Quadrophenia: the meaning of The Who’s universal tale

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The sound of the sea: That’s how Quadrophenia, The Who’s sixth album, begins. A sound collected by Pete Townshend with a tape recorder. A sound that can already give us an hint about the real meaning of that album.

Townshend was the creator of this rock opera released in 1973, a magical year that marked an important passage in rock music. The release of records like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, Lou Reed’s Berlin and Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound marked the definitive, musical death of the sixties.

Townshend created the story retracing the first years of the band’s activities and the years of the mod subculture, a youth movement that generated a popular aesthetic and musical fashion. The mods had french haircut, wore parka vests, tight trousers and moccasins, and drove Vespa or Lambretta, as opposed to the rivals, the rockers, who preferred motorcycles and a wilder look. Between these two groups, the rivalry was on and frequently erupted (including a legendary brawl on Brighton Beach in May 18th, 1964).

The Mods

Jimmy Cooper is the protagonist of the story. A young teenager mod looking for answers. Suffering from a particular form of schizophrenia: he had to deal with four different personalities (hence the title of the work), reflecting the personalities of the members of The Who.

In the first song, I Am the Sea, on the sound of waves we can hear already the four main melodic lines of Quadrophenia, one for each component of the band and for each one of Jimmy’s personalities.

The song starts with Daltrey personality (the naughty one, in Townshend’s idea). The second melodic line is the one where Daltrey sings “is It Me for a Moment?”, and corresponds to Entwistle, the “romantic” personality. Keith Moon’s line is the refrain in Bell Boy and corresponds to the “insane” personality. The last melodic line is Townshend’s one, “the good”, and it’s the one where Daltrey sings Love Reign o’er Me in the last song.

Jimmy is lost in his progressive estrangement, feeling the alienation and not obtaining enough answers from anyone, neither from the psychiatrist, nor from the mother, nor from the priest. Looking for answers, he decides to interrogate his mod idols. He goes to the concert of his favorite band (The Who, of course), but he is disappointed: they are mere lies, and in the end of the day he doesn’t have much to share with the other mods. He feels the growing awareness of his emotional superiority, of him being “the face”, the perfect mod.

How to become the best, the “Top of the Mods”, if not supporting for your own image? The protagonist leaves the school and starts working as a street sweeper (in the movie that will be extracted from the album a few years later, instead, he will be a mailman), a job that will depress him further; the pessimism and the despair will explode at the sight of her beloved Stephanie with his best friend.

Jimmy Cooper had enough of his existence. The dramatic I had enough is a showdown that is completed with the touching Love Reign o’er Me: a desperate cry of who meditates the suicide and stops at the very last moment.

Jimmy climbs on the train that will lead him to Brighton: in an altered and surreal mental state, he recalls the good old days, from the clashes with the rockers on those beaches to the friendship with the other mods, until his ex-girlfriend.

But there, in Brighton, there is now just him, reviving the images and the illusions of the past that overlaps in his twisted brain; the envied and imitated “ace face” (played by Sting in the film) is just a bellboy of a hotel, the girls he meets are just fools. Jimmy’s different personalities come together for a short moment, in a flash of lucidity (is It Me for a moment?), before the crisis of the final rage that will push him to steal a boat and slide through the falls. A moment before crashing, he will grab the rocks and leave the boat.

Jimmy comes out considerably transformed; he’s purified, he embraces the rain, finally finding himself and ready to vivify himself in love, the only thing that really gives a meaning to life. Through the pain, Jimmy has acquired a higher degree of awareness and maturity, and this is his victory. Quadrophenia is a universal tale.

The purification and the awareness through the pain, in the steep path towards the light; an obligatory path for everyone.

Only love can make it rain
The way the beach is kissed by the sea

The sound of the sea and a cry: love, reign over me! This is the essence of Quadrophenia.


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