Few songwriters in British rock have had loftier goals, and more success, than Pete Townshend of the Who, and few works from the classic rock era are as accomplished and emotionally rich as “Quadrophenia,” the Who’s 1973 double-album rock opera focused on rebel youth in working class England.
Townshend and longtime bandmate Roger Daltrey celebrated the four decades since its release in a concert at Staples Center on Wednesday night, presenting to a capacity crowd the melodically and thematically linked 80-minute work as it was originally sequenced -- as one big story to be appreciated as a whole. Despite one’s skepticism, they pulled it off -- at times thrillingly.
The early 1970s were fertile days for lofty ambition in rock, the age when the LP flourished as a medium for grand concepts. Elton John released his chart-topping double album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” an ode to British childhood and nostalgia; Yes’ prog-rock behemoth “Tales From Topographic Oceans” sprang from the writings of an Indian yogi. Jethro Tull spoofed the very idea of the concept album with its “Thick as a Brick,” itself a thematically linked work featuring a single, flute-driven composition that consumes a full album.
In the middle of all this was the Who, whose two remaining living members, Townshend and singer Daltrey, and an eight-piece backing unit, made a solid argument Wednesday for the continued relevance of “Quadrophenia,” even as it confirmed its place as a product of its time.
Released four years after the Who’s conceptual breakthrough, “Tommy,” “Quadrophenia” is a much more personal creation, Townshend’s nostalgic, autobiographical look at a boy becoming a man in post-World War II England. “Tommy” was often heavy-handed (its central character was a deaf, dumb and blind superstar pinball player). “Quadrophenia,” whose title references four aspects of one troubled personality, dialed the ridiculousness back a few notches, a sign of a band maturing, even as it expanded the Who’s sound.
Granted, this is still a work that when it was released came packaged with a thick, 42-page book filled with lyrics, composer’s notes, a short story and many images of hip British youth -- called Mods -- with Vespa scooters hanging around the seaside resort of Brighton, England. (A 1979 film adaptation directed by Franc Roddam added more story and characters.) Its Townshend-penned notes identify melodic leitmotifs based around “Quadrophenia’s” protagonist, Jimmy, detail mini-operas within the whole (“The Punk Meets the Godfather”) and humorlessly tackle Big Issues of life, love and death. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “Surfin’ Bird,” this is not.
The Who could very well have hobbled its way through this show. After all, few acts can withstand the loss of a rhythm section as thick and thrilling as bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. The former died in 2002, and the latter in 1978. With both Townshend and Daltrey in their late 60s, one could be forgiven for wondering whether they’d be able to pull it off. Plus, the band has toured to perform the work before, starting in 1996. This isn’t new ground.
That didn’t seem to stop them. From the moment the first field-recorded ocean waves floated onto Brighton’s shores as the band walked onstage, the musicians wrestled with the peaks and valleys of “Quadrophenia’s” story line while offering impressive musical structure. When they kicked into “The Real Me” after the opening instrumental, any doubts about strength and endurance vanished. Bassist Pino Palladino equaled Entwistle’s rhythmic precision as he rolled through the meandering lines, and drummer (and offspring of Ringo Starr) Zak Starkey hit as hard and as crazily as Moon on the drums -- no small feat.
They did this throughout the night as a brass section, three keyboardists and a rhythm guitarist (Simon Townshend, Pete’s younger brother) drove the melodies and thickened the arrangements. It sounded as big and brash as the concept at hand.
Songs that carry a narrative forward require an entirely different part of the creative brain. As evidenced by the stream-of-consciousness meandering inherent in much of today’s indie rock, it’s easy enough to string tonally similar lines together that suggest depth without actually committing to a precise glimpse at honest emotion.
More difficult is to create lyrics and music, as Townshend did in “Quadrophenia,” that work in service of a bigger narrative cause -- without being clumsy or excessively deliberate. Throughout the work, seemingly simple songs such as “Cut My Hair,” sung sweetly by Townshend, but with more growl than on the recording, captured the struggle of a teenager trying to conform while wrestling with isolation.
“Sea and Sand” was set on a beach as our hero wondered why he felt invisible to the girl of his longing. “Bell Boy” -- sung by a recording of Moon while film of him singing it in concert showed on the video screen above -- targeted the moment when freewheeling youth collides with the realities of the workaday life.
“Quadrophenia” climaxed with its final and most accomplished song, “Love Reign O’er Me.” It’s one of Daltrey’s defining recorded moments, a huge performance that still stuns four decades and thousands of listens later. Though no longer able to push his throat to such great heights -- a voice can strain itself like that for only so long -- Daltrey made up for it with his usual keen phrasing and a new-found nuance.
When he moved into the song’s grand hook centered on the lyric “On the dry and dusty road/The nights we spend apart alone/I need to get back home to cool, cool rain,” I got shivers. It was a pure moment, one of many.
The band encored with more of its classics -- “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” along with “Tea & Theatre,” from 2006 -- placating a hungry crowd eager to cram in as much Who as possible while they still could. They got a healthy dose Wednesday night.
Yes, it was brash and grandiose, but in a short-attention span digital music marketplace in which MP3s and shuffle-play have altered our willingness to listen patiently, there’s something to be said for Big Ideas that take time and energy to fully appreciate.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit