As part of The Who’s U.S. tour that began in July, Pete Townshend set aside dates for performances of an orchestral production of Quadrophenia. The reworked rock opera, officially called Classic Quadrophenia, made its U.S. debut at the Tanglewood Music Center over the Labor Day weekend before coming to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House for two nights, September 9 and 10. Supported by a full symphony orchestra and chorus, British tenor Alfie Boe sang the lead role of Jimmy, with Townshend and Billy Idol handling the remaining parts. The new Classic production remains true to the Quadrophenia Who fans remember, with additional orchestration and extended versions of the album’s instrumental compositions scored by Rachel Fuller, Townshend’s partner for the past 19 years. The result is decidedly more opera than rock, which is probably as it should be.
Townshend called Quadrophenia the “last great album” The Who ever recorded. Its greatness has been debated — especially compared against Tommy and Who’s Next — but it was certainly the last time he and his mates reached for anything so grand. Released in October 1973, Quadrophenia was well received by critics and fans, climbing to Number 2 on both U.K. and U.S. album charts. Songs like “5:15” and “Love, Reign O’er Me” also charted as singles, but taking the music on tour proved disastrous. Jimmy’s narrative was not nearly as linear as Tommy’s, and Townshend regularly took time out during performances to explain the storyline. With arrangements that included strings and horns along with effects of rain and sea, Quadrophenia required a far bigger sound than the four original members of The Who were capable of producing on stage. Roger Daltrey rejected touring with additional musicians, and recorded music was used instead to fill in the missing instrumentation.
Malfunctioning tapes and the fact that Keith Moon found it impossible to play alongside recorded tracks led to dismal reviews and created tensions that nearly tore the band apart. According to Townshend, Daltrey “ended up hating Quadrophenia,” and in February 1974, just four months after the album’s release, The Who stopped performing it as a rock opera. They retained a few songs from it in their live sets, but the experience tarnished the legacy of what was supposed to be Pete Townshend’s second act.
There was a movie in 1979 and various attempts to revive the project on stage since (including as recently as The Who's 2012/2013 "Quadrophenia and More" Tour), but The Who’s regular concerts for the past several years have been light on Quadrophenia material. The shows at the Metropolitan Opera generated buzz when they were announced precisely for that reason. No one on this side of the Atlantic knew anything about Alfie Boe — other than signaling that Daltrey still wanted nothing to do with Quadrophenia — but Billy Idol seemed an inspired choice.
A tonier crowd turned out at Lincoln Center than what might populate a Who concert at, say, Mohegan Sun, but the audience cheered when the first recognizable thread of Quadrophenia — the mournful horn outlining the phrase “Is it me, for a moment?”— emerged from the overture that replaced the album’s opening sound effects. Boe took the stage in front of the massive orchestra and immediately removed all doubts with his powerful voice and energetic presence. Daltrey’s original vocals were among the finest moments of one of rock’s great voices, but the demands of Quadrophenia are beyond his current range. Boe’s performance is a reminder that rock is still a young man’s game. Born the same year Quadrophenia was released, his claims to have grown up a rocker seem genuine. Joined on stage by Townshend singing the age-appropriate role of Jimmy’s father, Boe’s bouncing, fighter-like dance moves contrasted with his elder’s creaky jig-like steps. The two often had fun with it as Townshend attempted to restrain Boe in order to keep up.
Billy Idol elicited enormous cheers each time he entered and exited the stage. He still looks the part of the quintessential punk, albeit a far better groomed punk than in his "Rebel Yell" days. His fist pumps and dancing with himself persona have held up well while his voice sounded subdued for most of the performance.
For listeners who haven’t dusted off their vinyl copies of Quadrophenia in decades, there’s more here than might be easily recalled. In addition to “The Real Me” and “Doctor Jimmy” that received wide air play, songs like “Cut My Hair,” “The Dirty Jobs” and “Sea and Sand” were pleasant surprises. Townshend played acoustic guitar on “I’m One,” faux windmilling, while “Love, Reign O’er Me” remains a powerful and satisfying closer.
Missing was the enormous bass that drove many of the original compositions — it was always remarkable just how much The Who’s sound owed to John Entwistle’s bass — but this wasn’t a rock concert. Maybe that was Quadrophenia’s problem all along, trying too hard to rock when it was always intended to be something else entirely.
There will be two more performances of Classic Quadrophenia — at the Rosemont Theatre outside of Chicago on September 13 and at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on September 16 — before The Who resume their tour with multiple dates in South America.