LP Review: The Who, ‘WHO’ – A Triumphant Return & Perhaps Farewell?

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“All of this music will fade like the edge of a blade” – “All This Music Must Fade,” The Who

I am so thrilled that I’m able to write about a new Who album… There was great anticipation for this album down here at B&V and man, did these guys pay off…

Of all the early British Invasion bands, I think the Who rocked the hardest. They described their music as “Maximum R&B,” and indeed it was. This band, in their prime hit like a sledge hammer. Big anthemic songs like “My Generation,” “I Can’t Explain” and later “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” defined rock and roll. A large part of their sound was the titanic rhythm section of Keith Moon (drums) and John Entwistle (bass). In the press run up for the new album, WHO, naturally Townshend had to say something controversial. In Rolling Stone magazine he said he was glad Moon and Entwistle were dead. I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was reading that correctly. I’m sure the families of those guys were thrilled to read that…

The only way I could get my head around it, was to try to put myself in Pete’s shoes. I think what he meant – and I’m not trying to be an apologist for Townshend – is he’s glad that he doesn’t have to play with them any more…and the only way to leave the Who, it appears, is to die. Moon was the most energetic drummer ever… he makes Neal Peart from Rush look like a timekeeper. Keith Richards always said about Moon, “You couldn’t jam with him, he wasn’t capable.” Pete says that his rhythm guitar was what kept time in the band and it was a relief to work with more sedate drummers after Moon passed. And let’s face it, Moon was quite a handful in the end… the demon alcohol had control over him. Entwistle was equally aggressive on bass. I would think as a singer and guitar player, that’d be hard to play against. So while I’m sure Pete is relieved to play with a less aggressive rhythm section, I would hope he regrets saying he’s glad they’re both dead. There had to be some shred of friendship there? Right? It was a stupid and insensitive thing to say. Rock stars, what are you gonna do?

When I had my rock and roll awakening, it was the late 70s. The Who were still a working band. My first Who album, and this will surprise a lot of people, was Face Dances. By then Moon was long gone and ex-Faces drummer Kenny Jones had replaced him. I hadn’t even heard of the Faces at that point. For many people the Who should have hung it up after Moon died, but I love Face Dances. The single was “You Better You Bet” and it’s one of my favorite Who tracks. Townshend was heavily into heroin by that point and his big guitar is mostly missing, but there’s just something about your first Who… Another of my favorites on that LP is the ending track, “Another Tricky Day.” The lyric, “this is no social crisis, this you having fun” could pretty much sum up my social life, pre-Rock Chick. “Daily Records” is a quiet classic. For a long time Face Dances and the greatest hits package, Meaty Big And Bouncy were the only Who albums I owned.

I was supposed to see the Who on that tour in ’79 with my buddy Brewster and a couple other clowns. We’d spent every dime we had on concert tickets. As teenagers, the big thing was to come home at curfew, wait an hour, and then sneak out through the back door. I was very good at tip-toeing through the house and out the door like a pimply ninja. Brewster and I and another pal decided to sneak back out the weekend before the concert to do some alternative gasoline procurement. Naturally we got caught. My father took my Who ticket away. I gave it to the two smart guys who didn’t join us on our midnight foraging expedition to sell to see if I could recoup the money. They sold my ticket and bought beer with it and later told me they hadn’t sold it. I was literally in a gang of thieves.

My knowledge and love of the Who didn’t really expand much until I got to college and met one of my roommates, Drew. He was a Billy Joel/Who fan and I was a Springsteen/Stones fan. Naturally we cross-pollinated our rock tastes. Suddenly I was out buying Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. Drew led me to some of the lesser known albums, Who By Numbers and Who Sell Out. I finally backtracked and picked up their last album with Moon, Townshend’s reaction to punk rock, Who Are You. I even picked up, It’s Hard…but that was mostly for two songs, “Athena” and “Eminence Front.” I’m nothing if not a completist. Yes, you could call me a huge Who fan. I do miss my college days hanging out in the vinyl store with Drew, but who doesn’t?

I didn’t get to see the Who until 1989 when they toured with a huge backing band. It was almost like seeing a Who Revue starring Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle. I think there were 30 people on stage. I ended up making out with the kind woman in front of me… luckily her boyfriend was too into the show to notice. Gads…I blame strong drink. It wasn’t until 2000 that I got to see what I thought was a genuine Who show… It was just Townshend/Entwistle/Daltrey and Ringo’s kid Zak Starkey on the drums. I flew out to Denver to see them and it was worth every penny. They rocked HARD that night. It wasn’t Live At Leeds, but it felt like it. Townshend was especially impressive that night.

I wondered if the Who would ever record again. Townshend, in the same Rolling Stone interview said, “The Who aren’t a band any more.” I hate to admit it, but he’s kind of right. They hadn’t put out an album since 2006’s Endless Wire. That album has always left me a little cold. My old friend Drew says it’s a great album and I trust his musical instincts implicitly. I did go back and give it a spin… I like it better than I remembered but I digress. Last year, Daltrey put out a solo album As Long As I Have You. He’d been working on it quite a while and health issues had prevented him from finishing it… he was going to give up but Townshend heard the demos and volunteered to play guitar on a number of the tracks. That got the “juices flowing” and Townshend decided it was time for a new album. When Daltrey heard Pete’s demos he felt it was a fine Townshend solo album and there was nothing he could add. Pete said, “just sing Roger, you’ll be happy you did in 10 years.” I’m certainly glad he did. Apparently they recorded the album without ever being in the studio at the same time. It’s been a long road, can’t we all get along guys?

I don’t know if this is the Who’s farewell album but it certainly feels like it. I doubt anybody’s around if they wait 13 years again. For two guys who apparently stay in separate hotels on tour, they still make fantastic music. If this is farewell, it’s a much more fitting end to one of the greatest rock bands ever than Endless Wire. The opening lyric on the first track could almost be Pete talking to Roger, “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song.” I had hoped that it was the touring band in the studio – Pino Palladino (bass), Zak Starkey on drums with Townshend’s brother Simon on second guitar. They do show up on select tracks (well, not Simon) but they’re replaced with studio players on most tracks. Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame plays keyboards on three tracks.

I can’t say enough about Daltrey’s voice on this album. I hear him talking about his voice and concern about losing it in the press all the time. He’s always either recording something or touring to keep it up. If you don’t use it you’ll loose it, the voice is a muscle. Before As Long As I Have You he did an album with Wilko Johnson Going Back Home that everyone should own. He’s in absolutely fine form on this album. While Townshend sings quite a bit here it’s Daltrey who vocally steals the show here… of course the best Who songs are the ones where they sing back and forth… at least I’ve always thought so.

This album is the first Who album that’s just a collection of songs since It’s Hard. Unlike Endless Wire there is no concept here or mini-opera. I’ve seen a lot of people playing the “it’s the best Who album since xyz” game. In my opinion it’s the best record they’ve done since Who By Numbers but I’ve always been extremely fond of that record. Needless to say, if you’re not like me and weren’t utterly into Face Dances, this is the best Who album in a very long time. It may not be Who’s Next or Quadrophenia, but it’s a great album and even better – it’s a great Who album. By that I just mean, it sounds and feels like a Who album. The songs are anthemic and there’s a bluster here that they haven’t had in a while. It’s a better album than many of us thought it would be.

The album opens with three outstanding tracks – perhaps ranking amongst their best ever – “All This Music Must Fade” (an ode to the death of rock?), “Ball And Chain” (political and perhaps my favorite, Daltrey almost growls the lyrics) and finally their statement of purpose, “I Don’t Want to Get Wise.” But the good music keeps rolling – “Detour” is a punchy little rocker. “Beads On One String” is a beautiful ballad, sung by Townshend. I don’t know why, but on many of Townshend’s backing vocals he’s using Autotune. It’s annoying. He should have just multi-layered his vocals and it would have been much more effective. He also raps (mercifully) briefly on “I’ll Be Back” an otherwise nice ballad. “Hero At Ground Zero” is another soaring track that just sticks in my brain. I’ve literally woken up two days in a row with that song in my head. I played the record for the Rock Chick and she felt the back end had too many ballads, but she’s never been one to be sentimental which is why she’s the Rock Chick.

“Break the News” is a lilting little rocker that makes me think of the Lumineers. They resurrect a track they recorded in 1966 “Got Nothing to Prove” that producer Kit Lambert had rejected at the time. They don’t rerecord it, it’s literally as it was in 1966. The sentiment of having nothing to prove may be actually more accurate now. It was a weird moment and the Rock Chick hated it, but I find it interesting. “Danny And My Ponies” is perhaps my favorite ballad on the album. It was a strong finish to a great album.

Everyone needs to purchase this album – it’s that good. It makes me sad that it took them 13 years to come to terms and record a studio album. I find myself in the “what could have been…” frame of mind when I listen to this album. This will certainly be on the B&V “best of” list this year. It’s so great to see a band I’ve loved, literally my whole life, put this much passion and grit into a late period album. This is like Bowie or Dylan’s late career triumphs. I hope the Stones are paying attention…

Cheers! and Happy Holidays to all of you out there!

 

The Who Return With Spirited New Single, “Ball And Chain”

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I, for one, was really bummed when the Who called it quits in 1984 after the tepid live album, Who’s Last. They’d released two albums in the early 80s that I really enjoyed. Although, in retrospect, perhaps those LPs weren’t up to their “classic” standards. To be honest, the first Who album I ever bought was Face Dances, an album I remain fond of to this day. I loved “You Better You Bet” and “Another Tricky Day.” I still quote the latter song when friends are having a tough time… “this is no social crisis, this is you having fun…”

Even I will admit 1982’s It’s Hard was not a great Who album. I did love the title track. And the single, “Athena” still holds some charm for me. And of course, I can still remember being on kitchen duty, sweating to death over an industrial dishwasher and having the crew chief put “Eminence Front” on the boom box and turning it up real loud. Everybody in the kitchen swaying and nodding to the music. Townshend isn’t fond of that song but everybody else on the planet loves it. Sorry, Pete… I even liked the video for that song, which is almost embarrassing to admit these days.

One of the reasons people frowned on those last two Who studio albums was because the Who, unlike Zeppelin, decided to carry on without their drummer. Keith Moon passed away after the album Who Are You and many folks thought the Who lost a lot of their power. Kenny Jones of the Faces joined but he was a much more economical drummer, much different than the sound Moon generated. It didn’t help that Townshend had also launched a solo career (his first three albums are essential listening) and was also mired in a bad heroin habit.

It was probably inevitable that the Who would reunite, they were far from spent creatively. I finally saw them in concert for the first time in 1988 when they reunited and pulled together a giant ensemble of a band and did a stadium tour. Townshend was struggling with his hearing loss and only played an acoustic guitar. There were like 30 people on stage with them on that tour but they still conjured some of the sturm and drang of their glory days. That was only the first of many reunion tours of course. They’ve toured on Tommy and Quadrophenia alone. I saw them in 2000 in Denver with my friend Stormin’, and it was just Townshend, Entwistle, and Daltrey with Ringo’s son Zak Starkey on drums and it was phenomenal. It was like it was 1975 again. Zak drums more like a Moon than a Starr, if you get what I mean.

At the time, I just kept thinking, when are these guys going to get into the studio and record a new album? Townshend is a songwriting genius and the band sounded great with Zak on drums, why not? Then, sadly John Entwistle passed away in Vegas on coke, which is the way rock stars should go, if you ask me, and that seemed to forestall any new music from the Who. Luckily the Who soldiered on with Pino Palladino on bass.

We finally saw the first new music in over 24 years from the Who in 2006 (save for two singles on a greatest hits compilation, “Real Good Looking Boy” about Elvis and “Old Red Wine” for Entwistle), when they released the concept album, Endless Wire. Well, I call it a concept album but the first half was a collection of songs and the second half was a mini-opera (Townshend is so fond of his operas), called “Wire And Glass.” My college roommate Drew, who expanded my love and knowledge of the Who, loved Endless Wire. I trust Drew’s musical instincts implicitly, especially about the Who, but the album left me somewhat cold. It just didn’t feel like the right way for the Who to hang it up on.

Over the last several years I keep reading comments from Daltrey that his voice is eventually going to fail him. He’s been trying to keep working, within or outside the Who to keep his “instrument working.” I get that. He released the great collaboration album with Wilko Johnson, Going Back Home, which everyone should own. He’s toured with the Who and on his own to keep his voice up. He also released a solo album last year, As Long As I Have You, which was heavy on soul covers. Daltrey almost scrapped the project but Townshend heard some demo’s and volunteered to play rhythm guitar on the album.

I don’t know if that was the spark that led them back into the studio as The Who, but whatever led them there, I’m just glad they’ve got an album coming out. I’ve heard the rumbles about their age or that there are only 2 original members left etc etc. As long as Townshend can write songs and Daltrey can shout them, I say carry on lads! As Elton John once said about the Stones, would any one have had the balls to tell Muddy Waters he was too old to go on? Muddy would have pulled a razor and cut a fool for saying that to him… well, Howlin Wolf certainly would have had a razor, maybe not Muddy.

The Who have released the first single from their upcoming album WHO entitled “Ball And Chain.” There is some subterfuge here as the song was originally put out on a Pete Townshend greatest hits package a few years ago, with Townshend on lead vocals under the title of “Guantanamo.” Why they changed the name is anyone’s guess but this is a pretty politically charged track… maybe the name change helps with managing political backlash but still allowing Pete to get the point across. Townshend’s original track is almost all acoustic and his vocal is almost a growl. It was a track I liked enough to purchase when it first came out… Here is the original version:

“Ball And Chain” is a nice update of this track. Usually you see artists like Sting or Phil Collins remake solo versions of songs previously done with their band but in this case Townshend did the reverse and took a solo tune back to the band. While Townshend’s is almost all acoustic, this version has more traditional sounds we expect from the Who. It starts with a beautiful cascading piano. The first time I heard this I thought maybe Daltrey’s voice had finally gone Dylan on him and it was gone but on repeated listens I realized he’s just trying to approximate Pete’s growl on the original version. His singing is as strong as ever. There really is no better interpreter of Townshend’s vision than Daltrey. The chemistry remains impeccable. Unlike the laid back acoustic nature of “Guantanamo” Pete adds some fierce power chords to this track. I love his electric guitar on this song. It’s a tough, strident track. These guys still rock. It may not be “Won’t Get Fooled Again” but it’s still got that great Who bite. Where are the kids today writing protest music? I don’t hear any… Sigh. Here is the Who version:

Needless to say, we love this track down at B&V. I can only hope this portends a strong album… Any new music by legendary bands like The Who, Paul McCartney, or the Stones should be celebrated with a national holiday involving bourbon and dancing around. Which, ironically is how I’ll be spending my weekend…

Cheers!