Royal Philharmonic Plays Who? The Who
It’s 2015. Keith Moon and John Entwistle are dead, and the guy who wrote “hope I die before I get old” has gone and arranged Quadrophenia for tenor and orchestra. What are we to make of this? To be honest, the first thing I wondered when I dropped Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia into the CD player was whether the thing would suck. After all, there have been symphonic treatments of rock music before with questionable results.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Townshend’s music makes the transition to orchestral form quite well. The guitarist always had larger ideas than one 45 rpm single could handle. The standout tracks from the original album, The Real Me, 5:15, I’ve Had Enough, The Punk and the Godfather, and Love Reign O’er Me, are equally as memorable here, although John Entwistle’s melodic—and athletic—bass playing is missed.
Released in 1973, Quadrophenia nearly broke The Who. The band was under pressure to match the popularity and critical acclaim of the rock opera Tommy. Townshend’s second attempt at a magnum opus, Lifehouse, was a non-starter. A brutal touring schedule and the increasingly excessive post-Woodstock era built a wall between the band and the audience, a theme Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters would also mine later in the decade. But instead of drawing entirely on himself, Townshend’s opus on alienation also made an attempt to represent the band’s four personalities (‘quad’ + schizophrenia = “quadrophenia”) in one person, a scooter-riding mod named Jimmy who searches for his own identity in mid-sixties Britain.
The Who’s Quadrophenia was already full-bodied, the band’s four-piece sound augmented by ARP synthesizers and brass (arranged by Entwistle, the only member of The Who with formal musical training). There’s a bold, grand aesthetic to the album, and it rocks. On Classic Quadrophenia those synth parts are beautifully arranged for strings by Rachel Fuller, Townshend’s partner. The chugging rhythms and brass fanfares of 5:15 are still there, and even Townshend’s guitar riffs on a song like The Punk and the Godfather work well as low strings and brass. Townshend himself sings on that track, and guest artists Billy Idol and Phil Daniels (who played Jimmy in the 1979 film) take a turn on others, but the album rests on the shoulders of tenor Alfie Boe.
In interviews, Townshend has said that Boe shares some of the same characteristics as The Who’s Roger Daltrey. I can hear a little bit of Daltrey’s attack in Boe’s voice, which is also more trained (and frankly hits the notes a little better than Daltrey). Daltrey was in his late twenties when The Who recorded Quadrophenia. Boe is 41. Even without youth on his side, the energy is there, and that’s what matters. The music may be old, but it will never die.