The Who: Who Hits 50!
It's not a perfect intro nor a set for the hardcore, but this anniversary set shows the Who are still vital after 50 years.
The Who have been packaged and repackaged and reissued nearly as often as any band (and perhaps more than is sensible), but it's hard not to accept that a 50th anniversary warrants some sort of retrospective. Who Hits 50! attempts to mark new territory in the Who compilation canon, splitting the difference between the slew of single-disc sets that barely scratch the surface and comprehensive collections like the quality Thirty Years of Maximum R&B box set. At two discs, the collection has the space to give a thorough introduction, but still manages to feel incomplete. As such, it falters slightly as a guide for newbies and is likely to irritate at least some hardcore Wholigans, but it achieves its purpose.
The catch to this compilation – which is a strength of coherence but also its weakness – is its format. The discs, rather than benefiting from careful curating, simply compile 42 of the band's singles in chronological order, running the from the groups first release “Zoot Suit” (as the High Numbers) through the new-for-this-collection “Be Lucky”. The format makes for a cogent narrative, but even so it leads to some strange choices. The set, while heavy on the Who's Next/Lifehouse era, skips the still-radio-friendly “Long Live Rock”, possibly because its lack of chart success and odd timing in the sequence (released as a single well after its recording). Also missing are the excellent early cuts “A Legal Matter” and “I Can't Reach You”.
The set does include some rarities, which is nice, but seems to confuse two possible intentions of the set. “The Last Time”, a Rolling Stones song covered to help raise funds and support the temporarily imprisoned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, makes for an interesting historical footnote, but is hardly indicative of the Who (especially given that John Entwistle isn't even on the recording). While fun, “Dogs” is a novelty cut, and a strange inclusion as part an intro for newbies, but the set doesn't offer much new to long-time fans. If the set was simply The Who: Singles, then tracks like these would be necessary, but no more so than other, missing cuts (“La-La-La-Lies”).
The singles-based approach eases the compilation work, but it obscures a central aspect of the Who: starting at least in 1967, it doesn't make sense to think of them as a singles band as much as an albums band. With high concepts and rock operas providing the highlights of their careers, casting a career overview as a set of singles misses the point. It also misses any number of not only b-sides, but also album cuts that deserve inclusion. (Fans will feel to argue for their favorites, but as an aside I'd drop “Don't Let Go the Coat” in favor of “The Quiet One” for the Faces Dances era. Specific picks are largely irrelevant, though.) With this format, we also get the single or radio edits of some of the longer tracks. It's disappointing, but likely the only problematic edit for any but the most intense fans is that of “Won't Get Fooled Again”.
Spending too much time worrying about the structure of the compilation and who the target audience actually is might miss the most important point of all: 50 years in, the music's still incredible. With all the Who's phases represented here, following the group's development can make for a fun few hours [which you'll need to do yourself; the liner notes are oddly brief and not comprehensive – it's more cheerleading than the proper essay a 50th anniversary release should warrant].
The disc opens with “Zoot Suit”, which is the Who as the High Numbers in full on Mod-pleasing mode. The track, written by then-manager Peter Meaden, was a bit of a flop (and could have been replaced here by “I'm the Face”), but it prefigures the themes and even lyrics that would come back in 1973's Quadrophenia. After that the Who get their own voice and hammer out a string of nearly untouchable singles that speak to the music and ideas that would be emblematic of the Who's work, from the energetic drums and raucous guitar to the mix of angst, introspection, violence, and humor. These early cuts are each two or three minutes of kinetic adolescence, but they're each overflowing with ideas and heart.
The middle third of disc one is probably the compilation's weakest stretch (aside from “I Can See for Miles”), but by the time we get to the late '60s material, from Tommy into Who's Next, the band has reached a whole new level in rock. In the midst of singles drawn from (completed or abandoned) concept albums, “Summertime Blues” serves as a nice reminder that, at some fundamental level, the Who hadn't left behind either the energy or the stress of youth. Live at Leeds is as essential to their discography as any studio album, and their live aggression speaks as much to who they were as a band as any pop art or highbrow influences.
Disc two opens with the well-known “Baba O'Riley” followed happily by two harder to find singles, “Join Together” and “Relay”. The band's at it's pinnacle by this point, and that flows into their masterpiece Quadrophenia, represented here by only “5:15” and “Love, Reign O'er Me”. The whole set feels a little short on Entwistle, and adding “The Real Me” here would have helped (even if we do get the unlikely “Postcard” and “Trick of the Light”).
While the Who would never be as consistently brilliant as they were from 1967-1973, the second half of this disc shows some of the heights they were capable of, highlighted by “Who Are You”, with Pete Townshend's mix of anger and spirituality pounded through by the band at the end of its first incarnation. After drummer Keith Moon's death, the band (and Townshend's writing) declined, but the final two original albums are unfairly maligned in some ways. Entwistle's writing was as good as ever, and tracks like “Eminence Front” stand with the best of the Who's catalog.
For the final three tracks, we have to jump almost 20 years. So, yes, while the band's been around for 50 years, a considerable part of that was comprised of false starts at retirement, farewells and reunions. The artists stayed sharp, though (a fair overview of their career would include at least an Entwistle solo on “5:15” from 1996). In 2004, surviving members Townshend and Roger Daltrey along with excellent bandmates got back together for a few new songs, including “Real Good Looking Boy”, a surprisingly strong track that showed yet again Daltrey's ability to interpret Townshends reflection with the right mix of heart and bravado. Fortunately, the group put out one more album and the memorable single “It's Not Enough”, which at worst fits the Who paradigm and at best shows the aging stars as a still-vital force.
The compilation ends with new single “Be Lucky”. It's not bad, but it shows that Townshend knows how to write for the Who or, more properly, for the Who fans. It pushes all the right buttons, even though it merges a bit of the band's mid-'70s sound with Townshend's later solo work. It's not groundbreaking my any means, but it's good enough that those of us cautiously waiting for the rumored Floss album won't be willing to lower our hopes. And why should we? After 50 years, there's no point stopping now.
Photo: Promo image courtesy of TheWho.com.