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Thursday, June 4, 2009

GMVW # 74: "Overruling Jools and Jim"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 74:  Overruling Jools and Jim
Song:  Who Are You by The Who
(Songwriter: Pete Townshend)
June 4, 2009

It’s been too long since the last Who Gem (# 43 to be exact), which included my (insert adjective) attempt at a concert review.  This time, I’m going to review a Who album, but where the concert review was of a show performed the week before, this album review is 30 years in the making.  The album is ‘Who Are You’…. and it’s my all-time favorite Who record.

Now, if you were to poll avid Who fans on what their favorite Who album is, most responses would fall into one of three bins:  ‘Who’s Next’, ‘Live at Leeds’ or ‘Quadrophenia’ .  These are certainly seminal albums, making them very hard to best.  But for reasons not fully explored until now, ‘Who Are You’ nudges them out when it comes down to the one Who album I must have on a desert island.  I will try to explain the why, when, where, how, and WHO here. 

First a few related memories, since no album can rank at the top of a favorite list without a listen to it conjuring up highlight-reel moments from the past.  My initial memory of ‘Who Are You’ as an album is listening to it in my Lincoln Mercury Capri (must have been 1980/81) with Mac and Dave in the parking lot down by ‘The Rock’, which was a frequent hangout locale for the old gang (before houses were built there).  The album was being played in its entirety on one of the local radio stations.  As it played through several of the deeper cuts, Mac and Dave, neither of whom tossed praise out lightly, commented on how good it sounded.  They were both more familiar with the album than I at the time, so I just listened to the music and the commentary.  I was impressed on both counts.  Not long after, Joe (coincidentally?) bought me the album.

Another memory, a few years later, was also in a vehicle, this one a van belonging to good friend Luc Polnicky.  By this time I was well indoctrinated into the world of The Who and Who Are You.  Luc chauffeured an afternoon drive through Gatineau Park near Ottawa Canada during one of many memorable trips north of the border.  ‘Who Are You’ was blaring on the sound system as we wound our way through the hills and valleys, drowning out most attempts at conversation.  The van was packed with good friends, including Steve, Bob, Pat, Bec, Mac, and Dave (all who receive these weekly bombasts).  It was a never forgotten snap shot in time for me.

An aside:  For whatever reason, ‘Who Are You’ is a cd I cannot keep track of physically.  Whenever I purchase it, it disappears within months.  I picked up the cd again recently to see if I could rekindle some of those old memories and reconnect with the songs.  It did not take long.  Good thing, as any day now…..

(Postscript: I did indeed lose the cd again!)

So, what is it about ‘Who Are You’ that captures the imagination and has my ranking it so favorably?  This view, after all, is not shared by a majority of the rock critics who have reviewed the album over the years.  Most look at ‘Who Are You’ as The Who on the way down from the pinnacle of earlier success.  To me however, the comparison with past success is at the core of why this is a great album.  The Who were in the enviable position at this point in their history to capitalize on everything they had learned from that success.  All 4 charter band members were still on board (though not for much longer), which by 1978 was virtually unheard of for most 60’s bands.  ‘Who Are You’ in other words, is an album that could only be produced by a band with that kind of experience in tow.  This comes through in the music big time, and I’ve always been amazed most critics have overlooked it. 

In the history of rock music, there have been other bands poised to take advantage of past experiences and success in preparation for a new album.  The difference between the Who and many of these other bands, however, was that the Who had not sold out (despite what the title of their 3rd studio album would declare) to the commercial tug and artistic lethargy that eventually comes with fame and fortune.  They all remained focused on what motivated them from the beginning (the music), allowing the creative process to kick in to higher gear.

The remainder of this album review is broken down by band member, with a focus on what each of them brought to the table in the making of ‘Who Are You’.  Townshend first, followed by Entwistle, Daltrey, and Moon. 

Pete Townshend:
Writing about the Who in the April, 2004 Rolling Stone issue ’50 Greatest Artists of all Time’, Eddie Vedder states “What disturbs me about the Who is the way they smashed through every door of rock & roll, leaving rubble and not much else for the rest of us to lay claim to”.  This was actually a concern of Townshend’s in the making of ‘Who Are You’.  1978 was a period in rock music where the new punk movement was writing off all music that preceded it….that is, all except the music of the Who.  Punks were embracing the Who, and Townshend hated it.  Townshend wanted Punk and other new music genres to write off the Who as well.  He wished to be ‘rendered irrelevant’, believing this was the only way the new music scene could make a name for itself and maybe even rise above what preceded it. 

Townshend was in a dilemma, however.  Although he was ready to fall on his own sword, he continued to be driven by what kept him in the Who all along:  That the music of the band be a reflection of their fan base, a mirror for fans to look at and connect with.  This inner drive required effort and creativity.  Townshend was walking a fine line, and came up with a unique solution to say the least: Write good music but cut it to shreds through the lyrics.  The tortured artist was at it again.

Five of the six songs credited to Townshend on ‘Who Are You’ are about music: ‘New Song’, ‘Music Must Change’, ‘Sister Disco’, ‘Guitar and Pen’ and the title track.  These songs are fascinating because they explore Townshend’s concerns regarding the need for music evolution head on through the lyrics.  In ‘New Song’ (a brilliant song written to Who fans), for example, he writes:

“I write the same old song with a few new lines
 And everybody wants to cheer it
 I write the same old song you heard a few good times
 Admit you really want to hear it”

Several of Townshend’s songs on ‘Who Are You’ ended up too complex for the Who to ever consider performing them live.  My favorite song on the album, ‘Guitar and Pen’ (which is actually about song writing) is the best example of this. It rolls from one phase to another, testing Daltrey’s singing and Townshend’s own phenomenal guitar playing to the hilt.  It is an absolutely brilliant example of how untouchable the Who could be when all the stars were aligned.

John Entwistle:
Each member of the Who ended up the internal fan of the band at various times in its history.  During the making of ‘Who Are You’, it was Entwistle who appeared to play this role. The Ox put in the long hours in the studio, often sticking around well into the evening after everyone else retired for the day. He was ultimately responsible for putting the final touches on the product, a fine polishing that no one else could face, particularly Townshend. 

John Entwistle is credited with writing 3 songs on the album: ‘905’, ‘Trick of the Light’, and ‘Had Enough’.  It was rare for Entwistle, the number 2 songwriter in the band, to get more than one song on a Who album.  But he pulled it off here partly because he allowed Daltrey (as opposed to himself) sing two of them:  ‘Trick of the Light’ and ‘Had Enough’. This gave his songs more cohesion with the rest of the album.  His songs also connected, however, because they were very good.  The lyrics of ‘Had Enough’ reach Townshend-ian proportions, and the song ranks among the best in the entire Who catalog.  Then there is ‘905’, where a passion comes through in Entwistle’s singing that I can’t recall hearing in any of his earlier songs.  Just listen to how he delivers the bridge lines:

“I have a feeling deep inside that something is missing”
 It’s a feeling in my soul and I can’t help wishing
 That one day I’ll discover that we’re living a lie
  And I’ll tell the whole world the reason why”

As always, The Ox’s bass playing on the entire album is superb.  One of the great things about Who music which is incomparable, is that you can listen to one song 4 times and enjoy it in at least 4 different ways, focusing on a different instrument each time.  On ‘Who Are You’ this is particularly the case with ‘Sister Disco’, ‘New Song’, and ‘Had Enough’.  On all 3, the individual instruments (including vocals) shine, and the Ox’s bass playing is beyond textbook:  It’s unparalleled.

One final note about John Entwistle: This was the last Who album where he would put a concerted effort into his backing vocals. One of the hidden gems of Who music was the backing vocals, particularly the low/high vocal range Entwistle was able to cover.  He stepped aside in the 80’s as the Who brought on more backing singers.  It’s a shame this had to happen, as the Townshend/Entwistle backing vocal combination was a powerful one. But its there in all it’s glory on ‘Who Are You’ (although the Who were already using some hired help at this stage).

Roger Daltrey:
Daltrey was always the sober member of the Who, which was needed more than ever during the making of ‘Who Are You’:  Moon, Townshend and Entwistle were all on personal collision courses at the time.  Daltrey would ultimately ride out the storm, but his passion for the band was thoroughly challenged. If a session slipped out of focus and into consumption-centric chaos, ‘Squire’ Daltrey was out the door, heading for the hills in a helicopter to regroup at his British country side manor (which included a man-made trout pond).

Daltrey’s singing on the entire ‘Who Are You’ album is, I believe, his best singing period.  For example, he is somehow able to sound like John Entwistle (at his best) as he sings Entwistle’s ‘Trick of the Light’.  Trick of the vocals is more like it.  On ‘Guitar and Pen’, I love the part where he sneers “And she says that she’d like it ‘with more of a tune’ ”, as he reflects the character of an overly critical mother responding to her sons appeal to how she likes his songwriting (Townshend’s personal childhood playing out there). 

One of the amazing things about Daltrey is related to the fact that he was not as gifted as the others.  However, through his love of the band, he was able to rise to their level.  Pete Townshend is a very gifted singer, and the Who could have been successful as a 3 piece.  Roger Daltrey had to make himself better than Townshend in the singing department.... and he did.  If he ever had to write a resume, though, a 3-word document would suffice: ‘Who Are You’.

Keith Moon:
‘Who Are You’ was Moon’s swan song (overruling the ‘Not to be Taken Away’ declaration written on the chair he sat on for the album cover).  He would die of substance-abuse-related causes only several weeks after the albums release.  One of the biggest issues that rock critics had with ‘Who Are You’ was Moon’s drumming.  I’m not sure what they hear, perhaps there is an over-comparison to earlier Who albums.  What I hear though is ferociously good drumming, which remains uniquely identifiable to Keith Moon (the only drumming I could ever pick out of a crowd if I had to).

It’s well known, that it took the other members of the band a while to help Moon get his legs back under him when they reconvened in the studio to produce ‘Who Are You’ after several years of studio inactivity (Moon had let himself go in the interim). Townshend even reached a point where he had to threaten to replace Moon if he did not get his act together.  Of course, he knew this to be impossible, but Moon left him no options.  He had to find someway to get Keith’s butt in gear. 

As it turned out, only one song, ‘Music Must Change’ (which has a unique beat), ended up out of Moon’s reach.  There is no drumming on this song (if you listen close on a good sound system, you can hear Townshend’s miked and in-time footsteps in lieu of drums).  Other than that, I believe Keith Moon went out with a bang (not a whimper) on ‘Who Are You’.

‘Moon the Loon’ was the Who’s secret weapon.  They were never the same again without him (although the mid-90’s addition of Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son, was an unexpected positive jolt that brought some of the Moon magic back).  As Townshend aptly stated though, after Moon died: “but, we still have his records!”. 

OK, so up till now, I’ve said very little about the title track, which happens to be this week’s Gem Video. The becoming-legendary story behind the song goes that Townshend, who had just received a very handsome royalty check, confronted two members of the punk band ‘The Sex Pisols’ at a nightclub.  He was disgusted they would even be seen in (what Townshend determined) an old-fart rockers nightclub.  He proceeded to yell obscenities at them, then pulled out his royalty check and, standing on a table, ripped it up in front of them, yelling ‘Who Are You, Who Are You’ in the process. 

In the liner notes of the reissued album, Matt Resinicoff (a kindred spirit who gets it) writes “The Who knew that rock can’t peddle easy answers, but it can share the burdens of it’s listeners; remember, there is no question mark in the title of this recording.”

In other words, WHO are you and you are WHO!

The Gem Video is a uniquely great opportunity to see how the Who put a song together in the studio. 

‘Who are You’ was released in the States on the date of my 16th birthday (8/25/78).  Several years later, it was a much needed 2nd wind for me in terms of enjoying Who music.  I was already a year or so into the band’s best known releases (‘Tommy’, ‘Who’s Next’, ‘The Kid’s Are Alright’), but if this was going to continue, the lesser known albums needed to pull through.  They did, with ‘Who Are You’ leading the way.

Beneath the Gem video is a very nicely done cover version of ‘New Song’, done by (what appears to be) a Canadian based band.  It’s rare that I like a cover of a Who song, so I include it here.

- Pete

Gem Music Video: ‘Who Are You’

‘New Song’ cover band


About the Video:  The studio clip from The Kids are Alright movie

Video Rating: 1 (although I would have chosen ‘Guitar and Pen’ if the song was available in video form).

Best Feedback: Tom

Pete, if there's such a thing as your outdoing yourself - you did it for me this week!  I thoroughly enjoyed your write-up, and seriously think you should be a writer for Rolling Stone or such.  I learned even a lot of nuanced facts about the members from this - thanks again.  As much as I enjoy other artists too, no other group gets me feeling swimingly rock crazed as The Who (Teenage Wasteland and Pinball Wizard may be overplayed on FM, but I never get sick of their sound).  Incidentally in the video you cite below - of Who Are You - it sounds like Daltrey is revealing what you said about its true intent, when at the 3:15 minute mark he utter after an emphatic "who are you!" "Clearly" and grins, with Pete nodding back in affirmation.

Cheers Pete, and have a splendid weekend too.

Tom

And: Steve

Good Job Pete. The Who still sends shivers thru me as I sing along to all their songs. I think I'll go buy 'Who Are You' album and crank while I drive to Kelowna, BC next week!

Cheers
Steve

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