Listen to this track by former ’60s mod pin-ups turned rock-operaist foursome, The Who. It’s “The Real Me” as taken from their 1973 epic record Quadrophenia, a study in subculture and identity, and arguably their last significant release as the original quartet.
And how perfect that the album was based upon the idea that the group presents something of a unified entity, with the story of Jimmy the Mod really being a reflection of each Who member.
In this respect, this song is really the centerpiece to the record that Townshend envisioned; four identities shaping one, with the real identity being something harder to define.
Yet it is this idea that a “real” identity can be found when those of likemind gather together as a group that lays at the heart of the album, and later the film. But, in the end, it can be about identity as a whole, and our need to be a part, perhaps, of something bigger. But, what?
“The Real Me” was released as a single in January, 1974, with “Doctor Jimmy” as a B-side. The song features a bassline laid down by John Entwistle that not only holds down the root, but also serves as an answering voice to Roger Daltrey’s barking lead vocal. It is one of the key tracks in the band’s entire body of work that shows off the kind of unit they were; four lead actors in an epic adventure. It would be a live staple from its release, even after drummer Keith Moon was replaced by Kenney Jones, former Small Faces/Faces sticksman by the end of the decade.
But, besides how much this track utterly rocks, it’s interesting as a statement about allying one’s identity with a greater one. In the story, it’s about Jimmy, a composite figure to all band members, allying himself with the culture of Mod, and specifically to its figurehead in Ace Face. But, for writer and guitarist Pete Townshend, perhaps the underlying point is about what it is to be a part of a band, a four-sided entity through which he expresses his points of view as sung through Daltrey, with the attack of Moon and Entwistle’s rhythm section serving as a sort of aural anchor.
Who’s thoughts, expressions, emotions are they, when written by one member and sang by another? Who’s identity counts in this context? Who are they ultimately attributed to by the listener?
It seems to me that the idea of identity is vastly important to Townshend, making me wonder if the name “The Who”, evolving from “The High Numbers”, wasn’t just about choosing a new name. Daltrey’s onstage persona (personas being yet another layer to the whole identity question), becomes the ‘real me’ where Townshend’s songs are concerned, especially in a live setting. In many ways, it’s Daltrey’s presentation that brings them to life, even if it’s widely acknowledged that the vision for them is Townshend’s.
This has implications for every band, where the songs conceived by the group, or by one person in that group, become associated not with one identity, but rather to a central one that is bigger than any one contributor. And once it reaches the ears and hearts of an audience, and in versions by other bands, the idea of me can very easily become us.