The Who's Quadrophenia is one of the dullest albums ever released by a major rock band; it marks the spot where songwriter and guitarist Peter Townshend's abandoned (or lost) his genius for composing witty rock and roll and wicked power chords that were the cornerstone of all things anthemic in the trudging morass that largely was rock and roll when bands sought no longer to be fun or entertaining, but rather significant, "relevant" by capricious degrees, serious musicians of a sort who Had Something Important to Tell Us.
The worst offenders are the truly repellent likes of Yes, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, those bands with wind-up toy time signatures, castrati vocalists and reams of wretchedly vacant philosophizing that was so steeped in skull-crushing tedium that I suspect even Edgar Guest would call these guys grunting, formless worms choking down their own fecal trails. Still, there is some of this ambitious stuff that I think works, on their own terms--King Crimson, The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beef heart and his Magic Band. The lyrics from all three bands were idiosyncratic and free of pud wilting platitudes, and the music for the three of them was, overall, unique and entirely original blends of marginal influences that, when stirred the right way, created something just as original.
Peter Townshend had been called an intellectual so often by both the rock and the mainstream press that I suspect he came to believe and sought to live up to the image of the Thinking Artist. The irony was that he was already doing Art, a special and original kind of music; his sagging jock strap of an ego trip with Quadrophenia robbed him of that talent, which is to say his wit, which is to say again, his mojo, saying finally, his pretensions made him hand his balls over to the Muse, who was done playing with him. The groove never returned. Inspired rock and pop musicians and songwriters can be taken seriously to a degree, but there is always the danger of pomposity and self-congratulating bombast, the inflated sense of importance, that nearly always saps the music of real inspiration and vitality.
Yes, even the best of our generation's singer-songwriters have been maudlin, precious, and bordering on hard-edged baloney-mongering. But they have a knack, in general, to recover from their worst work and give us something actually inspired, focused, full of conviction. Still, others have not regrouped from their worst efforts. Sting, post-Police, is an auto-didactic tourist in other culture's music; he is lost in his pretensions, lost to us. Joni Mitchell decided she wanted to be a composer and a poet of an extremely diffuse, Eliot ilk and tried to merge meandering imagery with badly conceived, Mingus inspired impressionism; she has been minor league ever since. Peter Gabriel, in turn, has been largely quiet on the solo front and involved himself instead in other projects; this keeps our memory of his music a fond one.
There is nothing wrong with significance on the face of it, but that quality is generally the result of inspired work and an unmediated commitment to a creative surge that cannot, truthfully, be duplicated by force of will.Townshend, in my view, opted to make significant states in his lyrics at the sacrifice of the light touch he could frame in the context of a four-chord song. Where the previous double album, the rock-opera Tommy, was buoyant, rocking and didn't want for guitar hooks or the riffs, Quadrophenia got as serious as a ditch with songs that were bloated, wooden, humorless, positively no fun. It merits a mention that the theme was incomprehensible and that this is where singer Roger Daltrey's voice finally gave out. The guitar chords, once crashing, smashing and slashing in all the old descriptions of youth rebellion, were now leaden, robotic, rusty.
All that was left was a cracking bellow that made you think of nothing except an old building collapsing under its heft. Ambition is fine, but not without an idea of what you're doing. Someone told songwriter Peter Townshend that the modernist tradition demands a diffuse narrative, broken up in sharp pieces, and lacking resolution, techniques I fancy myself, given my devotion to the poetry of Eliot, Stein, and Silliman, but there is a knack to doing things that way, an "ear", if you will. Sentences and ideas that don't necessarily follow one another inconveniently logical, causal order require arrangement, a sense of what doesn't go together the right way: there is a reason why Bob Dylan's surrealism remains powerful five decades later and the more recent writings of Springsteen, someone clearly influenced by Dylan's turn to obscurity, are hardly quoted at all. Another problem as well might have been an inferiority complex; he stopped being an artist, writing and recording wonderful, brilliant, ingenious rock and roll songs the moment he started to try to be an artist on other people's terms. It's a self-conscious artiness that has made his music frightfully didactic, incomplete and a chore to bear.