Not counting A Quick One While He’s Away nor the abandoned Lifehouse project, live recordings of The Who’s two rock operas arrive in this three-disc collection…
“It’s a boy, Mrs Walker! It’s a boy!” So begins Tommy and with those words, Pete Townshend opened his tale of the deaf, dumb and blind kid who became a pinball wizard, was miraculously cured and opened a religious retreat in a seaside holiday camp. Ultimately shown to be a sham, his disciples destroyed his retreat, leaving it feeling reborn to discover a life that he’d otherwise hidden himself from for much of his life. Unbelievably, given that description and with a punishing touring schedule, Townshend was made very rich thanks to Tommy and to the American and British audiences who welcomed it as warmly as they did. Townshend has described the odd position The Who found themselves in during the late-sixties, touring an album around the states to audiences who thought that the band was called Tommy…or that Tommy was the singer’s name.
Either way, this story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who’s sexually abused by his drunken uncle became the reason The Who were at Woodstock when many of their peers, Hendrix excluded, were not. Their touring of the album with the loudest PA system they could find, accentuating its hard rock, probably inspired Led Zeppelin to do likewise. Certainly the two bands destroyed many a hotel together as they crushed stateside cities underfoot, arriving as one in the manner of the Vikings on the northern shores of Britain, demanding the spoils of conquest. And that virgins were loitering in the hallway outside of Keith Moon’s room as he exploded yet another cherry bomb in the bathroom whilst John Entwhistle snorted cocaine of the breasts of prostitutes was largely to do with Tommy. A fine result for an album that its makers considered at risk of being more God Opera than rock opera.
As a rock opera, though, Tommy leaves much to be desired. As an album, it’s a magnificent achievement, particularly as it includes the likes of Pinball Wizard, Amazing Journey, Go To The Mirror! and We’re Not Gonna Take It, but the themes of isolation, of childhood abuse and of religion are never entirely convincing. Elsewhere, there’s precious few motifs that permeate the record with only the presence of an overture and underture to suggest an operatic origin. Even the celebrated notion of using pinball was, as Townshend admits, a gimmick to appeal to rock critic Nik Cohn who was, at the time, a pinball fanatic and was, thanks to Tommy‘s mastery of the silver ball, sure to give it a decent review. But little of that matters now, with Tommy making it as a ballet, as an orchestral pops album, as Ken Russell’s film, as a stage show on Broadway and in London’s West End and now on DVD.
As a concert performance, Tommy isn’t at all bad but one’s feelings at watching The Who bolstered by the presence of Phil Collins (Uncle Ernie) and Billy Idol (Cousin Kevin) is akin to realising that one’s bath water has something unwanted floating in it. Sadly, since the death of, firstly, Keith Moon and then John Entwhistle, The Who have never sounded as good live as they did on, for example, Live At Leeds and this recording of Tommy, who very close to the album, isn’t as impressive as that blistering performance from the stage at the University of Leeds. Compared to the most recent (third) release of Live At Leeds, which contained a second disc of a full performance of Tommy, this DVD is an unsurprising affair with Townshend, still stung by the failing of his hearing, playing it safe of acoustic guitar rather than on a Gibson SG. Collins and Idol aside, the first words of Tommy are still sung by a female vocalist – even after thirty years of Ken Russell’s film, it still sounds odd – and the version of Eyesight To The Blind follows Eric Clapton and The Who’s re-recording of it for Russell’s film rather than how it was played on the original album. Otherwise, though, it’s a fairly standard recording of The Who’s performances of Tommy as they took it on the road once again in 1989. Not at all flashy – the between-song description of the plot isn’t at all necessary – this is very far from being as great a document of the live experience of The Who as Live At Leeds but still sounds pretty good, particularly in its Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Although, given the title of one of the albums that The Who followed Tommy with, DD4.0 would have been more appropriate.
Much less successful than Tommy, Quadrophenia has lived on less as an album than as the Franc Roddam film. Starring Phil Daniels as Jimmy the Mod, Quadrophenia was once as much a staple of British youth culture as the army surplus parka and fish’n’chips, themselves icons of culture celebrated in the film but the scratchy black-and-white sleeve of the album hasn’t always been easily hidden behind Tommy‘s psychedelic silver crisscross. Jimmy turning away, the Vespa scooter and, looking carefully, the faces of the four members of The Who reflected in the wing mirrors, Quadrophenia is the bleak counterpoint to the holiday camp jollity that’s become associated with the pinball wizard, less, “When you come to Tommy’s, the holiday’s forever!” than the rain that batters the Brighton coast out of season.
If Tommy is ice-cream and candy floss, Quadrophenia is jellied eels, pie’n’mash and milky tea with two rounds of white bread. It’s pills, booze and cheap fags. It’s sex in an alleyway and it’s the hangover of youth culture, portraying not the excitement of one’s teenage years but the disappointment that comes with growing up. Less a riot on the beach than the comedown that arrives with having to step over broken bottles, Quadrophenia is also The Who’s, and Pete Townshend’s finest achievement, a loud rock album that, unlike Tommy, actually works as a rock opera, a much used term that rarely carries any real weight. Tommy certainly works as a collection of great rock songs around a general theme but it’s in Quadrophenia that Townshend makes the concept work. From the snatches of songs that play underneath the sound of the sea that opens the album, Townshend threads motifs through the songs, particularly as Disc 1 of the album barrels to a close, and revisiting a small set of lyrical themes, namely the jostling of the four personalities within The Who. A tough guy? A romantic? A bloody lunatic? A hypocrite? As the original booklet that accompanied the album said, “Schizophrenic? I’m bleeding quadrophenic!”
Placing these personalities within a teenage mod that he names Jimmy, Townshend drags his reluctant hero out of the clubs of London to Brighton where, in the summer of ’64, he fights rockers on the beach, sees the Ace Face from a distance, falls in love with a modette (played by Lesley Ash in the film) and finally feels a part of something good, basking in the glow of togetherness and of place. But a return to London brings nothing but bad luck – his girlfriend leaves him for his best mate, he falls out of favour with this mod friends and he crashes his scooter. Downing twenty leapers, Jimmy buys a first-class ticket to 5.15 to Brighton and heads for his home-away-from-home, hoping to rediscover himself in front of the rolling waves of the English Channel. Finding himself alone on the beach and realising that the Ace Face, a modfather he’d worshipped, is nothing but a bellboy at a rich hotel, Jimmy steals a boat and ends up on a rock in the middle of the sea where, having defeated his ego, he’s left with just the bare bones of who he is. Enough, he thinks, to get by with.
Unlike the presentation of Tommy, that of Quadrophenia is a much more theatrical piece of work. With the script rewritten to clarify the action – how many Americans would be at all familiar with the mods vs rockers riots on Brighton Beach – Quadrophenia uses between-songs shorts to move the narrative forward, using the Teenage Health Freak Alex Langdon to play the part of Jimmy. With PJ Proby as the rocker and Billy Idol returning from Tommy as Ace Face, Quadrophenia makes it to DVD in pretty good condition. The movies that played behind the band on a jumbotron screen are now integrated into the performance and do a fine job of explaining the plot. Of course, much of the scripting has been taken from the original album booklet but Townshend, Daltrey and director Aubrey Powell have treated the material with no small amount of care and Quadrophenia still looks and sounds like Townshend’s greatest single piece of work. That said, though, it isn’t that different from how it was released in 1973 with Townshend employing brass, a pianist and a percussionist to replicate the sound of the album on stage. So, yes, it sounds great but much of what makes it so has little to do with Townshend on stage – the charge of 5.15 comes from the brass and the epic ending of Love Reign O’er Me comes from the hands of the pianist whilst Townshend, when he’s centre stage on The Real Me, sounds a little underwhelming.
But this is still Pete Townshend and given that he wrote I Can See For Miles, Magic Bus, Substitute, My Generation, The Kids Are Alright, Tommy (or most of it), Who’s Next and Quadrophenia as well as still being capable of giving the best interviews about himself, his music and his place in rock history so who am I to complain about him? He plays the guitar, writes better songs and wore a Union Flag jacket all better than I ever will so he can do entirely as he so chooses. That he wrote and recorded these albums has made the world a much richer place and no matter that the presentation may not be quite up to scratch, the music, and Townshend’s thoughts on it, are quite superb. Let us hope that neither he nor Roger Daltrey are finished with either album just yet.
These two discs are presented in a mix of aspect ratios, Tommy in 1.33:1 and Quadrophenia in non-anamorphic 1.78:1. Of the two, Quadrophenia looks the best, appearing to have been shot in sharp DV as opposed to Tommy‘s ordinary old video and making it to DVD with an impressive amount of detail, sharpness and brightness, whereas, in comparison, Tommy looks fuzzy and ill-suited to DVD. Indeed, that swimming of the picture around the onscreen writing gives the impression that Tommy has almost come direct from VHS rather than from a high-quality video master but the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix goes some way to making up for that. Similarly, Quadrophenia sounds great as well and although they’re not the long-awaited DVD-Audio/SACD remixes of the original albums, they’re certainly not at all shabby. Tommy, though, is a better listen than it is a watch.
Tommy Gallery (2m40s): Various still images from the performances of Tommy down the years are included here, from later recordings back to the first outings of the material from when Daltrey first grew his hair and went bare chested underneath a fringed jacket. Lord, but he was handsome!
The Story of Quadrophenia (7m48s): Less the history and the story of the album than the staging of the show from The Who playing it at Hyde Park in 1996 – I was there! – to their eventual touring of it, director Aubrey Powell spends a short time discussing the material and what they learned from those early productions of it.
Visual Commentaries: Both discs feature Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend popping up to discuss various aspects of the two albums, including their stories, the background to the writing and recording of them and the performances as captured here on DVD. Daltrey isn’t a bad listen but Townshend is a remarkably articulate interviewee, able to explain the main themes of Quadrophenia whilst still able to recall his memories of the time when he was a part of the mod movement. Unlike the remaining members of The Beatles – the acrimonious split and the presence of Yoko Ono has complicated matters within Apple Corp. – or The Rolling Stones, Mick and Keith being more rivals now than partners, The Who have always settled their arguments with a punch-up or two and this probably explains why Townshend and Daltrey remain firm friends. Neither one will hear a bad word said about the other – Daltrey was amongst the first to rush to Townshend’s defence when the news broke about his arrest as part of Operation Ore – and they have a healthy respect for one another that’s evident here as well as a great respect for the material. Townshend, though, is on great form and these visual commentaries are almost worth, for a fan of The Who, the cover price alone. Hugely entertaining, often very funny and always interesting, these commentaries are the perfect accompaniment to these live recordings.
Finally, there is a third disc of bonus material – The Who Live – but this was not supplied in my set of review discs but apparently contains various live versions of Who and solo Townshend material. So long as there’s no more Billy Idol on it, I’m prepared to give it the benefit of doubt in the marking.
I could take or leave the fact that these were live performances but was very content with the visual commentaries from Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, deciding that I could spend many an hour listening to Townshend talk about The Who and these two albums in particular. Quadrophenia is probably my favourite album of all time – it just shades it over Dog Man Star, Loveless, Tusk and Pet Sounds – and this is a fine live recording of it, making small adjustments here and there but retaining the spirit of the music throughout. We aren’t, however, as fortunate with Tommy and though it still sounds great, it’s those commentaries that are the main attraction. Unlike many a music release. Warners have done a fine job with The Who on this release – there’s also a very good version of Ken Russell’s Tommy out there – with it only now being such a pity that Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia has yet to receive the treatment that it deserves. Maybe next time around…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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