WHO’S 40?

[7 April 2004]

By Adam Williams

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

“A nice rock and roll band from Shepherd’s Bush, London, Thee ‘oo…”

Gazing up at the carved images on rock music’s Mount Rushmore, one will see greatness in a variety of forms: The Beatles as mop topped pioneers; the Rolling Stones as sneering pop marvels; Led Zeppelin as bombastic virtuosos; and the Who as, well, the Who. It can be argued that success and immortality were assured for three of the four, but somehow the Who survived in spite of themselves to become the best of the bunch. Forty years have elapsed since the band’s first single, and the passage of time has been marked by remarkable successes, crushing failures, break ups, break downs, death, destruction, and of course a catalogue of timeless material.

From the band’s original incarnation as the Detours, into the High Numbers, then finally the Who, no grouping of musicians has ever been so ill conceived or mismatched. Fronted by blue-collar street tough turned golden Adonis Roger Daltrey, the band was to become a vehicle for art student Pete Townshend’s pent up childhood insecurities and frustrations. Townshend’s introspective songwriting and unique style of rhythm guitar were augmented by Daltrey’s unpolished vocals, while the frenetic drumming of Keith Moon and brilliantly understated musicianship of bassist John Entwistle contributed to the maelstrom of sights and sounds.

The early ‘60s tidal wave of Beatlemania and the ensuing British Invasion proved to be an unexpected obstacle for Townshend and Company’s fledgling group. The optimism of The High Numbers’ inaugural release on 3 July 1964 quickly waned as the single “I’m The Face/Zoot Suit” was a commercial disappointment, and the band found itself languishing in the shadows of its musical contemporaries. Although record sales and chart success were not part of the early equation, the band established itself as leaders of the English Mod movement. Townshend’s creative sensibilities led to the group embracing all things “Mod”, an attitude that was cleverly exploited by managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. To a certain extent, the High Numbers/Who were originally marketed as a style over substance act, from trend setting fashion icons to purveyors of auto destruction. That label soon fell away however, as Townshend’s writing began to take hold with legions of disenfranchised youth, and the group’s aggressive stage show won converts all over England.

As the band soldiered forth into 1965, finally settling on the Who as its official moniker, a reputation for smashed instruments and battling personalities preceded it. Intra group clashes were not uncommon, nor were exorbitant bills reaching far above the means of a young working band. Although cash poor, the Who was fast becoming a fan favorite with a regular slot at the venerable Marquee Club, (the famous Maximum R & B gigs), and various television appearances. The release of two singles, “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, brought a modest amount of chart recognition, as the band decided to shed its Mod image and embrace a “music as pop art” mindset. Electrifying performances and Union Jack coats aside, it was not until the latter part of 1965 that the Who cemented its legacy with the release of My Generation.. The title track embodied all that angst-ridden teenagers could imagine: Rebellion, anger, resentment, and of course, a mantra for the masses, “Hope I die before I get old.” That single lyric, spat out by Daltrey with such disdain, would define the Who for years to come.

After releasing a variety of singles in 1966, (as well as the album A Quick One), the Who crossed the pond in 1967 and showed the Yanks what the growing fuss was all about. The band barnstormed its way through a series of Murray the K shows, then performed a memorable set at the Monterey Pop Festival. The crowd of San Franciscan flower children was left slack jawed in disbelief; if not for Jimi Hendrix setting his Strat ablaze, the Who would have been the unchallenged victors of the festival. The stateside visit was significant not only as an opportunity for band visibility, but also for the chance to unfurl the “mini-opera” format of A Quick One’s title track to a wider audience; the concept would soon evolve into the momentous Tommy.

While four decades is an eternity in band years, the Who reached its creative zenith in 1969, then peaked in roughly 1972. During that brief period, the band introduced the world to the “rock opera,” performed historic gigs at Leeds and the Isle of Wight, (two of the most ferocious live sets ever recorded), and released the masterpiece album Who’s next. Interestingly, either Tommy or Who’s next could have been the death knell for the Who, but instead each became the crowning achievements in the group’s storied career.

The importance of Tommy cannot be overstated as the album rescued the Who from impending financial ruin, while earmarking the band as one of the world’s most impressive acts. Tommy lent a certain degree of credibility to the Who, as it proved the band to be more than mere equipment bashing hooligans, but rather a dynamic musical force capable of writing/performing distinctly cerebral material. The album also supported the consensus thought that Townshend was a blossoming song writing genius, on par with Brian Wilson and Lennon/McCartney.

As Tommy began taking on a life of its own, performed on stages from Woodstock to the Metropolitan Opera House, the band gained the confidence, (and professional clout), to embark on an even more ambitious trek. The “Lifehouse” project was to take rock opera to the next level. Conceived by Townshend as a futuristic interactive musical experience, the magnitude of the endeavor proved to be impossibly ahead of its time. Ultimately consuming excessive dollars and emotional energy, “Lifehouse” never came to fruition in its conceptualized state, with Townshend finally admitting defeat. Ironically, the project was distilled into a single album of songs, one that is hailed in the top echelon of all time classics. Released nearly seven years to the day of the band’s initial single, Who’s Next consisted of nine tracks that ran the gambit of emotionality, all of which were to become FM radio staples. Somewhat lost in the brilliance and timelessness of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was the John Entwistle penned “My Wife”, a song that evidenced the bassist’s underutilized skills as a songwriter.

Receiving the commercial and critical success it had worked so tirelessly to attain, the band was able to enjoy its status as one of the world’s biggest touring acts. While not as prolific as the Stones, the Who had no peer on stage, consistently delivering overpowering shows to legions of loyal fans. The band sought to continue riding the creative wave by releasing Quadrophenia in 1973; technically a concept album along the line of Tommy, the new recording hearkened back to the heady Mod days a decade earlier. Viewed by some as even better than Tommy, Quadrophenia proved to be a challenge on stage due to its inherently complex orchestration. That said, much of the material was to reach legendary status, from Daltrey’s impassioned rendition of “Love Reign O’er Me” to Entwistle’s thunderous calling card, “The Real Me”. As a testament to both albums’ artistic qualities, each was turned into a feature film, Tommy in 1975 and Quadrophenia in 1979; the band’s exceptional full length documentary The Kids Are Alright was also released in 1979.

By the mid-‘70s, the Who could get no bigger, and the inevitable malaise after stardom was to set in. Excessive lifestyles took hold for each band member, and the tepid Odds and Sods and The Who by Numbers albums were released almost as afterthoughts. Even the band’s 1978 effort Who Are You lacked the fire and passion that fans had come to expect, while the album’s cover photo held a cryptic clue that the end of the Who may have been near. Seated on a chair with the stenciled phrase “Not to be taken away”, Keith Moon was to pass on 7 September 1978.

At the time, Moon’s death was devastating to the band, but not altogether unexpected. Losing its spiritual jester forced the Who to face a difficult crossroads. After much consideration, the band chose to soldier onward, enlisting the services of former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones. While Jones may have been competent behind the kit, he was no Keith Moon, and the band’s efforts with Jones in the fold were notably unimpressive. Face Dances (1981), and It’s Hard (1982) both failed to rekindle the original Who spark, and the band decided to ride off into the sunset.

As the ‘80s passed, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle engaged in various individual pursuits, but the inevitable urge to revisit the past finally convinced them to reunite in 1989 for a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary tour. Backed by numerous musicians/singers, the older and wiser version of the Who looked different but showed that it could still perform the classic material to everyone’s satisfaction. There were even special New York and Los Angeles performances of Tommy featuring countless celebrity guests.

The decade of the ‘90s found the Who embarking on sporadic, albeit large-scale tours as fans showed an unyielding loyalty to their heroes. Oddly, the maturation of the band was best epitomized by the adaptation of “Tommy” for the theatrical stage. The ‘orrible ‘oo on Broadway? Strange but true.

It seemed that the Who would go on forever in its various incarnations, and a show stopping performance at the World Trade Center Benefit Concert quelled all concerns as to whether the band could still be a formidable live force, even in middle age. Rumors continued to circulate that a new album was in the works, and the band reconvened for an eagerly anticipated 2002 North American tour. Hopes were high, energies were replenished, attitudes were positive, and all looked wonderful in Whoville. As fate would have it however, the band would again be shaken to its core when John Entwistle tragically passed, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of fans the world over. Without the Ox’s shadowy presence and bass roar, common sense would dictate that the Who was surely no more. Surprisingly, Townshend and Daltrey opted to see the tour through, employing the talents of studio bassist Pino Palladino to round out the group. The shows were met with equal degrees of melancholy and enthusiasm, but without Entwistle things were not quite the same.

Now forty years after “I’m The Face/Zoot Suit”, Townshend and Daltrey have once again assembled the musicians for special performances in the UK at the venerable Royal Albert Hall and Isle of Wight, scenes of the Who’s greatest triumphs. A sizable tour will certainly follow, and new material has finally been recorded for inclusion with a greatest hits package. While the absences of Moon and Entwistle make using the Who label akin to Ringo and Macca touring as the Beatles, it is the music that ultimately matters.

Make no mistake, the Who will always be Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. However, the vibrancy of the band’s work is what continues to resonate with fans, irrespective of the personnel configuration on stage.

The Who may now be relegated to the Two, but in 2004 it is still the best ticket in town.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/040407-whos40/