Oh, the dreaded reissue, the pricey box set. I’m a sucker for these things — always have been. As a kid I had to have KISS’s The Originals, though that collection was no more than their first three studio albums repackaged. I have multiple copies of many albums — each release with its own bonus tracks, liner notes, live DVDs and remastered music. If you don’t own both the Bowie and the Iggy Pop mixes of Raw Power, for example, then you haven’t really heard that album.
In the last year the box set has undergone a transformation. One used to get a few CDs and a booklet. Occasionally the gimmicky box would hit the market — AC/DC’s Backtracks with working guitar amplifier; Iron Maiden’s Eddie’s Head with flashing LED eyes; KISS’s box set in a miniature guitar case. My favorite of these is Jane’s Addiction’s Cabinet of Curiosities with its fetish dolls and other assorted weirdness.
That’s all good fun, I guess, but it’s really just gimmicky crap. Flashing lights and an amp won’t improve my Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, or Hendrix (in purple velvet) box sets. But late last year saw the release of the first Pink Floyd “Immersion” boxes along with the glorious Quadrophenia: The Director’s Cut, which is what I’m supposed to be talking about. Did I say glorious? I can’t think of a more Townshendian adjective to describe this beast.
My copy landed in my lap in the only way that matters: dropped there by my kid at three a.m. Christmas morning. My son blew the equivalent of eight weeks’ allowance on this monster (me or the box set, take your pick). It was like a great big thank you for handing down to him the music that he was handing back to me. “It’s sad that nobody knows who The Who are anymore,” he said.
“That’s not true, they’re still huge.”
“Not with people my age,” he said, but I knew better. He knows The Who, and that makes him part of a continuum stretching back almost fifty years; a lineage of unrelated brothers and sisters who feel rather than hear a line like “I’d gladly lose me to find you.”
So what did I get for my kid’s 150 American? The set breaks down into five basic components:
1) Gimmicky Crap: Facsimile documents, a poster, an unpublished photo from the original album shoot, a vinyl 45 of “5:15.” At eighteen I would’ve eaten this stuff up, but now it seems like clever clutter.
2) The original album, tidied up with a new remaster. To my ear there’s not enough difference from the last release to really matter.
3) A 5.1 mix that’s pretty interesting. Put this disc in your home theater system and you’ll get close to the quadraphonic mix Pete envisioned thirty years ago.
4) An outstanding 13,000 word essay written by Townshend about the creation of his magnum opus. Lots of great photographs included, too.
5) A disc of Pete’s demos for the project. This is the golden ticket. I would’ve paid 150 bones for this alone (well, maybe $75).
I’m a junkie for Pete Townshend demos and have been since the release of the original Scoop collection. His home studio was so good that the majority of his released demos are very high quality sonically, often sounding like alternate studio takes rather than home sketches. Some of the pieces included here were released previously on the Scoop collections or bootlegs, but to hear them cleaned up and in sequence is an absolute joy.
It’s interesting to hear both how much and how little the other members of The Who brought to the table simultaneously. For example, listen to Pete’s demo for “I’ve Had Enough.” It’s all there: the drums are clean and in time; the vocal on key; the bass line driving the song along. Slip the demo into the final album and the casual listener might not even notice. Townshend brought the band a finished track, as he often did, but add Roger’s from-the-gut vocals, Keith’s from-the-balls drums, and John’s “Who’s playing lead here?” noodling and “I’ve Had Enough” is exponentially better. It’s a rather strange paradox — “This is perfect. Oh, now this is more perfect.”
The real revelation here is what a keen editor Townshend is. “Quadrophonic Four Faces” serves the album’s story quite well, overtly stating the multiple personality dilemma with which Jimmy, the story’s protagonist is dealing, but the song is laughably bad in an off-off-off-broadway sort of way. Additionally, having the plot so well-defined leaves no room for us to wallow around inside of Pete’s songs, which is really the magic of The Who. Nobody knows what it’s like to be the sad man, except for me and my best friend I’ll never meet, Pete.
The demo CD closes as it should with Townshend’s demo of “Love Reign O’er Me.” No matter how many times or how many versions I hear, this track always raises the hair on my arms. Pure goosebump music. Back in the late Eighties Pete licensed his masterpiece for a television commercial. I can’t remember the product — Sprite, car wax, tampons — all I remember is locking in every time those thirty seconds aired, and it’s no different here. Pete’s thin voice oddly improves in some ways on Roger’s epic growl, adding vulnerability perhaps.
That’s really the magic of this collection — hearing these familiar songs in their author’s voice transforms them in interesting ways. The former Ace Face is more believable as the settled Bell Boy in Townshend’s voice, for example.
Does everyone need a copy of this latest rerelease? Absolutely not. Leave the savages to their Nickelback, but for that handful of true believers — and you know who you are — Quadrophenia: The Director’s Cut is mandatory listening.