It's a new year - and decade - so today and over the next few weeks people are contemplating how to become the person they were meant to be instead of the one they are right now. What better day to feature this post by a guest blogger, my good colleague Chuck, who recently told me of his fixation with a treasured album, Quadrophenia, The Who's follow-up to their earlier, better known and more accessible rock opera, Tommy. My only stipulation: in keeping with the format of the blog, he had to pick out one song on which to focus!
Well, at first I wasn't sure if I could do that, since there are so many great songs on Quadrophenia depicting the emotional range and depth of the opera's protagonist, Jimmy, and carried off with incomparable vocal range, depth and ferocity by The Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey. Quadrophenia has it all: throttling hard rock, elation, pain and envy, introspection, social commentary including '60s revolutionary zeal, humanity, love, poignant supplication wrapped in beautiful, lyrical melodies, and many points between.
It's the story of an English teenager and his social, musical, emotional and psychological state of being. The work is set in London and Brighton in 1964 and 1965, as the notorious Mods and Rockers battled for primacy in London's damp back streets and Brighton's resort beaches. The opera's name is a variation on the connotative definition of the medical term schizophrenia, but in composer Pete Townshend's version reflects Jimmy's four distinct personalities, each said to represent the personality of one Who member.
I studied in England in my junior year of undergrad school (1972-73) after the war between those Mods and Rockers had wound down. While I didn't discover Quadrophenia until I returned to the States, I did get to experience first hand the back streets, beaches, cultural setting and a slice of the view Townshend had conceived.
I now realize that I could select one out of the whole if I had to, and that would be the rocking The Real Me. It's the song that sets the stage for Jimmy, the first full piece following the overture, I Am the Sea.
Daltrey wails, "Can you see the real me," appealing to those around him ostensibly charged with his care: mother, doctor, preacher. It is teen angst-charged identity crisis taken to its logical postmodern point: outward bursts of anger and pleading, countered by self-reflective musings. The setting is violent cultural upheaval and when splintered teen identity and alienation are layered over the social backdrop, the protagonist's plea is more than aching, more than plaintive - it's all that and, most of all, demanding, commanding: damn you, see the real me!
As the song ends it seems to subtly sample the stuttering, stammering voice from the earlier song My Generation: "Can you see the real me-me-me." A more pronounced stammer is picked up again and is used as a bridge in The Punk and the Godfather deeper in the work, but run through a wah-wah pedal - "me, me, my, my, my g-g-g-generation" - perhaps to again create a memory-like, ethereal reference to the earlier work.
Not often do we talk about a rock album as the composer's "most important piece" - instead we describe it as a great collection of songs, hardest rock, best licks, etc. but this is certainly Townshend's most important piece. Four personalities, four leitmotif, or even better stated, the protagonist's multiple identities reflected in the four musical themes woven through the entire work, as Jimmy's story unfolds. It is a masterpiece.