I was trying to make sense of this Rock thing. By 1973 the world of rock was beginning to really captivate me. It was a journey without a map, all I had was the New Musical Express and late-night radio shows. Occasionally I would catch The Old Grey Whistle Test but that tended to confuse matters as it seemed to feature Californian singer songwriters rather heavily.
As I commented previously, the Who were always around, particularly Pete Townsend who seemed to have a one-man crusade to communicate with as many people in as many formats as much of the time as possible.
And so, it was on one late night show that I came across Townsend talking about his latest ‘project’. It was another rock opera (at this point I hadn’t even got to grips with his first which had recently been remade in some terrible orchestral ‘project’). The star of this new opera would not be Tommy but Jimmy and Jimmy would have four different aspects to his personality which would be represented by the four distinctly different members of the band. Jimmy would not be schizophrenic he would be Quadrophonic which by no co incidence at all was the prevailing audio technology of the day designed for people with more than two ears.
I might have only been an impressionable 14 year old but this was already sounding like complete garbage. Townsend was as usual overreaching himself by creating what was going to be the greatest musical spectacular ever only to have the reality crashing to the ground when it was released to the general public. No wonder he drank!
My schoolmate Phil had an older sister who, every 6 months would buy an album. This would cause us great excitement in our vinyl starved days. You can imagine our anticipation when she brought home the latest double album by the Who, namely Quadrophenia.
Unlike Tommy, Townsend’s second ‘opera’ is actually a pretty good selection of songs, there’s a coherence about the record that Tommy lacked. Apparently, this meant that when they toured the record Daltrey took time out to explain to the audience just what the hell was going on- sounds like fun. Anyway, if you ignore the storyline bollocks and accept there aren’t 4 sides to Jimmy’s personality and the story isn’t that great anyway Quadrophenia is a pretty good album.
Sandwiched between these two events, in my life anyway, was the mighty single 5:15.
This first came to my attention when the band appeared on Top of the Pops (yes they would do that, Fuck you Zeppelin !). With no VCR you had to make the most of these appearances, three minutes or so and they were gone, possibly for ever. The talk in the classroom with my select band of friends the next day was around just how great that performance had been. We had been particularly impressed by Daltrey’s mike swinging which we sought to emulate. By tying a knot in our school scarves, we could stamp about pretending to be Daltrey swinging his mike. Today of course we would have had to undergone a health and safety appraisal but in 1973 we just hoped that we wouldn’t hit anyone tougher than us by accident.
After a couple of years our school appeared seemed to admit that religious education (RE) was a bit of a mistake. We had spent a year looking at bible stories during which our teacher attempted to persuade us that Jesus was some sort of Hebrew Derren Brown rooting the miracles in some sort of grand illusion. For a following year we received weird life lessons which involved the teacher talking about what the hell they wanted to. All I can remember is one day he played January Song by Lindisfarne and on a further occasion he informed us that after taking LSD you never become a car salesman (really!)
Before we could turn to a rational world and drop RE altogether we had to complete some weird community service and were sent out to do ‘good works’. Along with a couple of fellow classmates I was given the addresses of a couple of elderly people and told to go and ask them if they needed ‘anything doing’. At the first address we were informed by an elderly and possible terrified man that he had no use for us. To be fair he was probably less scared than all of us forced well outside our comfort zones and terrified of looking a fool in front of our peers. At the second address, much to our relief, no one answered. We mooched about the streets for a while and went back to school.
Following our failure to engage with the needy our teacher had a bright idea-we could volunteer at the local mental hospital. There was a psychiatric institution quite near who we all called the ‘loony bin’ of course. Understanding of mental health was almost non existent and individuals with all sorts of problems would be incarcerated in huge Victorian buildings (the’ House on the Hill Kevin Coyne was to sing about’). Due to this separation between the well and not so well there was quite a fascination with ‘madness’ Pink Floyd and David Bowie for example were to carve out careers with their own experiences with mental illness.
It certainly seemed more interesting than old people so off we trotted up the hill twirling our knotted scarves and singing the riff to 5.15.
Amazingly we had had no preparation at all for this, we were simply told to go. I can’t remember how we even got in but soon we were patrolling ancient corridors with absolutely no idea of where we were going. Eventually someone who looked like he might have a job there appeared, we explained our predicament and after a bit of sucking of teeth he led us to a ward.
We were greeted by a doctor ‘thanks god you’ve come’ he said ‘we’ve been expecting you, let me show you where you will be sleeping’. We exchanged worried glances as we were shown our quarters. Eventually some had to point out we hoped to be school by 4pm and hadn’t expected to stay overnight. The Doctor was quite apologetic, he had been expecting a group of junior doctors to be arriving. Now this would have been an understandable mistake had it not been for the fact that we were all 14 years old and dressed in school uniform. We began to suspect the lunatics had taken over the asylum.
We were eventually relocated to another ward where we were delivered to another nurse who wore the expression that would become familiar to me over the years which basically said ‘I’ve got enough to do without you fuckers being dumped on me’. Still, like most nurses she was friendly enough, so friendly in fact that she would kiss some of the inmates on the lips if they asked her to. It appeared that we were now trapped in some overheated smoke tunnel. Somewhere in the gloom were various elderly men sat in chairs, smoking was the main activity but some of the livelier inmates had board games. We were terrified, I don’t think we moved further than a yard from the door in all the time we were there despite the nurses attempt to get us to mingle. At various intervals a man would lurch out of the smoke and grab the door handle ‘thank you, I must be going now’ he would tell us. Nurse would then take him gently by the hand ‘it’s not time to go yet Billy’ she would tell him as she guided him back into the gloom pausing only to kiss anyone who need it. Billy was quite persistent but so was the nurse, it seemed to pass the time.
Eventually, realising that she had landed the most useless volunteers ever the good nurse disappeared to actually do some work. We skulked by the door trying to look as inconspicuous as a gangling bunch of 14-year olds wearing a school uniform in a mental hospital could do. Time dragged, Billy appeared ‘thank you, I must be going now’ he said
And then he was gone..
Time dragged, my lungs were screaming in protest, I was to young to have emphysema. We decided it was time to leave and waved the nurse over. ‘Where’s Billy?’ she asked. We had to admit that Billy had left the building as were we, suddenly the Nurse seemed to have something more urgent on her mind, we took the opportunity to depart.
Now, I swear this is true. As we trudged down the gravel path though the ample grounds we caught sight of Billy being pursued by a number of staff, he seemed to be making a good effort to run but I expect it was only a matter of time..
Anyway, we were out, breathing fresh air and tasting sweet freedom.
In the meantime, the Who were struggling to present the grand concept of Townsend’s latest offering. One problem was that Quadrophenia relied heavily on other instruments notably Townsend’s keyboards and Entwistle’s horn parts. Ironically, given the orchestra that now constitutes the band, all apart from Townsend were resistant to other musicians being involved. The solution they decided was to use tapes, that’s tapes not digital samples, what could go wrong?
It was a disaster, the tapes failed to operate as anyone not in the band might have predicted. Playing along with pre-recorded music is one of the most dispiriting things a musician can do especially a band like the Who. One night the ever cheerful Townsend, exasperated by the tapes starting at the wrong or just not starting at all hauled long suffering sound man Bob Pridden over the mixing desk and basically beat him up in front of the audience and then set about destroying the tapes with his bare hands. Eventually a compromise was reached and a lot of the Quadrophenia material was dropped and Townsends grand folly was over.
At least until he revived the show with a stellar array of stars including Garry Glitter.
But let’s not go there….