Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Face-Off: The Rock Operas of Pete Townshend

Doug: Yeah, we're fond of rock music around here. We're certainly high on the all-time greats, like the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc. Today we're going to focus on one of the true geniuses of rock and roll, Pete Townshend, and his two rock operas: Tommy and Quadrophenia.

Doug: Your job is to discuss each of these albums, and the films if you wish. Which rock opera had the better radio hits? Tommy of course birthed "Pinball Wizard", but also "See Me, Feel Me", "I'm Free", and "We're Not Gonna Take It". On the other hand, Quadrophenia gave us "The Real Me" (my personal favorite Who song), "Love, Reign o'er Me", and "5:15". As far as narratives go, which story resonates more with you -- that deaf, dumb, and blind kid, or the teen with four personalities (one mirroring each member of The Who)?

Doug: On a side note, can you separate the songs "Pinball Wizard" and the "Acid Queen" from the visual concepts provided by Elton John and Tina Turner, respectively? It's tough for this guy.


J.A. Morris said...

I'm going with Tommy, since I think it has better songs. But I think Quadrophenia has a more interesting "concept." And I agree with Doug about 'The Real Me', a nice showcase for Entwisle's bass work.

Having said that, I like The Who, but I'll take their early 3-chord singles ('My Generation', 'I Can't Explain','Substitute', 'Anyway,Anyhow,Anywhere') any day over Tommy or Quadrophenia any day.

Dr. Oyola said...

I prefer Tommy, though I also like Quadrophenia.

I just have not spent as much time with the latter and it seems subtler to me, requires more time and attention to its nuance.

I have written some about Tommy on my blog, "Interpreting Tommy."

But also about "I'm A Boy" which was to be part of (or was born out of) an idea for a different rock opera that never came together: The Who’s “I’m a Boy” as Transgender Anthem

david_b said...

I applaud Pete's ability to push the limits of 'concept albums' to produce these, rooted from the mini-opera's that were started around '67/68, and influenced 'The Wall', further marrying up rock with cinema.

I enjoyed 'Tommy' much like one would a painting or work of art. I recall my big brother and his girlfriend taking me to see Tommy back when it first came out in 1975.

(..not really sure why they had me as a 12yr old go, but it sure took a while for me to get Tina's 'Acid Queen' and Ann Margaret swimming in beans out of my head..)

I enjoyed the Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away" as shown on the Stones' 'Rock and Roll Circus' quite a bit.

Edo Bosnar said...

I'll go with Tommy, because I've actually seen the movie, and listened to the whole album all the way through at least a few times (which I can't say for Quadrophenia - I'm familiar with the more popular songs that got radio airplay, but I've never actually listened to the album).

As for the Tommy the movie, I only watched the whole thing all the way through a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. Before that, I only saw about the last half on TV when I was about 13 or 14, and like David at a roughly similar age, I found it a tad overwhelming.

Horace said...

Hello there, Doug.

Very timely to be talking about The Who. The band (with its two remaining founders) kicks off the 50th anniversary tour in Ireland in November. On a more personal note, I just enrolled in a 7-week community college course on The Who which starts tonight. It's being taught by Richie Unterberger who a few years ago wrote an exhaustive book on The Who's peak creative period of '69-'73.

TOMMY and QUADROPHENIA are bookends of that period. So which do I prefer?

I grew up on FM radio in San Francisco. KRQR used to have Album Night every Thursday night at 10pm. They'd play an album in its entirety. One night they played QUADROPHENIA. This was fall of 1982 when I was 14. I was just getting into The Who, exploring their music for the first time. I didn't have QUADROPHENIA yet, so I taped the broadcast. Being that it was a school night, I listened to the broadcast in bed in the dark with headphones on. From start to finish, I found it an immensely satisfying listening experience. It wasn't long before I ponied up the money to buy the double LP, wear it out on the turntable and marvel at the album art and accompanying booklet.

I love TOMMY. TOMMY made The Who international superstars. It's powerful music, especially when it's played live (see the Woodstock and Isle of Wight films). But, I've always had more of a connection with QUADROPHENIA, their last truly great studio album.

Horace said...

BTW, I must add that I love the scene in ALMOST FAMOUS when young William Miller is going through his sister's LP collection and discovers TOMMY. Brilliant use of "Sparks" by Cameron Crowe.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion as a US American, I like Tommy more than Quadrophenia. As a story with more layers of meaning, I unwrap more in Quadrophenia. That being said, the movie version of Quadrophenia is a hot mess. I just wanted to yell "Bro, you're the problem!!!" But I didn't.

Horace, we had the same things here on Thursday nights. Except ours was at midnight. But seeing as how I'm Central and you're West Coast, your 10 pm is my Midnight. The headphones I had were the ones with the volume control sliders on the side. And I bought a ten foot extension cord from Radio Shack so I could hang them on my head board. All those albums ended up on 8 track.

The Prowler (head phone hair).

Anonymous said...

Great face-off Doug! The Who is one of my favorite bands and those 2 albums are a big reason why. But, for me, Quadrophenia is possibly that "if you could only have one record on a deserted island..." album. Great call on "The Real Me" and love that whole album - I'm One, The Punk and the Godfather, Drowned, Bell Boy, Dr. Jimmy, Love Reign O'er Me...and on and on..

Also love Tommy but have always thought that several live versions of certain songs are better than the actual studio album. Ironically, one of the things that kept Quadrophenia from being an immediate live sensation was the complexity of the sounds and the backing tapes that Pete tried to use on stage.

And Horace, great Almost Famous reference. "Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future"


Karen said...

Two exceptional albums. I have gone back and forth in my head over this question all day and I still can't decide! I think overall the songs on Quadrophenia have a stronger appeal, from a story perspective, but the songs on Tommy are still quite good (I love Sparks). I personally prefer the Who's version of Pinball Wizard to Elton John's but it seems like you heard John's played much more on the radio way back when than the Who's. Bell Boy is another fun tune, with Keith Moon getting a stab at the vocals.

tetrahedron said...

The Who are one of my all-time favorites. Love both Tommy and Quadrophenia.

But if I'm going to sit down and spin the records...Quadrophenia is the better work musically, IMO. (that said, Pinball Wizard is one of the Who's best-ever songs)

I also find Quadrophenia to have a more relatable story, so it resonates more than the weirdness of Tommy (which is couched in allegory and so isn't just out and out absuridsm).

Not to be a vinyl snob, but once I finally snagged a vinyl first pressing of Tommy, I finally "got" the music. For years I'd only known it on CD and that just falls flat. I could never understand why it was such a beloved work. The original vinyl's music jumps out at you, it's so alive.

On a final note, the Tina Turner version of Acid Queen obliterates the original album version, which in any format falls flat for me.


Fred W. Hill said...

The Who is one of my all-time favorite bands and I enjoy both Tommy & Quadrophenia but I'll have to give the edge to Quadrophenia as having an overall better collection of songs. Great film also. My favorite Who album, though, is Sell Out, even over Who's Next. Maybe just because it mixes some humor in with the great songs. Their best collection of early songs is Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy, although I don't think that was ever released on CD.

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