Four remarkable decades have passed since a scruffy quartet from Shepherd's Bush, London first took the stage with their aggressive brand of power pop. From the heady days as a mouthpiece for English Mods, to its evolution into one of rock's greatest bands, the Who has compiled an impressive catalogue of singles albums, concept albums, and of course, live albums. Additionally, there have been no less than six greatest hits packages released in the US and abroad, in addition to the 30 Years of Maximum R&B box set. So then, does the band's 40th anniversary merit the release of yet another "Best Of" collection? It does if it is cleverly baited with a pair of "new" songs...
Some 22 years after the band's last studio effort, (the tepid It's Hard), Then and Now purports to be an overview of the Who's storied past, as well as a statement of the group's present and possible future. The 20 included tracks loosely chronicle the band's entire career: songs from vintage '60s era Who are followed by material from Tommy Who's Next, and Quadrophenia, with two additional tracks from the latter part of the '70s, and one entry from the '80s. Without question, Who aficionados already have all of this material many times over, while even casual fans should possess these songs in duplicate, thus making the bulk of the new collection an exercise in redundancy.
The true intrigue of Then and Now lies within the album's final two inclusions, "Real Good Looking Boy" and "Old Red Wine". Marketed as "Fab New Recordings", both songs feature Roger Daltrey's impassioned vocals augmented by Pete Townshend's precision guitar work. Solid, if not stellar compositions, the tracks pay homage to Elvis Presley and late great Who bassist John Entwistle respectively. Not surprisingly, the songs are distinctly un-Who-like, with a sound more reminiscent of Daltrey's solo efforts. This was to be expected, as the Who are no longer the Who, but simply Pete, Rog, and a bunch of hired help. Granted, long time keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick is an important contributor, as is drummer Zak Starkey, but make no mistake, the Who without Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon is merely the Two. After Moon's death in 1978, the band was able to function adequately with fill-in Kenney Jones, then more successfully with the talented Simon Phillips, and later, Starkey behind the kit. Although Moon could never truly be replaced, the three original members were able to carry on without much concern as to the band's legitimacy and creative integrity.
With the tragic passing of Entwistle in 2002, the band lost its rhythmic anchor, but more importantly, a significant link to "The Who" proper. For the current line-up to continue using the Who moniker is disingenuous, as much so as Paul and Ringo touring as the Beatles, or Page and Plant recording as Led Zeppelin.
The business of music however is business, not music, and Then and Now is nothing short of marketing genius. Without a hint of bonus material by way of outtakes, alternate versions, etc., the album is in essence a thinly veiled two song EP, buoyed by 18 tracks of filler. Who fans have been starving for fresh material for over two decades; forcing them to purchase another collection of greatest hits to access the twin tracks guarantees sales of a product that would otherwise garner little interest. Whetting fans' appetites also coincides with the group's upcoming summer tour, and creates a tremendous buzz of anticipation for a completely new album rumored for fall 2004 release.
Response to Then and Now is certain to be mixed. Legions of Who faithful will rejoice at the prospect of new recordings, and relish the thought of additional band output in the near future. The cynics among us will simply view this release as a shrewd bit of "supply and demand" sleight of hand. Irrespective of the differing view points, one fact cannot be argued: Even in middle age, Townshend and Daltrey at their best, simply blow most bands off the stage, thus proving that 50% of the Who is far superior to 100% of most everything else.
Although Then and Now says little that hasn't already been said, and the new songs are decidedly unspectacular, it is nonetheless a reminder of the Who's past greatness. The questionability of Townshend and Daltrey soldiering onward under the Who banner notwithstanding, there is solace in knowing that 40 years later, the remaining kids are still alright.