After the critical and commercial success of Tommy, the Who returned to the rock opera fold with their 1973 effort Quadrophenia. Filled with complex themes of identity and alienation, Quadrophenia was not as immediately accessible as Tommy; its nonlinear story line did not lend itself to a coherent stage production. Even the subsequent 1979 film version did not follow the story to the letter, relegating the music to the background. However, Quadrophenia remains some of Pete Townshend's most personal work, and he has continued to tinker with mixes and reissues. The Who has performed the entire rock opera on several occasions, and time has been kinder to the album; publications such as Q and Rolling Stone have ranked the album among the greatest rock recordings.
Last year marked the rock opera's 40th anniversary, and the Who celebrated with an often riveting performance at Wembley Arena on July 8, 2013. A multimedia spectacle, the show features a weathered but still energetic Roger Daltrey, who still evokes rage and passion with his voice. While Townshend may not break out his signature windmill move as frequently, he manages to convey the main character's anger, despair, and ultimate release through his vocals and guitar. Keith Moon and John Entwistle are greatly missed, but their presence lives on through past footage. When Moon and Entwistle's images grace the backing screen, they seem to energize the band, inspiring them to rock even harder. Quadrophenia Live in London (available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and a downloadable digital concert video) is a visual record of this extraordinary event, although its lack of extras may prove disappointing to fans.
The smartly chosen visuals both underscore Quadrophenia's themes and update them for modern audiences. Images of the rolling sea signify water as sources of violence and tranquility, turmoil and purification. When Daltrey cries out "Can you see the real me?" during the first number, the narrator's uncertain role in his world is palpable. The Who even look as though they are standing in the water during "Helpless Dancer" and the despondent "Is It In My Head"? Daltrey virtually screams the title phrase, leading into the darkest point of the show, "I've Had Enough." Dramatizing the climactic point--will the lead character surrender, or conquer his demons?--the Who leans into the song, with Townshend's furious guitar playing rapidly increasing the tempo and the track's power.
One of the most emotional moments occurs during their full-tilt rendition of "5:15," which features an extended call-and-response segment between the horn section and guitars. As the song speeds toward its conclusion, past footage of Entwistle (who died in 2002) emblazons the backing screens. His astoundingly fast fret work is accentuated by close-up shots of his flying fingers; a camera that had been mounted on his bass provides a rollercoaster-like experience for the viewer, the picture bouncing along with Entwistle's playing. As the footage rolls, Daltrey stands facing the screen, broadly grinning; Townshend responds by performing windmills rivaling his younger years. For that moment, the years melt away from Daltrey and Townshend, with their love of performing together clearly evident. Daltrey's smile reappears during "Bell Boy," when Moon hams it up in past footage.
As the main character contemplates suicide on the intense "Drowned," he also battles warring emotions. During this performance, Townshend demonstrates why he may one of the most underrated vocalists in rock. While he sings the original lyrics, his voice suddenly takes on a growling tone as he contemplates the line "Let the tide in, and set me free." He cries, "I don't want to die / But I really want to drown." As he ad libs, he implores the audience to help the protagonist regain his will to live. "You are the ocean!" he yells to the entranced crowd. "Bring on the hurricane!" Resembling a testifying preacher, Townshend transforms the song's theme into drowning in love rather than despair. "Drowned" serves as a jaw-droppingly emotional moment for band and audience, where both parties inspire each other.
Quadrophenia concludes with "Love Reign O'er Me," a cathartic track that allows Daltrey to unleash his voice's full strength. Before the song begins, images of often traumatic world events play in the background, culminating in 9/11 footage. Instead of feeling hopeless, the narrator has concluded that only love can conquer evil. "Only love can make it rain," Daltrey croons, leading into the timeless cry "Love, reign o'er me." The sea returns as a symbol, but this time water serves as purification, as cleansing, as rebirth (to further highlight this theme, Townshend plays with the rain/reign homophones in his lyrics). "Love Reign O'er Me" serves as a emotionally draining finale--yet also a massive release--to a complex rock opera.
The only bonus material on Quadrophenia Live in London consists of extra footage from the concert; The Who returned to the stage to perform a few of their biggest hits. While hearing "Who Are You," "Pinball Wizard," and "Won't Get Fooled Again" is always a treat, new interviews with Daltrey and Townshend would have been even more welcome. Hearing how Townshend composed the opera and how Quadrophenia maintains its resonance would have provided valuable context to the new performance. Liner notes concerning the July 8, 2013 concert would have also been enlightening, particularly concerning the elaborate multimedia presentation.
Despite these shortcomings, Quadrophenia Live in London is a worthy addition to any Who fan's library. Anyone who did not appreciate the work back in 1973 may reconsider their initial reaction, as the rock opera's themes are as relevant today as they were forty years ago.