Sometimes it’s hard not to laugh at pop musicians who take themselves too seriously. They get all pompous and talk about art and soul, then go out and sing a 3-minute song about trying to get laid. Don’t call us we’ll call you sonny about the serious artist gig.
Then there are the ones who try to elevate Rock and Roll and pop music to something it isn’t. Writing twenty-five minute long epic pieces of drivel celebrating themselves and calling it art. Or using grandiose subject matter and writing a series of pop songs for it in an attempt to elevate the status of the music.
They’re sort of like the guy who’s going out with a girl they’re a little embarrassed to be seen with around their mates. They always have to come up with elaborate reasons to be with her, or exaggerate some of her characteristics. It’s not about the girl or the music it’s about their own insecurity.
In the late sixties, early seventies there was a huge outbreak of this mentality as rock musicians tried to get themselves taken seriously. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP, which when you think about how some English people drop their “h’s” is so appropriate), Yes, and others churned out excessive twaddle that had nothing to do with rock and roll. ELP even went so far as to “cover” classical pieces in their attempts to look like “real musicians”.
All I can say is thank God for Punk rock and Pete Townshend. The former rescued us, temporarily anyway, from the excesses of seventies bloat, and the latter never succumbed to it. Pete Townshend and The Who were a rock and roll band and they never forgot that, and were never embarrassed by it. They were what they were and never pretended or tried to be anything else.
The ultimate glory of both Tommy and Quadrophenia is that they are what they say they are: Rock Operas. Neither piece is an attempt to justify the music as being more than what it is; rather they celebrate the power of what rock music is capable of doing.
Classical operas of earlier eras were initially considered low, common, and base because so much of their subject matter dealt with the common people. The themes and the characters were stuff that the regular person on the street could identify with. To us they sound distant and removed, but only because times of changed and taste in popular music has changed. But Verdi and Bizet have more in common with Townshend than they do with Rick Wakeman or any other so called Progressive rocker.
Like his predecessors Townshend took the music that was popular in his time and wrote his music and songs accordingly. You can orchestrate Tommy and Quadrophenia all you want, but each and every song can still be played by a four piece rock band. Whatever else you may think of these pieces, they remain today, if not the only rock operas, at least the best and truest to their form, ever done.
Rhino records have served up a three disc DVD set that serves as a great celebration of not only the pieces but also the band behind them. The Who: Tommy and Quadrophenia Live are filmed versions of staged tours of the works. Tommy was filmed in 1989 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles and Quarophenia is compiled from the 1996-97 tour of the piece through the United States. (In the liner notes for the box set they make note that Quadrophenia had been originally only filmed for the band’s archives, not for release. Roger Daltry and Aubrey Power worked to create this especially to be seen on DVD)
In the case of Tommy there have been attempts to stage it as a production independent of The Who which have met with success. The concert that was filmed in 1989 is less a staged performance, rather a Who concert of the material with some theatrical elements.
They have included on stage with them a horn section, percussionist (who’s absolutely phenomenal) keyboards, and backing vocalists. Of course there are also two significant changes to the main line up with the drumming being handled by Simon Phillips in place of the late Keith Moon, and lead electric guitar being played by Steve “Boltz” Bolton. Pete Townshend’s hearing is so precarious that he can no longer withstand prolonged performing on the electric guitar, so had to limit himself to playing the acoustic. (Although it sure doesn’t limit his physical activity on stage; he still flies in the air doing his leg kicks on this evening.)
In an effort to make the performance less of a concert there are a few special singing guests brought in to perform specific “roles/songs” Of these the best by far was Phil Collins as “Uncle Ernie”. Coming on stage in a ratty bathrobe, ripped undershirt, socks and garters and slippers, he was the epitome of a dirty old man. Even the characterization of his voice fitted the part.
As for the rest of them, Steve Winwood mailed in a performance of “The Hawker” song, Billy Idol was Billy Idol as “Cousin Kevin”, and Elton John was surprisingly non-theatrical in his singing of “Pinball Wizard”, giving a nice straight ahead rock and roll performance. Only Patti LaBelle as “The Acid Queen” approached Phil Collins in terms of giving a performance. She almost made me forget Tina Turner’s memorable version from the God awful Ken Russell movie version of Tommy
While the version of Tommy in this set is more concert than performance, the recording of Quadrophenia manages to move closer to the idea of performance. While there are only two “guest” vocalists, they now seem less like guests but more like actual characters in the story; singing their parts just as any performer in an opera would.
Old British rocker P. J. Proby plays the part of The Godfather, an older greaser, while Billy Idol (who ten years latter is far more sophisticated and accomplished performer) plays the role of The Ace Face, a young Mod. The third actor, Alex Langdon as Jimmy is not on stage. For the actual staged concert his performance was projected on to a Jumbotron screen for the audience to watch.
Initial attempts at staging had included live acting, but that had proven unrealistic when the size of the venues The Who would be performing in was taken into consideration. The utilization of video was a means of seamlessly integrating the music and the spoken words. For the DVD version instead of filming the Video feed along with the band, they have successfully integrated what was obviously the original filmed footage into the concert footage, providing the home viewer with as similar as possible experience as those folk in the live audience.
When looking at this set as a means of judging the pieces’ respective merits as “opera” than Quadrophenia is by far the superior of the two. It is a more fully integrated performance piece. But as it was staged nearly ten years latter then the version of Tommy included that is not a fair judgement to make. With access to far more sophisticated technology they were able to integrate story and music with greater ease.
The manner in which both pieces are written, without very many specific roles, and relying heavily on narration, they are more suited to being performed by a set band. Probably it is not technically accurate to call them operas because they lack the theatrical structure in this form to provide for anything else then concert staging.
But that does nothing to detract from their power as pieces of music. Maybe they should be called rock oratorios instead. Like Beethoven’s Ninth symphony which is made for orchestra and choir, Tommy and Quadrophenia are full-length works around a theme or story. They make use of the instruments at the disposal of the composer for the genre of music that he is working in, and he takes full advantage.
What’s really nice about this package The Who: Tommy and Quadrophenia Live is the third disc included contains live versions of their other music. Hits like “I Can See For Miles”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “I Can’t Explain”. Compare the music on the three discs. No matter what you want to call Tommy or Quadrophenia they are still Rock and Roll and still damn good music, and in the end isn’t that all that matters.