jobs to afford the suits) was an interesting point.

Though Pete Townshend the story-teller is the dominant figure in this documentary, I did like that some commenters view the album more as I do, as fairly universal: “I thought it was about me” says Manager Bill Curbishley, and he doesn’t mean that’s because he was a mentally ill mod, and not so much needing a plot: “Pete always has these great concepts, but the problem is he always wants to wrap a complicated story around it”, says Roger Daltrey.

What I liked best was the exploration of the music, the songs; all the archival concert footage included (nothing like seeing the young and beautiful Roger Daltrey on the big screen); and the look at the band dynamics at the time.

Those dynamics were some ugly, Unfortunately, we are somewhat stymied in exploring them by having only two band members remaining, and apparently not having a lot of footage of what Moon and Entwistle thought of Quadrophenia. Both men are featured, but they of course don’t necessarily get asked what we’d now like to know. For example, Pete says at the outset that John, as a songwriter, was unhappy that the band had become all about Pete’s songs. So how did John feel about Quadrophenia, to which he didn’t contribute a single track? No idea.

Tommy was quite a collaborative effort by the band, at least for The Who. Entwistle contributed two songs, Moon came up with the holiday camp idea (and a writing credit), Daltrey suggested that he embody the Tommy role, thus finally truly becoming the voice of the band. But Quadrophenia was all Pete, all demo’ed and done and presented to the band. “The rest of them must have felt a bit like session musicians,” is one opinion expressed in the documentary.

Yet, Pete did use the four very different band members as the both representative of Jimmy’s four split personalities, and as the four musical motifs that echo through the album, which Pete says is the more important aspect. Moon the lunatic, Pete the hypocrite (interesting, and I’m not sure how that leads to a “Love Reign O’er Me” theme), Roger as “bad” (the album liner notes say “tough guy”, but Pete’s original notes say “bad”) and John as “romantic”, those two intersecting as “sex”. (I don’t think Pete meant that in a gay way.)

Who concert image

Of course, it’s only Mr. Bad who’s still around to say what he thought of all this, and it’s interesting that there still seems to be so much tension between the two on this (given they’re about to tour it together, and all). Pete comments on how the rest of the band liked to drink for a couple hours before getting to work, which the non-alcoholic Roger hated as a waste of time.

Then there’s this. “Pete may have produced this album”, says Roger, steely-eyed, “but he did not produce my vocals. I wouldn’t have it.” And Pete suggests that’s because Roger could not take criticism. “You had to be very careful what you said to him. You really did.” Little wonder that during the first rehearsal for this album’s tour, Pete hit Roger with his guitar, and Roger responded by knocking him out cold with one punch.

Yet there’s no denying the deep admiration Pete expresses for Roger’s vocal work on the album, particularly, of course, on “Love Reign O’er Me”, a song that literally gave me goosebumps every time it was played on the wonderful theatre sound system during this documentary—the album version, a live version from that time, and the 96 live version.

Looking at Moon’s vocal work on “Bell Boy”, Pete comments on how Keith could never sing anything straight; it was always as a character. And that he did find it hard for his Ace Face character to come off comic. But of course, again, no way to know what Moon thought of this, though he clearly enjoyed singing the song in concert.

Bell Boy mike handoff

Those two songs get special focus during the documentary, as do some others, like “The Real Me”, “Cut My Hair”, “5:15” (partly Beatle-inspired, that one), and “Drowned”. But I was disappointed that “Doctor Jimmy” didn’t get that treatment. It just seems there would be so much to say about that one… How the complex musical arrangement of song that itself suggests a split personality (it’s my favorite Who song to play on the piano, but it’s not easy!), the shocking lyrics (“Who is she? I’ll rape it!”), even its importance to that darn storyline, as this moment of craziness then leads Jimmy out to that rock and possible redemption. But nada about “Doctor Jimmy” here.

Much as I enjoyed the concert footage, the documentary also covers how that tour was something of a disaster. It was booked a mere two weeks after the album was done, leaving the exhausted band no time to really prepare a stage show, and forcing them to play songs that the audience just didn’t know yet.

Pete said at the outset that his goal had been to write something that would replace Tommy as a concert vehicle. In that, Quadrophenia failed. (And maybe that’s why Pete feels this is the one he just has to take on the road again. Needs another do-over.)

The doc was only about an hour long, the theatre viewing filled out by showing some of the songs from the 1996 Quadrophenia Live DVD. This leads me to wonder if some footage is being held back for the eventual DVD release. Maybe I’ll get that “Doctor Jimmy” analysis after all?

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