Last Sunday – the 23rd of August – would have been Keith Moon’s 69th birthday. Despite only living to the age of 32, Keith was definitely one of (if not the) the most talented drummers ever. His melodic and distinctive technique fit alongside both The Who’s heavy, “maximalist” style and his deserved reputation as one of rock’s most iconic madmen perfectly. Happy birthday, Keith!
The Who are one of my very favourite bands. Although I’ve only been a fan since December 2014, the band’s unique, brash brand of rock (highlighted by the virtuosic ability of each member on their respective instruments) has fascinated me ever since. But there is one aspect of the band that particularly interests me: their pioneering of the “rock opera”. The Who were among the first to record an album linked together by a common narrative. And most of their better-known albums fit under the category, or at least began life under it. So today, I thought I’d write about The Who’s history with the art of the rock opera.
The Who’s “relationship” with the rock opera began as early as 1966, with their single ‘I’m A Boy’.
‘I’m A Boy’ was originally a part of a narrative concept created by Pete Townshend, named Quads. Quads was set in an alternative future where expecting parents could choose the sex of their children. In the case of the protagonist family, the parents choose four girls. However, there is a mistake, and one of the four girls turns out to be a boy! Consequently, the parents refuse to accept the fact that their child is a boy, and he is forced to dress and act like his sisters.
The idea for Quads was soon abandoned, but ‘I’m A Boy’ was salvaged. Musically, the tune centres around the ‘power pop’ genre which The Who also pioneered until 1969, and was released on the 26th of August, 1966. It reached number 2 in the UK, yet failed to chart in the US.
Pete would create another prototype rock opera in 1966, which was featured during the last nine minutes of the band’s sophomore album, A Quick One, released that December: ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’. The song has since been hailed as one of The Who’s most classic and innovative cuts, and it is one of the band’s first in which Pete’s songwriting genius is in full spotlight.
With the deadline for A Quick One fast approaching, The Who did not have enough material for the album. Pete, trying to find extra tracks to record, went through a bunch of songs he had written but not used for the band, and played these to then-manager Kit Lambert. One of these songs was named ‘Gratis Amatis’, supposedly consisting of only the title repeated constantly in high-pitched voices over a guitar. Whilst none of the songs were deemed good enough for release, Lambert jokingly referred to ‘Gratis’ as a “rock opera”, unintentionally inspiring Pete. Pasting together hastily-scribbled lyrics (about a girl whose lover has disappeared and proceeds to have an affair with an engine driver) and six “movements” in a mere few days, The Who soon recorded their first stab at a concept they would master in later years…
Though the lyrics of ‘A Quick One…’ weren’t thought much of when they were originally written, Pete has said in recent years that they came from a dark place in his subconscious. In his 2012 autobiography, Who I Am, he writes that the words allude to the time he spent with his bizarre grandmother who abused him as a small child. Consequently, he finds it difficult to play live and it was only reintroduced into the band’s live repertoire in 2014, for the first time since 1970.
However, there are a few live versions of the song circulating that are arguably as good as the studio version. The tune was part of the band’s set list of their famous Live At Leeds concert. However, my favourite live version of the song is the one originating from the 1968 Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. It is often speculated that the film’s (which wasn’t officially released until 1996) unreleased status was due to The Stones’ opinion that The Who upstaged them!
The Who would continue to create prototype “rock operas”. The band’s third album, The Who Sell Out, was a concept album about the advertising which was played alongside the music on pirate radio stations. The front and back covers depicted the band members comically advertising different products: Pete applied an oversized tube of Odorono deodorant, Roger Daltrey sat in a tub of frozen baked beans, Keith (too) applied medicated pimple cream and John Entwistle hugged a bikini-clad woman and a teddy bear, advertising a fake bodybuilding course. Between the actual songs, advertising jingles written by the band for the products featured on the packaging were included.
But it wasn’t until 1968 that The Who would start to perfect the art of the rock opera, and consequently release what would become one of the greatest albums of all time: Tommy.
The story of Tommy centres around a protagonist of the same name. Tommy is born at a time when his father, who had been fighting in World War 1, is presumed dead. His mother moves on with her life, and soon meets a man who becomes her lover. However, a few years later, Tommy’s father returns home to find his wife with her lover. In a fit of rage, he murders the lover, unwittingly in front of Tommy. Both parents frightened of their secret getting out, they brainwash Tommy (“You didn’t hear it / you didn’t see it / you won’t say nothing to no-one…”), turning him deaf, dumb and blind.
Tommy’s parents become desperate to find their son a cure. They enlist the help of a hawker who claims he can cure him, but to no avail. The hawker’s wife – the Acid Queen – also claims she can cure Tommy, and injects acid into him, leaving him shaken by the hallucinogenic experience. Tommy soon becomes a victim of the cruel behaviour of those around him: his cousin Kevin tortures and bullies him, and his uncle Ernie begins molesting him. Tommy’s parents also become annoyed that their son will never find Christianity in his isolated state, and start to cease caring as much about him.
However, they are unaware that Tommy’s disability has gifted him with a sensitive sense of touch. Tommy begins playing pinball, and due to his ability to feel the slightest vibrations, is soon established as a prodigy. He wins the title of top pinball player from the highly-esteemed Pinball Wizard, and is idolised by pinball players around the world. But Tommy’s parents still wish to find a cure, and take him to a doctor who, again, claims to have a cure. The doctor’s tests establish that Tommy’s disability is psychological, and, after telling him to stand in front of a mirror, that he can see himself in the reflection. Later, his mother – in a fit of frustration regarding the fact that Tommy will never see or hear her – smashes the mirror that Tommy now almost permanently stares at, and magically cures him. Already worshipped by the world, Tommy now realises his power and begins a “religious” movement centring on playing pinball in a deaf, dumb and blind state. All goes well for a while, until Tommy’s followers realise the amount of control he is exerting on them, and revolt. Tommy again becomes deaf, dumb and blind, and presumably stays that way for the rest of his life.
According to Pete, the narrative of Tommy is inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who he had begun to follow. Recurring themes of Baba’s teachings, like love and introspection, connected with Pete and also became central to the album. Baba would go on to influence plenty more Who music, perhaps most famously with 1971’s ‘Baba O’Riley’.
Musically, Tommy is a departure from what The Who had been recording for the previous four years. Rejecting the power pop of before, the album centres around a harder, more overdriven brand of rock. However, their sound owes as much as always to the gifted and melodic bass and drums of John Entwistle and Keith Moon, the equally-talented, rhythmic guitar of Townshend and the amazing voice of Roger Daltrey – so some things stay the same!
Throughout their tours of 1969 and 1970, The Who performed much of Tommy live. The most iconic of these was their performance at Woodstock, immortalised by the festival’s accompanying film and album. They were supposed to be the second-to-last act on the Saturday of the festival, but by the time they got to play, it was the early hours of Sunday…
Tommy, in 1975, was adapted into a musical film. Directed by Ken Russell and produced by Robert Stigwood, Roger reprised his role as Tommy, who he also played on the album. His work in the film is stunning, and would begin an acting career for him. Ann Margaret was cast as Tommy’s mother, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. Other roles included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Elton John as the Pinball Wizard and Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie. This made the story of Tommy even more successful, the album already widely recognised as a masterpiece.
Inspired by the immense success of Tommy, Pete begins to write another rock opera in 1970, this time based around a complicated sci-fi plot: Lifehouse. However, this time, things wouldn’t go so well…
According to Who I Am, the story of Lifehouse begins in a dystopian future where rock music has been banned and almost completely wiped from the world. The world is collapsing, and the society’s citizens are effectively programmed and brainwashed into blindly following authority figures. To prevent an apocalypse, the government forces the citizens into a forced hibernation, plugging them into a prototype internet concept named ‘the Grid’. To make the forced hibernation somewhat bearable, and eventually freeing them from its constraints, various members of the society rebelliously set up the ‘Lifehouse’ and begin putting on live rock shows. Various citizens begin to hack into the Grid, and broadcast rock music. The society is drawn into the Lifehouse, and eventually end up entranced by a musical nirvana. In a way, there are a few parallels to the narrative of David Bowie’s classic album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, released in 1972 – in both stories, the world is about to end, and (in the beginning) the world’s interest in rock music has seriously diminished, for one.
Pete’s original plan for releasing Lifehouse was to hire the Young Vic Theatre in London, to work on the unfinished songs for the album in front of an audience, and get them involved in the development of the album. Once the material was developed enough, the concerts would eventually be filmed. Pete also purchased a number of synthesisers especially for the production of the album.
However, when Pete began to tell the rest of The Who about Lifehouse, its misfortune also began to become clear. The rest of the band found it hard to grasp the concept of the album, and the cost of the album’s making was too large. It was scrapped in favour for a traditional rock album, which would become the highly-acclaimed Who’s Next. Many of the songs from Lifehouse found themselves on the track-listing of Next, and the album is sometimes named as the band’s best album. However, despite The Who’s ever-rising success, the desertion of Lifehouse devastated Pete. Songs from the rock opera would be released on many of the following Who albums and some of Pete’s solo albums. Some tracks originally on the aborted project – like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ – have gone on to become some of The Who’s best known songs.
A year after the release of Who’s Next, Pete – still eager to write another rock opera – began work on what would become the next Who album, and an album now also oft cited as one of rock’s great works of art: Quadrophenia. Though it was given mixed reviews at its original release, and remained overshadowed by Tommy, the album, in recent years, has begun to receive its proper due.
The story of Quadrophenia is somewhat more realistic than that of Tommy, and centring around mod culture in mid-’60s London, is loosely based on The Who’s own experiences with the subculture during that time. The album’s protagonist is a teenage boy named Jimmy. He is diagnosed as schizophrenic early in the narrative, though refers to himself as ‘Quadrophenic’ in the liner notes that came with the original vinyl release. Each of Jimmy’s four personalities is based on the characteristics of each Who member. Each band member and their personality has one song each dedicated to them, and these, too, are referred to in the liner notes – Roger’s (“a tough guy; a helpless dancer,”) song was ‘Helpless Dancer’; John’s (“a romantic, is it me for a moment?”) was ‘Is It Me?’, a mini-song found inside ‘Dr Jimmy’; Keith’s (“a bloody lunatic, I’ll even carry your bags,”) was ‘Bell Boy’, and Pete’s (“a beggar, a hypocrite, love reign o’er me,”) was ‘Love Reign O’er Me’. The album’s two instrumentals – ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘The Rock’ – plus opening track ‘I Am The Sea’ use the melodies of the four themes, as well.
The narrative begins with Jimmy, disillusioned with his life and desperate to find something that will set him apart from the crowd. He endures time with his parents and a psychiatrist, neither of whom seem to ‘get’ him, and a number of jobs which he can’t stand. However, after attending a Who gig, he discovers the mod subculture and realises it is just what he has been looking for. Jimmy completely invests himself into mod culture: he buys the hip clothing, uses the subculture’s drug of choice (speed), and rides everywhere on his recently-purchased scooter. Finally the ‘cool’ person he always wanted to be, Jimmy also enjoys hanging out with his new mod friends, although he sometimes finds them hard to keep up with. He even finds a mod girlfriend, but she eventually leaves him for his best friend, Dave. Jimmy travels to Brighton, the mod capital, and contributes to a riot with their rival gang, the rockers. Leading the entire ordeal is the head mod known as the ‘ace face’, who Jimmy idolises.
A little while later, Jimmy’s mental health problems get the better of him, and he ends up crashing his scooter and contemplating suicide. He leaves home and takes a train to Brighton, in an attempt to recreate the times he had enjoyed there previously as a mod. But as he walks past the local hotel, he spots the ‘ace face’ – who he once respected more than anybody – now working as a bell-boy, symbolising the superficiality of the subculture to him. Jimmy steals a boat and sails out to a rock by the sea, feeling that the world has betrayed him and that his life has all but wasted away. He sits on the rock, again contemplating suicide, getting soaked in the heavily-falling rain. The listener never discovers what happens to Jimmy on the rock.
Quadrophenia, again like Tommy, is something of a departure from The Who’s previous material. The songs – infused with the heavier “mod rock” of The Who’s first album, My Generation, and the synthier, artier rock of Who’s Next – contain much darker and realist lyrical matter than much of the band’s previous work. Because of these factors, I feel the songs are the most emotionally-charged and passionate of The Who’s catalogue. The performances from each member on the album are better than ever before: Entwistle’s bass work on ‘The Real Me’, and Daltrey’s vocals on ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ are often regarded as career highlights, for one. Arguably the best example of this is on the aforementioned ‘The Real Me’ – accompanying John’s incredible bass are stunning performances from the other three members, as well. Pete’s genius is arguably at its peak on the album, too, with it containing everything from killer riff-based rockers, to heart-wrenching synth-lead ballads, and everything in between!
The packaging of the original Quadrophenia vinyl release included a gatefold cover, on which the liner notes were printed, and a booklet containing the songs’ lyrics, and photographs to illustrate the story.
A film adaptation of Quadrophenia was released in 1979, shortly after the tragic death of Keith in 1978. The movie starred Phil Daniels as Jimmy, but the most high-profile role was that of ‘Ace Face’, who was played by Sting. Quadrophenia was not filmed in a musical format, unlike Tommy, the music from the album instead woven into the background. (However, much of The Who’s early, mod-intended work is used in the storyline – such as the usage of ‘My Generation’ in a party scene – to sit alongside the cuts from the film’s namesake.) The storyline of the film also differs somewhat from that of the album, so in a way, they both stand as great works of art on their own.
Whilst Quadrophenia is usually considered the last iconic Who rock opera, they would go on to record one more: The Boy Who Heard Music. Beginning life as a novella written and published by Pete on his blog during 2005 and ’06 (which you can read on both his old blog and old website, via the Wayback Machine), the story was eventually adapted into a mini-opera named Wire and Glass, released as an EP in 2006. The band’s studio album from the same year, Endless Wire, also includes the mini opera, plus a number of songs that relate to its narrative. In 2007, a full rock opera on the narrative, sharing a name with the original novella, was performed as a live musical also. Unsurprisingly, the story of The Boy Who Heard Music is considerably lesser-known when compared to The Who’s other rock operas, and I have to admit that I haven’t listened to it in full, yet… However, one track from the full rock opera – ‘Real Good Looking Boy’ – was included on a 2004 compilation of some of The Who’s better-known songs, Then and Now.
Many of Pete’s solo albums are also, in a similar vein of much of is Who work, concept albums. 1985’s White City follows the stories of residents living in a housing estate in the ’60s; 1989’s The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend is a, well, musical adaptation of Ted Hughes’ sci-fi novel of the same name (and also features two songs boasting a personnel including all three surviving members of The Who); 1993’s Psychoderelict (including a few characters who would also find themselves in The Boy Who Heard Music) tells the story of a washed-up ’60s rockstar named Ray High. He has also revisited the concept of Lifehouse many times since its failure in the early ’70s, especially during the early-to-mid 2000s.
The Who’s work with the rock opera is incredibly interesting, and a testament to the genius of much of their discography. Under their ‘opera’ umbrella has come some of the greatest and most innovative albums + songs ever, that have certainly stood the test of time and continue to be discovered by many a music fan today!