The Who: The Ultimate Collection

The Who
The Ultimate Collection

I have deep reservations about recommending any sort of “greatest hits” packaging. Perhaps for old-time country, folk, blues, and early R&B the story is different. As singles were the primary mode of distribution and communication in these musical traditions, a “greatest hits” or compilation packaging seems to be the only viable method of maintaining the continued life, or circulation, of the music today. But for rock and roll, with the elevation of the LP as the singular medium of artistic expression, content, and achievement through the revolutionary musical and stylistic advancements that were made by Dylan and the Beatles in the mid-’60s, there is a great trade-off in substituting the compilation for the independent albums themselves. Sometimes the great chart-topping songs, which are likely to be included in these “hits” or “best of” compilations, aren’t necessarily the best songs by the artist. Likewise, most great historical albums did not yield too many mega-selling hits. In the end, there is something to be said for the integrity of the original album in its entirety, the significance of which cannot logically be reconstructed through the extraction of its parts in a wholly different collection. Certainly, it will cost you considerably more to pick up every one of Dylan’s great albums from the ’60s (and they all are great) over the four competing “Greatest Hits/Essential” sets that are in circulation today. But just as the “Essential James Joyce Collection” cannot be a viable replacement for reading all of Ulysses, we should demand the same from our music.

Yet, in our ever-expanding cultural field, where new commodities and ideas explode and disperse at an unconscionable pace, we are all neophytes from time to time. Already, we are inundated with the legacy of the past greats and oddities alike such that compilations and “best of” collections may be the only sane (and economically feasible) method of keeping pace. In such a predicament, compilations and “best of” sets may very well be the perfect marriage of commerce and our archival fantasies. Perhaps, in a not so distant future, rock and roll will fully succumb to the inescapable formation of the accumulation of catalogues, abbreviated collections, indexes, and the phenomenon of writing the short history of x that already have been set into firm practice in literature and historical scholarship. Alas, we have to start somewhere.

There is a nice two-disc collection, The Who: The Ultimate Collection, which spans the entire 18-year recording career of the Who in record stores right now, just in time to get excited for the latest summer blockbuster world tour by the Who. As this is a compilation of 35 digitally remastered tracks from one of the most innovative and influential rock and roll bands, there is no strong objection to be stated here. Simply, the Who was a great band. The faithful devotee of the Who is bound to object to what was left out in this set but I cannot raise such a quibble on the choice of the selections given the functional objective of any such “best of” compilation. For comparison with previous compilations of the Who: all 19 songs from the 1988 greatest hits collection, Who’s Better, Who’s Best, which has the dubious distinction of having been the first CD compilation of the Who, have been reprised here. The Ultimate Collection covers the 20 tracks which were packaged in the 1996 My Generation: The Very Best of the Who and the ten tracks from 1999’s The Best of the Who: The Millennium Collection. Add to the 20 cuts that have already been packaged in various combinations, the likes of “Boris the Spider”, “The Seeker”, “Long Live Rock”, and “5’15”, and you have a fine selection which maintains a balance between the hits and the crowd favorites, along with a handful of lesser known oddities for historical perspective. Given the initial pricing (which at the time of release hovers somewhere near the $20 range) with the generous selection of songs, and with the additional virtues of the sound of digital remastered recordings, The Ultimate Collection is a fine, marketable product.

But, again, I have reservations.

What makes the Who the “ultimate” band cannot be adequately understood in any “ultimate” collection, no matter how broad and succinct the selections may be. The Who was a grandly ambitious band, which, under the visionary excess of Pete Townshend, quickly ascended from their beginnings as a raucous R&B-based rock and roll band to influential pop auteurs having visions of Wagnerian grandeur for rock and roll. This quality runs through all of the Who’s best music — from the prototypical anthem of the restlessness of youth, “My Generation” to the epic story of post-war England society through the not-quite-epic adventures of Jimmy Cooper in Quadrophenia, the Who was always reaching for more, longing for more. The longing for transcendence in the music of the Who is best captured not in the individual songs, as great as they may be in their own right, but in the larger sequence of the internal musical dynamics of the great albums: The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia. I would gladly trade away this economic and accessible The Ultimate Collection for a single copy of Tommy. If it still can be persuasively argued that pop music has any semblance of its former aura and cultural ambition, then the experience of listening to Tommy in its entirety, for example, easily out gains the advantages of this compilation or any compilation.

The only technical objection I have with The Ultimate Collection is with the packaging. The virtue of forging a broad historical perspective rears its ugly head when the music is bracketed and attention is turned to the archival thing itself. Don’t be fooled by the sleek faux silver gelatin appearance of the cover and the accompanying photo on the back of the CD case. The insert is as generic as they come. The photos and assorted archival documents (in which buttons seem to stand out, inexplicably) are arranged in a manner that recalls the unmistakable layout of high school-level textbooks. In one rousing spread, next to the photo of bassist John Entwistle, the caption reads: “John, the virtuoso ‘Ox’, who held it all together out of musical pride.” In other places the juvenilia of the message is in dire need of an editorial oversight: “The Who were the pure essence of ‘Pop Art’ music. Their style of dress and use of the Union Jack and others (sic) pop motifs was the embodiment of their sound.” Predictably, this caption accompanies the photo of the band standing next to a Union Jack, with Pete Townshend sitting in the foreground, scowling in a red, white, and blue colored mod suit.

The sprawling attempt at an authoritative narrative history of the Who in accompanying essay contributes very little to our already existing understanding of the band’s general history. The long?winded essay, which reads like the rejected voice-over script for a rock documentary, begins in a typical bombastic manner: “In the holy trinity of ’60s British Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Who must surely rank as the most quirky and idiosyncratic.” The rest of the story as it is told in The Ultimate Collection is nothing more than the typical rock and roll hagiography: the story of the glory, the struggles, the drugs, the bouts of depression, more drug consumption, and the numerous rebirths — classic “Behind the Music” fare. Far from “deluxe”, the packaging here is faux?luxe.

Included with the first 150,000 pressings of The Ultimate Collection is a complimentary four-song “collector’s bonus disc”. This special EP consists of the following: a so-called “rare” US version of “Substitute” (to be honest, even after repeated close listening, I cannot distinguish this mix from the already existing version); an early, spirited take of “I’m a Boy”; the more familiar UK version of “Magic Bus”; and, most notably, a previously unreleased all-acoustic take of “Happy Jack”. But you shouldn’t rush out for the sake of scoring a bargain just yet, as you can expect another collection of rare takes and performances in the near future, perhaps just in time for the Who’s next world tour.