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Quadrophenia: The Album and Movie

August 27, 2012

Note: The Criterion edition of the movie version of Quadrophenia comes out tomorrow, in both Blu-Ray and regular DVD. This post refers to the original DVD release.

Given the way media is disseminated these days, the desert island question no longer has the same meaning that it used to – and all you’d need these days is a good cell phone or laptop and a guarantee this island had a charger – but as seen in the recent discussion of the Sight & Sound poll of the 10 best films of all time, it’s still a model. When choosing what album or movie you’d want to take to that island (you never see books used in these discussions for some reason), it’s assumed you’d wind up in the following conundrum; are you (a) choosing what you think is the best one, or are you (b) choosing the one that you know you can return to over and over again because you enjoy it so? Moreover, are the two mutually exclusive? I tend to think not, so I’d have no compunction whatsoever about choosing The Godfather Part II as my desert island movie, as I enjoy it as much as I revere it, no matter how downbeat it gets (I might concede taking the first one along with me as a companion piece and to set it up). But when it comes to albums (or whatever you want to call them), I confess I do have a different answer to “Best Album” and “Desert Island Album”. I think Pink Floyd’s The Wall is the best album of all time (yes, I’ve heard the criticism, and I still stand by my choice), but The Who’s Quadrophenia is my desert island pick.

Though I had heard a few Who songs in high school, it wasn’t until I got into college and became a classic rock guy – as much because I needed to catch up to all kinds of music (for various reasons) as because the guy who lived down the hall from me freshman year had the biggest stereo I’d ever seen, and was a classic rock fan – that I became a bigger fan. It was through that guy I got to hear, for the first time, Tommy and Who’s Next, and I loved both of them. However, a friend of my brother’s was a Who fanatic, and he always insisted Quadrophenia was the best album they ever did, so for my 20th birthday, he got me the audio cassette. Listening to it that day was one of the few times a piece of art has changed my life, or made me see it in a different way.

When talking about the Who as a music group (as opposed to their antics, like Pete Townshend smashing his guitars or kicking Abbie Hoffman off the stage at Woodstock, or anything Keith Moon did), people generally tend to focus on the music itself, from how loud it is to how much of a virtuoso both Moon and bassist John Entwhistle were, and so on. Maybe it’s because I was raised on the value of words in songs (to the point whenever I hear people sniff, “Oh, the lyrics don’t matter, it’s just the music,” I always want to scream back in reply, “Then why the hell do you have a singer?”) – as well as in other arts such as movies – but I always thought Townshend’s lyrics got short shrift. The lyrics are the reason why Townshend is my favorite songwriter of all time – yes, even more than Bob Dylan – and why I hold Quadrophenia in such high regard.

Townshend was writing about a specific time in British teen culture – the mod period of the early 60’s, a movement that started in the late 50’s, which Colin MacInnes captured in his landmark novel Absolute Beginners. Mods were arguably the British version of the beatnik culture – like beatniks, they embraced modern jazz (and later, R&B), existentialism, and had a distinct look – but what made them different was the fact they didn’t reject consumerist culture, at least not outright. Rather, they saw themselves as rebelling from within. They had jobs, short hair, and dressed sharp, but what they spent their money on was music, motorcycles or scooters (of a certain kind; either Vespas or Lambrettas), clothes of a distinct look, and amphetamines (also known as leapers or blues, since they were often blue pills). Townshend was more of an observer into mod culture at the time than a participant, yet shared many of their affinities, and while there may not have been a “mod sound” per se, the Who were seen as a mod band, which Townshend embraced to a point.

Yet even if you didn’t know any of this before listening to Quadrophenia, or about the conflict between the mods and the rockers – who were looked down on by the mods for being lower class, for being greasers, and for listening to the wrong kind of music (rockabilly) – that led to riots between the two in the summer of 1964, you could still enjoy the album. At least, I only barely had an idea of the history Townshend was invoking with his lyrics, yet I still loved the album on first listen. That’s because as specific as Townshend may have been about the time and place he was trying to capture, the emotions of the album were universal. I certainly didn’t have as difficult a relationship with my parents as the one described in “Sea and Sand” (“They finally threw me out/My mom got drunk on stout/My dad couldn’t stand on two feet/As he lectured about morality”), but I knew what it felt not to be able to relate to them at the time. I worked in the dishroom of the cafeteria most of my four years at college, so I could definitely relate to “Dirty Jobs”. But more importantly, Townshend throughout the album captured all of the anxieties, fears, delusions, loneliness, and even the hopes of being a teenager or slightly older, not just at that time but at any time, and almost any place. In “Cut My Hair”, Townshend wrote (and sang), “I have to work myself to death just to fit in”. That’s a sentiment anyone can relate to, and it occurs throughout the album.

Why do Townshend’s lyrics end up being downplayed at the expense of the rest of what makes the Who great (which I’ll cover a bit below)? Part of it, I submit, is the attitude lyrics often get when it comes to rock-n-roll, but Townshend admittedly is a special case. For one thing, to put it mildly, the man had a different answer every time you asked him about what he meant about what he meant when he wrote that song. Whether he did this out of a Bob Dylan-style caginess or simply because he felt differently about the song as time went by (or a combination of the two) is hard to say. Which brings me to the next point; as Bill Flanagan put it in the introduction to an interview he did with Townshend for his book Written in my Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters, Townshend “gives in to his impulses and analyzes what he’s doing the whole time!” It’s a perpetual tug-of-war for him that has led some, like, for example, Keith Richards, to say Townshend thinks too much.  But this tug-of-war between the emotion and the intellect, and the ability to identify that emotion and yet figure out the best way to express it, is what I love about Townshend’s lyrics, not just for the Who, but also his solo albums.

Of course, the lyrics aren’t the only reason why I love the album. In his biography of the band, Before I Get Old, rock critic Dave Marsh (a die-hard fan of the band) complained about the album being haphazardly mixed, so you couldn’t completely hear the vocals, and he also thought some of Townshend’s music wasn’t suited to Daltrey’s singing (such as the call and response of “Helpless Dancer”). All due respect to Marsh, but I think he’s way off base. I’ve never had any trouble distinguishing the music or vocals, and I think Daltrey’s voice is the best its ever been on the album, and he handles the differing styles just fine. It’s tough to do, but if I had to pick my favorite Who song, I’d have to say “Sea and Sand”, not just because of the lyrics (which I’ve cited above), but also Daltrey’s singing has never been better (or more heartbreaking). Daltrey and Townshend had the weirdest relationship, musically speaking, of any of the major British bands of the time. While Lennon and McCartney (as well as Harrison) each basically sang their own stuff, Jagger collaborated on what he sang, and Ray Davies was in charge of both departments with the Kinks, Daltrey was basically a mouthpiece for Townshend. Yet the two, in a sense, needed each other – Daltrey never sounded as good without Townshend’s words, and Daltrey also brought out an extra dimension to those words in his singing, which is the difference between Townshend’s demos of the songs and the final recordings – and it’s especially true on this album. And, of course, he’s backed by Townshend’s guitar work and orchestrating, Entwhistle’s bass playing, and Moon’s incomparable drumming. All of that make the album, as I said, the one album I would take with me to that desert island.

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“We are the mods!” – Ace Face (Sting), Dave (Mark Wingett), Jimmy (Phil Daniels) and Steph (Leslie Ash)

Tommy, the band’s previous double album, was originally billed as a “rock opera”, and that’s an apt term for it. Not only does it have a (somewhat) clear and linear storyline, but all the songs are basically sung by characters of the story, and there are recurring song bits throughout (which also sounds like a stage musical, which it successfully became in the 90’s). Quadrophenia, on the other hand, was more of a concept album, in the sense it was all about the concept of singing about this time period and the feelings that came out of it. There are characters per se (the album title is a play on both quadraphonic sound, which was coming into its own at the time, and schizophrenia, which I’ll get to below), and as in Tommy, parts of the songs do repeat throughout the album (a verse in “I’ve Had Enough” reappears in “Sea and Sand”, and also in “I’ve Had Enough” is the line “Love Reign O’er Me”, which is the last song of the album), but there’s no real storyline, and the songs seem to be representing the inner thoughts rather than something to be sung aloud. So, in making a movie version of the album, to take the approach Ken Russell took in his adaptation of Tommy – which was to take the operatic elements and hype them at the expense of the story and meaning – would be disastrous. Luckily, director Franc Roddam, then known for the made-for-TV movie Dummy, took a grittier approach for the movie.

Inspired by the album, the riots between the mods and the rockers in 1964 in Brighton (and other places, but the movie concentrates on Brighton), and an incident Roddam described in the commentary on the original DVD of a teen who drove his motorcycle off of a cliff, Roddam’s movie version immerses you in the world of the album, yet only uses the music as background scoring, and except for the beginning and last 10-15 minutes or so, fairly sparingly. He also doesn’t use some of the album’s songs (including, sadly, “Sea and Sand”), and only uses bits of most of them. Yet it doesn’t matter, because you hear the music in your head while you’re watching, and as I said, Roddam and co-writers Dave Humphries (The Haunting of Julia) and Martin Stellman (Defense of the Realm) are able to show what Townshend was writing about so vividly, with one exception (see below).

Although there is a semblance of a storyline here, it’s more of a mood piece, like the album. The main character is Jimmy (Phil Daniels), a mod who’s proud of it, yet who also seems cut off in some way. He has a job as a mailroom clerk, though he doesn’t think much of it. He doesn’t get along with his parents (Michael Elphick and Kate Williams), who berate him for carousing at all hours of the night with his friends. He does like going out with his friends, including Dave (Mark Wingett) and Chalky (Philip Davis), riding on his Lambretta scooter, and taking plenty of “blues” (he and his friends even rob a drugstore to get some). Yet, even at a party with them, he feels left out, especially when he sees Steph (Leslie Ash), a girl he has a crush on, with Peter (Garry Cooper), who is more “presentable”. Jimmy always has to do something to get him noticed, like changing the record from a slow song (that Steph and Peter are dancing to) to a fast song (The Who’s “My Generation”). Does he act out because he’s jealous of anyone who’s with Steph, or does he feel this is the only way he can be accepted? Or is he simply too hopped up on amphetamines? The movie wisely doesn’t answer this, or rather, it implies it’s probably a combination of all of that and other things.

One thing Jimmy is lock-step with the other mods about is the loathing of rockers. This is effectively illustrated when he goes to a public bathhouse and hears someone singing Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, and yells at him to stop singing old rubbish; when the other guy persists, Jimmy counters by singing The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” instead. Turns out the other guy is Kevin (Ray Winstone), Jimmy’s childhood friend, and while they greet each other warmly enough, there’s a tension between them because they’re in opposite groups. Not long after this, when Spider (Gary Shail), one of the mods, gets beaten up by a group of rockers, Jimmy and the others go after the rockers, but Jimmy is horrified when he sees them beating up Kevin (who was an active participant in the earlier fight). Still, Jimmy is looking forward to the bank holiday (British term for public holiday) in August when he and the other mods are going to gather in Brighton. Yet even there, Jimmy can’t help acting out; though he’s gotten closer to Steph (enough so he’s given her a ride home and even kissed her)), Jimmy still gets jealous when he sees her dancing with Ace Face (Sting), a famed mod, at a ballroom, and reacts by dancing on the rafters above and then leaping from them, which gets him applause but also gets him kicked out, and makes him feel even more cut off from everybody.

Then come the riots. Chalky gets involved in a tussle with some rockers, and the mods react by coming after them full force. However violent the riots actually were (Roddam says in the commentary the media hyped them beyond how they really were), Roddam, cinematographer Brian Tufano and editors Sean Barton and Mike Taylor make them seem intense. There are no deaths shown, but there’s plenty of property damage and bloody faces. In the midst of all of this, Jimmy and Steph are able to duck out and have sex in an alleyway (while standing up), but when they return, Jimmy is immediately nabbed by the police (who also nab Ace Face), while Steph, Dave and some of the others are able to escape. Once again, Jimmy goes from solidarity with a group (they march down the peer singing/chanting, “We are the mods!”) to feeling isolated from everyone. He’s able to stay out of jail, but his mother kicks him out of the house when he gets home, he gets fired from his job, his motorcycle gets hit by a mail truck, and when he catches up with his friends, he finds Steph has moved on to Dave, and she’s unrepentant about it (Dave is a little, but that doesn’t stop Jimmy from getting into a fight with him). And things get worse when he goes back to Brighton to maybe recapture some of the magic he felt; he recognizes Ace’s Vespa scooter outside a posh hotel, but is dismayed when he sees Ace is, in fact, just a bellboy.

It’s clear Jimmy is screwed up in quite a few ways, what with his wrecked home life, his constant downing of leapers, and his isolation from people even when he’s in a group of friends. But is he really schizophrenic (or, as Townshend puts it in the album liner notes, “Schizophrenic? I’m Bleeding Quadrophenic”)? Townshend has said the “hero” of the album was supposed to represent the different personalities of the band: “violent and determined, aggressive and unshakable” (Roger), “quiet and romantic, tender and doubting” (John), “insane and devil-may-care, unreasoning and bravado” (Keith), and “insecure and spiritually desperate, searching and questioning” (Townshend himself). But the one area of criticism of the album by Marsh I agree with is the notion of Jimmy’s being schizophrenic isn’t really developed well, and Roddam, perhaps because of this, doesn’t really develop the idea too much in the movie either. Jimmy just seems like a regular, screwed-up kid, perhaps distinctive only because of the harshness of his home environment and his heavy drinking and pill use. At the same time, that makes one’s identification with the album, as well as the movie, even stronger, which is a fair trade, I guess.

Anyone who’s followed Townshend’s career knows he has, as he once put it in an interview, a “preoccupation” with oceans. Water imagery figures throughout his work, and it’s front and center in both the album and movie of Quadrophenia, both in the song titles (“Sea and Sand”, “Love Reign O’er Me”) but also the lyrics (the opening line in “Bellboy” is “A beach is the place where a man can feel/He’s the only soul in the world that’s real”). Water, especially ocean water, represents turbulence, but it also represents baptism and healing.  The movie mostly concentrates on the first part; it’s true some of Jimmy’s best experiences are in Brighton, but we also see him alone in the rain, or staring at the ocean as a way of reflecting the swirl of emotions inside him. Roddam doesn’t overdo any of this, but lets it flow from the story and the music. And when Jimmy goes on one last ride on Ace’s scooter, it’s fitting it’s on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Roddam uses a lot of long takes, and he and Tufano mostly shoot at eye level, to let the emotions of the scenes play out and to emphasize how Jimmy’s world is mostly right in front of him. The exceptions are the scenes in the alleyway where Jimmy and Steph escape to and have sex; the first time, we get a shot of them from above, as if to emphasize how far removed they are from it all, but when Jimmy revisits the alleyway, we see a shot looking up from his point of view in way of contrast. As with any period piece, the temptation is to get so wrapped up in the design and such that you lose sight of the characters and the story, but Roddam doesn’t do that (though Marsh liked the movie a lot, he claims the music the mods were listening to was all wrong; I don’t know the answer to that), so it seems fresh, and not weighed down like many period pieces can be. And while he’s a bit too proud of it in the commentary, he does pull off a few nice reversals, such as the only nudity in the movie being male (Steph and the other girls in the movie may be scene by the characters in lustful terms, but the movie never makes them sex objects).

Roddam also gets a lot out of the actors, who were mostly unknown at the time.  Davis, who has gone on to be a regular in Mike Leigh films such as High Hopes and Vera Drake, doesn’t have as much to do as the others, but he lends an authenticity to the proceedings (speaking of Leigh, another Leigh regular, Timothy Spall, appears briefly as a projectionist friend of the mods). Winstone, in one of his first roles, shows both the swagger of his character and the vulnerability underneath. Ash shows the spark (and beauty) that makes us understand what attracts Jimmy to her, but also shows the anger and devil-may-care attitude underneath. And Sting, in the first role of his infrequent acting career, doesn’t have much to do (though his one line, when he tells the court after he’s been arrested he can pay his fine by check there and then, is the funniest moment of the movie), but he certainly shows the charisma that draws Jimmy and the others to him. But the movie rests on Daniels’ shoulders, and he delivers. Daniels has worked regularly in TV, theater and film since (including another great British rock-n-roll movie, Still Crazy, co-starring Davis and Spall), but is still best known for this movie (as well as appearing in the song and video of Blur’s “Parklife”), and it’s easy to see why. He captures the rawness of Jimmy’s feelings, and doesn’t shy away from his more abrasive side or his more emotional side, and he looks like what you think Townshend was writing about. Quadrophenia the movie came in the middle of an era of concept albums being filmed, reaching its nadir with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; this, I think, is the best of all of them (followed closely by Pink Floyd: The Wall), and if it doesn’t quite measure up to the album, it’s a very good movie in its own right.

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