Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Who's "Quadrophenia Live In London" DVD

When times are tough, we gravitate to what's comfortable and familiar. I was already in the middle of a Who binge (thanks, Big Mike Richardson!) when the news came through that my mother had passed away up in New Jersey, so the next day, I watched every Who DVD I own -- sort of like an electronic security blanket. Now I've got one more.

The Who have been milking their iconography since at least 1979, when The Kids Are Alright pulled me back into the fold after a couple of years away. They were the first band I ever loved, before I ever heard a note they played, when everything about them back in their spangled-suit-and-ruffles days seemed to scream "LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!" When Tommy was new, a lot of it blew right past me, but The Who Sell Out, which I found in a bargain bin the following spring, enchanted me with its ethereal incandescence before Live At Leeds arrived like a sucker punch to the gut, delivering the aggressive energy that their rock-and-wreck image promised. All through high school, the "Maximum R&B" poster adorned my wall, with the '65 promo shot and iconic Woodstock photo hanging above it. (Come to think of it, maybe "milking their iconography" started with the replica memorabilia that came stuffed in the Leeds sleeve back in '70.)

I had a hard time digesting Who's Next when it arrived the year after that -- I'd been following the reports of Townshend's ambitious Lifehouse, and didn't know quite what to make of the synthesizer-heavy album that arrived in its place. Over the years, classic rock radio overexposure killed whatever enjoyment I was able to find there. Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy clued me in to what I'd missed, and I spent the interval between Who's Next and Quadrophenia delving deeper into their history via imports and bootlegs (I'd started working in a record store by then), while a string of great (if commercially unviable) singles whetted my appetite for the new album (I'd gotten used to the synths).

Quadrophenia was the moment when I realized that those extremely extroverted exhibitionists were singing about ME -- who'd a thunk it? -- and the reason why, as I approach, um, forty-seventeen, I can still remember what it felt like to be an extremely alienated 15-year-old. As much as I love Sell Out and Leeds, Quadrophenia's been the Who album I've reached for most consistently over the years. When it was new, the Who found it difficult to perform live -- Moon had trouble playing along with the tapes of all the extra instruments, and Townshend felt it necessary to overexplain the concept in between songs -- and very quickly dropped most of the songs from their set lists.

Often overshadowed in media by his guitarist, Roger Daltrey -- who had a banner year in 2013, doing fundraising for the Teenage Cancer Trust/Teen Cancer America and recording an album of tough R&B with iconic cancer survivor/ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson -- is the guy who's always planned the Who's live shows, and it's his visual concept that makes Quadrophenia Live In London an impactful viewing experience. While I'm not a fan of Big Rock Spectacles that require a Jumbotron and lots of staging, translated to the small screen in your living room, this just works. The proximate model is the film Julian Schnabel made of Lou Reed's Berlin a few years back, but here the video -- of the sea, Mods, the younger Who, and larger historical events from their time, as well as visual correlatives to the lyrics -- is more tightly integrated with the music, as when images of Entwistle and Moon appear on-screen (to play a bass solo on "5:15" and sing on "Bell Boy," respectively). And the joy on Daltrey's face when he sees the images of his fallen bandmates couldn't be faked.

You won't like watching this if you don't like looking at old people -- these geezers are pushing 70 now, after all -- or if you still think the Who are a four-piece rock band (which they haven't been, onstage, in 40 years). Post-CSI and Super Bowl, Townshend and Daltrey now employ a half-dozen sidemen -- Simon Townshend copping his big brother's licks on a tantalizing array of axes and singing "The Dirty Jobs" with Daltrey, Pino Palladino on bass, Scott Devours replacing Ringo's kid on drums behind the Plexiglas, no fewer than three keyboardists replacing Rabbit Bundrick, plus a couple of horn players -- but the sound doesn't seem bloated, as it did on the '89 Tommy/"Unix ponytail" tour. In fact, it fits the music like a glove.

Daltrey's lost a bit of his range, and a few high notes that were sustained on the record are now truncated or sung in a lower register, but his mic-swinging and athletic ebullience are undiminished. Townshend's mighty leaps are a thing of the past, but he still windmills with abandon and vocalizes with power he lacked in his younger days, bellowing like a bluesman where he once sang like a choirboy. Did Pete forget the words to "I'm One," or did he just want to emphasize the line "Where did you get that walk oh so lean?" Who knows. But the music still heals as it thrills.

They even had the decency to make the non-Quadrophenia songs a bonus feature, so I don't have to skip through the ones I've heard wa-a-ay too many times every time I want to watch this. The only one of those I'll be going back to is "Tea and Theater," from an album I never got, but which serves as a nice reminder that at the end of the day, this band -- which has been a lot of things over half a century -- comes down to the friendship between two old men.


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