Perfect Sound Forever

The Who's Quadrophenia

Ron Nevison Interview
By Richie Unterberger
(June 2011)

In the early 1970's, the Who were in the difficult position of trying to follow up a massively successful album with something just as titanic, but different enough to maintain their position as innovators. Released in 1969, Tommy remains the most successful rock opera, and indeed one of the only rock operas to become both a commercial smash and an artistic triumph. The Who, and particularly their principal songwriter and visionary Pete Townshend, would also use the rock opera as a vehicle for two equally ambitious projects. One of them, Lifehouse, failed to reach completion, though its most commercial songs formed the bulk of their 1971 album Who's Next. The other, Quadrophenia, was issued as a double album in fall 1973.

In some ways, Quadrophenia was quite different from Tommy. Where much of Tommy's story verged at points on fantasy fiction, Quadrophenia was an earthy excavation of the very roots of the Who's history. The journey of its protagonist through mid-1960s British mod culture was very much the same as the one the Who and their original audience had made, unglorified and speckled with frustration and failure. Yet Quadrophenia was similar to Tommy, and much of what the Who had done back to 1965, in its focus on a misfit in search of identity, torn between a wish to fit in and untamed nonconformity. Nor was it absent of the ambivalent spiritual redemption found by the protagonist of Tommy, though the hero's journey toward it in Quadrophenia is more subtle.

The recording of Quadrophenia was, like most of the Who's projects, fraught with lurches, calamities, and struggles to fit the limits of the era's technologies and market realities into Townshend's outsized conceptual ambitions. For a 1973 recording, it was complex, involving not just the band's usual power trio-plus-vocals format, but much in the way of synthesizers, horns, and sound effects. There were also attempts to make the album itself quadraphonic that couldn't come off, more due to the shortcomings of quadraphonic home equipment than the band's own capabilities. Yet though it had a somewhat mixed reception upon its release, in part because of the unavoidable comparisons to Tommy, Quadrophenia ultimately endured as one of the Who's most significant works.

Ron Nevison, a young American who'd never worked on a major album before, was engineer for most of Quadrophenia's sessions. He'd go on to engineer mid-1970s hit albums by British hard rockers Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and Thin Lizzy, and then produce records by numerous artists, including the Babys, Eddie Money, Survivor, Chicago, Ozzy Osbourne, Meatloaf, Jefferson Starship, David Johansen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was interviewed extensively about his work with the Who on Quadrophenia in November 2009, for Richie Unterberger's book Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who From Lifehouse to Quadrophenia, available from Jawbone Press.

Q: How did you get involved with the Who and Quadrophenia?

RN: In the late '60s in Philadelphia, I was working for a sound company. I started doing big tours as a sound mixer; we call them "front of house mixers" now. They were just mixers then. But I was doing a tour with Traffic in 1969 or 1970, and I was talking to Chris Blackwell, who was the head of Island Records, and he offered me a job. He said, "Hey, if you want to get out of the touring thing"...I said "Yeah, I'm thinking about it. I'm blown out." 'Cause in those days, the sound mixers didn't travel with their briefcase with a band on a plane. They drove the truck! So I was getting tired of doing that.

So I went over to England and started working for peanuts, like I think 15 pounds a week or something, at Island Studios. I somehow got hooked up with this guy John Alcock, who was a fellow engineer-producer like me. He started a company with Pete Townshend called Trackplan. The idea was to build studios for musicians. Pete was always into that kind of thing. He had two studios in his houses.

So I got involved with Pete and got to meet him, and got involved with that company. Over the course of the next two years I built a couple of studios for the guys in the Faces, one for Ronnie Lane, which became known as Lane's Mobile Sound, in an Airstream Trailer. And I built a studio for Ronnie Wood in his basement of his big mansion there in Richmond; he was still then in the Faces.

The Who wanted to use Ronnie's [Lane's] mobile out at Stargroves, which was Mick Jagger's house out in the country, out near Stonehenge. Because the whole way this came about is that Ronnie and Pete were good friends. They lived in the same area, and they were both followers of Meher Baba.

There was an engineer that I think was all set to do the Quadrophenia album, an American. I don't remember who it was, to tell you the truth. It was determined that he was too inebriated to do the sessions. He was pretty fucked up, in other words. They had some problems, but I didn't take charge of the board or anything like that.

Over the course of a week or so, I got to know all the Who guys really well, and especially Keith Moon, who kind of took me under his wing. Stargroves was like this country manor house, and it had its own little pub right at the entrance of the estate. I don't think it was part of the estate, but it was a pub, anyway. I remember walking down the road with Keith and going to the pub and having a beer. We were playing what they call bar billiards [on] these little bar billiards tables. They're not real billiards tables; they're tiny, small tables that have holes and little posts. Keith said to me, "You know, I got two of these tables at home. You want one?" 'Cause I really got into playing it. I was thinking of saying yes, but I said, "No no no, c'mon."

I called up his wife Kim like a couple of weeks later, a month later. I said, "Could you tell me where Keith got his bar billiards tables, 'cause I'm thinking of getting one. But don't tell him I called." And she said, "What bar billiards tables?" If he had found out that I called, he would have bought two of them, one to send to me, and one in case I ever came over. That was just the way this guy was.

So we finished up at Stargroves, and I thought that was it. I thought it was just a gig for Ronnie for his mobile truck. I then got a call that they wanted me to bring Ronnie Lane's mobile down to Ramport, which was their studio. Because they had to start working on this album, and the control room wasn't together. The studio part was together, but I don't think all the modules were there on the console, it wasn't all checked out.

Q: So the first time you worked with the Who as an engineer was when they were actually recording Quadrophenia?

RN: I wasn't involved in any sessions prior to the cutting of the tracks on Quadrophenia. Even though I was there with this other engineer, they were messing around, but that wasn't at Ramport. That was out at Stargroves.

Q: They'd recorded a couple tracks ["Is It In My Head" and "Love, Reign O'er Me"] in 1972 with Glyn Johns as associate producer and engineer, but he wasn't involved with the Ramport sessions.

RN: Even though I recorded the end of "Love, Reign O'er Me," when we did this big percussion thing where we got the studio filled with percussion and Keith trashed the whole thing. That's what you hear at the end of Quadrophenia, him pushing over like [a] massive amount, trashing percussive instruments.

I think I found out in later years that the reason they didn't go back to Glyn Johns was because Roger was pissed off at him for getting distortion on one of his vocals. An absurd reason. But anyway, I got the call. I guess they figured that if I built the fucking studio, that [they] could, you know, give me a shot at recording it. I was really not hired to do the Quadrophenia album. I was hired to run Ronnie's mobile, and get the tracks cut.

Now at that point, it was only 8-track. Ronnie didn't pay for 16, and I had a lot of problems going 16, because—I don't know if you're familiar with an Airstream, but they're like a tube. In those days, the tape machines were enormous. There wasn't room enough, without putting the tape machines right in the middle of the room, to go up to 16 tracks. So we had to put like 8 tracks down at the bottom, and 8 tracks up top, and then I got into all sorts of problems with hum, 'cause it was right next to the motor. We finally got it all sorted out. In fact, it was the very first 8-up, 8-down Studer A80 [a two-inch, 16-track tape deck configured so that eight tracks were above the deck and eight below it] in history.

We cut the first half a dozen Quadrophenia tracks—maybe just four, I don't remember—with the eight tracks, and then, over the course of a weekend, I converted it to sixteen. And then we recorded the rest of the Quadrophenia backing tracks on 16-track. And I did eight to sixteen copies on the first few backing tracks, so it ended up being 16-track. But I was only hired to actually record the initial [batch], and they liked what I did. They kept me on. So when we were finished with the backing tracks and the studio was ready, I was on board as the guy. So I was just in the right place at the right time. I'm sure I would have been out of there after a day, but they loved what I did. They not only kept me around for that album, but then they kept me around for the Tommy film [soundtrack], which was another big project.

I had been doing sessions for two or three years, it wasn't like I was a total novice. But obviously, this was the biggest album I had ever done. I mean, this was probably the biggest album that anybody would ever do! I wouldn't be talking to you if that wasn't he case.

Q: Kit Lambert's credited as an executive producer of Quadrophenia, and had produced most of their stuff before 1970. Did he have any role in the production?

RN: Kit at that time and Chris Stamp were the co-managers. And Kit had very little to do with Quadrophenia. He was there at some point, but I don't think he was there as any kind of...he was just there as the manager. And Chris would come in every once in a while. Pete really ran the show. Everything started when Pete got there, and everything finished when Pete left.

Q: One of the innovative aspects of Quadrophenia, and the Who's entire early 1970s output, was Pete Townshend's use of synthesizer. What were the challenges of integrating that into the recordings?

RN: Pete was really big-time into the synthesizer thing. The ARP 2500, which he used exclusively during the Quadrophenia sessions, was a modular synthesizer. He never brought that down to the studio. He kept that at home. You couldn't move that around. You couldn't keep sounds on it. When you got one sound, you'd have to patch everything up. You couldn't click a button and keep it. Then it used to go out of tune all the time, so you'd have to tune up all the oscillators. It was an enormous pain in the ass.

You'd spend an hour getting a sound, then you'd play it, and then you'd have to take out all these patch cords and patch up for a different sound. You'd never get the sound exactly the same, even though you took notes. It would never be exactly the same the next time. So it was far from perfect. It was a beast.

So Pete would work at night feverishly recording these things on his 16-track. That was mainly because Pete wanted to use the hours and hours and hours of synthesizer stuff that he'd put in on these demos, because there was no way that we could spend as much time as he needed for the synthesizer parts.

Q: Some of his Quadrophenia solo demos have been issued officially, or circulate unofficially. It's amazing how close they sound in some respects to the arrangements used on the final tracks, recorded with the whole band.

RN: The only thing demo about them was the fact that he played drums and bass. That was the only demo aspect of it. He would lay a click down, and he would put basic drums and bass. But he was very careful not to do what Keith or John would do. 'Cause he didn't want them to follow what he wanted them to do. He wanted Keith and John to do their own thing.

Now it's a three-piece band, so he'd be very careful to just do basic bass and drum parts. He would play them himself with a click, and then he would [do] his synthesizer work. So what would happen was, on these synthesizer tracks, Keith would play to a click, and we'd record the drums and bass and guitar. The only ones we did that on were the major synthesized tracks. The straight-on rock and roll ones, like "5:15," we just cut without a click. Three of them would play—well, four of 'em, you know, Roger would sing. And we'd just keep going over it until we got it right.

So the arrangements were set; the tempos were set. But he'd leave enough room for Keith to do his thing, and for John to do his thing.

I don't remember a lot of rehearsals. Pete would bring in the demos. I can't be sure if Pete demoed everything; I definitely know Pete did the demos on the synth tunes, which there was quite a lot of. I think he just showed them the song, and they rehearsed it a bit and found parts, and Pete like suggested things or whatever.

Q: Aside from Townshend's impressive technical facility with synthesizers, I think he used them with more subtlety and taste than other people in rock were doing at the time. Would you agree?

RN: Yeah, I mean, he used them in more of an orchestral fashion. Beautiful strings and orchestra. When you think of Quadrophenia, you don't think of synthesizers so much. You think of strings and you think of horns. He used synth horns, and of course, Entwistle used his real horns. It was a nice blend, with the both of them. I never recorded any of the Entwistle horns. He did them in his studio. He would take the tapes home at night, and Pete would take the tapes home at night. They'd all record stuff at their own studios. John had his own studio in his house, and he had his own engineer. I don't think I ever met him.

Pete did orchestral stuff rather than synth-y stuff. The 2500 ARP synthesizer was really brought in as an answer to the Moog. It was like its competition. It's very cool. It's all big modules with a keyboard in the front. I didn't record one synthesizer part. He did all of it himself, and it was all done before we started. For that matter, all the stuff on the Tommy film too was done at Pete's house. All of the horn parts were done at John's house.

Q: That's an underrated contribution that Entwistle made to the album.

RN: It was a plus. Look at that point in time. When I was a young engineer, before synthesizers, what we had at our disposal was very limited. A bunch of guitars, we had Hammond B-3, a Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer piano, maybe a Mellotron, and that's it, to make music without orchestrations. Because there wasn't anything else. You wanted to try and make something big and luscious and moody. So the fact that John Entwistle could contribute the horns parts, as a bass player, was a definite plus. And they fit in nicely with Pete's synth horns. All the different themes that Pete had for Quadrophenia were perfect for that.

see Part 2 of the Quadrophenia article

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