JAKE’S COLUMN: THE WHO- The Who Sings My Generation (1965)

Review by: Jake Myers 


Rating: 8/10

Best Songs: “The Good’s Gone”, “My Generation”, “The Kids Are Alright”
Worst Songs: “I Don’t Mind”, “Please, Please, Please”

One thing that’s always fun to imagine is how your average listener in 1965, having just opened the sleeve and put the needle down on this album for the first time, would have reacted. When those first rumbles of feedback came echoing through the speakers, or when the insistent “You don’t know me, no!” chants first appeared, it must have been an exhilarating signal of a new kind of spirit in rock music.

Something we all could have done without, though, is the two James Brown covers. The band may have been rooted deeply in RnB, but to throw out their rocking spirit completely was a mistake. The two songs stumble along without the melodic force of the source material, each instead preferring a bland kind of drone. No thanks.

To be sure, the title track is the best on here. Right from the opening, with the urgent, slamming riff we all know and love and the mocking, stuttering verses, this song earns its reputation as one of the greatest youth anthems ever. It’s strikingly confrontational in comparison to what other bands were singing at the time, although I can just imagine the reaction to be had in 1965 if Daltrey had subbed in an actual “FUCK OFF” at a live show.

But that mod bitterness isn’t present on all the songs. Stuff like “La-La-La-Lies” is as light and poppy as what The Beatles were doing around that time, even if it does sound a lot more streetwise. It’s a strange contrast, but that’s a large part of the charm of this album for me. The gradient shifts more toward grittiness with “The Good’s Gone”, one of my personal favorites. The repetitive, morose “the good’s goooooone” droning of the chorus, almost a chant, and the sneering verses all sound fantastic alongside those dark, grinding riffs.

“The Kids Are Alright” takes things in a different direction with its warm harmonies and more measured delivery, but rest assured the energy and the Mod cynicism are still there. It’s a smooth, infectious song right from the opening chord, and to this day its young Mod spirit remains almost as immortal as that of “My Generation”. “The Ox” is another gem: Keith may seem to dominate the song with his manic thrashing and crashing, but the interplay between guest star Nicky Hopkins (always a treat) and the growling bass of the Ox himself is an exquisite sort of controlled chaos. Then there are some funny throwaways like “It’s Not True” and “A Legal Matter”, which are entertaining enough despite having less depth than the other tracks.

It’s striking to note, after years of listening to classics like “Behind Blue Eyes”, just how obvious the R ‘n B influence is all over this album. Sure, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took a lot of cues from the genre themselves, but these guys took in rhythm and blues as the main template for their sound, and nowhere is that more obvious than on the debut. The band would morph away from the raw sound of this album soon enough, but the spirit would only continue to grow, and the roots would remain for a good long time.

Strait to the Point: THE WHO – Eminence Front (single, 1982)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4/5
Awesome single, honestly. Makes me nostalgic…

I was being serious at the end of my last review – I’m fuckin’ done with The Who’s albums. I am not George Starostin, and I’ve no interest in subjecting myself to albums made by bands that have passed their sell-by date. I had, however, heard great things about “Eminence Front”, so I decided to check it out. And y’know what? I love it.

It’s a cool song, and I don’t just mean “cool” as synonym for “good”. I mean cool, as in radical, as in lethal, as in badass, or whatever ya prefer. It’s totally self-confident without being overbearing about it, partly because Townshend sings it instead of Daltrey (thus dropping all the manliness) and partly because it’s just so groovy. RYM calls it “Funk Rock”, which I guess it is, but it incorporates the funk in a way much more seamless and much less token than, say, anything the Red Hot Chilli Peppers ever did. The bassline only becomes really noticeable in the chorus (and man, that tone is monstrous), and it is, delightfully, accompanied by some psychedelic electric pianos of the sort you can imagine Herbie Hancock playing; that’s the sort of intelligent, respectful treatment I never expected ageing, past-their-prime rockers to give funk, and I’m so happy they did it. I’m also happy that they finally found some good synth tones again, though there are some iffy, kinda corny ones whizzling away in the distance in the second iteration of the chorus. They’re endearing, though, like some soundtrack for an old arcade game, and when was the last time I found a Who song endearing? Man, I might have to go back to The Who Sell Out for that…

Anyway, yeah – the general consensus is right on this one. Moon or no Moon, this song’s worth a listen or four, and maybe even a dance or two if you’re in the mood for something slow. It’s a pleasant reminder of all the talent, creativity, and good taste The Who have always possessed, even if they lose track of it sometimes. I feel like it’s a great way to end my Who series on a positive note, so I’m cutting it off here. No more Who reviews – and I’m skipping next week, too (got an exam). I’ll be back the week after that reviewing God-knows-who. Ah, what’s a snappy way of ending this series? Oh, I know! A modified lyric:

I was going to give this band a full review
But my enthusiasm waned, and I can’t bear the pain
Of doing what I don’t wanna do

That sounded a bit more mean-spirited than I intended, didn’t it? Nah – love ya, Townshend. You were a real fascinating artist to follow, y’know that? I may not always have agreed with the decisions you made or the way you went, but I can’t deny your band had one of the most intriguing career trajectories ever and reviewing it was a rollercoaster. I’m gonna miss this. Still, onto the next…

Strait to the Point: THE WHO – Who Are You (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 1/5
Who cares?

Yeah, don’t listen to anybody who tries to tell you this is some sort of underrated gem. Thrice have I subjected myself to this abomination, and it only got worse each time. There’s a reservoir of awful badness hidden here under the unassuming mask of bland, dreary dullness, and the more attention you pay, the worse it gets. There are good moments here, but they are exceedingly few, invariably brief, and easy to lose sight of amid the swirling oily fluids that lap at their shores. If you wanna brave this toxic swamp, then you’ve got my condolences and my best wishes, but I’d advise you to just go listen to Who’s Next instead. There is nothing here worth dying for.

Still, if you insist on making the voyage, here’s a hazard briefing. You’ll have to prepare yourself for the sucking, suffocating plastic synths that cling to every part of the record like some horrid noxious gas; you’ll have to fight your way through legions of phoned-in anti-riffs, generic chords, weak guitar tones and totally unimpressive solos churned out by what sounds like a thoroughly distracted Pete Townshend; you’ll have to put up with Roger Daltrey devolving from an inferior Mick Jagger to what sounds rather horrifyingly like an attempt to imitate Bon Scott; and, most dangerous of all, you’ll have to cope with the existentially terrifying notion that The Who are never gonna be capable of writing anything as good as “The Real Me”, or “Bargain”, or “Pinball Wizard”, or “Sunrise”, or “Boris the Spider”, or “My Generation” or even fucking “I’m The Face” (yeah, yeah, so Peter Meaden technically wrote that – whatever, you get what I mean) ever again. This is it, folks – it’s all downhill from here. The Who, as a creative force, are over.

It’s sad, too, because the aforementioned brief moments are so tantalizing! The first song on here, “New Song”, has a legitimately great hook, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve found myself unconsciously singing it idly to myself quite often since I started listening to this album. It’s got Daltrey delivering this insanely catchy, really triumphant-sounding melody in a way that actually suits his by-now overwhelming machismo, while some synths valiantly do their best to make up for the terrible sounds they’re making by applying themselves sparsely and emphatically around him like royal horns heralding his arrival. Entwistle’s proudly strutting bassline doesn’t hurt either, and for a few glorious moments you suspect that The Who have still got it; alas, whenever the hook fades you are forced to put up with the rest of the song, and that’s a decidedly less heartening experience. It also proves to be far more predictive for the album as a whole, and that really is tragic. Lawd knows I have an iffy history with The Who, but this? This is something fuckin’ else.

Entwistle has a record number of songs here, and all three of them are awful. I don’t blame him – Townshend’s songs on this are also mostly awful – but nonetheless their suckitude is mind-boggling. “Had Enough” contains some of the most totally intolerable singing in Daltrey’s career and a bunch of horribly-arranged strings which are, together with the near-nonexistent guitar parts, pushed into the background by the mastering job so as not to get in the way of the horrendous synths. “905”, meanwhile, is laden with one of those rare hooks so poorly-written as to actually deprive the song of energy, and considering how fucking dreary the song is that’s a perversely admirable achievement. Both of those songs at least have decent vocal melodies, though, which places them head-and-shoulders above “Trick Of The Light”; that song barely even has a melody at all, though it does have a whole lotta drawn out moans from Daltrey and one of the most thoroughly unimpressive riffs ever to emerge from the axe of a once-great guitarist, as well as a completely unsatisfying, thin guitar tone and an exceedingly annoying melodramatic bridge… damn, was Entwistle actually trying to suck this hard or did he somehow manage it by accident? This is the man who gave us “Whiskey Man”? Yeesh…

Aw, but Townshend – don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, m8! You actually managed to piss me off here, ‘cos you wrote “Sister Disco”, and that song is completely insufferable. It sounds kinda like it’s going for the monolithic immensity of Who’s Next, but instead of building a mountain it ends up faceplanting into a shit-encrusted molehill and floundering constantly as it suffocates, wildly throwing around some truly, completely abominable synth lines and utterly token guitar chords in the process. The attempted hook is incapable of hooking a fuckin’ goldfish, and the entire thing languishes at the same dreary tempo as everything else on the album. It’s complete, utter, astounding, unlistenable shit – and then, to top it off, the lyrics appear to be some sorta smug condemnation of disco music! Are ye mad, ya wanker? Chic were beating the shit out of this album every time they did anything in the late 70s, and you wanna start a fight? And to top it all off, the song you choose to start that fight with is this atrocity!? This isn’t just the worst song The Who ever made, it’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard in my life! Do you want me to hate you, Townshend? Is this masochism?

Townshend is also responsible for “Guitar and Pen”, which tries to land somewhere between a ballad and a rocker and ends up melding the absolute worst of both worlds. The ballad segments sound like airy-fairy, repulsively corny latter-day-Yes shit, and the attempted rock segments are rather let down by the near-total rejection of the guitar in favour of a toxic synth mush that sounds like it might have leaked out of some tube on a processing plant for molten plastic. It’s six miserable, horrifying minutes long, and by the end you may feel the urge to curl up into a fetal position and cry softly in the corner of your room while therapeutically blasting Vomir to purge the entire concept of music from your body – because if this is music, then music as traditionally defined is worthless, surely? Every single member of the band is at their uttermost nadir on this song – Daltrey, Moon, Townshend and Entwistle are all performing pretty much unlistenably on their instruments, due to what I think is a haphazard combination of misbegotten songwriting decisions and general stylistic incompetence. This song doesn’t just need to be destroyed – it needs to be exorcised back into the demon realm from which it came.

Erm, anything else? Well, there’s “Music Must Change” (my fuckin’ thoughts exactly, Townshend), which has a chorus and pre-chorus that might actually be good if Daltrey wasn’t doing his best to ruin them, and “Love Is Coming Down”, which manages to sound like a reject piece from the soundtrack of some godawful too-highly-budgeted flop of a romance movie (in no small part thanks to a return of the hackneyed string section from “Had Enough” – thanks, Ted Astley! I dunno who the fuck you are, but I hope you’re dead by now!). That leaves us with only the title track, which closes the album out and which is generally considered the only gem to emerge from this misbegotten sulfur mine. It’s certainly better than most of the shit on here, but I ejaculate better music than half of these supposed songs every day, so that’s no high praise. Truth be told, it actually ain’t bad; I like how the chorus manages to maintain a simmering energy despite being the quietest, subtlest part of the song, and I guess I can’t deny that Daltrey’s chest-beating Gorilla impressions actually sound pretty cool here. It’s still not great, though – the structure feels a tad too loose to me (nothing wrong with an unusual structure, mind, but it doesn’t feel like they really put much thought into this one) and the sonics are still pretty shit. The first time I heard that squelching synth that opens the song, my face contorted into this memorable rictus of disgust, and the guitar is still mixed too far back and laden with too weak a tone. It’s decent, but to argue that it’s on par with their earlier masterpieces just seems disingenuous to me; do y’all really think this is on the level of, I dunno, basically any of the songs on Who’s Next? Nah – it made a good CSI intro, but not as good a one as “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and that’s all ya really need to know about it. As for this album, well, all ya need to know is to avoid it like you’d avoid a leper, or a right-wing tabloid, or eye contact with Ted Cruz – whatever simile works best for you, man. Myself, I think I’m done with The Who now. I’ve no desire to follow their apparently steadily-worsening debasements of their own legacy any further, especially considering all the other great shit I could be reviewing. I might check out “Eminence Front”, though…

Strait to the Point: THE WHO – The Who by Numbers (1975)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 2.5/5

This might be the first time I’ve been able to call an album by these dudes “humble”. It ain’t bad, I guess, but it’s not a patch on their best.

On first listen, I hated this. I listen to these things three times, though, and the subsequent two did admittedly reveal a small reservoir of quality I’d not noticed at first. After a string of increasingly grandiose albums culminating in the leaning tower of hubris that was Quadrophenia, it’s nice to hear Townshend finally slowing down, taking a breather and allowing his vulnerabilities to show through a little bit. No characters here, and no social commentary either – just a bunch of fairly mellow acoustic rockers, ballads and musings on the flawed self. Sounds great, right?

Well, not quite. It’s alright, sure, but it’s a fairly unassuming, unremarkable sorta alright. Most of the tracks just kinda breeze by, doing just enough to avoid being outright boring without doing enough to be riveting. Listening to this album is a mildly diverting, marginally enjoyable experience, but it won’t win any awards and it probably won’t change yer life. I can’t say there’s any tracks I hate, either – there are a couple of failures, sure, but they’re the mediocre, boring kind of failure rather than the sort of disastrous collapse you can find in The Who’s worst moments. So, in sum, what we have here is The Who’s first average album – and that’s an epochal moment, that is.

I’m in a positive mood, so let’s start with the good stuff. “In a Hand or a Face”, the closing track, is a great song! The vocal melody is properly awesome the whole way through, especially in the chorus. That rising repetition – “I am going round and round…” is like a callback to that sense of earnest silliness that used to define The Who, sung like it’s being confided mischievously in your ear while the instrumentation steadily builds around it. That instrumentation is pretty great, too – everyone performs pretty well on this song, which is a very nice surprise when ye consider how bloody bland they are on most of this album. Oh, goshdarnit – I’ve hit the negatives already! I mean, what can I do? There’s an elephant in the room, hangin’ from the ceiling like an oversized, critically endangered chandelier: Moon’s drumming on this album has, appallingly, actually gotten worse than it was on Quadrophenia. There, he at least still sounded as if he were connected to the band; here, half the tracks sound like his beat was recorded in another room with no point of reference, ‘cos he can’t stop doing these ridiculous fills, flourishes and attempted solos that sound kinda like what the drummer in a third-rate Who tribute band might come up with. What’s worse is the horrible, lethargic cymbal stuff he does when he’s actually trying to keep time – that stuff actually saps the music of energy, and that’s just heartbreaking to have to hear. I’ve no idea what the timeline was leading up to Moon’s death in 1978, but I have a hunch he was a hefty way down the path by the time they recorded this album. What else explains this precipitous drop? Shiet, maybe he’d secretly quit and this was just Townshend drumming in disguise.

Entwistle’s also barely a presence on most of these tracks. He gets one of his own, though, and it’s the best he’s written in years – “Success Story”, it’s called, and not even a tragic nadir of a performance from Moon can prevent it from being a highlight. Entwistle’s got a badass bass tone on it, for one, and it’s also got that trademark Entwistle sense of humour I’ve always found so endearing. Got a nice set of riffs, too. No real complaints here, though it ain’t one of the band’s greatest achievements. I’ve mostly the same opinion of the opening track, “Slip Kid”; that thing is built around this super swaggy, catchy piano groove, and I can’t say I’ve got any problems with it, but it’s not exactly a work of genius, now, is it? It’d be one of the better tracks on Odds & Sods, but it’s hard for me to work up any enthusiasm about it. I mean, this is the band that made Baba O’Riley – and this was the best they could do?

Really, it’s remarkable just how easy it is to forget this album when it’s done. I can’t say that of any of their others up to this point – I didn’t like Tommy or Quadrophenia, but I’ll be damned if they weren’t at least memorable failures. This thing is a reluctant kind of success, I guess, but it’s the most forgettable success I’ve ever heard, and is that really better? “Dreaming From The Waist” is a perfectly competent acoustic rocker and a pleasant enough listening experience, and so is “How Many Friends”, but man, they really don’t aspire to be anything more. That’s kind of nice after all the pretensions of the previous album, I guess, but it also means I feel absolutely no need to retain them in my memory and I’ll be damned if they do anything to try and win me over. “However Much I Booze” is basically the same, except worse, seeing as Townshend tries to fit too many words into his melody and ends up ruining it; “Imagine A Man” is a decently pretty and, honestly, entirely ordinary acoustic ballad that I can’t really remember anything about; “Squeeze Box” is kind of a countryish tune with a good banjo solo, a decent melody and no particularly great ideas… you get the picture, y’know? The score range for tracks on this album, excepting maybe the finale, is about 4-6/10. It’s so thoroughly mediocre that I’m beginning to feel self-doubt at my inability to find anything to say about it – I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not me, it’s the album that’s a hack writer with delusions of grandeur and no futur- ahem, excuse me…

I guess “Red Blue and Grey” is nice. It’s this endearing little ballad where Townshend just opens up over a ukulele, and there are some pretty horns in the distance that give the whole thing a kind of mournful air. Strictly speaking it’s not any more remarkable than its surroundings, but I find myself fixating on it whenever I listen to the album; I guess it just strikes me as the least pretentious thing Townshend ever wrote, lacking even the conceit of deep emotional resonance (I’ve always believed you need to be at least a little self-important to want to make people cry) and conveying only a feeling of remarkable contentedness. Being as it cohabits with songs about drink addiction, fake friends and sexual frustration, this is remarkable, and maybe that’s why I like it more than the rest. But it’s not like it’s one of Townshend’s best, and it doesn’t save this album from total irrelevance. A friend of mine once pointed out that it’s been 40 years, and there still isn’t anyone willing to try and rehabilitate The Who’s post-Quadrophenia work; “it’s a safe bet”, he said, “that it’s as mediocre as everyone says it is”. I guess he was right. This is, indeed, The Who By Numbers, and that means it’s The Who without any of the things that made them interesting. If the blood still flows, it’s been heftily diluted.

Strait to the Point: THE WHO – Odds & Sods

Review by: Michael Strait

Just fanservice. A nice lil bunch of curiosities for the completionist.

A bonus review for a bonus album – fair, wouldn’t ya say? This was a collection of outtakes, rarities and other such collectors’ items released originally to fill a free year, then re-released in 1998 with more than twice as many tracks for the obsessives and completionists. I don’t really feel like there’s much point in giving it any sort of rating, so instead I’m just gonna give a quick overview of what’s on here.

There’s a rough, though not rigid, chronological order here. We start with “I’m The Face” – a pleasant little R&B tune that was one side of the first single The Who ever released, back when they were called The High Numbers – and we end with “Naked Eye”, a song that can also be found on the bonus track edition of Who’s Next. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any outtakes from the Quadrophenia sessions, although “Water” has enough dull musicianship and rawk gawd posturing to sound like one. Aside from that one, though, the Who’s Next outtakes are pretty much all totally awesome, and a couple of ’em even sound better than some of the album tracks. What did we do to deserve “Gettin’ In Tune” instead of “Put The Money Down”? The latter’s great – it’s all mountainous and monolithic like the best songs on that album, but it’s also got some convincingly macho swagger and a nice sense of humour. “Time Is Passing” ain’t bad either, though the country ‘n’ western parody at the beginning is maybe a leetle too arch for a bunch of middle-class Englishmen. Then again, they don’t shy away from self-parody on this thing either – just listen to “Long Live Rock”! Ridiculous tune, but it pretty much entirely eliminates the need for AC/DC’s “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, and, come to think of it, does a great job parodying just about every single 80s hair metal band before any of them even existed. It’s no necessity, but as far as joke songs go it ain’t bad at all.

Most of the other stuff is kinda scattered. There are two more joke songs: “Now I’m A Farmer”, notable mostly for some lead vocal silliness from Moon, and “Little Billy”, which sounds like a silly Entwistle song even though Townshend apparently wrote it. There’s also “Cousin Kevin Model Child”, which I guess is a joke song of some kind, but which elicited a verbal, audible reaction of “What the fuck is this shit?” from me when I heard it; skip it, and also skip the studio version of “Young Man Blues” (super corny imitation-American accents ruin it), the rock version of “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand” (no less boring for all the rocking – in fact, possibly more boring for being longer), “Too Much Of Anything” (too much of nothing, more like), and “My Way” (a fairly generic Eddie Cochran cover). There’s a bunch of other stuff which is only really interesting from a historical perspective, like “Leaving Here” (Daltrey’s first attempt at machismo on the mic), “Faith In Something Bigger” (a perfectly pleasant early pop tune that ultimately lacks identity), and “Under My Thumb” (a cover of the Rolling Stones song that fails because it’s one of those songs only Mick Jagger could sing properly). There are, however, some gems buried here: “Baby Don’t You Do It”, which contains some excellent drunken angst-over-breakup from Daltrey and some more of that destructive guitar feedback Townshend left behind after the debut; “Glow Girl”, which is a nice, psychy little pop tune that ends on a genderswapped version of that “it’s a boooy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boooy” bit from Tommy (no idea which was written first); “Pure And Easy”, which sounds kind of like one of them endearingly corny Yes pop songs from their earlier albums; and “We Close Tonight”, which confuses me because it’s got elements you tend to find in early Who songs coexisting with the trappings of their later stuff, but which sounds cool anyway. 

The three I haven’t commented on – the studio version of “Summertime Blues”, the rock version of “Love Ain’t For Keeping” and the Entwistle tune “Postcard” – are all unspecial, unremarkable but nonetheless pretty good tracks that wouldn’t stink up your collection if you felt the need to have ’em. I’m not a big Who fan, personally, so I doubt I’ll be returning to this very often, but it’s a nice little gesture to the fans. Also, I can’t deny that it’s kind of interesting to hear The Who’s career trajectory represented here in miniature; in just an hour and 20 minutes you get pretty much the entire story of The Who’s existence up to this point, and it’s a nice reminder that they were, for all their faults, a supremely interesting and unique band that were never content to remain in one place for very long. Vitality flows through the veins of this record, even on the bad songs – let’s just see how long they could keep that up…

Strait to the Point: THE WHO – Quadrophenia (1973)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 2/5

A gigantic monument to the blinding power of self-importance. Has its moments, though.

In my reviews of The Who’s discography so far (which can be found here), I’ve had very little but kind words for Moon. I’ve a drummer friend who complains about his lack of technical chops, and I understand that, but his drumming is an essential component of The Who’s style on their best albums. The job of a drummer, usually, is to keep time and thus keep the band grounded, but Moon was never content with that; instead, he preferred to be the rocket engine that propelled The Who into the sky, lending them an inescapable sense of size and gravitas that helped their best music sound so joyous and expansive. When The Who’s early music sounded like it was bursting at the seams with youthful energy, a good portion of it was always him; when they started constructing mountains on Who’s Next, he was not just the foundation but a substantial part of the granite centre on which the surrounding landscape was painted. Without him, I firmly believe that The Who’s name would be rather more apt than it has turned out to be, and the classic rock world would lack one of its greatest heroes.

So why am I so fucking sick of him?

There’s something infuriating about his work on Quadrophenia, see. I had difficulty working out what it was for a while, but then I concentrated and I figured it out. Moon, on this album, spends way too long acting like an ordinary rock drummer. Most of the beats he plays on this album are entirely normal, basic and dreadfully uncreative 4/4 beats with little embellishment or character, and that’s annoying; more annoying is his consistent and nearly intolerable habit of announcing his presence with an equally generic and uncreative drum fill, banging loudly and quickly on a few snares before falling in line and playing a dull-ass drumbeat for the remainder of the song. It’s so intolerable not only because it’s deeply repetitive, but also because it’s so unjustifiably arrogant. It’s like a superhero arriving at the scene of some supervillainy, pompously saying “I’m here – the day’s saved!” while unimpressively attempting to flourish his cape, and then accidentally flying into a wall and knocking himself out – it’s all a bunch of big, vaguely depressing pompousness that ultimately heralds the arrival of nothing useful. Moon, on this album, has started to believe his own hype while simultaneously becoming so lazy as to no longer deserve it – and there’ll never be a better microcosm for the album than that.

It’s better than Tommy, of course. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Townshend had listened to some of my criticisms of that record when he was making this one, because there’s none of those old shitty sub-2-minute interludes to be found here. I can’t claim that any of the songs are as lazily nonexistent as most of the shit on Tommy, either; they’re all perfectly competent rock songs with a decent number of moving parts and, usually, at least one musical idea. Nothing here is anywhere near as bad as “Christmas” or “Underture”, and there are more good songs, too. And the story (because this, if you didn’t know, is another one of them rock operas) is better, I guess; I still stopped paying attention about halfway through, but I gather it’s a fairly simple and relatable story about a young man looking for social acceptance and finding it in a subculture, specifically the mods if I’m not mistaken. That’s all nice, but I still have some problems.

For one, it’s not just Moon that’s lost his mojo – it’s everyone! Entwistle’s pretty much a non-factor the entire way through this album, and that’s just disconcerting, because what’s a Who song without a ridiculous Entwistle bassline roiling underneath it? He’s not even got any songwriting credits on the album! I’ve not liked one of his songs in a while, but I still feel like something’s amiss here; the dude’s had at least one song on every album since the sophomore, and his absence from this album is strange, like losing an old cushion from your sofa. Then there’s Daltrey, who has fully completed his transformation into the stereotypical rock vocalist and thus spends the entire album emitting a series of histrionic roars, low growls and showmanly screeches that almost never fail to make me wince, flinch and retch like a bulimic fulmar. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Mick Jagger, insincere demonic jester that he is, but Daltrey’s got all of his flaws and none of his endearing qualities here, and I really cannot stand him. Whatever became of that boyish rebel on My Generation? Hell, what became of the deftly creative Townshend on My Generation? His guitarwork here is fine, I guess, but it lacks the muscle a good Townshend riff can carry and it rarely manages any of the chiming soft goodness he can sometimes convey in his gentler moments. All the riffs here are big, like everything else: big concepts, big ambitions, big album (82 minutes!), and big, big hubris. 

It introduces itself pretty well, though. The first track is a fairly pleasant two minutes of sea sounds, with a bunch of faint keyboards in the distance and some wordless vocals, until eventually a bunch of notable lyrics and melodies from the album are distantly sung in succession, and I’m sure you get the idea: it’s a prelude, portentously foreshadowing all the developments to come. Sure, that’s fine, and the next track is one of the album’s highlights; “The Real Me” is a blistering, catchy rocker with possibly the best musicianship on the album, some great horn arrangements and some of Daltrey’s least annoying rock showmanship. I’m not entirely sure what it has to do with the story, but the lyrics are general enough that I feel no obligation to care; it’s a good song with nice lyrics about teenage disaffection, and that’s all I need to know. S’all good, but at the same time it’s undeniably all a bit self-important; Daltrey sounds very much like he’s excitedly announcing a big event, and the horns do add an air of affected grandiosity. “Here comes somethin’ big”, it’s saying – “this is our masterpiece!”

Still, I’m enjoying myself so far. Then the title track comes in, and it’s a 6-minute instrumental that spends its entire runtime trying to sound as portentous, important and epic as possible – and I’m just left rubbing my brow and thinking “Guys, the movie’s started! You don’t need to show me another bloody trailer!” The damn thing spends a good half its runtime foreshadowing motifs that’ll appear later in the album, forgetting to develop any real identity of its own or, really, any well-defined structure; it’s all a big mess of cheesy synths, self-impressed guitar solos and melodies that’ll be done better later, and I just can’t see the point. It’d have been a poor intro anyway, but placing it third on the tracklist is a particularly baffling move. I expect the presence of songs like this one is why some call Quadrophenia “The Who’s prog rock album”, and I’ll confess I was fooled for a bit, too, but then I listened closer and realised that there aren’t any interesting time signatures, cleverly unusual riffs or cool structures here. Naw, there’s just a load of unimpressive instrumental wanking married to a ton of pretentious self-importance – in other words, it’s exactly what prog sounds like to people who don’t like prog. P’raps the term was originally applied to Quadrophenia as an insult? 

Problems like this haunt the album at every turn. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this thing without bumping into a bunch of massively-played guitar chords, or some huge drum fills, or some giant vocals, and it all ends up becoming utterly numbing. Look, Who’s Next worked because the vastness was inextricably married to smallness; those were really big songs that signified really little things, carrying all the more genuine import for it. “Baba O’Riley” felt like a giant Sequoia springing from the heart of a humble young man, and “Bargain” was about the unfathomable depths of one small man’s personal faith; even the most unapologetically huge song there, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, felt like it was rooted in a very human sense of dissatisfaction. This album, though, is so concerned with telling a big, important story that it forgets its human heart; this thing is a hollow mountain, full of no goblins or Balrogs but pure empty air. The human heart here is meant to be the young boy who propels the story, but this album is just so impressed with the fact that it’s telling the story that it never actually shrinks itself down to a level where I can appreciate his emotions; I’m observing him from on high, watching dispassionately as he goes about his business while angels play guitars and blow horns to herald his every move. It’s overwhelming and, in the end, impossibly boring.

Aptly enough, I finally realised how much I hated this thing on the track “I’ve Had Enough”, which starts out as the umpteenth tolerable-but-uninspired rocker in a row before transitioning, for what seems like no reason at all, into another prelude to “Love, Reign O’er Me”. It’s not as jarring as the transitions on “Christmas”, from ol’ Tommy, but it still doesn’t fit and accomplishes nothing. This is what rock operas do, see: they are inherently ruinous concepts, pushing songwriters into making musically nonsensical decisions for the sake of a story that is, inevitably, uninspired-at-best, because if these rockers were any good at writing stories they’d be working in the fuckin’ TV industry instead of twanging on guitars. There are some acoustic ballad segments here, too, but they sound as insincere and self-impressed as Moon does when he opens the fucking song with yet another pathetic fill (by this point I wanted to go back in time just so I could kill the motherfucker myself with his own drumsticks), and the entire thing drags on for six vaguely infuriating minutes before finally petering out with an affected scream from Daltrey. All the individual elements of this song are, I guess, competently-done, but they certainly aren’t any more than that and they have no business all being jammed together in this mess. When the next song opens with Townshend forlornly singing “Why should I caaare?”, all I can do is nod my head in despondent agreement – why should I? What have I got to care about here?

Side three on this album is a particular chore, laden with such an assortment of mediocrity that I have to wonder if Townshend intentionally chose it as the dumping ground for all his worst failures on the album. We’ve got, in order: “5:15”, which tries to have primal rock swagger but is just too fucking grandiose to pull it off; “Sea and Sand”, which sounds, at its best, like “Bargain” but worse in every way; “Drowned”, which is saved from total nondescript dullness only by some pretty good horn riffs at one point; and “Bell Boy”, in which Moon tragically attempts to recapture some of his old genius by playing diet-“The Ox” type solos on a track that is entirely the wrong tempo for them, resulting only in embarrassment for everybody involved. All these tracks are at least five minutes long, too, which means I was about ready to shoot myself by the end. Five minutes is totally the worst length for a rock song, anyway – either go all the way and make an 8-minute mini-epic or shrink it down to three minutes of pop goodness, but for the love of God, don’t bombard me with dreary five-minuter after five-minuter like this. Nothing happens in any of these songs! The melodies are average, the riffs are forgettable, the musicianship is bloody dull and the story had long since ceased being of any interest to me. This sorta shit is why people these days are starting to look down on classic rock – to be this impressed with one’s own mediocrity is something not even the wackest rapper could manage.

It’s a shame, because there are moments of promise everywhere. “Cut My Hair” is, honestly, a pretty good song – it’s got a good set of melodies and a strong hook, and it’s one of the only tracks in which Moon actually performs pretty well the whole way through, though he still lacks the finesse he can manage in his best moments. Also, Townshend gets a lot of vocals here, and his singing on this album is far less irritating than Daltrey’s. That’s why many of the best moments here are softer ballad moments, on which he usually sings. “I’m One” kinda reminds me of Townshend’s earlier, brilliant “Sunrise” in places, even though the rock segments are merely serviceable. “Is It In My Head”, similarly structured, ain’t bad either, and I feel no real ill will towards any of it; it doesn’t stick in my head, but it’s a pleasant enough experience while it lasts. Then there’s “Helpless Dancer”, which I actually think is pretty great! It kind of sounds like what that “Eyesight to the Blind” on Tommy wanted to sound like: rhythmic lead instrument stabs backing up a fairly excellent vocal melody, with some vaguely intriguing social commentary in the lyrics (though I gotta say, “And bombs are dropped on fighting cats/ And children’s dreams are run with rats” is an incredibly corny couplet). The melodramatic melody and vaguely operatic singing also lend this a sort of pop-musical, Les Misérables air, which certainly works in context. The problem is that it ends on a brief, distant snippet of “The Kids Are Alright” from My Generation, which does two things. Firstly, it reminds me of how much better The Who used to be and makes me dislike this album more; secondly, it adds yet more arrogance to the already overflowing pot of it they’ve concocted on this album. “Ay yo, aren’t we writing a musical about the mods? Weren’t we a mod band? Well, we’re gonna need some period-setting sound effects – why not include ourselves in one of those? That way, children listening to this will get the impression that we were among the most indispensable parts of the subculture, even though we were, if anything, latecomers to the scene and an integral part in its commercialisation and subsequent death! History is written by the victors, after all!”

All that ridiculous arrogance spends most of the album tragically unjustified, but what’s more tragic is that the three songs on the final side actually go some way towards justifying it and thus give us a tantalizing glimpse into an alternate universe. What if all the songs on the album had been as good as “Doctor Jimmy”? All the melodrama actually works here, see, and that’s mostly down to Daltrey. This is the first time he’s actually conveying some of the emotional complexity that typified his best moments on Who’s Next; he’s not just a generic, strutting rockstar but a regretful, lost youth lain low by his own excessive machismo. Just listen to him in the chorus, falling victim to his own primality and descending helplessly into barbarism: “What is it!?/ I’ll take it!/ Who is she?/ I’ll rrrrape it!” The grandiosity here is actually earned, since those big, mournful horns are accompanying a moment of genuinely catastrophic emotion. And that moment when the melody resolves itself into “He only comes out when I drink my giiiiin”… well, it’s just gorgeous, and possibly the only moment of real, total melodic bliss on the entire album. I love it, and it always gets stuck in my head – it’s just a shame I stopped caring about the story about seven songs ago…

“The Rock” is pretty good, too, actually. It’s just a reprise of the title track, but it’s better, partly because Moon is being pretty inventive in parts (he plays these little dense beat clusters that are actually really cool) and partly just because the riff they stick with from about 2:45 to 4:40 is great. Then it transitions into a buildup to “Love Reign O’er Me”, a song that by now has been foreshadowed, hinted at and built up to so much you’re almost sick of it when it actually arrives. When it finally starts, though, it’s with a moment of shocking humility for this album – the piano notes are actually quiet, reflective, and deeply human, so that when the vast chorus finally does arrive – the anguished, justly famous scream of “LOOOOOOVE, REIGN OOOOO’ER MEEEEEE!” from a Daltrey that finally sounds like he really, totally cares – it feels completely and wholly justified. It all gives me goosebumps, actually, especially that tearfully descending guitar line. In recognising its own humanity and humility, the album finally grounds itself well enough to reach into the heavens it has been aiming for the entire time, and achieves its lofty goals. The result is one of the finest things Townshend ever wrote, and one of The Who’s truest highlights. It’s beautiful, brilliant and utterly fantastic – I just wish I hadn’t had to sit through seventy five minutes of intermittent quality, overwhelming arrogance and mediocre musicianship to get there. 

Why do The Who always do this to me? Except for their first album, all their albums have fallen at least some way short of their potential. They’re capable of making some of the best music anyone’s ever made, but so often they just, I dunno, don’t. Sometimes they’re too cautious and safe, writing a bunch of good songs instead of great ones, like on The Who Sell Out; sometimes they’re overambitious, shooting too high and collapsing in the atmosphere, like here. I’d love to love them dearly, to hold them close to my heart as one of my favourite bands in the world, because they’ve certainly got the chops for it – but one thing you gotta have in your relationships is consistency, and The Who just offer moments. Beautiful, perfect, ascendant moments – but always, it seems, just moments. So I’m sorry, Townshend, but I’m done – we’re through. I need a man I can rely on. Oh, love, reign o’er me…

Strait to the Point: THE WHO – Who’s Next (1971)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4/5

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.