Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: 'Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut' by The Who

Like so many Who projects, Quadrophenia is an album universally regarded as a classic yet with some fairly common reservations. Vocalist Roger Daltrey was the first to balk about how his vocals were buried in the original 1973 mix, and others have griped about the balance in subsequence years. Some critics take issue with a song cycle about the R ‘n’ B and power-pop-obsessed Mod cult that bears no trace of those influences. Rather, Pete Townshend’s songs are epic, synthesizer laden, and more than a little proggy, a very ‘70s hard rock extension of his work on the Lifehouse/Who’s Next project. Still, Quadrophenia is a great album because its musical grandiosity is balanced with some of Townshend's most beautiful compositions: "5:15", "I'm One", "The Punk Meets the Godfather", "Love Reign O'er Me", "The Dirty Jobs", to name a few. All the synths and horn overdubs and rhythmic hubbub (which is incredibly impressive) and bellowing can’t trample the torment, regret, and longing that keeps the songs afloat across four sides of vinyl.

The new “Director’s Cut” of Quadrophenia expands that original double-album to five compact discs, including a selection of tracks mixed in 5.1 surround sound (not included in the review package I received from Universal Music Group), and a bonus 7” of “5:15” b/w “Water”. Has the expansion improved The Who’s magnificent mess-terpiece? Depends on Who you ask. Clearly Townshend, who oversaw this box set, was no fan of Bob Pridden’s original mix. This new set is basically Andy Macpherson and Jon Astley’s 1996 remix, which draws out the vocals, and features some minor differences, most notably a bit of feedback at the start of “5:15”. I personally prefer Pridden’s mix. Quadrophenia is the album on which Daltrey began inching toward the bluster that elicited more and more criticism as the ‘70s progressed. The original mix tempers this tendency. He’s too out front on this current mix, which also wipes one of my favorite details from the 1973 mix: the strange seagull-like noises that screech through the final verse of “The Dirty Jobs”.

Because the new mix and master of Quadrophenia is so similar to the one available since 1996, the Director’s Cut’s main selling point is two additional discs of Pete Townshend’s demos. Anyone familiar with the care the composer put into his home recordings knows this is no small thing. Keith Richards once famously said that Townshend’s demos are better than The Who’s final products. This is an exaggeration, and the guitarist’s stilted drumming is no match for Keith Moon’s cascading chaos, nor does his bass work—which is actually quite good—dazzle as John Entwistle’s does. Though a sweeter and more sensitive singer than Daltrey, he strains quite a bit in these recordings, particularly when songs such as “Love Reign O’er Me”, “The Punk Meets the Godfather” (titled “Punk” here), and “I’ve Had Enough” require the kind of climactic power that really was Daltrey’s forte. That being said, these recordings are well-worth hearing. Pete’s “Four Faces” and “Joker James” best the versions recorded by The Who and included on the 1979 Quadrophenia movie soundtrack. “Get Inside” is a poppy nod to The Who of 1966 that probably would have been too cute for the band in '73. “You Came Back” is one of Townshend’s loveliest demos, though it’s unclear how this tale of reincarnation would have fit into the life story of Jimmy the Mod. There’s nothing sketchy about these recordings. The ones that were a bit underdone when Townshend made them almost 40 years ago have been embellished with new drum tracks by Peter Huntington, who played on the “Who” reunion album Endless Wire. This irks some fans, but his work sounds good. Fussing with previously unavailable recordings is not nearly as questionable as remixing the beloved classics on the core album.

Pete Townshend has long had a troubled relationship with The Who, grumbling about how he isn’t a fan of the band while returning to it with the same obsession that seems to control every aspect of his career. It’s unfortunate that he is allowing The Who’s history to become a bit hazy. As of now, considerably altered mixes of My Generation and Who are You are the only ones in print on CD. Live at Leeds and Odds and Sods are more severely changed. Whether these versions improve on the originals is a total matter of preference. I admit I like the expanded Leeds a lot better than the six-track original. Quadrophenia is not as radically different from its first incarnation, but it is different. Pete prefers the remix. That’s all well and good, but there’s something to be said for preservation. As Roger, himself, said in a 2003 interview, “It’s like Picasso taking the painting off the wall of a museum and saying, ‘I think I’m gonna do this a bit better.’ It’s not better; it’ll just be a bit different.” Perhaps it’s time he passes that sound observation along to his bandmate.

Get the Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut at Amazon.com here.
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