Shame on me! The only Who reviews I’ve done are The Who Sell Out and Who’s Next! What kind of blog am I running here, anyway?
The truth is that I have seriously conflicting feelings about The Who and the majority of its members. As far as John Entwistle goes, I feel nothing but fondness for his quirky songs and his top-of-the-class bass playing. I think Keith Moon was a Neanderthal wacko whose frenetic drumming was exciting at first but grew tiresome over time. I think Pete Townshend is a very odd person, a jump-ball lyricist and an occasionally brilliant composer who spent too much time immersed in offbeat philosophies and murky research. I think Roger Daltrey is one of the greatest rock singers of them all, but I’ve never heard of anyone whose early imitations of black guys were as embarrassingly awful as his.
Despite my reservations, I’ve decided to review a few more of their creations, beginning with this greatest hits compilation that pre-dates Who’s Next.
Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy is a solid collection, but the compilers came up with a track order that screwed up the timeline more than James T. Kirk ever did in any Star Trek episode. I’m going to review the songs in their release order and parenthetically list the track order in a subtle form of protest against historical desecration. Shall we begin?
“I Can’t Explain” (1): When you find out that this song never made it higher than #96 on the US charts, the title makes perfect sense. I’ve always found it to be a curious fact of history that The Who were virtual unknowns in the United States until they played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and that singles like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” “Substitute” and “The Kids Are Alright” went completely unnoticed by the American listening public. The Who didn’t escape the lower regions of the Billboard U. S. Charts until “Happy Jack” made it into the mid-twenties in late 1966. Since some of those songs later became American favorites featured in movies and commercials, one theory is that The Who of the mid-1960s had been victimized by management disputes, poor marketing and a lack of industry connections. Another is that they were a little late to the game, as the main wave of the British Invasion had landed the year before, and Americans had already moved on to the shiny new thing, as they are wont to do. Sad history aside, this is melodic rock at its best, combining pelvic stimulation, exciting harmonies and background vocals, and a James Dean-like rebellious vulnerability in Roger Daltrey’s performance. It also displays all the band’s strengths in barely over two minutes: Keith Moon’s thunderous attack, Entwistle’s booming bass, Daltrey’s ability to stay in character and Pete Townsend’s guitar talents. It’s the ideal demo for an emerging group and deserved a better fate at birth. Townsend claimed he based it on “All Day and All of the Night,” and if so, he didn’t listen very well or was drunk when he heard The Kinks’ classic hit. While there are certainly rhythmic similarities, the chord structure doesn’t line up.
“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” (8): Skipping ahead SEVEN tracks to stay in sync, this tune reached #10 in the UK and went nowhere in the U. S. The chord structure is the “Louie, Louie”/”Hang On Sloopy” I-IV-V with a variation in the chorus, a sure sign of a follow-up single. Though the song itself is pretty weak, The Who add several touches that would become part of their standard fare: Keith Moon’s tom-roll and crash combination, a frenetic solo from Townsend full of nasty feedback, and an equally frenetic piano background that gives the track an avant-garde flair. At this point, they’re already experts at call-and-response vocals, a common feature of their early works.
“My Generation” (6): I have seriously mixed feelings about this song, largely because I was raised by Baby Boomers who never hesitate to remind me that their generation was so very, very special in so many, many ways. Yeah, yeah, yeah. My typical response is, “Well, there certainly were a lot of you,” reminding them that there is no correlation between quantity and quality. To me, “My Generation” was a marketing gimmick designed to exploit teenage buyers by encouraging them to believe in that special status. “Hope I die before I get old” is one of the dumbest lines in the history of popular music, a childish outburst that engages in the kind of stereotyping the Baby Boomers found appalling when applied to race, gender or youth. Philosophical differences aside, the performance is incredibly exciting. Daltrey’s behind-the-beat stutter is marvelous, Entwistle’s bass runs are killer and Keith Moon goes suitably crazy on the drums. The end of the song collapses into a mess, largely because there’s nowhere for this song to go once the moronic marketing message has been delivered.
“Substitute” (13): What a fabulous fucking song! So fabulous it failed to chart in the USA! Huh? Part of the problem may have been a disgusting substitution made at the behest of the American record company, Atco. “I look all white but my dad was black” was re-recorded as “I try walking forward but my feet walk back” because Atco courageously decided that any reference to race would spell doom in the American market. Absofuckinglutely despicable, even for the land where all men are created equal. Politics aside, the song moves incredibly well and the build to the endlessly exciting chorus is superb. The harmonies are very strong, Daltrey nails the character’s oscillation between bitterness and regret, and the arrangement never loses its energy, with the stop-time guitar breaks serving as accelerators. The lyrics are the best in the early Who catalog, describing the comic and tragic aspects of trying to fit in with both compassion and wit. I love the line, “I look pretty young but I’m just back-dated, yeah.” Pete Townsend’s penchant for teenage dramatic monologues will get stale later in his career, but at this stage, it’s a fresh approach.
“A Legal Matter” (10): The legal matter is teenage divorce, and since teenage marriage is an incomprehensible concept to me, I have a hard time relating to this song. However, I love Townsend’s tone on the main riff and though the melody is rather obvious and reminiscent of The Stones’ “The Last Time,” it’s a pleasant rocker with a slight honky-tonk feel that made a good B-side for a much better song, namely . . .
“The Kids Are Alright” (2): Another melodic rock classic, this story of mild teenage angst is sheer delight. Validating The Count Basie Effect that tells us that the simplest choices are often the best, the opening chord—a pretty run-of-the-mill D5—was voted the second most distinctive opening chord after (duh) “A Hard Day’s Night” on Rock Town Hall. The melody moves beautifully and gracefully through the scale, and the harmonies sound so good they almost put me into a waking dream state of pure ecstasy. Keith Moon’s relentless attack gives the arrangement rock song credibility by tempering the sweetness, and Townsend’s supporting guitar gets right to the edge of lead guitar orgasm without crossing the line into explosion, leaving that pleasure for the listeners. And where did this diamond land on the US Charts? #106. Shee-it.
“I’m a Boy” (14): According to SongFacts, “Pete Townshend wrote this for a Rock Opera he was composing called ‘Quads,’ which was about a future where parents could choose the sex of their children.” The parents placed an order for four girls; someone in the shipping department fucked up and sent one with a little pecker attached. Dear Mother wants nothing to do with peckers (obviously, or she wouldn’t have had to order her kids C. O. D.), so she treats him “like a girl,” forcing him into hairpins and makeup and denying him the uniquely male pleasures of rolling around in the dirt and bleeding. Townsend was wise to drop the concept, which reflects gender stereotypes that people of the era believed were solidly grounded in both biological science and theology. Wrong! Having grown up about a mile from the Castro, where men range from muscular he-men to some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever laid eyes on, this song seemed foreign to me until my parents gave me a lesson in the history of gender identity repression. Putting aside Townsend’s understandable cultural naiveté, this is one of my favorite Who songs from a musical standpoint, and you can certainly hear hints of Tommy in the melodic structure and arrangement. Although the low quality of the recording weakens the effect, Entwistle plays a nice French Horn passage that also foreshadows Tommy.
“Happy Jack” (3): I love this song! The guitar riff is one of the first things I wanted to learn on my guitar, and though it took a while to develop the necessary callouses, I pulled it off—the proudest achievement of a truly shitty guitar player. The chords are very simple, but the alternating 3/4, 2/4 time signatures in the verses are an exciting variation to standard rock rhythms. Once again the harmonies are exceptional and cause me to wonder why on earth The Who chose to reduce the use of harmony over the course of their career. John Entwistle is perfect in the role of storyteller, and this is one song where Keith Moon’s manic bursts really work, providing greater contrast to the alternating loud/soft dynamics. Up to this point, Pete Townsend’s songwriting had been admittedly derivative; this is where he started to differentiate himself and find his voice.
“Pictures of Lily” (5): This one didn’t make it in the U. S. either, but I can understand why: it reminds me of early melodic Move songs that were popular in the UK but never raised a speck of interest across the water. What strikes me about this song is the melodic movement and the relative complexity of the chords compared to their other early singles. The storyline certainly hints of jacking off to an ancient pin-up girl poster and hints that the moral of the story is that such behavior leads to young lads preferring fantasy to the awful reality of girls. Townsend takes a nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach that is understandable given the times. (Postscript: It’s four days since I’ve written this and that melody is still stuck in my head.)
“Boris the Spider” (11): I don’t know if he’s willing to admit it, but I think this is where Peter Gabriel got the idea for “Moribund the Burgermeister.” I mentioned in my review of Mind Spiders’ Meltdown that I hate spiders with a burning passion (my favorite execution method involves frying them with an electric current while a wicked laugh escapes from my lips). Despite this powerful aversion, I think this song is a hoot! Entwistle wrote this after a drinking bout with Bill Wyman, indicating just how wonderfully wacky those bass players can be. The song is astonishingly well-arranged though, and the contrast between the growly basso profundo and the creepy crawly falsetto creates a humorously haunting effect. Bravo for Boris!
“I Can See for Miles” (4): The Who break into the Top 10 in the US! Know what? It’s one of my least favorite songs on the album. Typical of me, ain’t it? I think the lyrics are childish, trite, repetitive and spiteful. I think the melodic progression is substandard. The opening passage with its single note of distortion would have been impressive had it not come out six months after Eric Burdon and The Animals came out with “When I Was Young” (a much better song anyway). Keith Moon’s drumming crosses the line into excess, and Townsend’s guitar becomes rather irritating after a while, like a car alarm that keeps blasting through the night.
“Magic Bus” (12): God, I hate this frigging song. As an attempt at a Bo Diddley groove song, it fails to get out of the gate. Entwistle’s bass part and the claves never seem to establish the connection between ears and hips; listening to it gives me the jitters instead of moving my mojo. The lyrics are dumb, the call-and-response is dumb . . . did I tell you that I hate this frigging song? The Who were never very good at anything hinting at R&B, and this settles the case.
“Pinball Wizard” (9): The crown jewel of Tommy was written after the boys played a demo of their rock opus for a reviewer and received a lukewarm response. Ever ready to please the critical powers that be, Townsend discovered that the guy liked to play pinball and decided to stick a pinball song into his not-very-carefully-crafted libretto. I can still remember feeling this was a very exciting song years ago . . . but it’s been played to death and I’m tired of it.
“The Seeker” (7): The quality of The Who’s singles would decline once they became more of an album band. This one’s a total bore, from the unimaginative chord pattern to the pathetic lyrics referring to The Beatles, Dylan and Timothy Leary. I can see why the evil compilers tried to hide this song in the middle; they would have been better off leaving it in the can.
I’ll tell you one thing—listening to this collection reminded me that despite their frequent misses, The Who created a sound all their own, something I deeply appreciate as I slog through the current musical climate where everyone tries to sound like Everyone Else, and Everyone Else is completely devoid of imagination.