The Who: Quadrophenia
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The context: The Who was on a critical and commercial winning streak when it started recording the rock opera Quadrophenia in 1972, but songwriter-guitarist Pete Townshend remained frustrated at the way his band's two biggest albums, Tommy and Who's Next, never fully dislodged from his head. He tried working with a less far-out idea: following the mixed-up life of a fashion-conscious Who fan circa 1964. Yet while a few Quadrophenia tracks got radio play (mainly "5:15" and "Love Reign O'er Me"), the album as a whole told a story so intricate and internalized that audiences grew restless when singer Roger Daltrey tried to explain the songs on The Who's 1973-74 world tour.
The greatness: Even though most of Quadrophenia's individual tracks don't make sense unto themselves, they weave in and out of each other with purpose, adding up to a magnificent expression of the complexities of adolescence. Townshend realizes with astonishing maturity the protozoan howls of such early Who singles as "I Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "My Generation," and "Substitute." Those dispatches from the post-juvenile id are recontextualized here, revisited by an adult who has compassion and nostalgia for the angst of his youth, but also understands that brutal compromises must be made.
Defining song: At the end of Quadrophenia's first half, the rock opera's teen hero leaves home, reflecting on a tumultuous life of parental rows and gang fights. The song "I've Had Enough" crams pieces of earlier Quadrophenia songs—and songs to come—into a complex, endearingly clumsy suite. It lurches around because it's structurally tricky, and because it mimics the mood swings of an adolescent, right down to lines like "Don't cry because you hunt them / Hurt them first, they'll love you." But the real hero of "I've Had Enough"—and Quadrophenia as a whole—is drummer Keith Moon, whose tribal improvisations have rarely been so suited to Townshend's songwriting. On "I've Had Enough," he pounds away recklessly, his drums sounding like the rapidly beating heart of a teenager veering between ecstasy and disillusionment.