The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ turns 50; How US fans embraced a rock opera on British youth culture

Album cover for The Who’s 1973 rock opera, “Quadrophenia,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week.
DJ Cerphe on 'Quadrophenia' by The Who, released 50 years ago

The Who’s “Quadrophenia” — a rock opera composed by guitarist Pete Townshend is turning 50 years old this week.

The 17-song double album, released Oct. 26, 1973, tells the story of Jimmy — a young Mod immersed in British subculture of the mid-1960s — and his dissatisfaction with life, love, his job and family.

“The main character Jimmy is a troubled young guy,” said Cerphe Colwell, longtime Washington-area disc jockey, who played “Quadrophenia” on WHFS, DC101, WJFK and Classic Rock 94.7.

“He’s gone to a psychiatrist, he’s seen a priest, he’s visited the doctor, went to see his mother,” Cerphe said, paraphrasing lyrics from the album. “And after you listen to the tracks, you get to see a prognosis of a personality in crisis. You really start to get inside his head.”

After the Who’s success with their first rock opera, “Tommy,” Townshend single-handedly composed and recorded demo tapes for Quadrophenia, which were presented to his bandmates, singer Roger Daltrey, bass player John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon, who performed on the album.

“The opening track starts with ambient sounds of the ocean,” Cerphe said, referring to “I Am the Sea.” “Once you hear that, it’s sort of the introduction to the themes of the album, with snippets of songs and themes that occur throughout the album’s memory.”

“And then you have ambient sound suddenly slamming you into the song ‘The Real Me,’ with those powerful opening notes from John Entwistle’s bass guitar, playing it like a lead guitar,” Colwell said.

“Pete Townshend became the Poet Laureate of the Mods in Shepherd’s Bush in West London,” Colwell said. “Quadrophenia captured not only much of the persona of The Who at the time, but also the whole Mod movement going on in the U.K.”

In British subculture — and Quadrophenia — Mods on scooters and Rockers on motorcycles clashed often, including at the Brighton seaside resort in southeast England.

“The double LP album featured an illustrated book that came along with the gatefold record jacket,” Colwell said. “Which really helped explain the album, because it really had a lot going on.”

“Like anything Pete Townshend has written, ‘Quadrophenia’ is not an album for short attention spans,” he said.

Even with the British story of Mods and Rockers, the music on The Who’s sixth album was relatable in the United States.

“We loved playing the songs on FM at the time,” Colwell said. “Songs like ‘The Real Me,’ and ‘5:15,’ ‘Bellboy,’ ‘Love, Reign o’er Me’ — it was a musical landscape of everything power pop in ‘5:15’ to that spiritual prayer in ‘Love, Reign o’er Me.'”

The album was certified platinum. In 1979, a film version of “Quadrophenia,” directed by Franc Roddam, and starring Phil Daniels as Jimmy, and a soon to be well known rock star, The Police’s Sting as Ace Face.

“Pete says this was the last great album from The Who, and it’s the LP he’s most proud of,” Colwell said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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