IN THE days when the Who were the best live rock group in the world, material from their Quadrophenia album did not feature prominently in their shows. This was not a reflection of the album itself, which in many ways is a more consistent and coherent piece of writing than Pete Townshend's other rock opera, Tommy, but rather of the fact that the songs were too complex for a four piece band to reproduce.
Then came last summer's Prince's Trust Concert in Hyde Park, where the three surviving members of the Who, plus Zak Starkey on drums and a cornucopia of celebrities and supporting musicians, showed that with a bit of thought and a lot of people it can be done.
Now, after touring this multi-media presentation across America, Townshend and co are back in Britain for three more shows. And, if on this, the second of them, there were signs of dryness and tiredness in the voices of lead singer Roger Daltrey and of Towshend himself, the music as a whole was impressively fresh and direct.
The story of Quadrophenia concerns a young man's quest for identity and a sense of belonging through the mod-culture of the Sixties. It's an ambitious and at times pretentious saga, but what makes it great is the sheer quality of the music: not just individual songs such as The Real Me and 5:15, but the seamlessness with which they flow into each other, giving the whole enterprise a sense of continuity, building all the while to a soaring climax.
On stage it was rendered, as it had been in Hyde Park, with vitality and fidelity, with Starkey again playing as though possessed by the spirit of Keith Moon.
The show was marred only by two things. The first was Billy Idol who, during his mercifully brief stints on stage, leapt around and jibbered like an amphetamine-fueled baboon. The night's other guest star, rock and roll veteran PJ Proby was a paragon of decorum by comparison.
The second disappointment of the evening was the uncharacteristic shortage of fire power in the guitar department.
Townshend was on an accoustic for most of the show, while his brother Simon played rhythm and lead. Simon is clearly no slouch on the fretboard, but it all sounded a bit thin until Pete finally strapped on his Stratocaster for the climax of the main piece.
He's still capable of pulling surprises, though the show's biggest attraction was undoubtedly the underrated piece of musical narrative.