Opera: Pete Townshend / Quadrophenia

There was this double LP with strange black and white photos of a mod on a scooter on the cover, and a photo of a scooter half-submerged in water with a song track listing on the reverse.

On the inside of the gatefold was a full-bleed panorama of a bleak desolate seascape split by a photo booklet insert. The left hand side displayed, with no establishing introduction, a short story told in the first person from the point of view of a young working class British “mod” of mid-1960s London

There was nothing particularly profound about the story, but the teenage voice of the protagonist was true and his declaration of having a multiple personality split evenly in four segments was an intriguing concept. In the context of a rock album it seemed very out of context. You wanted to know more, and cued up side one of the 4-sided album of The Who‘s 1973 release, Quadrophenia

Once you had experienced the entirety of the accompanying music, it dawned on you that the story wasn’t just artsy liner notes or even a small yarn thrown in simply because the packaging budget would allow it. You were reading an oddly disguised opera synopsis. A crucial addition to the whole package, because while the actual lyrics/libretto of Quadrophenia function just fine as rock song lyrics, their abstractions render them far too opaque to serve as a functional operatic plot. 

Which of course is not a deal-breaker for pop music, “operatic” or no. And especially not for Pete Townshend/The Who with this creation, their creative high-water mark. There have been many “rock operas” produced for major label release, but there is none that come close to Quadrophenia in design, complexity, and brilliance of execution. And no other music group or crew of session players charged with producing a rock opera project had three of the most dynamic musicians of their generation – Keith Moon, John Entwistle, and Roger Daltrey – at their disposal to assist in fusing the vision of multi-instrumentalist author/composer Townshend to tracks so exploding with kinetic energy that the music threatens to come off the rails at any moment. 

I won’t get into a full review of the album as there is no shortage of those floating around. What fascinates me is how the work functions as pure opera. How scorable/portable is the music? Is the plot strong enough to sustain interest as pure theater? And most importantly: Do you even want it to be pure opera? 

You can make a case that while Quadrophenia is a compelling operatic concept, as “opera” it only exists in the grooves of the original 1973 release. There’s no implication that it would work as opera any other way. The sound effects, seamless transitions, and unique pacing are peculiar to the controlled experience of creating in a multitrack studio. Ditto for synthesizer tracks, arranged and multilayered ever-just-so. And the total control you have over the whole experience in mixdown, getting every hard-to-tame electric instrumental element perfectly balanced in a stereo field. It’s design is for a personal listening experience. 

Yes, productions of Quadrophenia have been mounted on stage and performed in entirety as some kind of hybrid property. But opera it is definitely not. The story unfolds in proper sequence, Townshend shows up to play guitar and lead the proceedings, celebrity guests pop in and sing certain characters. But the results are more akin to a standard rock warhorse revival tour than anything resembling opera or even real musical theater. And with the fact that the stage piece isn’t really offering you anything different than a rote rendition of the original with real strings simply aping original electronic arrangements, you have to wonder: Does anyone really prefer the glitzy live concert hall edition to the original recording? 

In the years between the 1973 release of Quadrophenia and the millennial touring revival edition, I was under the impression that Townshend had not written any other rock opera/concept album projects. I wondered why this was, so I picked up his autobiography Who I Am to get some background. I was surprised to find he had actually attempted many such projects in solo albums dating from the mid-1980s: The Iron Man, Psychoderelict, and the loose concept album White City. With The Iron Man he took things closer to the realm of modern opera than he ever had before by casting different singers for characters in the studio recording, and developing a post-release treatment targeted to a youth (children’s) audience. Some years later The Iron Man got a run at London’s Young Vicwhere it played for a time to mixed reviews. As far as I can tell Iron Man has never appeared anywhere since (but lives on in another form in the film adaptation The Iron Giant).

It’s curious that a musician of Townshend’s gifts has never developed anything for the operatic stage that possesses the same sweep and scale of his recordings. Develop a cast of characters who don’t need to be represented by pop stars to be interesting. Arrange instruments not for the composer to play center stage but to be ticketed for the orchestra pit or backline. And above all, conceive of a compelling story which he has more than enough intelligence and literary potential to write.

From time to time over the last couple of decades when I have seen videos of Townshend being interviewed and reflecting on his career milestones I notice that his basic demeanor usually veers into pessimism. By turns jaded, world-weary, often trying to settle old scores. And I can’t help but think that this attitude might connect with the fact that he’s still overcommitted to performing music from his golden era 50 years ago. For a talented musician with a series of early triumphs to your credit, willfully giving in to being a marionette of your own creation doesn’t seem very fulfilling. If I was in his position I might feel the same way.

But I can’t help but wonder what he might say in front of a live mic if, instead of doing the usual interviews in-between traveling to some city to do the same old tunes for all the predictable adoring responses, he was excited about telling an interviewer about a bold new experiment. Something untried and so challenging that it might take his game to another level, and possibly turn back the emotional clock to that day so many years ago when, feeling bored and constrained by the idea of cranking out another album of 3-minute songs, he presented his musical comrades-in-arms with an exciting, game-changing idea: 

“I was thinking I might try to write an opera. For the band’s next release. Would that be, like… crazy, or wot?”