25 years ago today: the Who brings Quadrophenia to Van

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      Twenty-five years ago today—on October 16, 1996—the Who played Vancouver's GM Place (now called Rogers Arena).

      I was particularly psyched about the show because the band was playing my fave rock album of all time, Quadrophenia, in its entirety.

      Maybe you were there?

      To jog your memory, here's my review, which was originally published in the October 24, 1996, issue of the Georgia Straight.

      If I had to choose one “desert island disc”—the all-time–favourite rock album to live out my days to while munching coconuts on some uncharted tropical atoll—it would have to be The Who’s Quadrophenia. Although its 1971 predecessor, Who’s Next, is generally regarded as the band’s tour de force, the sheer depth (not to mention length) of the Quadrophenia double album makes it my ultimate choice. A masterful portrait of ’60s mod culture and British teen angst as viewed through the unflinching eye of composer Pete Townshend, it is a vastly underrated work that towers over the group’s other, better-known concept album, the patchy and overblown Tommy.

      My personal devotion to the disc has plenty to do with timing, as I was 16—and thus totally receptive to the album’s themes of alienation and rebellion—when it was first released in ’73. Although on previous tunes Roger Daltrey’s vigorous vocals or Townshend’s flailing guitar might have taken precedence, The Who’s rhythm section really came of age on Quadrophenia—every manic Keith Moon drum roll and unconventional John Entwistle bass run seemed vital and perfectly suited to the work as a whole. Its subtle orchestration, adventurous arranging, and inspired placement of recurring melodic themes helped make Quadrophenia a monument to what was best about ’70s rock.

      When I learned that the world’s greatest rock band (forget the Stones) was going to perform my pet album in its entirety, I became captivated by the idea. And when I heard a report that Townshend—who has to play acoustic guitar due to a hearing condition called tinnitus—was back on electric, it seemed too good to be true.

      Unfortunately, it was, and last Wednesday (October 16) at GM Place Pete was still banging on acoustic when—after the two-minute introductory montage of vintage Who footage and clips from Franc Roddam’s ’79 Quadrophenia movie—the band launched into (what else?) “The Real Me”. Entwistle’s lead bass was as stimulating as ever, and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s kid) was keeping Keith Moon happy in heaven with his unfettered, rambunctious attack. After catching a live version of “Love Reign O’er Me” from a recent Prince’s Trust concert in the U.K., during which Daltrey strains to re-create the full-bore vocal performance on Quadrophenia, it was a relief to find that his sinewy throat muscles can, for the most part, still handle an extreme workout.

      But as soon as the energizing strains of “The Real Me” finished reverberating around GM Place, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the Quadrophenia homage I had hoped for. That would have required the seamless leading of one track into the next, but in a heavy-handed effort to get the themes of Townshend’s masterwork across, footage of a young mod (Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels) angrily quoting paragraphs from the album’s liner notes was injected between the songs. These rants may have been helpful, if not enjoyable, to Who fans unclear about the music’s message, but to this Quadrophenia junkie, they were distracting and eventually quite annoying. Thankfully, there were some well-advised theatrics to come.

      Things improved considerably on Quadrophenia’s fifth track, “The Punk Meets the Godfather”, when big-haired British pop icon Gary Glitter strutted out in full black leather ’n’ studs regalia and garish facial makeup to pose grandiosely and trade off a few verses with Daltrey. Shortly thereafter another blast from the past, Billy Idol, swaggered out to wild applause, as if—in light of all the tabloid tales of drugs and debauchery—folks were cheering him for just being alive.

      Strangely enough, Idol looked almost exactly as he did at the height of his Rebel Yell heyday 12 years ago. His well-practised Elvis Presley sneer is definitely intact, as are his cavortings from that old “Dancing with Myself” video. He would return to the stage a couple more times, including during “Bellboy”, when he rose up on a flashy motor scooter before shedding his green army coat to reveal a well-pressed bellboy’s uniform. He lugged suitcases around the stage until Daltrey sent him tumbling with a comical kick in the ass.

      After a rousing “Dr. Jimmy” and majestic “Love Reign O’er Me”, the band encored with a set of four classic, non-Quadrophenia cuts, and it was on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that the absence of Townshend’s electric guitar was most distressing. His younger brother Simon did a commendable job of handling the electric parts, but it just wasn’t the same without Pete himself bringing some of the noise.

      After a typically enchanting version of “Behind Blue Eyes”, however, he proved the existence of a god in heaven by strapping on a red Strat, damning the doctor’s order, and rocking out with his 1966 ear-buster “Substitute”. Then he made my night by ending with “Who Are You”, and tossing in some trademark windmill chords for old times’ sake.