Saturday, March 5, 2016

Under the Big Top # 10: “A Who Album Review: Who Are You”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Who Are You”
Album: Who Are You
Release Date: August, 1978

Who Are You is my favorite Who album.  There, I said it.  Why the defensive positioning? Well, this is far from your standard choice for the avid Who fan.  I would be willing to bet that if all Who aficionados were polled on what their favorite Who album was, a vast majority of the responses would fall into one of three bins:  Who’s Next, Live at Leeds or Quadrophenia.  These are certainly seminal albums; each one very hard to best.  But for reasons inexplicable to me until I gave it some serious contemplation, Who Are You knocks them all off the top of my personal Who-disc pinnacle.  In recognition, my blog entry this week is an album review that, in an unintended way (consciously anyhow), ends up fitting in nicely as a back-to-back with next week’s anticipated “A Who Concert Review: The Last WHO-rah!” (which will be following on the heels of my final attendance at a Who concert next Monday).  Anyhow, here is my attempt to explain the why, when, where, how, and WHO of all things Who Are You.

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 was listening to it in my Lincoln Mercury Capri about a year after it’s release with lifelong friends Mac and Dave in the parking lot down by our own version of “The Rock”, which was a frequent hangout locale for the old Franklin 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 a bit more familiar with the album than I at the time, so I just listened to the music and their commentary.  I was impressed on both accounts.  Not long after, Brother Joe (coincidentally?) bought me the album.

Another memory, a few years later, was also in a vehicle, this one a van belonging to another great friend Luc, who I met my junior year in Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.  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 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.  The van was packed with Canadian and Stateside friends:  A never forgotten snap shot in time for me.

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 heights of earlier success.  To me however, this linkage to past successes is at the core of why this is a great album.  Indeed, the Who were in the enviable position at this point in their history to capitalize on everything they had learned from that success.  All four 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 and as such comes across as an exceptionally rare type of ‘cherry on the top’; particularly for a band with the fragility of characters and interrelations that the Who had.  This is the bridge too far in 99.99% of history’s collaborative achievements. As such, I look at this album as a bonus prize of sorts, a treat (although I still harbor a longing of what could have been beyond that proverbial cherry on top), which comes through in the music big time.  And I’ve always been amazed most critics have overlooked this fact. 

In the history of rock music, there have been other bands poised to take advantage of past experiences and successes 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.  Personal follies aside, each member of the Who had all remained focused on what motivated them from the beginning - that being the music - allowing the creative process to kick in to higher gear one last time.

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:  Pete Townshend first, followed by John Entwistle (the Ox), Roger Daltrey, and Keith Moon. 

Pete Townshend:
Reflecting on 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” (if the 2nd part of this quote looks familiar, I thank you for noticing, as I also ended up using it in last week’s entry).  This was actually a concern of Pete 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.  He wanted Punk and other new music genres to write off the Who as well.  Strictly speaking, Pete Townshend 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 had preceded it. 

This stance put Pete Townshend in a paradox.  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 should 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 tune written to Who fans) for instance, 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 (his guitar bridge three quarters through the song emits a human emotion like few guitar phrases I have ever heard)  . “Guitar and Pen” is an absolutely brilliant illustration of how untouchable the Who could be when all the stars were aligned. 

Who Are You gives us hints of things to come for Pete Townshend.  One example is on “Music Must Change” where Roger Daltrey’s singing of the title at several points in the song is quickly followed up by Townshend’s oddity utterance “Chaaaaaange”; a tidbit of expression that would later sound routine on albums like All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.  These one-time young rock and roll ears did not even hear the interjection upon my earliest listening to this song. 

Pete Townshend’s many contributions to “Sister Disco” are highlights as well.  The song describes a fictional meeting between hospital-bed dying “Disco” and her bedside visitor “Rock”, who promises to carry the torch forward, while in no way conceding that Disco contributed anything substantive to the progression of music.  Townshend sings the bridge…..

Bye, goodbye Sister Disco, now I go
I go where the music fits my soul
And I, I will never let go, I'll never let go
'Til the echo of the street fight has dissolved

….. and ends the song with an acoustic guitar solo, in the process making the song-story soulful.  “Sister Disco” was one of Roger Daltrey’s favorite songs to perform live, and I recall one time in Foxboro Stadium where he accompanied Pete Townshend at the base of the drum platform, both sitting down there as Townshend played those closing notes.  I got a kick out of it, having read earlier that Pete Townshend was in the know regarding Daltrey’s infatuation with the song (Townshend himself more matter-of-fact), and so chuckling to myself about what must have been going through Pete’s head as he plucked away on the strings and looked to his side.

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 Pete Townshend. 

John Entwistle, “the Ox”, is credited with writing three songs on the album: “905”, “Trick of the Light”, and “Had Enough”.  It was rare for Entwistle, the number two songwriter in the band, to get more than one song on a Who album.  But he pulled it off here partly because he allowed Roger Daltrey (as opposed to himself) to sing two of them:  “Trick of the Light” and “Had Enough”. This gave his songs more cohesion with the rest of the album.  Entwistle’s songs also connected, however, because they were very good.  The music and 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 the Ox’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, John Entwistle’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 and his contributions to Who Are You: 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 (while also admitting to the fact that his singing had lost its higher-end range).  It’s a shame this had to happen, as the Townshend/Entwistle backing vocal combination was a powerful one. But it’s there in all its glory on Who Are You (although the Who were already using some of that 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 deep passion for the band (likely deeper than anyone’s) 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 personal helicopter to regroup at his British country side manor (which included a man-made trout pond).

Roger Daltrey’s singing on the entire Who Are You album is, I believe, a continuation of an amazing streak that started with 1971’s Who’s Next.  Simply put, these are the vocals of a master craftsman.  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 the other Entwistle song he sings, “Had Enough”, I love how, at the first of two instances where Daltrey sings “Here comes the end of the world….” (the other being the end of the song), he perfectly leads the Ox’s follow-up bass rumble both smoothly and transitionally. 

It’s often been said that a big reason for the success of the Who was that Pete Townshend found the voice for his music in the person of Roger Daltrey.  This is the album where I connect with those comments the most.  Daltrey shifts gears flawlessly from one emotion to another.  He actually makes himself sound like a booze hound on “New Song” (that “Woooo!” exclamation after “we get hung over but we always survive it” for example).  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).  In the same song, his lead up to and follow through of…..

But is that what you want, to be rich and be gone?
Could be there's just one thing left in the end
Your guitar and your pen!

….. is simply put, in the moment.

One of the amazing things about Roger 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, or simply brought on another vocalist.  Roger Daltrey had to make himself better than Townshend or any other potential Who front man in the singing department:  And boy did he ever.  If he had ended up having to write a resume though, a 3-word document would suffice: Who Are You.

Keith Moon:
Who Are You was Keith 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 album’s 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 truthfully.  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 Keith 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).  Pete 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 Keith Moon left him no options.  Townshend and the rest of the band (including producer Glyn Johns) had to find some way 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 Keith Moon’s reach.  There is no drumming on this song (if you listen close on a good sound system, you can hear Pete Townshend’s miked and in-time footsteps in lieu of drums).  Other than that, I believe 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 as discussed last week, the mid-90’s addition of Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son, was an unexpected positive jolt that brought some of the Moon magic back).  Considering his no-holds-barred approach to life, I find it both amazing and a blessing that Who Are You is a part of the Keith Moon discography.  I factor that thought into the equation with every listen.

OK, so up till now, I’ve said very little about the title track, which happens to be this week’s Big Top entry ( The becoming-legendary story behind the song goes that Pete 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 ("11 hours in the Tin Pan, God there's got to be another way!".)  He proceeded to shout 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!” 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 its listeners; remember, there is no question mark in the title of this recording.”

In other words, Who are You and You are Who!  Magnificent!

Who are You was released in the States on the occasion 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 charge.

This entry is for my Dad, who chants "Whooooooo Are You" better than anyone I know.

- Pete

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