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The Who – Who’s Next – Classic Music Review

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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
Teenage wasteland
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!”

Foo Fighters – There Is Nothing Left to Lose – Classic Music Review

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Preparing for a Trip to Stockholm in 2014

Based on the data from Google Analytics, readers of The Alt Rock Chick visit for one of two reasons:

  • To locate a particular music review
  • To find pictures of my beautiful ass

I am certainly happy to provide a repository for “music reviews with a touch of erotica,” and am always flattered when “beautiful ass” comes up as a top search term, but regular readers of The Alt Rock Chick also know that there’s a lot more to this blog than witty music reviews, sexual banter and leather-trimmed porn. They know that the author is a deep thinker who explores the place of music in the cosmos and has offered the world two of the most influential theories in modern music today:

  • The Count Basie Effect: The affirmative corollary to the jazz theory of negative space: sometimes a single note can be the greatest fucking thing you’ve ever heard when played at the right time, in the right context. A variation of this theory is that simplicity is often more powerful than complexity.
  • The Beach Day Theory: The size of the production must correlate to the essence of the music. Go lo-fi if you’re emulating 60’s girl groups, go Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound if you have material like The Vicar’s Songbook #1.

In considering the historical and cultural underpinnings of the Foo Fighters, I discovered not one, but two new theories that should elevate my status from Niche Audience Music Critic to Serious Contender for a Nobel Prize:

  • The Norah Jones Theory: Once Norah Jones makes a guest appearance on your favorite artist’s album, it’s all over.
  • The Reagan-Thatcher Theory: It is impossible for any artist who appeared on the scene after 1980 to produce more than 2.5 good albums.

You can find nomination forms and criteria at http://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/. I believe Physics is the most appropriate category, as my sexual references often describe bodies in a state of collision, but Chemistry is also appropriate given the fact that I have created a great deal of it in my erotic experiences with both genders and with all races.

Please do not submit my name for the Literature prize, for if Faulkner can get it, anyone can.

In the Foo Fighters’ case, The Reagan-Thatcher theory must be applied first. They met their requisite 2.5 good album limit and then went down the proverbial shithole prior to Ms. Jones’s appearance. What happened is that they had the severe misfortune to win a Grammy for the second good album (the one we’re reviewing here), a development that nearly always triggers the insatiable ego of the honored artist, resulting in efforts tailored to earn more and more Grammies (which they did). While sometimes the Grammies get it right (even a stopped clock is right twice a day), the Grammies are primarily about the tastes and preferences of the music industry and the fans who have allowed themselves to be programmed by said industry. There is no consistent correlation between Grammies and musical excellence; in fact, the reverse is often true. Somewhere in the middle of One by One, The Foo Fighters chose to pursue commercially satisfying music and stick to the recipes that lead to enormous profits in a world populated by musical morons.

Therefore, the Foo Fighters were already cold on the slab when Norah Jones did a duet with Dave Grohl on In Your Honor, one of the most insipid pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Of course, that performance was nominated for a Grammy. I was therefore extremely concerned when I saw Norah in the credits of the last Belle and Sebastian album, and sure enough, the album is a clunker. We did get 2.5 good albums out of them, though, which is all you can hope for in these troubling times, even from Scotland.

The Reagan-Thatcher theory is quite reliable. Bjork had Debut and Post, then went downhill fast while trying to disguise her musical blemishes with bizarre cover art. Death Cab for Cutie fits the theory to the last decimal: two great albums (Transatlanticism and Plans) and a half-decent effort (Narrow Stairs) before going down the toilet with Codes and Keys. Oasis is an unusual case because if you do the math you come up with 3.5, but I would argue that the band with Gem Archer and Andy Bell is a different band than the original, so Oasis must be split into two distinct periods and analyzed as such.

What makes my theories so powerful is that I can alter them to fit whatever the fuck argument I want to make! That alone is worth a Nobel!

The Review

After a quirky début album, the Foo Fighters exploded onto the scene with The Colour and the Shape, an album of creative liberation for ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo front man Dave Grohl. There Is Nothing Left to Lose came next, just before the end of the millenium, and confirmed that the previous album was no fluke. The difference between the two is that The Colour and the Shape is a dazzling array of musical styles while There Is Nothing Left to Lose has less diversity but stronger melodies.

You certainly don’t hear that distinction in the first song, “Stacked Actors,” which sounds like Dave is trying to violently expel the last traces of Nirvana from his system. It’s a grungy, tuneless effort where Dave screams and growls about his disgust with the L. A. scene (a disgust that led him and the rest of his now three-member band to record this album in far-off Virginia). Given his later sellout to the industry, Dave’s position on the virtues of Hollywood culture would obviously evolve, making him the Mitt Romney of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s now buddy-buddy with all those “dead actors, stacked to the rafters,” making this song even more ridiculous in retrospect. Skip it.

“Breakout” probably would have been a better opener, and though it doesn’t qualify as particularly melodic either, it’s a much better rocker. By this time, Dave Grohl had finally found a drummer almost as good as . . . Dave Grohl. He’d rescued Taylor Hawkins from the clutches of Alanis Morissette, and while he doesn’t have the thunder of Grohl at his best, he combines sufficient force with excellent chops. He gives us a solid preview of his skills on “Breakout,” pounding out a strong bash with well-placed punctuation.

The other thing that characterized the pre-sellout Foo Fighters and was sadly lost when Dave Grohl started to take himself too seriously was their approach to music videos. The Foo Fighters made the funniest videos in the music business, satirizing the genre and the notion of rock stars being worship-worthy idols. The “Breakout” video is a hoot, and it’s not even the best from the album:

The honor for best video from There Is Nothing Left to Lose goes to “Learn to Fly,” a solid rocker with a strong melody, encouraging both pelvic movement and enthusiastic sing-alongs. The core verse arrangement with its combination of bright chords played over Taylor’s syncopated drum attack is irresistible, and Dave Grohl delivers a clean and spirited lead vocal throughout. Definitely one of the best-structured songs in the Foo Fighters’ catalog, “Learn to Fly” kicks ass and lifts the spirit. And the video, featuring stellar multi-character performances by all the band members, is an absolute hoot!

I love how they chose to open the film with a cheesy version of one of their best-known songs (“Everlong”) playing in the background, reminding us not to take them or any other rock stars too seriously. If only they’d meant it!

I haven’t mentioned the third leg of the Foo stool (that sounds gross—sorry), so I will now. Nate Mendel is a great bass player with several impressive performance on this album, including “Gimme Stitches.” This bouncy little number dominated by blood-and-guts metaphors for acrimonious relationships proves two things: one, that Dave Grohl is a hobbled lyricist at best; and two, that Nate Mendel knows how to drive a song all by himself. His disciplined but full-sounding approach to bass works wonders here, especially his subtle runs to that throb to a satisfying climax (that sounds sexual—not sorry).

The Foos continue the intensity with “Generator,” famous for Dave Grohl’s use of an electronic talk box that echoes Peter Frampton. The lyrics remain weak, but the pounding energy from Taylor Hawkins and solid bass from Nate Mandel make this a keeper. Here’s a live performance with talk box in full view:

I have a deep attraction to heavy bass that fills the room without quite knocking the vases off the tables, so it’s no wonder that my favorite song on the album is “Aurora.” The main riff comes from the bass and fills me as satisfyingly as an engorged cock when it fills my vagina (no, boys, it’s not size, it’s the Four P’s: position, pressure, presence and panache). The song glides along as if you’re taking a quiet drive through the country, with a beautiful melody dancing lightly over the floor provided by Nate Mendel’s bass. Sadly, the erection collapses with a pffft in the next song, “Live in Skin,” a throwaway I often skip.

Dave Grohl’s fascination with space travel led to the creation of “Next Year,” a tale best told in the promotional video and not in the once-again lightweight lyrics. Please note that the music on the video is different from the version on the album. There is no “false ending” where the song appears to stop and comes back for one more round, which was unnecessary anyway. More importantly, Chris Shiflett, who would join the band after the release, sings harmony on a few lines. This is big because There Is Nothing Left to Lose is virtually harmony-free, one of the record’s greatest deficiencies. I felt that absence even more strongly after listening to “Lonely As You” from their next album, One by One, a song that features stand-up-and-applaud harmonies.

The lyrics become even more oblique in “Headwires,” but the song is rescued by the strong groove, pleasant melody and Taylor Hawkins’ nimble performance on the cymbals. The man is in the groove, ladies and gentlemen! It leads to Taylor’s favorite song on the album, the lush “Ain’t It the Life,” a slower number with a slight country feel and another memorable melody. “M. I. A.” closes the proceedings, a song that feels like an album-ending opus but falls short of achieving it due once again to fairly scattered lyrics. From a musical perspective, though, the song is solid, well-structured and appropriately melodic.

With two good albums in the can, the Foos would adhere to the Reagan-Thatcher Theory with the half-decent One by One, where it’s obvious that Dave Grohl has begun thinking of himself more as a rock star than a musical artist. The circumstantial evidence is that the Grammy for There’s Nothing Left to Lose went to his head, deadening the frontal lobe enough for him to become very rich and very famous.

Fame, more than wealth, seems to drive artists into the Venus fly trap of Reagan-Thatcher. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab went Hollywood, married Zooey Deschanel and lost all of his creative edge (their divorce has been celebrated by ghoulish fans in the hope that the split means a return to form). Belle and Sebastian were featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, amplifying the Norah Jones effect by a hundredfold. A good album puts you on the industry radar, a second good one earns you the Grammy nomination and the third album can be half-crap, but when you’re rolling in dough and mommy’s proud of you, who gives a fuck about the quality of the music?

Oh, that reminds me . . . no, I won’t be reviewing Sir Paul’s latest.

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