Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Who?

The other day, into my in-box popped one of those press releases emblazoned with the portentous word EMBARGOED. This indicates something Very Important Is Happening, only we're not allowed to say - or such is the implication.

Turns out that the reason is that the recently released orchestral recording of The Who's Quadrophenia has been denied its rightful spot in the classical chart (at the very top) because it isn't actually classical music. The press release quotes composer Pete Townshend's fury at the snobbism of the classical world, as expressed on Twitter: “So musical snobbery in the “classical” elite is still alive & kicking then? F**k ’em. There’s a huge team behind this album, entirely rooted in the practical world of recorded classical music, who deserve better than this petty slap-down. I know I'm a rock dinosaur and I'm happy to be one, but the team on Classic Quadrophenia are all young, creative and brilliant.” – Pete Townshend  

So is a 'rock opera' a 'classical' opera or not? I once had a look at this issue for The Independent. It was ten years ago and the website has been revamped since then, unfortunately making it impossible to open the article. Therefore I'm re-running it below. My feelings about the negative impact of insisting on putting things in boxes haven't changed.

Incidentally, in the Olden Days, "music" in a newspaper review section meant what we now call "classical music", while other stuff was called "pop music". At some point - in the eighties? the nineties? not sure - the situation was reversed. This was the doing of the media, not of the art form. Recently Julian Lloyd Webber suggested that we should get rid of these labels once and for all, and I think he's right. As Korngold once said, music is music.

Meanwhile, the implications of not classifying orchestral Quadrophenia as classical music are potentially quite positive - depending on who has suggested this and why.

Let me explain. The Musicians Union pays different rates to orchestral players for classical recordings and for non-classical recordings.

If you are a rank-and-file member of an orchestra, the MU rate for a classical session of three hours' duration is £71.76.

For a non-classical recording of the same length, the same player would be paid £120.

It would therefore be a lot more expensive to record a big orchestra playing something that is not classified as classical music. And no doubt this contributes to certain classifications of certain stuff as classical when it is actually...something else.

The reverse might potentially apply in this case - which would be an admirable contrast.




Among my biggest regrets is having missed the 1960s. Not the fashions or the drugs, I hasten to add, but the music. Creative things were happening then that just didn’t apply during my teens in the unfortunate Eighties. When The Who released its double album Tommy in 1969, it coined a new concept of ‘rock opera’, following it up with Quadrophenia in 1973. Both were later made into feature films, but by then I was busy practising piano, violin, oboe and ballet, so I missed the lot. Therefore a new DVD set of The Who performing live – Tommy from 1989 and Quadrophenia from a 1996 tour of a specially adapted revival – is my first taste of Peter Townshend’s ‘rock operas’. They’re original, stirring, peculiarly irresistible. They’re certainly ‘rock’. But are they remotely ‘operatic’?

The New Grove Dictionary, musical academia’s Bible, gives the following definition of opera: “The generic term for musical dramatic works in which the actors sing some or all of their parts. Opera is a union of music, drama and spectacle …” Its most extreme manifestation is Wagner’s ideal, the gesamtkunstwerk – ‘complete art work’, combining music, drama and spectacle to the highest degree. More generally, when you go to an opera, you expect to see a good story and believable characters in, hopefully, a halfway decent production, with music that is appropriate, inspired, sophisticated and well performed. You hope to come out moved and uplifted.

A ‘purist’, of course, would have plenty of objections to calling Tommy and Quadrophenia ‘operas’. For a start, in most operas worth their salt, you find a variety of musical structures: dramatic scenas, choruses, love duets, reflective solo arias and ensembles where characters simultaneously express different viewpoints. The singers have to act, staying in their roles for the duration. But the majority of the songs in Tommy and Quadrophenia are simply songs. They progress, in Tommy, one after the other without speech; telling a story, but without the wide variety you’d expect in a ‘real’ opera.  In these staged versions, unlike the feature films, the members of the band aren’t in costume (given Roger Daltrey’s muscular good looks in 1996, that’s fine with me) and they convey a variety of different viewpoints as the stories unfold. The guest artists do adopt characters and costumes: in Tommy, Patti Labelle sings The Acid Queen, Billy Idol the bullying Cousin Kevin, and there are guest spots for Phil Collins and Elton John; Quadrophenia features Billy Idol as the Ace Face.

On the other hand, Townshend – who’d penned operas and studied orchestration, but didn’t expect The Who to perform such things – lets rip when opportunity allows. Tommy’s recurring plaint, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me”, is as raw and vulnerable as anything you’ll hear in Covent Garden, though probably not every singer could bring it off as convincingly as Daltrey. And Tommy’s overture is as fizzy and galvanising as any Rossini.

Opera traditionally deals with emotion on a grand scale – from Monteverdi’s chilling 16th-century vision of a Roman emperor and his mistress murdering their enemies in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, through Wagner’s depiction of the end of the world in Götterdammerung, and Verdi’s musical transformations of stories by Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. More operas flounder because of lousy libretti than for any other reason – huge chunks of Italian bel canto, French Romanticism and German Expressionism, not to mention works from the later 20th century, are rendered third-rate because of their hopeless stories. Timelessness, humanity and a well-constructed plot can count for much in an opera’s longevity.

Tommy and Quadrophenia both involve powerful emotions, springing from a shared underlying theme: the legacy of a generation’s wartime traumas upon its children. Unlike many operas other than Wagner’s, words and music originate (mainly) with the same creator. Tommy’s plot lets it down a bit, requiring major suspension of disbelief: a child witnesses the murder of his father by his mother’s lover, turns blind, deaf and dumb in consequence, becomes a pinball champion, then is cured by a smashed mirror and turns into a pseudo-Messiah who nonetheless remains alienated by the severity of his experience. Hmm.

Quadrophenia is more internalised: most of it takes place inside Jimmy’s muddled head. Yet this adolescent anti-hero’s spiritual journey involves emotions that run so high, with imagery so strong and archetypal, that Townshend borrows directly from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to depict a boat journey. Wagner writes about gods building Valhalla, Townshend about an alienated teenager running away to Brighton; yet their protagonists are tormented to the limits of their experience, whether through godhood or through drink and drugs. Wagner’s monumental power matches the myths behind his stories; Townshend’s rock soundworld fits Jimmy’s angry internal agony to perfection.

It’s in Quadrophenia that Townshend really crosses the great divide. The four different aspects of Jimmy’s mind are each represented by a leitmotif, a Wagnerian association of idea with musical theme, which join together at the climax when Jimmy is stranded alone on a rock in the sea and experiences his spiritual epiphany (“It’s difficult to make four leitmotifs work together,” comments Townshend on the DVD. “It’s easy if you’re Bach, or that bloke from Coldplay…”). In the original album, each member of the band represented a different part of the four-fold personality. Meanwhile, there’s a gesamtkunstwerk idea too: in this version, Jimmy’s narration is portrayed on film, images of the sea return constantly, and near the start a lengthy instrumental interlude accompanies a montage of newsreel footage, tracing the evolution of teenagers against a background of the Blitz, Churchill, Hiroshima, rationing and the Beatles. What’s more, Quadrophenia’s subject matter – growing up – is timeless.

In some ways, Quadrophenia is more successfully operatic than many ‘official’ operas of the same time, not least because it’s a sophisticated fusion of artforms, primarily well-wrought music, with something powerful to communicate. Townshend reached his audience by writing about alienation; but in the Seventies his classical contemporaries, experiencing alienation themselves, frequently forgot their audience altogether. Stockhausen’s operas (like Donnerstag aus Licht, 1978) are too naval-gazingly bizarre to expect much uptake. Michael Tippett, who wrote his own libretti, sometimes created psychological stories so convoluted that they can remain baffling even if you like the music. As for Harrison Birtwistle, there can be few figures in contemporary culture so showered with critical awards yet so unwelcomed by the general public. One could argue that opera is opera whether or not anyone goes to see it, and that the mere presence of an audience is certainly no assurance of artistic quality. But if the audience is alienated by both story and sounds, no opera, rock or otherwise, is likely to live for long.

The Who’s rock operas connect with a public wide enough to include classical music journalists. We were all teenagers once. We’ve been there too, even if we were practising three instruments at the time. And we love good music, well performed, whatever its genre. Tommy and Quadrophenia are as characteristic of their era as any opera by Mozart or Wagner; now, with our feet planted firmly in a new century, it seems they can also stand the test of time.


Labels can be deceptive; at worst, they stifle creative thought. Quadrophenia may not be a traditional opera, but it’s a bloody marvellous band performing terrific music that tells a strong story, blending song, drama and spectacle in a manner of its own. Moved? Exhilarated? Uplifted? You bet. Rock opera? Yeah. Why not?