The Who normally get tabbed as just that band—and Pete Townshend as just that writer—because of the staggering success of 1969's Tommy, the
record most people think of as the first and best rock opera. But it certainly wasn't the first. Before there was Nirvana, there was the British band
called Nirvana and an early foray into the rock opera sub-genre, with 1967's The Story of Simon Simopath. Sadly, for Simon, his operatic
journey clocked in at a mere 25-and-a-half minutes, making him somewhat less than Wagnerian in scope. The Pretty Things—who started off as a scuzzy
R&B band—got in on the act with S.F. Sorrow the next year. The Kinks uncorked Arthur in 1969, an album that some fans argue is the
rock-opera gold standard, never mind that it's essentially a collection of vignettes—albeit gorgeous and well-drawn ones.
And so we come to Tommy, the de facto celebrity in the rock-opera canon, with 20 million copies sold and a place in the Grammy Hall of
Fame, never mind that it's not even the best rock opera by the Who. For starters, Tommy always functioned better as a live performance piece
than it did on vinyl. There's a muted quality to the record—despite Keith Moon's orchestral approach to drumming—and the Who proceed at a leisurely
gait. On stage, they cranked up the pace and the volume such that the audience felt like they were in on something messianic as Townshend's "deaf, dumb,
and blind boy" becomes a pinball savant. An enlightening time was had by all.
That other rock opera by the Who—1973's Quadrophenia—doesn't get the attention that Tommy does. It was seen as something of
a letdown ("on its own terms, Quadrophenia falls short of the mark," wrote Rolling Stone at the time), having been preceded by Who's Next, the album most critics cite as the band's best. Tommy, meanwhile, had acquired mystical status with rock fans, becoming an album
that would be familiar as a cultural reference even to people who had not heard it, like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But Quadrophenia is getting another coming out party today, with a splashy, extended reissue, complete with a much-needed remastering. Our hero is a
mod named Jimmy, who has the time of his life taking part in some youth riots in Brighton. He gets his girl, loses his girl, becomes fed up with the
hypocrisy of the mod lifestyle, does lots of uppers, travels back to Brighton where he had his good times, takes a boat out to a rock, passes out on
the rock after forgetting to tether his boat, and, we assume, dies there while Roger Daltrey bellows "Love Reign O'er Me." But the reason why no other
band was so well-suited to the rock opera medium comes down to the Who's dual nature. In essence, the band was really two groups, and that served well
in bridging the gap between rock and opera. There was the aggressive act behind singles like "My Generation," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," and "I Can See For
Miles." And then there was the arty band behind the "mini-opera" "A Quick One, While He's Away," Tommy, and the synth-heavy Who's Next. Rarely did the twain meet—save on Quadrophenia, where opera buffa and opera seria collide as Townshend flits
in and out of the mix, and a soundscape builds and builds, while an aggressive, wailing, almost punk band rages at its core. Epic and feral, at once.