The Story Behind “The Real Me” by The Who and How It Establishes the Storyline of ‘Quadrophenia’

Two youth subcultures evolved in England after World War II. Beatniks listened to jazz and rejected conformity and consumerism, while Teddy Boys embraced American rock ‘n’ roll and became associated with crime and gangs. These two groups paved the way for the emergence of the modernist. Shortened to “mod,” this group of British youths was drawn to fashion and followed trends established in French and Italian art films. Scooters, pills, and R&B music were their staples as a divide formed between another British subculture, the rockers.

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Leather jackets, motorcycle boots, and rockabilly or rock ‘n’ roll were the key ingredients in the lifestyle of these coffee bar cowboys. As British rock bands began to adopt the mod look by utilizing pop art themes with brightly colored, bold geometrical patterns, the style spread outside the UK to the rest of the world. Bands like The Who and Small Faces embraced the look and became favorites of the scene.

The Who’s guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend related to the mod scene and wanted to explore the themes of the subculture and how his own band related to them. When he wrote a song called “Long Live Rock,” it inspired him to begin a new album about the history of The Who. The original working title was Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock, but it eventually became known as Quadrophenia. Let’s take a look at the story behind “The Real Me” by The Who.

I went back to the doctor
To get another shrink
I sit and tell him ’bout my weekend
But he never betrays what he thinks

Quadrophenia

The 1973 double album by The Who followed the rock-opera format established by the band with Tommy in 1969. The storyline follows Jimmy, a young working-class mod who becomes disillusioned with his current situation and probable future. After seeing The Who in concert, he seeks escape in music and drugs as he follows his tribe to the beaches of Brighton for a clash with the rockers. He idolizes a particular mod who has everything going on with a tricked-out scooter, perfect clothes, and plenty of cash. When he returns to the reality of his own life, he can’t face his dead-end future. After crashing his scooter and losing his girlfriend to his best friend, he contemplates suicide and takes the train back to Brighton, only to discover his idol is a lowly bellboy with no greater future than his own. Feeling everything in his life has let him down, Jimmy steals a boat and sails out to a rock overlooking the sea. Stuck in the rain, he reflects on his life. The ending is not clear. Does Jimmy take his life or not? 

Can you see the real me, doctor?
Doctor?
Can you see the real me, doctor?
Woah, doctor

Overture

The album starts with “I Am the Sea,” which acts as an overture with a soundscape of the sea as a backdrop and pertinent bits of lyrics from upcoming songs weaving in and out. As “The Real Me” bursts in, it introduces our main character. Jimmy is trying to find his identity. He goes to all the people we typically look to for guidance: a parent, a doctor, and a holy man.

I went back to my mother
I said I’m crazy ma, help me
She said I know how it feels son
‘Cause it runs in the family

Jimmy Finds His Tribe

As Jimmy comes to no satisfactory answer, he is sent on a journey of discovery and finds his tribe at a Who concert. The mods provide a group for Jimmy to be a part of. Each band member represented one element of Jimmy’s four personalities. Townshend wrote a theme dedicated to each: Singer Roger Daltrey (“Helpless Dancer”), drummer Keith Moon (“Bell Boy”), bassist John Entwistle (“Is It Me?”), and finally, himself (“Love, Reign O’er Me”).

Can you see the real me, mama?
Mama?
Can you see the real me, mama?
Woah, mama

The Bassline

Who bassist John Entwistle was feeling as if he was in a rut. He changed to Gibson Thunderbirds and Sunn amplifiers to record Quadrophenia. Townshend often attributed one of the strengths of the band to Entwistle’s basslines, which tended to stray from the pocket while the electric guitar would keep the groove. In 1996, Entwistle told Goldmine magazine, “‘The Real Me’ was the first take. I was joking when I did that bass part. The band said, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s great!’ And I was just messing around. They just loved the song. I was sitting on top of my speaker cabinet playing a silly bass part, and that’s the one they liked.”

The cracks between the paving stones
Look like rivers of flowing veins
Strange people who know me
Peeping from behind every window pane
The girl I used to love
Lives in this yellow house
Yesterday, she passed me by
She doesn’t want to know me now

The Film Adaptation

In the late ’70s, The Who had grown into an arena-filling live act. Their first full-length rock opera Tommy had been made into a motion picture with successful results at the box office. For Quadrophenia, director Franc Roddam had his sights on former Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten to play the part of Jimmy. The casting would have certainly garnered attention to the project, but the singer was in the middle of a lawsuit against his former manager and he was busy working on his new band Public Image Ltd. Actor Phil Daniels eventually landed the part. Roddam next went after up-and-coming rock star Sting to be Ace Face, the mod who Jimmy initially looks up to before becoming disappointed in. Leslie Ash plays the part of Jimmy’s girlfriend Steph.

I ended up with a preacher
Full of lies and hate
I seemed to scare him a little
So, he showed me to the Golden Gate
Can you see the real me, preacher?
Preacher?
Can you see the real me, preacher?

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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