For the Who’s Quadrophenia, “the only Pete Townshend production for his band” (Leaman), “Townshend revisited the rock opera concept with another double-album opus” (Unterberger). Previous rock opera Tommy was “a fantasy which reflected the yearning for but ultimate rejection of spiritual enlightenment by the populous” (Leaman). Quadrophenia “was a more ambitious project” (Unterberger) in which “the Who weren't devising some fantasy but were re-examining the roots of their own birth in mod culture” (Unterberger).
“In a brilliant display of songwriting prowess, both the story and the music of Quad are multi-leveled and complex” (Leaman). “The story is set in a 1964-5 London/Brighton” (Leaman) and focuses on Jimmy, “a young mod's struggle to come of age in the mid-'60s” (Unterberger).
However, “Pete originally intended a mini-opera about the members of The Who” (Cady). This element became part of the story in that Jimmy has a “four way split personality…a tough guy, a romantic, a lunatic, and a hypocrite” (Leaman), “designed to reflect the four members of The Who” (Leaman). This is one of the flaws in Quad; …the movie version ignores it completely” (Leaman). “Jimmy's behavior does not really indicate four separate personalities” (Leaman); “the four facets of Jimmy's behavior are common enough to be found in any adolescent” (Leaman).
Still, “since the vast majority of people (at least in the Western cultures) go through a traumatic adolescence, it is an extremely universal tale” (Leaman). In addition, “Mod as a cult (in this story) is analogous to any group (or religion), even a small group of friends” (Leaman).
The album opens withI Am the Sea and “the crashing of waves against [a] rock” (Leaman). “Jimmy is sitting on this rock in the bay, with rain pouring on him, reflecting on his woes to date” (Leaman).
“Jimmy, feeling tortured by it all, screams in agony: ‘Can you see the real me, can ya? Can YA?’ The Real Me kicks in as Jim angrily recounts his attempts to be understood. He recalls the sessions with his psychiatrist, where Jimmy doesn't feel he's getting through. The psychiatrist: ‘never betrays what he thinks.’ Frustrated, he turns to his mother, but unfortunately she can only offer: ‘I know how it feels, son/Cause it runs in the family.’ No help there. With wonderful imagery, the song shows how the frustration takes Jimmy's consciousness to a higher level (as on an acid trip): ‘The cracks between the paving stones/Like rivers of flowing veins.’ Jim notes that even those in the neighborhood he knows are really strangers to him ‘peeping behind from every windowpane.’ He has lost his girl and cannot figure out why…He fells alienated and alone” (Leaman).
“So Jimmy turns at last to a holy man… [who] does his best to show Jim the path as he sees it, not able to grasp the strength of the forces at work within Jimmy’s skull. It's not enough for Jim, and he rejects it ending with the same frustrations, intensified. The four personalities then grip him, one by one. Musically, this is shown by each theme in the song Quadrophenia” (Leaman). As Pete Townshend says, “‘The four-personality concept grew out of a naive understanding of schizophrenia…Jimmy is a kid who suffers from schizophrenia, and when he takes pills, his schizophrenia divides up and he suffers from quadrophenia” (Cady).
On Cut My Hair, “Jim thinks that being a Mod…can solve his problems. Even in a less spiritual work, Townshend cannot escape the human’s basic drive for spirituality. Mod is Jimmy’s religion, his buffer from the harsh reality of a life he doesn’t quite understand. He tries to rationalize his behavior and lifestyle to himself… ‘Why should I care/If I have to cut my hair/I've got to move with the fashion/Or be outcast’…but is still honest enough to feel it’s not doing what he needs it to…’but I just can't explain/Why that uncertain feeling/Is still here in my brain’…Even Modism isn't perfect, but it's all he's got. His goal becomes being the perfect Mod. This will be his salvation” (Leaman).
Regarding The Punk and the Godfather, or “The Punk Meets the Godfather” as it was called on the U.S. album, Townshend explains that “’The hero goes to a rock concert…He decides he is going to see the stars backstage as they come out the stage door. And one of them comes up and says 'fuck off!' And he suddenly realizes that there's nothing really happening in rock & roll. It's just another cross on his list’” (Cady). Jimmy comes “home to find himself thrown out, because his mother had found drugs (leapers) in his room” (Leaman).
In the song I’m One, Jimmy is, as Townshend says, “’thinking he hasn't got much going for him but at least he's one’” (Cady). Jimmy “finds…the idea of Mod…is that these particular people aren't up to his standard. So while he admits that he's got problems (‘I'm a loser/No chance to win’), he also has what it takes to overcome them (‘You'll all see/I'm the one’). Townshend explains, “’When I was a nipper I felt that the guitar was all I had. I wasn't tough enough to be in a gang, I wasn't good looking enough to be in with the birds, not clever enough to make it at school, not good enough on my feet to be good football player, I was a fucking loser…And somehow being a Mod – even though I was too old to be a Mod really – I wrote this song with that in mind’” (Cady).
Of The Dirty Jobs, Townshend says, “’Suitably disenchanted with his former religion Rock & Roll, [Jimmy] gets a job as a dustman” (Cady), which, as Roger Daltrey says, is what “most kids have to do when they leave school at fifteen. There's nothing much else. He gets pissed off with that’” (Cady). “After two days of this dirty and nonfulfilling work, Jim quits his job. His answer lies elsewhere” (Leaman).
Of Helpless Dancer Townshend says: "’We get a real look at where the aggression comes from. Jimmy has a conscience that bites fairly deeply. His frustration with the world only makes him more angry, even bitter’” (Cady). “Like any other teen, Jimmy is looking for the fairness in life, and not finding any…In the end, he can find only one solution: giving up (‘You realize that all along/Something in us is going wrong/You stop dancing.’)” (Leaman).
“That's no solution at all. Jim begins to feel once more that the problem lies within him (‘I try to number those who love me/And find exactly what the problem is/Is it in my head/Or in my heart’)” (Leaman). Townshend says that the track, Is It In My Head?, "’shows Jimmy…has not only a conscience, but also self doubt. He worries about his own part, and feels maybe his outlook is clouded by pessimism’” (Cady).
In I’ve Had Enough, Jimmy “is still…striving to be a perfect Mod” (Leaman). Then, as Townshend says, "’Jimmy 'snaps' when he sees a girl he particularly likes with a friend of his. In a desperately self-pitiful state, he smashes up his prize scooter’” (Cady). “Jim has lost everything he loved. This is the low point in his life. And yet, though depressed and frustrated, he still clings to the belief that Mod can save him” (Leaman), so, as Townshend continues, Jimmy “‘decides to go to Brighton where he had such a good time with his friends chasing Rockers and eating fish and chips’” (Cady).
The train journey on 5:15 “is one long observational trip…There is no action, just images filtered through a pill-induced haze” (Leaman). Townshend explains that Jimmy "’goes through a not entirely pleasant series of ups and downs as he thinks about the gaudier side of life as a teenager…‘5:15' was written in Oxford Street and Carnaby Street while I was killing time between appointments. I must try it again sometime, it seems to work!’” (Cady).
In Sea and Sand, Jimmy arrives at Brighton to find “the seaside rather less than perfectly Mod this time…So he goes down to the beach… [and] recalls the ‘good old days’ when things were the way they should be…moans about his situation…and thinks evil thoughts about his former girlfriend and girls in general” (Leaman).
Of Drowned Townshend says, "‘This song…should actually stand alone…When the tragic hero of Q sings it, it is desperate and nihilistic. In fact, it's a love song, God's love being the ocean and our 'selves' being the drops of water that make it up…When recording this song it rained so hard in Battersea where our studio is that the walls were flowing with sheets of water. Chris Stainton played piano in a booth and when the take was finished he opened the door and about 500 gallons gushed out! Another glorious coincidence’” (Cady).
In Bell Boy, “Jimmy's heroes are dashed to pieces. The ‘Ace Face’ Mod he remembers from his last visit is now seen as a lowly Bell Boy. Instead of the swaggering Mod leader…we have a bowing-and-scraping fellow, trying to justify it all (‘I've got a good job/And I'm newly born/You should see me dressed up/In my uniform’) to his former admirer…Even Modism has let him down. It was a pale mockery of what he wanted, or needed, (really what he thought it was) and was never any solutions there” (Leaman).
Pete Townshend says of the next song: "'Dr. Jimmy was meant to be a song which somehow gets across the explosive, abandoned wildness side of his character. Like a bull run amok in a china shop’” (Cady). Jimmy “gets a bottle of Gin and begins to rage…Every weakness he sees (and hates) in himself, he now denies. Every cruel and ugly behavior he can think of, all of the things he wants to do but cannot, he claims as his own…He does, at least, realize that he has unleashed the beast within himself…but this is a time for the beast because there's nothing left for any other in the life he has rejected. Coupled with this are flashes of rationality (‘Is it me, for a moment’)” (Leaman). Townshend continues: “He's damaging himself so badly that he can get to the point where he's so desperate that he'll take a closer look at himself. The part where he says, ‘What is it, I'll take it. Who is she, I'll rape it.’ That's really the way I see Keith Moon in his most bravado sort of states of mind” (Cady).
In The Rock, Jimmy “steals a boat and heads for a lonely rock in the bay (‘…Let me flow into the ocean/Let me get back to the sea/Let me be stormy, let me be cold/Let the tide in and set me free’). Here, perhaps, he can figure it all out and find and answer. The rage within him has cooled, and now he is a bit more reflective…Upon climbing up on the rock, the boat drifts away, and he's stuck out there, in the rain which is where the story began…The four facets of his personality visualize themselves before him in the falling water. He sees them swirling about him, coming slowly closer and closer tighter, until at last they overlap and coalesce into one” (Leaman).
Love Reign O'er Me “is the moment of realization for Jimmy…No one can really solve anything for him. He must meet the challenges of life one by one and deal with them himself…Sure, he still faces all of the problems he did only moments ago. But now he knows he can deal with them…Overjoyed, freed, and feeling very spiritual, Jimmy embraces the rain (rather than cursing it)…Instead of rejecting love, he must draw it to him (‘Only love can bring the rain/That falls like tears from on high’) and let it cleanse him…In the end, only love matters (‘Love, reign o'er me’)…without it, life is empty and dry (‘On the dry and dusty road/The nights we spent apart, alone/I need to get back home/To cool, cool rain’)” (Leaman).
“In the end, there may have been too much weight…The concept might have ultimately been too obscure and confusing for a mass audience. But there's plenty of great music anyway…Some of Townshend's most direct, heartfelt writing is contained here, and production-wise it's a tour de force, with some of the most imaginative use of synthesizers on a rock record…Listeners…in general will find this to be one of the Who's most powerful statements” (Unterberger).