THROWBACK: WHO’S NEXT

Little did I know when I posted this on April 12, 2006, that exactly eight years later I would be going to see Simon Townshend — whom I had just interviewed for The Somerville Times — at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

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THE WHO’S GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on April 12, 2006)

For many, the end of the 60s came with the break-up of The Beatles in April 1970. For others, it came shortly before that, at the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. Or, in the political world, it may have occurred in 1968 – which author Jules Witcover called “The Year the Dream Died” – with the election of Richard Nixon.

But whether it was marked by a musical event or a political event, the fact is that at some point the glorious 1960s ended, and not simply by virtue of the fact that it eventually became the 1970s. The 60s were defined as much by attitude as they were a calendar.                                                                                                      blog_TheWho   

Released in 1971, Who’s Next was Pete Townshend’s farewell to the previous decade, and all that it encapsulated. 26 years of age when the record was released, Townshend had survived the first five years of his band’s career with both massive popularity and the accompanying scars to show for it. Who’s Next sounds like the result of a songwriter who had taken stock of his life and the world around him, and in doing so, cleared his mind and soul enough to make his greatest album to date, and probably of his entire career, even 35 years on.

 

And while it was initially intended to be an ambitious concept album like Tommy and Quadrophenia, the finished product ended up achieving an epic scope at least as great as its predecessor and successor.

The most obvious eulogies for the 60s come at the very beginning and very end of the record. While just two years earlier The Who was rocking Woodstock, the disc’s opening track “Baba O’Riley” finds them surveying the wreckage of a “teenage wasteland.” Such a masterful phrase brings to mind unmistakable images of the site of a cultural milestone which had probably not yet recovered from from the event which was a generation’s last hurrah.

On the other end of the record, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is more straightforward in its recognition of the end of an era. The new boss – Nixon – is the same as the old boss – Johnson, and the parting on the (political) left is now parting on the (political) right. Yet there is still hope, and thus the prayers that “we don’t get fooled” again. (Yeah, I know that I am focusing on events in America, but if only Pete Townshend knew at the time what awaited the US in the 1970s.)

In between these bookends, Townshend seems to be putting himself together emotionally – “getting in tune,” as he might say – with some of his very best songs as the result. The fact that Roger Daltrey never sounded better certainly doesn’t hurt. (I mean really, who knew the guy could sing so well?) These songs are divided between straight-ahead rock songs and slower ballads, the latter featuring the always superb piano work of – who else? – Nicky Hopkins. Bassist John Entwistle also contributes his morbid black humor on the genuinely great song “My Wife.”

“Going Mobile” also references the ethos of the previous decade, with its wah-wah guitar solo and its air-conditioned hippie gypsy protagonist. I am guessing that Townshend may have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this one. Then there is “Behind Blue Eyes,” a virtuoso performance by Townshend and Daltrey, with the latter flawlessly capturing every iota of the former’s vulnerability and anger, and probably tossing in a bit of his own while he was at it.

 

This song and the equally beautiful “The Song Is Over” are the most plaintive songs in the band’s repertoire. “Bargain” and “Love Ain’t For Keepin’,” meanwhile, are classic Who rock songs.

Who’s Next tamed and perfected the elements that had made The Who one of the greatest and most popular bands of the 60s. Without being the lead vocalist, Pete Townshend proved himself to be as capable of composing in the singer/songwriter mode as any of those who were famous for doing both.

Roger Daltrey, as mentioned, sounds spectacular, and more like a great singer than he ever did. (Not that he ever sounded bad, but here….whoa.)

John Entwistle and Keith Moon

Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, who made up The Who’s infamously combustible rhythm section, keep themselves finely in check on this record, and earn their spurs by being more musical, rather than more rackety, than ever. In short, each member of the band emerged sounding like rock ‘n roll musicians, rather than rock ‘n roll players. And lyrically, one should obviously not take Townshend seriously when he claims, on “Getting In Tune,” that he “can’t pretend there’s any meaning hidden in the things I’m saying.” This is a classic rock CD that you will continue to appreciate long after you have outgrown classic rock.

The Who would create five more records over the next decade of their career, each, alas, bringing diminishing returns. After breaking up in 1982, they would eventually come together solely for the sake of lucrative tours.

But perhaps such tours are the band’s reward for being a great singles band (“Substitute,” I Can’t Explain”), albums band (The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Quadrophenia), and one of the loudest and most influential rock groups ever. Who’s Next will forever survive as a testament to everything that was great about this band.

(Having said all this, however, I am still a bigger fan of The Kinks, who were — as Pete and Roger themselves have acknowledged — a major influence on The Who. Too bad that there will never be any chance for them to charge $200 per ticket.)

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FLASHBACK: THE WHO SELL OUT

Originally posted six years ago today on Amazon.com. I was actually a bit late in getting around to The Who, but as they say, there is no zealot like the convert.

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Where (or When) The Who Joined the Ranks of the Great

The Who Sell Out (1967) proved that The Who was not just another quick singles band for whom an LP was too large of a canvas. The Who Sings My Generation showed promise, but its follow-up A Quick One was undercooked. Sell Out was when they finally produced a complete set of all original songs that was uniformly strong from beginning to end. The sound on this record was much less mod, and an lot more pop and psychedelia. Fortunately, they were careful to not sound too much like freaks or hippies (cause after all, they were neither). Instead, Townshend was determined to embrace the sound of the late 60s without simply blending into it. And while their ambition was obvious, the fake commercials that connect the songs – including two longer ones written by John Entwistle – indicated that the band was unwilling to itself too seriously.

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For as much of a quintessential Who album as Sell Out is, it opens with a song written by John “Speedy” King, a friend of the band and later a member of Thunderclap Newman. “Armenia City in the Sky” is about as psychedelic as The Who ever got, lyrically and musically.

“I Can See For Miles,” the band’s only US Top 10, is another slice of psychedelia, with its crashing drums, insistent guitar, and far off images of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,” meanwhile, is an inviting acoustic singalong in the vein of The Grateful Dead’s folkier moments (think “Uncle John’s Band”). The Who also reinforced its powerful pop dimension on the gorgeous tunes “Our Love Was” and “I Can’t Reach You.” Finally, there is Entwistle’s lone full-length contribution, “Silas Stingy,” which anticipated The Small Faces’ 1968 classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.

And honestly, the great stuff doesn’t end there. “Tattoo” is a poignant, even bittersweet song that uses its title subject to symbolize an act of youthful rebellion of which the narrator will be forever reminded. Daltrey is in particularly fine form here. Indicating that Townshend was in a forward-thinking mode, the acoustic arpeggios on “Sunrise” and the electric riffs on “Rael 1” foreshadow Tommy. The only slip on the CD is “Odorono”, which is a bit silly and may have worked better in shorter form as one of the commercials.

At the point in their young career at which they needed to make a great record, The Who went above and beyond the call of duty with The Who Sell Out. The songs themselves were more solid than ever before, and the band milked the LP format for all that it was worth. Unfortunately, “I Can See For Miles” is the only track that has endured to the point of being known to non-Who fans, but at least a half-dozen other songs are among The Who’s best. Fans and critics will continue to bicker over whether Sell Out or Who’s Next is their best album. Even if Who’s Next remains the greatest by the standard of general consensus, The Who Sell Out will always be their most entertaining.

FLASHBACK: A QUICK ONE BY THE WHO

This is my somewhat perfunctory – love that word – review of The Who’s second album. But at least it includes a clip from Rushmore. (originally posted on Amazon.com, December 7, 2006.)

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The Who’s second album falls a bit short of their fine debut, and is redeemed by a handful of slightly above average tracks rather than by great ones.

Some have argued too many songwriters spoiled the record, as all members of the group made contributions. Not surprisingly, Townshend dominates the record. “Run Run Run” and “So Sad About Us” are probably the best of his batch, and the enjoyable but somewhat slight “Happy Jack” was the single and most famous track. (Strangely, it is included only among the bonus tracks on the CD re-issue.)

 “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was his first compostion of epic proportions, and a sign of things to come in the forms of Tommy and Quadraphenia. Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle take turns at the mike with equally good results. This is a great song, but it plays much better on the Live at Leeds CD. It is fleshed out more completely, delivered with deserving passion, and is preceded by some humorous on-stage banter. (Wes Anderson was wise to use a live version – which I think is from The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus – for the Rushmore soundtrack.)

Entwistle began to develop his trademark of writing songs with dark humor and unsettling self-deprecation. On this album, he offers the story of the ill-fated “Boris the Spider” and “The Whiskey Man,” at tale of alcohol-induced paranoid schizophrenia: “Seemingly I must be mad, insanity is fun.”

Moon throws in the instrumental “Cobwebs and Strange,” a showcase for his feral drumming style, and the surpringly affecting “I Need You.” Finally, Daltrey – a very infrequent songwriter – has only one song on the record, the middling “See My Way.” (Oh yeah, there is also a superfluous cover of “Heat Wave.”)

The CD re-issue adds several bonus tracks of fitful quality. “Disguises,” “In the City,” “Man With the Money,” and the characteristically amusing “Doctor, Doctor” by Entwistle – who may well be the star of the record – help make the disc worth listening to in it’s entirety.

But the real problem with A Quick One is that it simply never catches fire. At this point, The Who had shown that they were able to crank out decent singles, and that they had the ability and the inspiration to achieve greater things. However, they had yet to deliver a solid album of all original material. That would change in a big way the following year (1967) with The Who Sell Out. But in the wake of A Quick One, the band still had some work to do before its legendary status would be secured.

FLASHBACK: THE WHO’S LIVE AT LEEDS

Four years ago today, I posted my review of Live At Leeds by The Who on Amazon.com. Two-and-a-half years before writing the review, I had been listening to the CD non-stop. Around that exact same time, I had started seeing LeAnne Martin, who would – about four-and-a-half years later – become LeAnne Martin-Maddux.

Is there anything more romantic to tell your wife than, “Honey, I think of you every time I listen to The Who’s first live album”?

By the way, I don’t know if the images in the videos are actually from the Leeds show. However, the songs sound exactly as they do on the album. And you may click on the hyperlinks throughout the piece to read my reviews of other albums by The Who.

A Valentine’s Day gift to all rock ‘n roll fans

The Who’s Live At Leeds, recorded on February 14, 1970, is unquestionably deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest live recordings in rock ‘n roll. One should put aside whatever reservations he or she might have about live albums and embrace it in all of its bombastic glory.

As rightfully skeptical, however, as one should be of a live album as an introduction to a band, Live At Leeds might be the best disc in The Who’s catalog to serve as such. True, more succinct and more comprehensive compilations are available, but Live At Leeds – released the year prior to the masterpiece Who’s Next and the compilation Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy – is a superb brew of hits, covers, and epics. Plus, at the time the album was recorded, The Who had one foot on either side of the dividing line between their early R&B-influenced pop songs and the ambitious, larger-canvas rockers of the late 60s and early 70s.

The first of the hits on the album is “I Can’t Explain,” which (although it isn’t here) was and continues to this day to be the opening number to almost every Who concert. About halfway through the CD’s set list come what Pete Townshend calls “three selected hit singles…the three easiest”: “Substitute,” “Happy Jack,” and “I’m A Boy”. They might be easy and simple, but they are also catchy, intelligent, and even – in the case of “I’m A Boy” – a bit risqué. Each of these songs is presented in a no-frills fashion.

Two epics follow on the heels of these less-than-three minute pop songs. On their second LP, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” was impressive but brittle. In this live setting, it is pumped up significantly. The spectacular “Amazing Journey/Sparks,” from their 1969 LP Tommy, is arguably the highlight of the set. The whole of Tommy was played at the original Leeds concert, and is available on disc 2 of the 2001 deluxe edition of Live At Leeds. The Who was wise to select this one particular track for the expanded 1995 remastered version.

Two other classic hits are given mammoth treatment at the end of the show. “My Generation” runs for almost fifteen minutes, and is interspersed with lyrical and musical references to songs from Tommy (including some riffs that had originally appeared in “Rael I” from The Who Sell Out). I have never personally cared much for “Magic Bus,” which runs for nearly eight minutes. However, it was definitely a crowd pleaser, and the band did a fine job of mixing it up here.

Finally, the band revisits its roots with four covers throughout the disc. These are the obscure blues numbers “Fortune Teller” and “Young Man Blues” and the rock `n roll classics “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”. The Who made the former two tracks very much their own, but the latter two feel a bit perfunctory and surprisingly uninspired.

Several better-known songs – such as “The Kids Are Alright,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “Pictures of Lily” – were not performed at the Leeds concert. However, they are not that noticeably absent on the disc. The Who wisely treated Live At Leeds as an opportunity to present themselves in not-so-obvious ways. John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell,” the opening number, was never included in a studio version on a Who album. The Who Sell Out – the band’s first great album – is represented not by the ornate hit single “I Can See for Miles,” but by the poignant “Tattoo”. As mentioned before, Tommy is represented by “Amazing Journey/Sparks” rather than by the classic “Pinball Wizard.”

The greatest thing about The Who in a live setting is that each member played as if he were the only one on stage. John Entwistle and Keith Moon don’t just keep the beat, they rise above the surface of the songs. Pete Townshend was never quite the soloist that his contemporaries were, but given the chance to spread out, he proved himself to be at least as good of a riffer and every bit as inspired as his fellow axemen. Roger Daltrey literally and figuratively speaks for himself, especially on “Young Man Blues,” which might be his finest performance of the show.

Live At Leeds was pretty much by accident the first Who concert made available to record buyers. The band had done an extensive tour in support of Tommy, and planned to release a live album afterward. Townshend balked at the idea of listening to and sifting through all of the shows, so he scheduled two dates to be recorded specifically for a live album. When the mics failed to record John Entwistle’s bass at Hull City Hall on February 15, the concert at Leeds University became the show for the live LP by default. However great any of the shows might have been, it is hard to imagine them being as good as or better than the one at Leeds. Whatever the case might have been, rock fans of every generation are lucky to have at least one of them preserved for prosperity.