The story covers about two days of the life of a certain Jimmy, a participant in the early 1960s Mod lifestyle in England. "The story is set on a rock!" announced the composer, Peter Townshend, at one live performance. That remark seems to indicate that the opera represents Jimmy's looking back at the events of the previous day or two that led him into the gloomy situation where he finds himself at the end of the story. The narrative is difficult to derive from the lyrics, but is given along with Jimmy's commentary on various matters in a booklet included with the album.
To the extent that Quadrophenia can be said to tell a story at all, it tells it in the first person. The first half of the opera treats us to the frustrations and insecurities that govern Jimmy's life, including brief glimpses of his home life, his job, his psychoanalyst, and his unfruitful attempts to have a social life. Halfway through the opera he sings "I've Had Enough", finds himself kicked out of his home when his parents find his dope, gets pilled up and takes a train ride to the coast, steals a boat and takes it out to a barren rock protruding from the sea, and crashes psychologically. With nothing left to live for he finds redemption in the pouring rain (a manifestation of Townshend's spiritual fixation on water).
'Quadrophenia' is ultimately a story of disillusion, and if you listen attentively it will drag you through most of your emotions before it is done with you. Although it tells a simple story, it is more about Jimmy's feelings and reactions to the events rather than a narrative. And of course, even more than that it's about the music.
The music is very lush, with a heavy layer of piano and synthesizer supporting the band's rock trio format on most of the tracks. The instrumentation is very busy, and you will need to listen to it through headphones repeatedly if you want to fully appreciate everything that is going on. And the music is absolutely stunning. The highlights-of-the-highlights include John Entwistle's extraordinary bass lines on "The Real Me" (he claimed later that he was fooling around because he was not aware that the tape was running); the angst in Peter Townshend's voice at the end of "Cut My Hair"; the exhilarating power of "I've Had Enough", spiced up with some genuine rock-n-roll banjo playing; Keith Moon's rare vocal performance on "Bell Boy" and power drumming throughout "The Rock"; and the dramatic tympani and piano introduction to the finale, "Love Reign O'er Me".
The music and hinted story line wander a bit aimlessly in the middle of the opera, suggesting an ordinary album of great material rather than an opera, but the last four tracks make for a ravishing 25-minute finale.
Quadrophenia was originally released as a two-LP set with a butterfly jacket and a thick booklet containing lyrics, a text version of the story, and photographs illustrating the tale. MCA re-released it as a two-CD set in 1985 with the lyrics and text story line on a thin fold-up sheet but none of the photographs. The remastered CDs of 1996 include the full original booklet in miniature. (The remastering does not help the sound a lot, since the original was of very good quality compared to, say, Tommy. However, you should look for the remastered CDs if you want to buy it, because the enclosed material is important to Quadrophenia as a concept album.)
In the liner notes to the remastered Odds and Sods Townshend reveals that Quadrophenia evolved from an idea for a self-indulgent autobiography of the band. Two of the opera's tracks date from 1972, a year that also produced The Who's self-centered singles "Join Together" and "Long Live Rock" (the latter not actually released until 1974). However, by the time Quadrophenia was released the band's role in the story was only symbolic, via Jimmy's four personalities. (The text story in the liner notes also suggests that Jimmy knew one of the band members before they were stars, and the band member callously shrugs him off when he bumps into the band at the hotel where he works as a bell boy. There's that alienation theme again -- along with Townshend's own angst over his relationship with his fans.)
Quadrophenia was later made into a movie, with several additional songs done by Peter Townshend for the soundtrack. Lots of people like the movie, but for the music you will want to stick to the original.
The lyrics to the song "The Punk and the Godfather" leave the impression that Townshend was aware of a musical rebellion called Punk as early as 1973, with a dual interpretation of punk:godfather::Peter Townshend:record company executives vs. punk:godfather::new generation of musicians:Peter Townshend.
If you like Rock music, Quadrophenia is highly recommended for its musical qualities. For best results listen to it lying on the floor in the dark with your speakers positioned to give you a perfect stereo image. As a second choice, hear it on headphones.