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.

16 comments:

  1. Gruel Marcup12:50 PM PST

    Doesn’t it seem obvious by now that the release of The Who’s Tommy was one of the great catastrophes of pop music, ushering in a glut of bloated, pretentious and flatulent rock “operas” and "concept albums" by composers punching way above their weight and utilizing a highly limited skill-set of talents to create sprawling works of “art” in place of the amusing post-adolescent ditties that brought them to public attention in the first place? The mere memory of Pete Townshend’s sententious spewings about youth and revolution and Baba Rum Raisin post-“Happy Jack” are enough to drive a person to listen to the Seeds’ “Up in Her Room” over and over for DAYS in hopes of scouring out such pompous nonsense with quick, cheesy doses of testeronic whine. Quadrophrenia has become an ignored musical fossil because it is one of the more egregious examples of this thankfully-defunct genre, but there are countless other examples of similarly pumped-up opuses gathering mold in used-vinyl dumps the world over. If nothing else, the giddy meth-freak inanities of the Ramones, the Dead Boys and their punky ilk helped to blow up the gaseous musical Hindenburgs produced by Townshend and company with a hundred quick, disposable but viciously effective pop bullets. Revved-up trivia beats orchestrated middlebrow kitsch every time.

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  2. The worst offenders are the truly repellent likes of Yes, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, those bands with windup toy time signatures , castrati vocalists and reams of wretchedly vacant philosophizing that was so steeped in skull-fuckingly dull cliches that I suspect even Rod McKuen and Edgar Guest would call these guys grunting , formless worms choking down their own fecal trails. Still, there is some of this ambitious stuff that I think works , on their own terms--King Crimson, The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. The lyrics from all three bands were idiosyncratic and free of pud wilting platitudes, and the music for the three of them was, over all, unique and entirely original blends of marginal influences that, when stirred the right way, created something just as original. Peter Townsend had been called an intellectual so often by both the rock and the mainstream press that I suspect he came to believe and sought to live up the image of the Thinking Artist. The irony was that he already was doing Art, a special and original kind of music; his sagging jock strap of an ego trip with Quadrophenia robbed him of that talent. He never got his groove back.

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  3. Dave Marshmalo9:00 AM PST

    Townshend did do a worthwhile album with Ronnie Lane of the Faces a few years later called Rough Mix. It's charming and tuneful in a laid-back, busker-folk sort of way. If you really want to get hardcore with the insufferable helium-vocal prog-rock thing, try Pavlov's Dog, featuring the insane vocals of David Surkamp, who sounds like a cranked-up elf on the verge of hysterical breakdown over two vinyl sides' worth of pure hyperventilating self-indulgence. A classic atrocity, worthy of The Hague's attention.

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  4. Raynee Dehedrin11:14 AM PST

    If you're not into arty things, then listen to something else. I mean, you can like both AC/DC and King Crimson, music is there for everyone. You made this "critique" into a relux burp about what you like and don't, and opinions are like assholes: everybody's got one. Big deal.

    However, you do seem to have a very good head on your shoulders in general, so I feel moved to comment.

    The Who's operas (both realized and failed) are widely regarded as some of the best music ever in Rock music. There's good reason. No one before the Who used such literary and Wagnerian devices in the context of Rock so succesfully. This in itself is a resounding achievement, whether you like it or not.

    Your burp reads like a person who has a grudge, possibly a person who generally looks to Rock music for more simpler things, which is fine. But let's not pretend there's any attempt at coherent exegesis on this page.

    By being so general, you invalidate your critique, and simply seem like you have an axe to grind. From what is written here, I can't even tell if you understand what the opera is about, something easily solved by Google or Wikipedia.

    Try a little harder, that is if you wish to have your critique taken seriously, and not as an excuse for people with similar gastrointestinal malfunctions.

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  5. My piece, you may have noticed, is a rant which, by definition, is not a "coherent exegsis" of a particular album but a generalized assault on some destructive tendencies in popular music that has made for a good amount of turgid product. The rant, such as it is, made it's point clear, and the point was coherent. If you desire a textual analysis , song by song, I can do that for you, but I lack the interest or motivation to write at length about an album that has never excited me beyond the condensed complaint I've already lodged here. Should you wonder if I wonder can indeed write at length about anything, take a tour of this blog and read some of the longer pieces. There are a lot of them; if you don't agree with what I've written, talk back to me. But offer a real counter argument, not like the vague assertion you offer up here, okay. Say something smart.

    It would have a good thing had you followed the discussion so far rather than wading in on the impulse of naked resentment to beat your chest like some wounded chimp. I mentioned in my response to Mr.Marcup (see above) that I liked King Crimson, Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart, so it's not that I'm averse to arty things , experimentation or subtle lyrics. I can listen to Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs, Pink Floyd , Mingus , Kid Rock and Sun Ra in the same sitting without a grimacing a wit. What matters is what works well, and there is a point where even good talents over extend their reach, as Townsend had done with Quadrophenia. Anyway, your protest here is disturbingly close to encouraging mob rule, that if the majority of record buyers you assume to speak for think Quadrophenia is great, then I should just be quiet and go with the flow. That is not a good thing; art, music, poetry, literature, etc, are all intended, among other things, to provoke response, discussion, dissension in the ranks. I get my say on the matter, you get yours, and we exchange views.

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  6. Raynee Dehedrin10:53 AM PST

    I will bemusedly concede. But I'm betting you have plenty enough insight to see that you are just as guilty of the things you just accused me of.

    But hey, nobody loses. It's an opinion game, and with one party not particularly interested in pursuing, there's little point, even from an entertainment value perspective.

    Best Wishes

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  7. Listen, brother, do you always resort to ad hominem attacks when you can't defend your opinions?
    What I am guilty of is having an opinion about this record that you don't like. What I asserted about your comment was that you hadn't followed the discussion and were opining about my tastes half cocked. I additionally remarked, if you remember, that your paragraph veers very close to stating that something is brilliant or fantastic because a majority of listeners and critics might happen to think so. The plain inference is that you think people who don't like what you have come to admire ought to just shut up. I don't ask people to shut up, I ask them to explain what their objections are to my reasoning.

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  8. Gruel Marcoff3:08 PM PST

    You know, Mr. Burke has no need for me to hold his coat in this cute little dust-up and Grelb knows that I have no real epidermis in this game, but it seems to me that one of the egregious things about the blogosphere is that chin-waggers can waltz in and nip at the ankle of a commentator without truly advancing an argument of their own or worse, without having the spunk to have some FUN with their spewings rather than take such discussions personally, as if anyone in these difficult times cared what anyone thought about some 35 year old record as a statement of their own precious value system. It is truly a sad thing to realize that someone can feel threatened by an aesthetic debate over a slice of entertainment from the Nixon Era. I say, stand and deliver a coherent analysis or go listen to Tales of the Topographic Ocean for the 2,000th time.

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  9. I listened to Quadrophenia while on the can and alls I can say is that Roger Daltry sounded like he had to take dump worse than I did. I would rather listen to Leslie West play guitar with Ron Paul's face, however.

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  10. Raynee Dehedrin3:39 AM PST

    Take a careful look back and read what you (and the other you) wrote.

    Does any of it seem defensive and unintentionally ironic, Mr. Quadrophenia?

    You should change your comment header to read "say something smart, but please not AS smart as what I (and the other "I"s) already wrote, otherwise you're using ad hominem devices".

    Feel free to amuse me further.

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  11. Now you're walking in circles. Don't trip over yourself.

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  12. Anonymous5:37 PM PST

    Dude, just admit you don't understand the album. You'll at least save some face. Or take the post down, so fewer people will see how clueless you are, it's obvious there's something about the album besides the album itself.

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  13. Anonymous5:38 PM PST

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  15. Ahhh... This is excellent. I just google searched my blog to work out if it would show up under any circumstances, and found someone else had not long ago posted an almost completely opposing view on the same album.

    I had previously avoided the album due to preconceptions similar to your actual conceptions but found that upon sitting down with it in its entirety for the first time, I really enjoyed it. More so than the rest of their catalogue in fact - and I'm no kind of concept album/rock opera fan.

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  16. Quadraphenia is a fucked up piece of fuck.

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Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.