I am an unabashed Anglophile. I firmly believe that rock and roll, though an American art form, had it’s best years when the Brits were dominating the output. If this site’s own logo is not an indication enough, I believe I cover mostly events, culture, and items relating to the British end of rock and roll more than I do the American side. That may be a fact, or that may just be conjecture, I’m not sure, and I haven’t checked yet because I’m a busy man. But I think it’s a fair thing to guess.
But like the blues scale and the work of Jimi Hendrix, the unalienable fact that between the two sides of the pond there a shared interest in teenage angst and rebellion, and quest for self-definition in the middle of having a good time. Rock and roll does that in general, but perhaps here in America, the movie “American Graffiti” performs that function best as a sort of mixed-media combination of the best damn soundtrack ever compiled and one hell of a great ‘vignette’-style movie.
For the Brits, however, there’s Quadrophenia.
When it comes to the Who’s two ‘rock opera’ albums, Quadrophenia is unfairly overlooked at times compared to the tour-de-force that is Tommy. It’s not as cohesive, it’s not as introspective, or even meaningful, for anyone who is unaware of the Brighton Beach riots, the concept of ‘mod’ and what it meant to define yourself as one of those or a ‘rocker.’
That’s where you realize it’s comparison is not Tommy, but the movie “American Graffiti,” both at a surface and a deeper level. Both Quadrophena and “American Graffiti” were released in 1973, looking specifically at the early ’60s. Both movies, in their way, center on a culture of fetishized vehicles (hot rods in America, Italian Scooters in England); the villains, aside from the culture at large, is usually somebody in a leather jacket and greased back hair. Both stories end a note of personal destruction. And it goes on from there, into a much deeper territory.
Quadrophenia is not as philosophical as Tommy, because it’s more inward that that. It’s not taking a deeper look at the metaphysical in relation to yourself, but it’s taking a deeper look at the self. And while that may not be the central focus of “American Graffiti,” it’s the crux of the movie’s protagonist, Curt Henderson (Richard Dryfuss) who, among the rest of his friends who are self-defined into certain roles, is confused about himself. Caught between boyhood and manhood, good guy who’s never allowed himself to be wild, and searching for the love of a woman elusive to him, Curt’s journey is more engaging and driven than any other’s in the movie. It gets a little muddled when you think about the powerhouse performances from everyone else in a massive ensemble cast, or the distractingly great soundtrack (plus a cooler-than-cool cameo from Wolfman Jack), but Curt’s experiences are far more rewarding and identifiable than anyone else in the cast.
As an album, Quadrophenia has so many advantages of being forced to single in on one story without being too confusing, but the characters are all there. From the mother, psychologist, and preacher in “The Real Me,” to protagonist Jimmy and how he sees himself, to the bus driver, farmer, and the Bell Boy, all the characters to whom James compares himself are as fleshed-out and realistic as an entire ensemble cast in a movie. It’s probably why the album translated into an incredible film as well (with Phil Daniels as Jimmy, and Sting as Ace Face the Bell Boy). Yet, the film, being in such a medium, lends itself to direct comparisons to “American Graffiti,” compared to the magic of the album’s own sheer force of retrospection and introspection, that demands the listener not to consider the Mod movement culturally, but how it was a teenage indulgence to assimilate and conform into something because it was what was popular to do at the time. Hell, it’s what you do at anytime, even in modern society, where it is more acceptable to choose alternatives, but the tragedy remains that it is still a matter of identifying yourself as such. There is no ‘self,’ but several selves.
I’ve decided to listen to this album, first thing in the morning, on my 24th Birthday. I have unfortunately missed the target when it comes to at what point I could best identify with this album, or even with the culture itself. Specifics aside, the experience is vital and as true now as it was then, because no matter how much culture changes, the zeitgeist remains the same. And though I am older now than when it would have been optimal to listen to the album, it still rings true, beyond the obvious lyrical points, but in Pete Townshend’s masterful compositions — the singles “Love Reign O’er Me,” and “The Real Me” make a case for the former, but the tender acoustic sparseness of “I’m One” and the mixed thematic layering of “The Rock” and “Quadrophenia” being the best cases for the latter.
There is no single true self, just as there are so many different ways of approaching this album, or the two mediums that interpret the same story. But rather than embracing the fractured sense of self, we forget that it’s all of these elements and selves that combine to make the uniqueness of ourselves as singular people. That is what I think Pete Townshend was trying to accomplish in writing four parts that ‘represent’ the Who’s players, while simultaneously denying that’s what was at play in the album. It may be playing into a geekish leaning and turning something sonically awesome into something tragically academic (you do know what blog you’re reading, right?) but it’s another hallmark moment that shows that the best art in this world is the one that looks at the bigger picture of smaller moments, and plays them all at once.