Opera meets rock with album re-up
2015 has turned out to be quite the year for legendary rock group The Who. Aside from their breakthrough single “My Generation” and celebrating their 50th anniversary in the industry, the band is currently undertaking what lead singer Roger Daltrey and lead guitarist Pete Townshend are calling their last ever majorconcert tour.
Shortly after the end of the first North American leg of the tour, Townshend released a new studio project that features a classic The Who album presented in a completely new and unique way.
One of The Who’s most popular works is their 1973 double concept album, Quadrophenia. The album, which tells the story of a wayward teenager’s quest for self-discovery and self-worth, is considered by both fans and music critics to represent the band at the peak of their musicianship and songwriting abilities.
Quadrophenia has spawned both an equally popular film adaptation in 1979 and two highly successful and critically acclaimed retrospective tours in 1996 and 2012.
Last summer, Townshend entered a collaboration with composer Rachel Fuller and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to completely transform Quadrophenia from a traditional rock album into a legitimate body of classical opera, aptly titled Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia.
The idea of taking rock music and remaking it with an orchestra is hardly a new concept. However, many previous efforts were usually done with little, if any, involvement from the original artists. The main focus is covering their obligatory greatest hits. Considering the scope of the project, Townshend’s involvement is very evident from the first track all the way to the last. The result is an album that manages to sound less like a modern tribute album and more like a new piece of art.
The process of changing the music of the original album from a four-piece rock band into a bombastic orchestral opera has lead to some interesting changes in translation.
For any longtime Who fan that listens to the album, it is interesting to hear the eclectic guitar, thunderous bass and frenetic drumming replaced by a fully realized and fully trained symphony orchestra.
While most of the songs retain their original arrangements, a few of them were completely changed for this album. One example was the rearranged “Sea and Sand.” What was once a simple soft rock ballad has now become an intricately arranged song that replaces the guitar with strings and piano. The only original piece of music written for this album was the reimagined opening track, “I Am the Sea.”
On the original record the brief acapella piece foreshadows the various lyrical themes of the album. For classical revamp, it was completely rearranged and rewritten to serve as an overture to the opera, referencing four songs in the interim: “Helpless Dancer,” “Bell Boy,” “Is It Me?” and “Love Reign o’er Me.”
Two similar instrumentals, the title track and “The Rock,” were already further in the track list in the original album, but an instrumental like this works the best when it is opening the album.
Adding an operatic feel to the storyline, several additional singers provide voices for the various characters.
Three more singers provide co-lead vocals while playing several characters from the storyline. Actor Phil Daniels, who played Jimmy in the film adaptation, provides the voice of Jimmy’s condescending father.
There is almost a kind of irony to Daniels, well-known for playing a rebellious teenager, coming full circle to play a member of the dreaded establishment. Fellow rock legend Billy Idol plays the dual role of both the swaggering Ace Face and the pitiful Bell Boy.
Though he does not imitate Keith Moon’s almost cartoonish vocals as the Bell Boy, Idol brings about everything that’s expected of the character. Even Townshend has his turn on the microphone, reprising his role as the Godfather on the song, “The Punk and the Godfather.” His performance serves as a piece of fan service for fans of the original album.
The original Quadrophenia featured some of The Who’s strongest vocal work from Daltrey. So naturally, the producers of Classic Quadrophenia were tasked with the challenge of properly filling the voice of a legendary singer. Famed British tenor singer Alfie Boe provides the vocals for the opera’s protagonist, Jimmy.
Boe’s vocals manage to bring a whole new level of vocal tenacity and confidence to the album, all without trying too hard to outdo Daltrey’s classic vocals. The strongest example is in the album’s epic closing track, “Love Reign o’er Me.” In less than six minutes, Boe conveys feelings of angst, sadness and redemption that take the listener on an emotional journey and bring the album to an epic conclusion.