You’ve had a monster hit with a high-concept double album (Tommy), and your attempt at a follow up concept album had to be scrapped in favor of a more traditional (if highly successful) album (Who’s Next). What do you next? If you’re The Who, you create another high-concept double album about a bipolar, Mod kid with multiple personalities. The album, Quadrophenia, is your most mature and fully realised work – and the last truly great work you will ever create as a band.
Quadrophenia: Can You the Real Me? (BBC America, Friday,10/9C) is a one-hour documentary about the making of this ambitious, powerful work.
In a roundabout way, Eric Clapton’s addiction to heroin was the starting point in the chain of events that led to The Who making Quadrophenia. That part of the story is related by Pete Townsend before the opening credits roll for Quadrophenia: Can You See the Real Me?
There are elements of the story that play into the mythology of the rock & roll lifestyle in the late sixties/early seventies: drugs, ambition, partying, the need to control one’s destiny. It’s a time in which The Who could have folded up their tents and stolen away in the night following the failure of Lifehouse, but instead, produced the first rock album to seriously examine mental illness from the inside out – an album that sounds as fresh today as it did the day it was released.
Through looking at the making of Quadrophenia, Can You See the Real Me reveals a great deal about the band’s dynamics that were never really ever explicitly stated before – like Townsend and Daltrey’s differing takes on Keith Moon’s ability as a drummer (Townsend thought he wasn’t very good; Daltrey not only thought he was good, he thought Moon had an impeccable sense of time); the tensions in the band and the reasons Townsend surmised they existed; the way the album was made – recording going on while the studio in which they were recording was in the process of being built!
Throughout, interviews with experts (sound engineers, broadcasters) and regular folks (Townsend’s ex-flatmate, an aging Mod who may – or may not – be a model for one of the story’s characters) and people who were there when it all happened (the band’s manager, the studio’s secretary, the man who did the photography for the album) bring the time to life through their memories.
One of the best things about Quadrophenia: Can You See the Real Me? is way that Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, the surviving members of The Who – are totally candid about the friction that existed during that time, and the part they played in creating that tension.
Experts like sound engineer Ron Nevision, broadcaster Mark Kermode and rock writer Herb Edelson detail the innovations of the album; Richard Barnes (Pete’s ex-flatmate), Irish Jack (the aging Mod) and Georgiana Steele-Waller relate anecdotes that give the doc unexpected moments of insight (Steel-Waller talks about the first time they cranked up the amplifiers in the studio, for example).
Quadrophenia: Can You See the Real Me? also features several clips of the band playing – from an early performance of their first hit, I Can’t Explain, to live versions of songs from the album as late as 1996 – that give some idea why they were consistently called the best live rock band in the world.
Additional clips feature brief snippets of an interview with Keith Moon, who does, indeed, come across as more than a wee bit loony (Townsend remarks, at one point, that if he hadn’t had a drum kit to play with, Moon would probably have wound up in jail!).
Quadrophenia: Can You See the Real Me? does a remarkable job of depicting a time and place, as well as creating a portrait of The Who at the peak of their abilities.
Final Grade: A