Is Quadrophenia the greatest Who album? It’s a simple question asked of a complex album, one fans have debated and will continue to do so for many a year. It’s not the most successful, nor one who’s songs turn up in Best Of… collections, but it’s certainly the last really great Who record, and the one that typifies them as an ideal more so than anything they’ve done. Pete Townshend has always been the greatest curator of The Who’s past, and with Quadrophenia he created, shaped and immortalised the Who myth once and for all. For all its flaws, it’s the bands masterpiece – Tommy and Who’s Next will always be the ones that get the attention, and the 60’s albums for many represent the band at their unfettered best, but it is Quadrophenia’s towering accomplishment that demands repeated listens.
The album was notoriously difficult to play live due to issues with backing tapes and was largely abandoned in the band’s set after its initial release in 1973. Save for a few one-off performances this is the first time the band have toured Quadrophenia in its entirety, and tonight they bring the show to Dublin’s o2 theatre. An elaborate backdrop dominates the back of the stage; a large projection screen and three circular screens above it display newsreel clips, and footage of the band at various stages of their career. Waves crash over the speakers as ‘I Am The Sea’ heralds the albums thematic intro, and the band themselves duly crash in on ‘The Real Me’ with Daltrey twirling his mic from the get go. What a pleasure it is to hear ‘Quadrophenia’, the record’s first long instrumental, played live; indeed it is this rendering, and that of ‘The Rock’ later in the set that prove the gig’s high points, as Daltrey pounds a tambourine and the band take these instrumentals through their many thematic twists and turns.
‘The Punk And The Godfather’ sees Townshend burst out the windmills on those muscular riffs, and the screens are used to great effect as Keith Moon looms large, his footage synched with the cymbal crashes of the current drummer. Both Keith Moon and John Entwistle are brought into the show in innovative fashion – during ‘5:15’ the band hang back as some virtuoso bass from Entwistle plays over footage of the man himself, and the live drummer jams along. Similarly on ‘Bell Boy’, footage of Moonie from Charlton in ’74 plays as the late drummer takes his lines, backed up by the current line-up. Both go down a storm, and it’s quite a touching moment as Daltrey gazes up at the footage of Moon as the latter song draws to a close.
Townshend’s brother Simon takes vocal duties for ‘The Dirty Jobs’, while Who stage destruction footage plays behind Daltrey and Townshend as they share vocals on ‘Helpless Dancer’. Townshend takes vocal duties a number of times during the set, true to the album, giving Daltrey the opportunity to unleash his not unimpressive harmonica chops. ‘Drowned’ builds to a bluesy, repetitive climax, Townshend attacking the mic with some vocal riffing as the album draws closer to its conclusion. Both men share the front of the stage for closer ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, earning a standing ovation and finally coming up for air to address the crowd for the first time.
Despite Quadrophenia being a backward-looking album conceptually, tonight’s encore eschews anything from the band’s earlier days, instead leaning on the monster hits that most will be familiar with. Daltrey dons an acoustic for ‘Who Are You’, and while the strain shows in vocal at times during the gig (it’s telling that he steps aside for ‘The Dirty Jobs’), the rich timbre of his voice on ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ defines his finest vocal performance of the night. The venue is awash in glittering light, and the crowd upstanding for ‘Pinball Wizard’ and its impressive 3D-like backdrop. Everyone, unsurprisingly, is in full voice for these fan favourites, never more so than on the double whammy of ‘Baba O’Reilly’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
It’s always been something of a running joke in The Who camp that while The Beatles and The Stones had screaming girls in the front rows, The Who were more of a blokes band. Accordingly, Townshend thanks “the few of you who have managed to convince your female partners to come along.” He and Daltrey bow out alone with ‘Tea & Theatre’, ending the gig on a somewhat sombre note. While there may have been a few grumbles about omissions in the encore, this isn’t your typical all-encompassing Who miscellanea, but a celebration of a defining album. Everything else is superfluous – it’s been a long time coming, but Quadrophenia has finally gotten the spectacle it deserves.