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!”
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 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. That works for me, because I have no intention of touching anything that came after Who’s Next, my favorite Who album and one of my favorite albums of all time. This means that when The Who section of my library is complete, the history will show that they went out on top. How bloody thoughtful of me!
However, I reserve the right to review Quadrophenia if Review Writing Day coincides with my period and I need to use something as a punching bag.
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-1960’s 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 “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 basically 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 absolutely 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 really 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 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 even 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 really 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 starts 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 terribly 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 story line 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 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 of 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, from this turkey all the way to the execrable naughtiness of “Squeeze Box.” 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.