The Who – Quadrophenia

There are four members, four distinct personalities in The Who, just as there are four distinct personalities inside Jimmy, the protagonist in “Quadrophenia”, the second rock opera by The Who. In the story, each band member represents one of Jimmy’s personalities. Each of Jimmy’s personalities is represented by a song and musical theme on the album.

Had an album of this depth been undertaken by any lesser band than The Who, it could have easily been a total flop. The Who made “Quadrophenia” one of their crowning achievements; one of the most ambitious, influential, memorable, and iconic albums of the 1970s.

Although “Quadrophenia” came out in 1973 and included a 44 page booklet with photography depicting scenes from the story, it was strictly a photo-story. There was not a “Quadrophenia” movie; at least not until 1979. The “Quadrophenia” soundtrack album, is similar to, but also distinctly different from the original album.

For the record (pun intended) Jimmy’s four personalities represented by the members of The Who and their main respective songs are:

    • The tough guy looking for a a fight – Roger Daltry – “Helpless Dancer”
    • The hopeless romantic just wanting to share his affection – John Entwistle – “Is It Me?”
    • The out of control, unpredictable crazy guy – Keith Moon – “Bell Boy”
    • The desperate beggar, con-man, and hypocrite – Pete Townshend – “Love Reign O’er Me”

Jesus Christ Superstar

I never thought the album “Jesus Christ Superstar” was sacrilegious, but the BBC did, banning its broadcast in the U.K.

When I first heard “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971 it made me want to learn more about Jesus Christ and his teachings. It’s not an easy task to get a 9-year-old kid to want to learn about religion, but this album did for me.

Sacrilegious? I think not.

I think my favorite moment on the album is the song “Gethsemane (I only want to say)”. Where, in a brief moment of doubt, Christ initially asks God to “take this cup away from me” and moments later, realizing he needs die for our sins, tells God “I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross and break me”. Ian Gillan (from Deep Purple) sings with such conviction I get teared up every time I hear it.

Since “Jesus Christ Superstar” is rock opera that tells the story of the final week leading up to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion that leads to His resurrection, I made it a tradition a few years back to listen to it every Easter Sunday.

Sacrilegious? I think not.

Alice Cooper Goes To Hell

“Alice Cooper goes To Hell” is the continuation of the “bedtime story” that started on Alice’s previous album “Welcome to My Nightmare”. The album tells the story of Alice’s unwanted descent into the depths of the underworld and his attempt to escape through influencing the dreams of Steven, a character introduced in a song on Cooper’s previous record.

Ironically, “Alice Cooper Goes To Hell” paralleled Alice Cooper’s real decent into the lowest depths of his life as it was being consumed by alcoholism. The tour for this album would end up being canceled because of his failing health and Cooper had himself committed to rehab, which at that time, meant being committed to a mental asylum. Cooper’s subsequent album, “From the Inside”, would be written about his experience there.

Cooper maintains his sobriety to this day, finding his refuge in both his music and golf. I heard him joke in an interview a while back that with golf, he traded one addiction for the other. Good trade.

Alice Cooper continues his musical career to today. He released his 27th album “Paranormal” last year and will be playing the role of King Herod in a televised stage performance of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” this Easter Sunday.

The Who – Tommy

In 1969, with the release of “Tommy”, The Who set the standard for a rock opera, and they set the bar high.

I always appreciated concept albums and more especially, rock operas. There has got go be so much more involved in making a cohesive collection of songs that revolve around a singular concept; even more so for telling a specific story compared to just a collection of songs. You have to constantly try to find that balance between keeping the story interesting and understandable while keeping the songs individually understandable and, more importantly, enjoyable.

While finding that balance could seem an undaunting, nearly impossible task, The Who made it look easy with “Tommy”. The album revolves around the main character who, while very young observes an incident so traumatic it rendered him mentally blind, deaf, and dumb (for those raised before the age of political correctness, “dumb” meant “mute”). He is eventually broken out of his isolated shell, and his awakening is viewed by society as a miracle. Tommy begins to view himself as a new Messiah but he is quickly brought back to reality when his followers rebel against his authoritarianism.

One of the things that impressed me about the recording of “Tommy” is that when presented with the demos and concept, the record company wanted to have the band record it with full orchestration. But The Who refused to make the album with any instruments the four band members were not able to play themselves. For that reason, the album has a somewhat stripped down sound.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak

One of the greatest things about buying an album is that sometimes you discover the songs you hear on the radio are actually part of a bigger musical composition. Unless you actually listened to Thin Lizzy’s album Jailbreak in it entirety, or read the back cover, you would have no idea that the two songs from the album that you heard all over the radio in 1976 (and are still classic rock radio staples today) we’re actually part of a larger conceptual piece of music. 

The two biggest hits off the album – the title track and “The Boys Are Back in Town” are two small parts of a story about a world ruled by the Overmaster, who controls all media and religious belief, and who has imprisons everyone who doesn’t comply to his will. A riot is organized in one of the jails that leads to a planned mass escape. All the escapees are captured – except for four. On the lamb, they start broadcasting banned music and become the inspiration for the people to rise up and take their freedom back. It’s not a complicated story, but then again, neither is the concept of freedom. 

The best thing about Jailbreak however, isn’t how the songs all fit together to tell a bigger story, it’s how they tell the bigger story and also stand alone as a just a collection of great songs. 

Rush 2112

Rush is a band that always exemplified virtuosity and detail. They were also band that believed in change and doing things their way.

Rush’s first two albums were straightforward hard rock records that were fairly successful for the Canadian power trio, earning them a modest but dedicated following. However, their third album, Caress Of Steel, with its extended songs that went into progressive rock territory, was a flop for the band after it came out. But the band still had one more album to release in fulfillment of the record deal it signed with Mercury records. So disillusioned, they went back into the studio figuring their fourth record would probably be their last. It ended up becoming one of their most successful.

The record label wanted them to go back to their previous hard rock style with shorter songs, but the band members figured if they were going to do only one more album it was going to be done the way they want to do it. Against the recommendation of the record execs, they decided to make the first side of the album a mini rock opera based on a lyrical storyline their drummer Neil Peart had written. 

The premise is a futuristic science fiction story that took place in a dystopian society in the year 2112. The world is run by the priests who use powerful computers to determine how best to run a structured and efficient society where people are not necessarily happy, but for the most part, satisfied with their lives. The priests and their computers make all the decision for the people including what is considered art and what music people listen to. 

Venturing outside the city limits, a wanderer discovers an ancient guitar hidden in a cave behind a waterfall. Discovering the music he can make on it, unlike anything he had heard before, he takes his wonderful discovery to the priests so they can share it with the people. Instead, they get angry, smashing the guitar and telling him “it doesn’t fit the plan.” He leaves the city for good to live in isolation inside the cave. One night he has a dream of the elder race, who left the planet to “learn and grow,” before the priests took over. He has a premonition of them returning to reclaim their home. But as time passes, he begins to doubt his vision. Despondent and disillusioned, he eventually commits suicide. A bittersweet ending, as he never lives to see that his vision was real. The elder race return and give back to the people the freedom to make their own choices. 

There is an interesting detail that Rush put at the very end of the song 2112. After the elder race reclaim the world, they announce: three times “Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation” and then three times “We have assumed control.” The first part, seven words said three times, is collectively, 21 words, the second phrase is four words said three times, totalling 12 words. 2112