This fall, two records from the early 1970s are being reissued: Godspell, the 1971 interpretation of the gospels, and the Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia.
I went back and listened to both records, and was struck by how deeply spiritual, intelligent and brave the works are. In fact, Quadrophenia is a work of genius. I am tempted to write that today's music is shallow compared to records like Godspell and Quadrophenia. But that falls into an argument that I disagree with -- that big, ambitious records about Life are always superior to simple pop music. To me, songs about cars and girls are not shallow; rather, the best of them deal with elemental questions of joy, love, and suffering.
Yet it can't be denied: Quadrophenia is on an entirely different level than anything out today.
The double album, which will be released as a super deluxe package (for $150!) in October, propels the listener into a different world. It is England in the early 1960s, and a teenager, Jimmy -- Who leader Pete Townshend's alter ego -- is feeling pulled apart. He has been diagnosed schizophrenic, but he claims he is actually "quadrophonic," having four personalities. The diagnoses is a metaphor for the different personalities that adolescents attach themselves to in order to fit in. This could have been a clumsy, self-pitying conceit, but it Townshend's hands it becomes deeply affecting art. Jimmy is not only confused; he is a poet. He has the ability not only to perceive the reality around him, but to analyze his own failings and motivations. "I'm One" is one of the best songs ever written about a kid trying to fit in.
Part of the power of Quadrophenia comes from the milieu. It is the early 1960s in London and Brighton, the British reside resort where riots between mods and rockers, two rival gangs, took place in 1964. A reoccurring theme is living under the constant reality of violence. Another is the sea. It is both a dangerous elemental force that seemed to birth Jimmy in all his craziness -- the album opener is "I am the Sea" -- as well as a place of healing and baptism.
Jimmy constantly refers to the sea as a place of both security and a joyful unpredictability. Rarely has the teenage tension between both wanting to fit in and be respected for one's individuality been explored with more passion, insight or humor. Jimmy is a mod who fetishistically examines his clothes to make sure they are right, takes drugs, gets kicked out of his parents' house and falls in love. These forces reoccur in the music, which repeats certain themes. (I've always wondered why Townshend staged Tommy on Broadway instead of the much more coherent Quadrophenia).
One of the great things about the Who is that, like a lot of bands from the 1960s, their sound evolved. In Quadrophenia, Townshend is looking back on his younger self, a person who looks and sounds different. The Who's first single, "I'm the Face," is a poppy song that was targeted to the mod audience and sounds nothing like the Who on Quadrophenia. More than any other rock musician, Townshend allowed himself to age and wrote about it with perception.
If R.E.M. or Pearl Jam decide to makes another record, it's a pretty good bet that it will sound like their last ten records. And it's a sure thing that they would not have the guts to criticize their former selves. I mean, R.E.M. has made the same record over and over again for ten years.
At the climax of Quadrophenia, Jimmy becomes overwhelmed. The violence, drugs, family life and unrequited love are too much. He returns to the sea, the chaotic yet wondrous place that birthed him, and contemplates suicide. In the film version, Jimmy drives his scooter along the White Cliffs of Dover, daring himself to plunge it over the edge. At the last second he turns away, letting to scooter fall and crash to the rocks below. The answer is the the same as it ever was: love.
"Love Reign O'er Me," the album's closer, has become a rock staple. But it is even more powerful when experienced as the culmination of the music that comes before it. It's a shame that bands aren't attempting this kind of sprawling grandeur anymore.
Somehow Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark just doesn't cut it.
Not quite a work of genius, Godspell is also being reissued in a 2-cd remastered edition. I remember loving the record when it first came out in 1971 for two reasons: the cover art, with its red, white and black primary colors and depiction of the young, beardless face of Christ, and the songs. I was born in 1964 and had grown up in the post-Vatican II era of dismal songs at mass. The Godspell songs, by Stephen Swartz, were cool -- "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," "Day by Day," "On the Willows" were songs with beats and melodies.
Although it's largely forgotten now, there was a period in the early 1970s when America wen through a "Jesus movement." Young people and hippies became Christians and wanted to emulate the simplicity of the early days of the religion. Godspell fit into the times, but the songs also still hold up. The one thing that has changed is the cultural antipathy towards Christianity. In 1971 there was no Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins. It was possible to criticize Christianity in ways that were not reactionary and mindless.
It will be interesting to see how the upcoming Godspell revival in New York will treat our 21st century PC culture.