Note to my readers: This is one of several albums I reviewed in my first year as a blogger that I’ve been dying to rewrite. When I first started the blog, I listened to expert advice to keep my posts short and sweet, and that was a mistake. After a while, I felt that I was cheating both artists and readers with presentations of superficial mediocrity. In preparation for my upcoming collection of reviews, I have rewritten nearly all the reviews from that first year, including the bulk of The Beatles’ catalog and several iconic albums. These reviews will appear here and on 50thirdand3rd over the next few months.
Pete Townshend always had great pretensions. Striving to be rock’s version of Verdi, he penned two rock operas (Tommy and Quadrophenia). Tommy combines a flash or two of musical brilliance with peculiar views on enlightenment and a twisted, overwrought narrative (even Entwistle admitted he didn’t know what the fuck it was about). At the center of the story is a thoroughly loathsome main character who fails to garner any sympathy despite his status as a victim of child abuse. Quadrophenia dies early in a flood of amateur pop-psychoanalysis based on a misinterpretation of schizophrenia as “split-personality syndrome” (Dissociative Identity Disorder is another thing entirely). Townsend used “quadro” because he wanted to capitalize on the dead-on-arrival emergence of quadrophonic sound and the fact that The Who consisted of four band members. When the structure of your lead character’s personality is based on how many people are in your group, your libretto is on pretty flimsy ground. The only thing on the two-disc production that qualifies as memorable is John Entwistle’s bass part on “The Real Me.”
Between the two failed opuses, Townsend worked on a multimedia project entitled Lifehouse with an equally twisted premise. The combination of logistical complexity and a confused vision put Townsend on the edge of a nervous breakdown and the band on the verge of a break-up. The project was canceled.
When you fail, the best thing you can do is learn from the experience and let it go, and that’s exactly what The Who did. They took the best pieces from Lifehouse, added a few more numbers, gave free rein to engineer Glyn Johns to create the best sound possible (novel thought!) and the result was Who’s Next, one of the truly great recordings in rock ‘n’ roll history and certainly the best thing The Who ever did.
There are few opening tracks that command your attention as completely as “Baba O’Riley,” with its mesmerizing synthetic pattern (courtesy of a Lowrie home organ), majestic rhythm and crashing power chords. The title is a melding of the names of two of Townsend’s mentors, but that information is only relevant if you’re playing Trivial Pursuit. What is more important is Townsend’s claim that the subject matter of the song is the teenage population attending the Woodstock festival. While the claim is only partially supported by the lyrics themselves, there’s no doubt that the closing verse describes a scene that bears more than a passing resemblance to the muddy madness of Woodstock. Instead of seeing Woodstock as the grand festival of peace, love and happiness, Townsend saw it for what it was: a bunch of wiped out imbeciles doing their absolute best to achieve permanent brain damage through psychedelic experimentation:
Teenage wasteland, it’s only teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland, oh yeah
They’re all wasted!
The lyrics are enhanced a millionfold by Roger Daltrey’s commanding delivery. I’ve always considered Daltrey one of the greatest lead singers in rock because of his exceptional interpretive ability. It’s not easy finding the right tone, phrasing and emotional level for a song written by someone else, especially when the person who wrote the lyrics is standing next to you in the studio waiting for you to fuck things up. As thousands of crappy covers of Beatle songs have proven, song interpretation is a challenging art all by itself, and Daltrey’s diverse performances on Who’s Next verify his mastery of the craft.
In “Baba O’Riley,” two moments stand out for me. The first is the delivery of the line, “I don’t need to be forgiven,” which he delivers with slightly more intensity, following it with the self-affirming repeated utterances of “yeah.” It sounds as if he’s been trying to express something inside for years and has finally found the right words—a joyful and liberating experience. The second is the way he delivers the catchphrase “teenage wasteland” immediately after the synthesizer passage. He could have chosen to scream those words; instead, he holds back and delivers them in an almost sweet, plaintive voice. The scream will come later with the disgust expressed in “They’re all wasted!” but here it’s like he’s shaking his head in sadness as he watches his generation united in mutually-assured self-destruction.
Tough song to follow! “Bargain” was a pretty good choice for that role, as it shifts tonal gears and allows Daltrey the opportunity to grind out the vocals. Townshend’s guitar licks are excellent and Keith Moon stays focused enough for a few minutes to provide the appropriate thump. Townsend claims this is about losing one’s ego and giving oneself over to one’s guru, yeah, yeah, yeah. If he’s telling the truth, the man doesn’t need a guru—he needs therapy:
I’d pay any price just to get you
I’d work all my life and I will
To win you I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed
The rest of the lyrics are classic love song masochism, so I call bullshit on Townsend . . . but I still like the song anyway.
“Love Ain’t for Keeping” is a nice break from the intensity of the first two songs and makes for a nice lead-in to Entwistle’s humorous ode to the spouse, “My Wife.” Entwistle couldn’t sing worth shit, but his low-key sincerity works here. Side 1 ends with “The Song is Over,” featuring alternating Townsend-Daltrey vocals. This is probably the most pretentious song on the album, and the line “I’ll sing my song to the wide open spaces” always calls up images of Julie Andrews shattering eardrums in The Sound of Music.
Happily flipping the disc, “Getting in Tune” is one of the strongest arrangements on the record, highlighted by John Entwistle’s delightfully melodic and lively bass counterpoint. Pompous ass Robert Christgau pronounced the lines, “I’m singing this note ’cause it fits in well with the chords I’m playing/I can’t pretend there’s any meaning here or in the things I’m saying” the “real theme” of Who’s Next, a classic example of a critic looking for a tidbit in an album to justify a pre-conceived notion. To me, those lines reflect a phase in the development of a song that many songwriters have experienced: you have a lovely melody and need some words but all you’re capable of in the moment is gibberish. McCartney’s “Yesterday” began life as “Scrambled Eggs,” so the phenomenon is not unusual. Sometimes the gibberish stays in a song because you’ve accidentally stumbled onto a string of words that happen to work (“the movement you need is on your shoulder” in “Hey Jude,” for example). Townsend is describing the process of “getting in tune” with oneself in the process of creation, a theme that appears nowhere else on Who’s Next.
I think there is a much stronger theme on Who’s Next . . . but I’ll get to that later.
“Going Mobile” is another Entwistle bass masterpiece surrounded by a song that describes the joys of living in a mobile home. What the fuck? The only people who can really relate to this song are old farts puttering around in their Winnebagos, a demographic that would not become The Who’s target audience for forty or so years. Perhaps Townsend was a visionary after all! Silly premise aside, it’s a bouncy little number, thanks to the rhythm section of Entwistle and Moon.
“Behind Blue Eyes,” is the dramatic monologue of an anti-social character where Daltrey displays better acting skills than he revealed in any of his film efforts. The character is a loser, and the dynamic of a loser is a self-fulfilling, other-validating cycle:
No one knows what it’s like
To be the bad man, to be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
No one knows what it’s like
To be hated, to be fated
To telling only lies
But my dreams, they aren’t as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance that’s never free
Our anti-hero yearns for empathy, feels he doesn’t deserve empathy and projects his bitterness onto those who fail to empathize, triggering a repulsion in others that reinforces the negative self-image. He is a victim; he is the cause of his victimization—a human paradox. Daltrey manages to capture the deep sadness, the desperate wish for recognition of his common humanity and his barely-under-the-surface anger that comes out in bursts (“And I blame YOU!”).
The arrangement is a masterpiece in itself, and a gorgeous piece of engineering. In the quiet segment, the acoustic guitar is perfectly placed in the far right channel, providing soothing background throughout. Entwistle’s bass is placed on the opposite channel, though slightly closer to center—a perfect placement that captures the subtle bottom and the supporting melody. Daltrey’s voice is placed slightly off-center with the harmonies slightly below his voice, which has the interesting effect of further highlighting the isolation of the acoustic guitar, which forms the foundation in the absence of a complete rhythm section. The tones are crystal clear and clean, with just the right amount of echo and reverb to enhance the sound without compromising the intimacy. The build to the bash section is perfect, and Keith Moon balances his typical freneticism with enough discipline so that the transition back to quiet is smooth and clean. “Behind Blue Eyes” is The Who at their best, a piece where everyone gets to show their talents in a clearly collaborative effort.
Who’s Next ends with a generational anthem of greater depth and insight than the regrettable cheekiness of “My Generation,” the majestic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Musically and thematically linked to “Baba O’Riley,” the song exposes the astonishingly naïve idealism driving the various and sundry calls for revolution that sprung up with predictable regularity during the 1960’s and early 70’s. Like “Baba O’Riley,” the song opens synthetically, with a Lowrie TBO-1 patched fed into a synthesizer, again creating a mesmerizing, tantalizing introduction.
The narrator is a prototypical member of the new generation with a more nuanced perspective of the situation than most of his peers. Sure, he’d love things to change, but from the start he casts serious doubt on the results of his generation’s change efforts:
We’ll be fighting in the streets with our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song
The radicals of this period (and any other period you care to name) were characterized by dogmatic thought and a strong desire to weed out the heretics . . . “to sit in judgment of all wrong.” So while the narrator is open to a new world order, history tells him to balance hope with skepticism:
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
In addition to the dig, “Smile and grin at the change all around,” the narrator takes a second swipe at the mass conformity of non-conformist hippies in the brilliant line, “Though I know that the hypnotized never lie.” Our hero also realizes that all the noise, all the demonstrations and all the slogans have changed very little except the superficial and fashionable:
There’s nothing in the street looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left is now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight
The music up to this point has been The Who at their rocking best with strong contributions all around. The band takes a minute or so to have a good solid jam, then Daltrey returns with the final verse and chorus. At this point, it appears we’ve run out of lyrics with three minutes left to go! What now?
Now they’re going to take this sucker to a whole ‘nother level.
The band launches into another jam, this one with more bottom and more frenetic thumping from Keith Moon. The synthesizer is placed in deep background for several bars, gradually asserting its presence as the band plays out the string. The absolute stillness surrounding the synth pattern heightens our sense of anticipation—then suddenly the melodic pattern collapses into a single, quickly-repeated note communicating tremendous urgency. Keith Moon drops in with a series of stuttering rolls in rhythmic counterpoint to the synth pattern, all building up to the greatest fucking scream in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Baseline rhythm restored, Daltrey delivers the clincher, a powerful couplet that says it all:
Meet the new boss:
Same as the old boss.
There are very few moments in rock history as thrilling as the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and it gives me the chills every time I hear it.
While Tommy seems terribly dated, Who’s Next retains its freshness forty-five years after its release. This is The Who at their best, coming together after a period of deep frustration and letting it rip. And despite its origin as something pieced together from the rubble, Who’s Next winds up having a stronger unifying theme than either Tommy or Quadrophenia, captured in a pithy, punchy phrase:
“Get fucking real, people!”
Oh, my fucking god.
I hadn’t heard Tommy in ages, and after the first run-through I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel. However, my conscience reminded me that I have made a commitment to my readers to listen to anything I review three times, and I’m a person who firmly believes in the motto, “Do what you say you are going to do.”
Note to self: Be more careful when making commitments.
After the final fade of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” I got my dad on the phone.
“What the fuck?”
I heard a sigh. It’s so nice to have parents who can understand my shorthand.
“I don’t know. We were all so proud that one of us had created an opera. It gave us legitimacy—anything you can do, we can do better—that kind of thing.”
“But I thought you were all revolutionaries. What need does a revolutionary have for legitimacy? And how does using an art form of the upper crust square with all that down-with-the-ruling-class crap you were into?”
Another sigh. “To borrow a phrase, ‘I Can’t Explain.'”
“Well, then, can you explain why someone thought it was a good idea to make it into a movie—a pretty crappy movie at that—and a Broadway musical?”
Sigh. “Let’s just say it was an important cultural event and leave it at that.”
I pondered that last comment for a while before deciding it was as good an explanation as I was going to get. Nothing about Tommy makes the least bit of sense.
Let me put it bluntly: Tommy is a half-baked piece of crap. There are more holes in the narrative than in the biggest whorehouse in Nevada. “Pinball Wizard” was written and inserted into the story after a critic with a passion for pinball had a lukewarm reaction to the preview—The Who felt they needed this guy to sell records, so Tommy got a new favorite pastime. Wow. The plot was so badly constructed that the movie reversed who killed whom in “1921” and it didn’t make a bit of difference . . . not that you could tell that anyone was killed at all by listening to the song. Imagine Shakespeare turning Iago into Desdemona’s murderer and tell me it wouldn’t change the meaning of Othello just a teeny-weeny bit. Later The Who changed the track order for live performances to emphasize “I’m Free” as the moment of liberation, another sign that Townshend had a germ of an idea and no clue about how to turn the idea into a coherent narrative that anyone could actually follow.
I loathe Tommy. Not the album (okay, I loathe the album, too), but the lead character. As difficult a feat as it is, Townshend managed to make a blind, dumb and deaf child completely unsympathetic, even before the magic cure that turns him into a messiah. When in his allegedly helpless state, Tommy never convinces me that he’s anything more than a self-pitying fakir. He becomes absolutely insufferable after he is healed, for after years of alleged isolation from humans and society, his first thought is how to capitalize on his miracle cure (“I’m a Sensation”). I guess he wasn’t so dumb after all! He naturally becomes messiah to the gullible, then strangely recruits Uncle Ernie, who molested him, to aid him in his efforts. So much for the belief that sexual abuse of children is a traumatic experience.
Now that I think about it, there isn’t a single character in Tommy who is halfway likable. The father’s a murderer, the mother an accomplice, the neighbor kid a sadist, Uncle Ernie a sicko, The Acid Queen a megalomaniac . . . it’s more of a horror story with no heroes to save us from the evil monsters.
As far as the music is concerned, the record starts out somewhat promisingly with “Overture,” although the transitions between themes are anything but smooth. They lose me pretty quickly with “Amazing Journey” and the purposeless insertion of “Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker),” a song “borrowed” from Sonny Boy Williamson. “Christmas” is sentimental tripe, “Cousin Kevin” creepy, “The Acid Queen” intensely annoying and “Underture” is a rehash of “Rael” from The Who Sell Out saved only by the improved recording techniques that make John Entwistle’s magnificent bass playing more audible. It’s followed by the Uncle Ernie sequence and then “Pinball Wizard.” Intellectually I appreciate the power in Daltrey’s vocal in this song, but to be honest, this song has been played so much on the radio that I can barely stand to hear it anymore.
After that we go on a scavenger hunt for a narrative with a series of fragments that lead to Tommy’s transformation into greedy savior. The music in this sequence is choppy and uninteresting. “Sally Simpson” is one of the more pleasant melodic pieces, but it’s followed by the aimless wanderings of “I’m Free” and then the entire camp scene. From a musical perspective, the ending is as strong as the opening, giving Tommy the musical structure of two decent bookends between which you’ll find twenty or so books with empty pages.
The lyrics are not well thought-out and sometimes unintentionally comical. Whenever I hear “I get excitement at your feet” I picture a boot-licking foot fetishist. Does anyone have any idea what the line “My warm momentum throws their stance” means? We’re also constantly and unnecessarily reminded that Tommy is blind, deaf and dumb as if Townshend assumed his listening audience consisted of people with short-term memory problems. The “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” line becomes rather maudlin after repetitive use, and the lines from the climax are very badly worded and as empty as the rest of the album.
My theory is that Pete Townshend had some personal psychological issues he needed to work out, but instead he turned Tommy into a massive avoidance mechanism and disguised his lack of courage with all the rock opera hype. Not one to learn from his mistakes, he would repeat them in Quadrophenia, an album I loathe even more than Tommy, if that’s possible.
Preceding each of those disasters, The Who produced my two favorite Who albums, The Who Sell Out and Who’s Next. Most artists go into a slow and steady decline, like The Beatles and The Stones. The story of The Who is instead marked with wide swings, stunning inconsistency and inexplicable twists and turns . . . just like Tommy.
What an amazing journey.