Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Quadrophenia

The Who's Quadrophenia is one of the dullest albums ever released by a major rock band; it marks the spot where songwriter and guitarist Peter Townsend's abandoned (or lost) his genius for composing witty rock and roll and wicked power chords that were the cornerstone of all things anthemic in the grinding morass that  largely was rock and roll when bands sought no longer to be fun or entertaining , but significant.  There is nothing wrong with significance on the face of it, but that quality is generally the result of inspired work and an unmediated commitment to a creative  surge that cannot , truthfully, be duplicated by force of will. 


Townsend  ,in my view, opted to make significant states in his lyrics at the sacrifice of the light touch he could frame in the context of a four chord song. Where the previous double album, the rock-opera Tommy  was buoyant, rocking  and didn't want for guitar hooks or the riffs, Quadrophenia got as serious as a ditch with songs that were were bloated, wooden, humorless, positively no fun. It merits a mention that the theme was incomprehensible and that this is where Daltry's voice finally gave out. The guitar chords, once crashing , smashing and slashing in all the old descriptions of youth rebellion, were now leaden, robotic, rusty.


All that was left was a cracking bellow that made you think of nothing except an old building collapsing under it's own heft.  Ambition is fine, but not without an idea of what you're doing. Someone told songwriter Peter Townsend that the modernist tradition demands a narrative that is diffuse, broken up in sharp pieces, and lacking resolution, techniques I fancy myself, given my devotion to the poetry of Eliot, Stein and Silliman, but there is a knack to  doing things that way, an "ear", if you will.   Sentences and ideas that don't necessarily follow one another in conveniently logical ,  causal order require arrangement, a sense of what doesn't go together the right way: there is a reason why Bob Dylan's surrealism remains powerful five decades later and the more recent writings of Springsteen, someone clearly influenced by Dylan's turn to obscurity , are hardly quoted at all.  Another problem as well might have been an inferiority complex; he stopped being an artist, writing and recording wonderful, brilliant, ingenious rock and roll songs the moment he started to try to be an artist on other people's terms.  It's a self-conscious artiness that has made his music frightfully didactic, incomplete and a chore to bear.