Review by: Michael Strait
If My Generation was the first indie rock album, then this might just have been the first U2 album. Don’t worry, though – some of these tracks are classics.
If you want to see just how far The Who have come from My Generation, all ya need to do is compare that cover to this one. The four lads who once occupied an unassuming English street, crammed into a photo as compact as their music, now survey a vast wasteland from the shadow of a giant monolith – a monolith they do appear to have pissed on, indicating that some things never really change, but nonetheless the difference is informative. This album feels as vast as the cover looks, or maybe even vaster – there are times when it almost feels like the musical personification of a Himalaya, even occasionally a Misty Mountain. It’s such a unique creation – so strangely relaxing for a hard rock album, so humble for something so huge, so personal for something so atmospheric – that I actually feel kinda guilty about admitting that I think it’s a teensy bit overrated.
Don’t get me wrong! Baba O’Riley is exactly as mindblowingly perfect as everyone says it is, and I’d have to be a rank fool to deny it. That song is a really great example of exactly what this record, at its best, does like no other – of the dichotomy between the huge and the tiny that nobody else has really explored, at least not in quite the same way. The keyboard effects that open the song evoke a beautiful morning over a pristine natural landscape as well as any progressive rock song I’ve ever heard, and the piano notes that crash in at around fifty seconds sound almost as if they’re echoing off mountainsides – but they also sound unquestionably homely and emotional, as does Daltrey’s singing. Eventually, Townshend’s guitar comes down on top of the piano riff and pushes the landscape’s visible boundaries even wider, but the lyrics never leave the subject of one man and his loved one – “Let’s get together before we get much older”, he implores her, and suddenly it all makes perfect sense; The Who are using these vast mental landscapes as a metaphor for the overwhelming power of deeply-felt human emotion, evoking just how vast and important a love can feel when you’re in the thick of it – or perhaps just how endlessly gorgeous the world feels when one is romantically satisfied. I’ll have to take their word for it, personally, but it’s a damn nice picture they painted for me here. It’s gotta be a very, very good contender for the title of best opening track in history, and possibly one of the best rock songs ever recorded – enough to make anyone see why The Who have gathered such a following.
And it’s not as if that’s the only moment of greatness on the album, either. In fact, the next one follows immediately: Bargain (the greatest Christian rock song of all time) isn’t quite as brilliant as Baba O’Riley, but it is the song from this album that gets stuck in my head most frequently, and that’s because it has one of the catchiest vocal melodies in The Who’s entire discography. Daltrey sings it fantastically, too – in fact, this is the first album since My Generation on which it really feels like he’s been utilized to his full potential, and it’s certainly very nice to hear that after he was shafted so hard on The Who Sell Out and Tommy. What’s also nice is just how smoothly they manage to work in the soft bridges between the hard rock sections on this track – it happens a couple of times, and it adds a novel feeling of space and openness to what would otherwise be a fairly uniform (if very good) hard rock song. One such quiet moment opens the track, in fact, which is nice – because you can’t just go right into an energetic hard rocker after Baba O’Riley, y’know? You gotta show some respect first.
And then, of course, there’s that closing track – Won’t Get Fooled Again, a song on which too much has been written already but which I will have to sing the praises of yet again. It is eight minutes of constantly-renewing energy, blessed with one of the most memorable riffs ever carved, perhaps the most intelligent lyrics Townshend ever wrote, and a rock ‘n’ roll scream so loud that its echoes are still heard today, reverberating across the internet every time anybody makes a pun. Got a damn nice hook, too! It’s a monolith to match that thing on the cover, and yet it never sounds too self-important or self-satisfied. Even the portentous, descending keyboards that open the thing don’t sound like too pompous a touch – and come to think of it, this might be a good moment to talk about how well the keyboards on this album have aged. It’s very easy for synthesiser tones to age like hot shit in the sun (one need only witness Rush’s Signals for proof of that), but these have weathered the 45 years remarkably well. I haven’t got a single bad word to say about Won’t Get Fooled Again – it’s flawless. I mean, I suppose I don’t really connect to it all that deeply, but hey – that’s just me, and who fuckin’ cares about me?
Thing is, that’s about where my unvarnished praise for this record ends. I mean, I haven’t got anything particularly bad to say about Love Ain’t For Keeping, which is a pretty little ballad with a nice melody and some harmonies that make it sound bigger than most (even the ballads on this thing sound huge!), but it’s over quickly and easy to forget. It’s roughly the same story for Behind Blue Eyes, a song everyone in the universe has heard at least once and which has very few moving parts: it’s a good melody, some vaguely parodic rockstar-ballad lyrics and a blossoming acoustic guitar line, and aside from a nice guitar solo near the end that’s basically it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the song, but I’m not sure what it did to deserve classic status. Mind you, I shouldn’t complain – according to certain segments of the rock community, Free Bird and Detroit Rock City are rock classics, and I’d take this perfectly pleasant if unremarkable ballad over that shit any day of the week.
That leaves us with the four songs in the middle of the record, and I’m at least iffy on all of them. My Wife, for a start, evinces the continuation of Entwistle’s decline as a songwriter; the instrumental arrangement is dense, exciting and varied, but there’s no riff, no real hook and the melody is meagre – and it’s not helped by his listless, bland vocals, which prove themselves thoroughly unsuited to the task of rock ‘n’ roll machismo. Stick to the elfin tones, John – leave the testosterone to Daltrey. There’s a nice horn bridge, and the lyrics are classic Entwistle slapstick, but in the end it fails to rise far above mediocre; I’d still take it over nearly anything on Tommy, and, come to think of it, over a lot of songs by lesser rock groups, but in context I always find myself getting a fair bit impatient when this song comes on. Sadly, the next song brings no relief; Song Is Over is, really, only okay. It’s aiming for pretty, with Townshend himself taking up a clean, polished voice for the softer verses while Daltrey gets to roar in the loud, dramatic choruses, and to an extent it works; in bits, it sounds kind of like a sunrise in Lothlorien, complete – if you’re willing to indulge it – with yellow light reflecting off distant snow-covered mountains. But there’s no escaping the fact that it’s stretching four minutes’ worth of songwriting ideas over six, and it inevitably gets repetitive and makes me antsy. The squelchy synth bass hasn’t aged all that well, either, and it’s impossible for lines like “I’ll sing mah sawng to tha free!” to not be at least a little corny when delivered so self-seriously. Still, these songs aren’t bad, except maybe when compared to Baba O’Riley or Won’t Get Fooled Again – they need improvement, sure, but I can accept and not-infrequently even enjoy them just fine.
Naw, the real problems are the next two. Getting In Tune, regrettably, is bad, or at least skirting dangerously close to bad; it’s an overwrought, faintly ridiculous and ultimately forgettable ballad that avoids being a power ballad only because they hadn’t really been invented yet. Daltrey’s explorations of machismo on this album are mostly tolerable and often even awesome, but here it’s just irritating to hear him assertively banging on about how he’s “gettin’ in tune to the straight ‘n’ naaahrrhoow” – well, good for you, I guess; you don’t have to sound so bloody pleased with yourself! – and the instrumentation is doing nothing interesting to make up for it. It’s a fairly boring five minutes, which generally blows by me without doing much to hold my interest or draw my attention, and Going Mobile isn’t really any better. I can certainly relate to the lyrics – I would love to live in a mobile home, travelling at will across the vastness of America without having to pay any bloody mortgage – but the song itself is near nonexistent. I mean, what even happens here? Entwistle quietly plays some excellent basswork, sure, and Moon is his usual riveting self, but this is probably the one song where the keyboards really have aged like shit, and there’s nothing remotely interesting about the melody or structure here. It’s filler, this, and I’d wager nobody’d notice if you cut it from the album entirely. By the way – fuck that corny little acoustic guitar line the song’s built on! Shit’s silly without being funny and it just annoys me.
So, what’re we left with? Three fantastic songs, two pretty good songs, two decent-to-mediocre songs and two dull failures. That’s a good album on average, but a masterpiece? Ehh, naww. I’ll be generous and give this a 4.0 because even the lesser songs here are played to a superb level of musicianship, and because the highs are some of the highest highs anyone reached in the 70s, but that missing star is a big one. The Who’s ability to write beautiful, soul-affirming works of genius is a marvel, and it’s one I appreciate tremendously, but it’s also one that leaves me yearning – because an entire album of Baba O’Rileys or Bargains would probably be the best album of all time. As it stands, we are merely left with a pretty great collection of U2-tier bombast, spirituality and macho self-belief wrapped up with one of the massivest rhythm sections in rock history – by any standards an achievement, but still a slightly disappointing one considering that I know they’re capable of even more.