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The Who’s Pete Townshend brings reimagined ‘Classic Quadrophenia’ to the U.S. for benefit shows

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The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” stands as the musical climax and final track for the group’s 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia.” And during the album’s recording, bandleader Pete Townshend initially thought singer Roger Daltrey had completely flubbed it.

“When he did the take, I was about to go out into the studio and say, ‘Can you try this with more tenderness and soul?’” the Who’s 72-year-old co-founder, lead guitarist and chief songwriter recounted recently in an interview from his home in England.

For the record:

6:06 a.m. July 25, 2024An earlier edition of this post stated that some proceeds from U.S. performances of “Classic Quadrophenia” will benefit Teen Cancer America. The organization will receive partial proceeds only from the L.A. performance.

Townshend believed Daltrey had misinterpreted his composition.

“I wrote a song about a boy on a rock who is frightened and anxious, and praying. This kid might commit suicide, and Roger was singing it like he’d just conquered the Earth,” he said.

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But after letting Daltrey’s performance sink in, Townshend realized that while Daltrey had transformed the finale into something very different than initially conceived, it was equally valid.

What he’d done was to find a new way of expressing fear and anxiety and loss, and it was coming deep, deep, deep from his soul,”

— Pete Townshend

“What he’d done was to find a new way of expressing fear and anxiety and loss, and it was coming deep, deep, deep from his soul,” Townshend said. “It’s something Roger happens to be very, very good at.”

Yet “Love Reign O’er Me” plays out very differently in “Classic Quadrophenia,” a staging of the rock opera that Townshend recorded for a 2015 album issued by Universal Music Group’s Deutsche Grammophon. He is bringing the show on a limited-run U.S. tour this fall.

The orchestral makeover premiered in 2015 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and Townshend is reviving the production for U.S. performances Sept. 2 in Lenox, Mass., Sept. 9 and 10 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and Sept. 16 at the Greek Theatre in L.A. Some proceeds from the Los Angeles stop will benefit Teen Cancer America.

In place of the Who’s driving, grand-scale rock that was the musical foundation of the original version, “Classic Quadrophenia” is powered by a full symphony orchestra from a score Townshend commissioned from his wife, singer-songwriter-composer Rachel Fuller.

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Initially, Townshend simply wanted Fuller to create a composition that would help preserve “Quadrophenia” for the ages.

“I wanted a score so that when I died, there would be something I had approved that could be played by fans other than rock fans listening to the original recording,” he said.

On the album and on the tour, Townshend himself serves as the narrator and the father of “Quadrophenia” protagonist Jimmy, sung by English operatic tenor Alfie Boe. Punk-rocker Billy Idol handles the role of Ace Face, sharing lead vocal duties that Townshend and Daltrey split on the Who’s recording, which ranked No. 267 on Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

“Quadrophenia” centers on Jimmy, a young mod from a working-class family growing up in postwar England. His struggle to find his identity and a place in the world — amid shifting social structures and an emerging drug culture — is the heart of the story.

The work, Townshend says, was a natural fit for a more symphonic reading.

“The thing about ‘Quadrophenia’ is that it was very ambitious and orchestral-leaning anyway. I used synthesizers and played violin myself, playing some of the score. John Entwistle added a lot of wonderful brass, since he also trained as a music student. So it had an orchestral flair anyway.”

Yet when the Who took the rock opera on the road in the early ’70s, Townshend was famously unhappy with the results. Backing tapes, which the band hoped would flesh out the sound to give them the heft they carried on record, proved to be an ill fit, and drummer Keith Moon, struggling with addiction, was often barely in a state to perform.

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“We had great difficulty,” Townshend said. “With just two real musicians — Entwistle and me — the two others were completely useless musically. They just got in the way.

“Only recently,” he continued, “in the late-’90s, did we manage to bring it to the stage, and using quite a lot of jiggery-pokery we managed to reproduce the record.”

Townshend said he didn’t consider doing the “Classic Quadrophenia” shows with Daltrey, the Who’s only other original surviving member.

“I knew he’d do a fantastic job, but it would be Roger with an orchestra,” he said. “I’ve been kind of shocked how well the operatic tenor (Boe) fit. I think it made it feel more natural, less contrived, less pretentious. And I wanted Billy Idol because he’s been involved with ‘Quadrophenia’ since we first starting touring with it decades ago. He’s a great ally, a real gentleman, and he makes a great Ace Face.”

Thus, in “Classic Quadrophenia” Townshend said that Boe sings “Love Reign O’er Me” closer to the original vision.

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“When Alfie sings it, it sounds like a hymn, like an operatic aria,” Townshend said.

Tackling a rock opera with classical musicians is a tall order, but it’s something that’s never been far from Townshend’s thinking, even when he was writing such proto-punk jolts of snotty adolescent angst as “My Generation.”

Townshend credits early Who manger Kit Lambert for inspiring him to alter his approach. Lambert is considered instrumental in pushing the artist to pursue more musically complex and mature fare. In 1969, the Who released its first rock opera in “Tommy,” which Lambert produced.

“He brought me away from my art school friends and when I was about 18, took me to a flat in London and set me up with a tape machine. His father [composer-conductor Constant Lambert] founded the Royal Ballet, and so he always watched opera and ballet, and he encouraged me to be as audacious and experimental as a composer as I wanted to be,” Townshend said.

Townshend began studying methods of classical composition in his early 20s, just as the fortunes of his rock band were starting to soar. Still, his duties as the leader of a rock band often prevented him from going deep into classical writing. That’s been changing of late.

“In the last 15 years, with music composition and orchestrations being something you can do successfully on a computer, I’ve returned to it and I’ve become more like Frank Zappa in a sense. Plus my wife is a trained classical organist and she gave me the confidence to do more.”

So for those who go see “Classic Quadrophenia,” don’t clamor for at least one rock ’n’ roll tradition: the encore.

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Townshend is among the camp who feels he gives his all during each performance — one abiding image from the Who’s set at Desert Trip in October was Townshend with a trickle of blood rolling down his face after a guitar tech banged his forehead while changing instruments.

Thus, de rigueur calls for encores sometimes strike him as greedy.

“We never used to do encores,” Townshend said. “When we played ‘Tommy’ at the Met, we had that problem. One time we had to do two shows in close succession, and the crowd wanted us to go back out and do more. I refused, they started booing, so I finally went back out on stage and said ‘Boo [expletive] to you too.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

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