Can You See the Real Me? URO Kicks up The Who’s “Quadrophenia” March 29

Mar 23, 2014

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The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” put bluntly, was the most key album of my youth. No, I didn’t live in London, ride a scooter, or was part of a gang (neither Mod nor Rocker). But I was a teenager, growing up with extreme joys and conflicts – with parents, with authority, with love and sex, with booze, with who the hell I wanted to be. It didn’t hurt that the protagonist was named Jimmy. The “four personalities in one body” thing written by Pete Townshend hit my psychic home and as a rock opera it cut closer to the bone than the more fanciful and mystical “Tommy.” It also had some of Keith Moon’s most frenetic drumming. So, it helped get me through my teenage years and has resonated throughout my life. I’ve seen the Who play it live four times, including their last time at TD Garden.

Boston’s Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra – responsible for keeping the songs of Queen, Bowie, Zeppelin and others alive and fresh – are now tackling this most complicated of projects Saturday March 29 at 8 at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. We had an e-chat with URO’s main man Sal Clemente on what this meant and why he and company are staging in.

JSInk: Why did you choose this?

Clemente: Last November, we’d just finished performing a well-received run of our version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and putting something that complex together gave us a great feeling of accomplishment. We love that the URO gives us the flexibility to do special and different performances like JCS and we decided we wanted to do something equally ambitious. Leland Stein, at The Regent Theatre, suggested we do “Tommy” next, but “Quadrophenia” resonated more with me (and it turned out, with the members of URO) and I thought “Tommy,” although perhaps better known, just wasn’t as challenging as doing “Quadrophenia” would be. We pitched it to the theatre and they, to their credit, were all for it. “Quadrophenia” is an epic, seminal piece of music. It’s difficult to execute, but still accessible – by that I mean, like “Superstar,” there are anchor songs that keep it from wallowing into prog, so just when you think you might be lost, Pete gives you something that’s a bit easier to chew on – hard to swallow maybe, but easier to chew on. Hopefully, fans of The Who and the URO will appreciate that it’s not something bands do every day and come out to support the effort.

What does “Quadrophenia” mean to you personally?

I love the album and the songs. Being a kid and opening that record and reading Jimmy’s story and looking at those pictures while listening to the songs really did something that only the concept album can do. It allowed me, the listener, to build Jimmy’s world. This was a direct parallel to my experience with “Sgt. Pepper” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  Like “Superstar” I thought the URO could bring something new to it as well, which hopefully the audience will appreciate.

The songs on the album don’t tell a linear (filmable) story of Jimmy’s life, but really delve into the far edges of Pete Townshend’s id. Each song a complete arc of a story. As such, I don’t want to ‘see’ a linear story slapped onto these songs. I want the audience that hears us play “Quadrophenia” to take the same journey the record took me on – and that’s an aural journey. It’s the greatest of errors to try to slap a narrative onto a concept album like “Quadrophenia.” As evidence, the “Quadrophenia” film plainly fails to capture the breadth of storytelling of the recording, it bloody well ignores the record!

How difficult was this to learn?

We’re deep in the process and…it is extremely difficult. Some of the song structures are very unconventional. We also want to do what musicians are supposed to do and deliver something of ourselves to the music. For example, Pete’s demo version of “The Real Me” has a fifth verse that wasn’t on the original recording. I can understand why, at the time, they excised the verse, but now…the lyrics of that verse have a profound resonance to me, and I’m certain others. So I suggested we merge that verse into our arrangement of the song, which adds a few layers of risk to the effort because – will people appreciate the change, and will we execute the idea well enough? Another example -  we have put a gospel spin on the vocal and music arrangement of “Drowned”. Hopefully, these choices work for the piece as a whole and for the audience. “Quadrophenia” is also a bit bi-polar (Schizophrenic? I’m bleeding Quadrophrenic!) – one of our guitarists, Clinton Degan was saying that the first half of the piece (through “I’ve Had Enough”) is very firmly structured, but from “5:15” on things get more and more loose, almost like Pete (and the band) were falling apart as they struggled to complete the album. I don’t think that most folks appreciate the kind of effort it takes to write, record and produce a 90 minute piece of music that is held together by a single conceptual idea.

Were you affected by the fact that the Who kicked this album up last time through – and have played it with some regularity since its fall-apart debut back in the early 70s?

I think the fact that The Who continue to perform “Quadrophenia” regularly just goes to show how important it is to them (especially Pete). I heard Pete say in a recent documentary on the BBC that “Quadrophenia” was ‘the last great album by The Who.’ I remembered hearing about the rough launch of the first tour in the ‘70′s but I didn’t realize until recently that they had toured it as much as they have. Certainly they should. How many records now require you to listen to them front to back in order to receive the full message the artist intended to impart? But if you don’t listen through to “Love Reign O’er Me” then you don’t ‘get’ the moment of catharsis and if you don’t listen to what happens before then why would you need catharsis? “Quadrophenia” is a very important piece of music and deserves to be heard live – it’s also amazing to be a performer and sing and play these songs.

“Quadrophenia” gives us a little bit of a sugar high but there’s a big price to pay for it. That’s the kind of rock and roll that sticks with you for a long time and it must be kept alive, not just through recordings, but live performances. Unlike other creatures, we humans gather in large groups to share the experience of music…to find a communal feeling we can’t get anywhere else. In the history of humanity, no art form, no religion, has achieved this to the degree that rock music has. On March 29, in The Regent Theatre, 500 people (audience and performers) are going to go on a hell of a ride.

Pete Townshend dug down into himself to pull up every harsh truth about what it means to be young, invincible, and full of yourself, and then be forced to face the reality that you don’t know anything; that you’ll never get what really want but that there might be a way to live with that.
And then he worked with a tight-knit group of amazing musicians to give those truths artistic expression.  THAT is very difficult to do. Those truths are hard to look at; hard to listen to, but they are necessary and important – and they have immense value.

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