This is the first track on the second disc of Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend's rock opera about Jimmy, a pill-popping mod cockney who tries to find reality from sexual encounters, the company he keeps, and the clothes he wears. Only when he drowns in the ocean does he discover himself.
In this song, Jimmy The Mod takes the train (the 5:15) back to Brighton, once the site of the Mods' triumph against the Rockers, and en route he remembers various experiences of himself and his fellow Mods. Jimmy's recollections are in the main unhappy - anger, confusion, violence, sexual frustration, and rootlessness dominate his thoughts as he keeps returning to the thought: "Inside, outside, leave me alone. Inside, outside, nowhere is home."
The term "Quadrophenia" was coined by Pete Townshend, referring to schizophrenia, times two. The character Jimmy The Mod was a quadrophenic: Townshend wanted each of his four personalities to represent one of the four band members. This didn't work as planned, as he was so much more involved in the project than the other members.
Speaking with Uncut magazine in 2001, Roger Daltrey said that his main regret on Quadrophenia was the recording process. Ron Nevison, who was the producer at the time with Pete, recorded it with echo on the vocal which can never be removed now," he explained. "It just makes the vocal sound thin. It was the biggest recording mistake we ever made. The echo diminishes the character as far as I'm concerned. It always pissed me off. From day one I just f---ing hated the sound of it. He did that to my voice and I've never forgiven Ron for it."
During an infamous performance of the song
on BBC's Top Of The Pops
, Townshend demolished the Gretsch guitar that he'd used for the bulk of Who's Next
. The Who went on to earn a life ban from BBC premises after Townshend flicked two fingers at the show's producer and Keith Moon attacked a steward who refused him entry to the bar.
Townshend's rage was genuine: The BBC, enforcing union rules, made the group record a new track for their lip-synched performance. The Who recorded their segment on October 3, 1973, which was broadcast on the 500th Edition special of the show the the next evening with the offensive gestures edited out. The ban was lifted after representatives for The Who sent a letter of apology to the BBC.
This is one of the more confusing songs to understand outside the context of the album. When The Who toured for Quadrophenia in 1973, Roger Daltrey would often explain the concept between songs so listeners could follow along. Townshend wasn't happy about this - he thought the explanations weren't necessary and slowed the show down.
"Quadrophenia" refers not just to the split personalities of the character in the song, but also to the quadrophonic sound they intended for the album. The idea was to create four distinct channels, whereas stereo was just two. In a Songfacts interview with Ron Nevison
, who engineered the project, he explained: "We ended up not doing it in quad, but I did record the drums with the idea of having them spread out in a quadrophonic kind of way. Although, I didn't really know - and no one knew - what to do. Nowadays, what you want to call quad and 5.1, you still put the band across the front, and in the rear you have the room, so you feel like you're in the audience almost. I didn't know what to do. You listen to the early Beatles songs when they first came into stereo, they didn't know what to do with them."
The Who needed various sound effect to create the train station atmosphere in this song, but the sound effects available were all mono recordings, so they created their own, hauling a mobile recording unit to various locales to get the sounds in stereo. For "5:15," they went to Waterloo station to get the authentic sounds of the platform. Getting the train whistle was harder because engineers (the train kind) were only allowed to use them under certain conditions. According to various accounts, Pete Townshend had his driver bribe the engineer so he would blow the whistle.
The whistle actually appears at the end of the song "I've Had Enough," which leads into "5:15" on Quadrophenia.
During live performances, the sound effects for this song were played on tape, which didn't always go well. On November 5, 1973, Pete Townshend had an onstage meltdown at the Odeon Theatre in Newcastle when the tapes didn't come in at the proper time. Eyewitness accounts recall him punching the road manager in charge of the tapes and going on a rampage against the equipment. The venue dropped the curtain when they realized something was going wrong. After about 15 minutes, the show resumed, with the band filling most of the remaining time with a lengthy jam.