On a rare day off from the first leg of The Who’s 50th anniversary tour, Pete Townshend punctually enters a room in New York with longtime partner Rachel Fuller to discuss “Classic Quadrophenia.”
The symphonic release of The Who’s 1973 concept album came out earlier this month and includes music by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and vocals by classical tenor Alfie Boe, rocker Billy Idol, Phil Daniels, and Townshend. There’s also a one-night only performance in London set for July 5. (The Who will be at Sprint Center on Dec. 8, a rescheduled show from May because lead singer Roger Daltrey had to go on vocal rest.)
Townshend, 70, has always said The Who’s music was very orchestral for a rock band. But for this performance, there’s an entire orchestra and choir to perform his composition. That doesn’t faze him a bit.
“They will get on the tube with their violin and go to the Royal Albert Hall. They’ll look at the music, they will play it to their best of their ability and then they will go home. No fuss, no nonsense … they are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant trained musicians.”
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Townshend had previously dabbled with alternative musical concepts — including bringing rock opera to the masses with “Tommy” in 1969, a project that launched The Who into superstardom. The album spawned a 1975 movie and a Broadway musical that ran from 1993 to 1995.
Townshend says that writing “Quadrophenia,” acted as a form of salvation that helped counteract the spoils of success after “Tommy” and the 1971 release “Who’s Next.”
“We were in real trouble,” Townshend says of the period in the early 1970s. “Keith Moon had become this kind of clown. Roger Daltrey had become this rock god. You know, I was in a boiler suit” — a reference to the oversized white coveralls that became iconic for his look at that time.
And bassist John Entwistle?
“(He) was dressing up in spider costumes with silver spiders round his neck,” recalled Townshend.
That’s why the musician took it upon himself to reconnect with fans with an album that is relatable.
“Quadrophenia” tells the story of Jimmy, whom Townshend describes as an amalgamation of the angry young male fans who made up the band’s early fan base. He’s a lost soul that finds solace in fighting, taking uppers, and music (The Who is a favorite). Townshend wrote four themes that reflected each member of the band.
Those melodies help tell a complex story of a confused young man in “Quadrophenia,” yet Townshend simplifies it.
“It’s about a boy who’s having a bad day and ends up in the rain and how that echoes and how that changes his view,” he said.
Idol was blown away that he got the chance to play “Ace Face,” the role played by Sting in the 1979 film.
“I love The Who and it’s fantastic to get a chance to interact with these great people,” Idol said recently at a Musicares event in New York honoring Townshend.
The disenfranchised youth theme sums up the appeal of The Who, especially in the band’s early days.
Fuller, who played a big part in shaping the sound of the new release, shares an outsider’s view of the audience base.
“I think what you didn’t have with the Rolling Stones and what you didn’t have with the Beatles, and certainly not with the Carpenters, is that The Who did connect with the teenagers with anger,” she said.