Already having recorded a couple of classic singles, “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” The Who then released by far the finest debut album of any of the British Invasion bands (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, etc). Although the album lacks the sophistication of their later work, lead guitarist and group visionary Pete Townshend was already an accomplished songwriter, and if ever a band was greater than the sum of their individual parts it was The Who. In particular, you simply couldn't ignore the band's incendiary rhythm section; whereas most bands at the time were musically led by their lead guitarist, with The Who Townshend mostly played rhythm guitar while mighty Keith Moon’s explosive drums often functioned as the lead instrument. For his part, bassist John Entwistle was simply miles ahead of his contemporaries, and though singer Roger Daltrey had a long way to go before he would become the commanding singer of Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, he puts in flawless performances on this album's two best and best-known tracks. With its famous “hope I die before I get old” refrain (the most famous lyric in rock history?), "My Generation" is perhaps the ultimate rock 'n' roll youth anthem, notable for its stuttering vocals, a rare bass solo (the most famous bass solo in rock history?), Moon's chaotic drum assault, and Townshend's pioneering use of feedback. You could argue that this was the first punk and/or hard rock song, and likewise with "The Kids Are Alright" you could say that The Who both invented and perfected power pop. Obviously influenced by The Beatles, I'd argue that this song is as good a pure pop song as anything the Fab Four ever did, and there’s much more to this album than just those two classic tracks. Elsewhere, songs such as "La La La Lies," "Much Too Much," "It's Not True," and "Instant Party (Circles)" also have something of a Beat-driven, Beatlesque flavor, albeit played with a brutally heavy, chaotic rawness not seen previously, while songs such as "Out In The Street" and a couple of James Brown covers (a strong, intensely moody run through "I Don't Mind" and a weak "Please Please Please" on which Daltrey's limitations are badly exposed) exemplify the "maximum rhythm & blues" style that characterized the band's raw early work. Other highlights include "The Good's Gone," a darkly intense, Nuggets-esque brooder that still manages to be pop friendly, "A Legal Matter," a groovy, riff heavy pop tune about divorce (far from the typical song topic of the day) sung by Pete, who even at this young age was a quickly maturing lyricist, and "The Ox," an explosive, rumbling, runaway freight train of an instrumental on which Moon and Entwistle in particular show just how ahead their time they were. Anyway, this extremely exciting debut album was the rawest the band would ever get in the studio, and though by and large these are simple songs played rather crudely, they turn their lack of polish into a strength by delivering unbridled amounts of energy and passion. The fact that Pete penned some great songs right from the start didn’t hurt, either, nor did their underrated harmonies or the presence of legendary session man Nicky Hopkins on piano.
A Quick One (Decca ’66, '95) Rating: B
Something of a sophomore slump, this album spawned no hits and was a strange entry in the Who cannon for two reasons. The first reason was their bitter contract dispute with American producer Shel Talmy, who produced the band’s first album and who they would be totally free of from this album onward, with the caveat being that Talmy would receive a substantial percentage of the profits from each recording; this arrangement lasted through Who's Next, which didn’t exactly inspire the band to be productive in the studio (they got over this eventually but it took awhile). In addition, The Who's management team struck a deal with their music publisher whereby each band member would receive a £500 advance (a significant sum back in 1966) provided that each member of the group contributed to the songwriting. These external factors contributed heavily to the flawed nature of this recording, which would've benefited greatly had they included "Substitute" and "Happy Jack," two stellar singles that were recorded at around the same time but which were excluded from the album (at least the U.K. version of the album). Of course, this is the freakin' Who we're talking about, so there are some quality songs and predictably strong performances on what is still a good (if far from great) album overall. For example, "Run Run Run" has a good, heavy r&b-based groove, and though it's not a great song per se, it's performed with gusto and has a good guitar solo to boot. And John Enwistle's first song with the band, "Boris The Spider," would become a perennial stage favorite, as it's an offbeat, macabre little ditty (gotta love those "creepy crawly" vocal sections) that would often provide comic relief within the band's intense sets. His other effort, "Whiskey Man," has a melodic Beatlesesque flavor and makes nice use of horns, and Moon's "I Need You" is also Beatlesque; although quite lightweight, it's better than you'd expect, with his colossal drums and Hopkins on harpsichord adding to the experience. Less successful is Moon's throwaway "Cobwebs and Strange," a brassy instrumental jingle that nevertheless isn't without its wacky charms, and though Daltrey's "See My Way" is basically just a demo with Pete, it too delivers pleasant enough if fluffy filler. Elsewhere, their cover of Martha & the Vandellas' "Heatwave" pales beside the original and is therefore pointless, and "Don't Look Away," with its loping country groove, is quite listenable but is a minor effort, much like the album on the whole. As for other high points, along with "Boris The Spider" there's "So Sad About Us," a yearning power popper that's definitely something of an overlooked gem. I love its ringing guitars and melancholic harmonies, and just once I'd like to hear some classic rock radio station play this song instead of "Teenage Wasteland" for the millionth time. Finally, "A Quick One While He's Away" is probably the album's most notable song, as this unique 9-minute, multi-sectioned (6 sections to be exact) epic was Pete's ambitious first attempt at a mini-rock opera. And though it has its clumsy moments, both musically and lyrically with its themes of love, betrayal, and forgiveness, it has its considerable strong points as well and is rarely less than enjoyable. Starting with an a capella intro ("Her Man's Gone"), the song then delivers driving, Beat-driven pop with airy "ooh" harmonies ("Crying Town"). Next up are lighter "la la la" vocals and ringing guitars ("We Have A Melody"), sing songy pop that gets rather chaotic ("Ivor The Engine Driver"), another loping country groove that basically reprises the Wild West melody at the end of "Don't Look Away" ("Soon Be Home"), and finally more poppy vocals and propulsive rhythms on a stirring finale whereby our protagonist forgives his wife for her indiscretion with Ivor ("You Are Forgiven"). Again, perhaps the song (at least the studio version of the song), much like the album itself, was mostly notable for being a blueprint for the better things (i.e. Tommy) that followed, but most of A Quick One is enjoyable in its own right, even though more than any of their early albums it's a minor effort from a major band. Note: From the reissue, which adds 10 surprisingly enjoyable if decidedly lightweight bonus tracks: "A Quick One was originally released on December 3rd, 1966. It reached #4 in the U.K. In the U.S. the release was held back until May 1967. The album was retitled Happy Jack because the "Happy Jack" single had been a minor hit (#24) for The Who there and partly because Decca objected to the double entendre in the original title. Happy Jack was the same album as A Quick One except "Heatwave" was replaced by "Happy Jack.""
The Who Sell Out (MCA ’67, '95) Rating: A-
Although it wasn’t a huge success at the time, in part because aside from The Kinks (who had similar troubles “breaking” in America) The Who were the most overtly British of the British Invasion bands, in recent years it seems that this album has become the critical favorite among hipsters and critics, perhaps in part because the likes of Tommy and Who’s Next are too popular and iconic to ever be hip. Anyway, this album is indeed unique within The Who’s oeuvre, as it contains several spoof commercials that were meant as tributes to the pirate radio stations of the day. Most of these ads are fun and are musically creative, and all are short so even the more novelty-ish numbers among them come and go quickly enough, thereby enabling listeners to get to the real meat of the album, which is in its actual proper songs. Simply put, this is a great batch of primarily Townshend penned songs (the band smartly ditched the misguided attempt at democracy that hindered their last album), even though “I Can See For Miles,” the band’s lone top 10 hit in America (buncha 1-hit wonders!), is the only song here to have truly achieved classic status. Still, the overall songcraft is consistently strong, as The Who’s most psychedelic album also contains a number of disarmingly simple pop pleasures and lovely ballads. The end result is one of the band’s least serious yet most enjoyable albums, even if the many radio jingles and humorous made-up commercials can be annoying at times (if I’m not in the right mood) and there’s a certain ‘60s datedness to the album. The album begins with “Armenia City In The Sky,” a spacey acid rocker notable for its phased guitars, a singable (or shoutable) chorus, and the fact that it was written by Speedy Keene, who with Thunderclap Newman would later deliver the classic “Something In The Air” single that was produced by Townshend. Entwistle contributes another modestly successful whimsical effort with “Silas Stingy,” but otherwise this album is all Pete, who produces one charming winner after another, including the simple, acoustically strummed “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hands” (his second great pop song about masturbation after “Pictures Of Lily”), “Tattoo,” a gorgeously tender “coming of age” (a Pete specialty) pop ballad that became a live favorite, “Our Love Was” and “I Can’t Reach You,” a pair of sweetly melodic and singable breakup songs (the former adds some French horns and psychedelic guitar, the latter features Pete’s high-pitched singing and some prominent piano), “Relax,” another psychedelic pop rocker, this one with bright keyboards, and “Sunrise,” a pretty solo acoustic showcase for Townshend that was obviously influenced by Brian Wilson. As for “I Can See For Miles,” it’s also extremely psychedelic and features a fantastic performance by Moon on drums, plus the guitars are great as well, though I think that the song is a bit overrated (many, most famously Who biographer Dave Marsh, consider it their finest moment) given how repetitive its chorus is. Still, it is great, unlike “Rael,” the interesting but somewhat disappointing 7-minute mini-opera (Pete perhaps going to the well once to often) that closes the album, though Townshend would soon use this song as a building block for Tommy (specifically the “Sparks” and “Underture” sections, which reprise parts of “Rael”). By and large, at this point The Who in live performance and in the studio were two distinctly different propositions, and their ear-blasting assault is rarely unleashed here, as the band, whose chemistry remains impeccable even when playing in low-key fashion, rely more on Townshend’s storytelling skills and songwriting smarts. Instead of relentlessly bludgeoning the listener like they regularly did onstage, The Who instead use pop elements such as tender harmony singing and enticing melodies, thereby making The Who Sell Out an atypical Who album even if one discounts the goofy pirate radio asides and fake advertisements. Despite a dearth of drop dead classics, The Who Sell Out is a fun, self-contained world that any Who fan would be wise to get lost within from time to time. This is especially the case for the reissue, as MCA added 10 worthwhile bonus tracks that were recorded during the same period as the rest of the album and which, given their overall strength, probably would've been put on the album in the first place if not for the limited time constraints of the pre-cd era. "Glittering Girl," "Melancholia," "Early Morning Cold Taxi," and "Girl's Eyes" in particular are welcome additions on the reissue.
Tommy (MCA ‘69) Rating: A
My friend Arthur’s favorite album, this legendary document still stands tall as an audacious and ambitious experiment that was supremely successful if a bit bloated. This convoluted concept album, about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who can sure play a mean pinball but gets used and abused along the way, introduced the term “rock opera” into the rock lexicon; though technically speaking The Pretty Things were there first with S.F. Sorrow, it was Tommy that popularized the form. In truth, an understanding of the deliberately ambiguous storyline, which I won’t even try to explain, in part because I’m not sure if I can (the liner notes states "it's story covers murder, trauma, bullying, child molestation, sex, drugs, illusion, delusion, altered consciousness, spiritual awakending, religion, charlatanism, success, superstardom, faith, betrayal, rejection, and pinball"), is secondary to some great rock tunes, including classics such as “Overture/It’s A Boy,” “Amazing Journey/Sparks,” “The Acid Queen,” and “I’m Free.” Also included are two of the Who’s most enduring anthems, the air guitar manifesto “Pinball Wizard,” which features great acoustic and electric riffs (and was only written because influential critic Nic Cohn liked pinball!), and the epic “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which makes best use of the famous “see me feel me” section and provides a stirringly emotional finale (simply put, it’s an all-time rock anthem from arguably rock’s all-time rock anthem band). Though Tommy contains some of Townshend’s strongest songwriting efforts, including excellent album cuts such as “1921,” “Christmas,” “Go To The Mirror!,” and “Sensation,” it should also be noted that the album too often repeats previous ideas, such as on the 10-minute instrumental "Underture," that several songs probably would’ve been excluded for being sub par if they didn’t advance the overall storyline, and that it lacks the energy that the band often brought to these songs in concert. Instead, the charm of this album is that, despite its often disturbing subject matter (which was very much ahead of its time), it nevertheless has a sincere innocence that was born of the ‘60s. Soundwise, the sparse, largely acoustic instrumentation is simple yet somehow ornate (the French horns in particular add a symphonic touch to tunes such as the stellar intro “Overture,” a personal favorite of mine even if its main purpose is to preview some of the major musical themes that would appear later), as by and large the band successfully realize their daring attempt to create something totally new. Also, for all its over-long, overly repetitive faults, this is simply one of the most ear pleasing albums around, plus it’s definitely one of those albums that’s greater than the sum of its parts; for example, some of the plot-connecting segues, such as “It’s A Boy” and “Tommy Can You Hear Me,” are among the most memorable bits on the album. Tommy was the band’s first successful album sales-wise, and it validated The Who’s greatness to many people, as they now were acknowledged as being accomplished album artists in addition to being sublime singles specialists who were famous for their legendary live performances. Their fans’ thirst for the theatrics of Tommy became enormous over the next few years, and the album quickly became the centerpiece of their live shows, eventually evolving into a hit movie and even a belated Broadway presentation. If the album doesn’t always quite live up to the hype, this shouldn’t obscure the fact that it is still a great rock album from a visionary group.
Live At Leeds (MCA ’70, '95, '01) Rating: A
The Who were arguably the greatest live rock band of all-time. Want proof? Look no further. After the ambitious (some would say “overblown”) epic that was Tommy, the timing for this back-to-basics release was perfect, as it showed a side of the band - The Who as a hard rock band - that hadn’t yet really been captured on record. Even the album’s packaging, with its brown bootleg-like cover, was inspired, and the album showed off their incredible band interplay, precocious individual personalities, and strong sense of humor better than any of their previous offerings. Along with Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970, this is the best (legally available) album that showcases their live prowess; I’d also recommend checking out The Kids Are Alright DVD/soundtrack. Live At Leeds captures The Who at their primitive best, and the band’s tremendous energy and impeccable chemistry overwhelm flaws such as shoddy production (largely corrected on the ’95 reissue), at-times less than perfect vocal harmonies, occasionally meandering songs, and some leaden guitar work from Townshend. Taken from two shows at Leeds University when The Who were at their absolute peak as road warriors, this set shows off both their fierce power and catchy popcraft, and its best moments are simply stunning. For example, cover songs such as “Young Man Blues” (Mose Allison) and “Shakin’ All Over” (Johnny Kidd and The Pirates) are excellent examples of the band’s “maximum r&b” side, with suitably violent, exciting performances that approach heavy metal. Their cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” was even more inspired and would widely be considered the definitive version of the song, highlighted by Pete’s grungy power chords, Roger’s commanding vocal performance, and of course John’s tongue-in-cheek, deep bass vocal spotlights. Perhaps “Substitute” doesn’t offer much that the original studio version didn’t, but it’s still an excellent song and performance, and “My Generation” and “Magic Bus” are completely transformed from their original versions. Really, “My Generation,” which runs for 15:46 and segues into several other songs, most from Tommy but some unrecognizable as Roger ad-libs some r&b shouts as the band thunders away behind him, was, in Pete’s own words, an “attempt to mix all the bits of our history together in a one great, huge deafening din." Despite some of the aforementioned meandering indulgences and leaden riffing, consider the attempt a rousing success, and “Magic Bus” is likewise extended far beyond its original running time (7:48), though it mostly sticks to the familiar melody. Still, this chugging beast of a song was tailor made for The Who’s live skills, as the band recklessly (and heavily) charges ahead, adding exciting ad-libs (catchy call and response vocals, stellar harmonica wailing by Roger) along the way. It’s quite the spectacular finish to a spectacular live album that only got better with the 1995 reissue, which expanded the original's mere six songs into a robust fourteen, with markedly improved sound quality as well. Again, as with “Substitute,” the versions of “Tattoo,” “I Can’t Explain,” “I’m A Boy,” and “Happy Jack” don’t really add much to the studio originals aside from grungier presentations, but “Heaven And Hell” was a terrific Entwistle offering never correctly captured in the studio, and more stellar maximum r&b came in the form of Benny Spellman's “Fortune Teller.” This version of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is world’s better than the studio version (though the best version is the one on The Kids Are Alright), and likewise “Amazing Journey/Sparks” showed just how much heavier and more powerful Tommy came across in concert. In short, in 1995 one of rocks greatest live albums just got a whole lot better (my only complaint is they should’ve kept the running order of the original album and appended the new songs). Play it LOUD. Note: In 2001, the band also released the double cd Live At Leeds: Deluxe Edition, whose first disc contained the non-Tommy part of the show and second disc was comprised of the Tommy performance. Take your pick; my preference is typically for the 1995 reissue, but you really can’t go wrong with any of them.
Who’s Next (MCA ’71, '95) Rating: A+
After Leeds Townshend was in full rock-opera mode again, but his ambitious Lifehouse project was ultimately aborted. Tensions from the sessions resulted in a falling out between Townshend and producer Kit Lambert, who had basically served as the unofficial fifth member of the band and who was a great “ideas guy.” Fortunately, producer Glyn Johns was brought on board and he did a bang up job, and Townshend letting go of the Lifehouse concept enabled him to focus on a concise all-killer, no-filler 9-track album. The album, which many including yours truly consider the band’s best, is notable for several things. For one thing, it’s bookended by arguably the band’s two best songs ever, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (I’d be hard pressed to name another album with a better opening and closing track combo). Also, Johns delivered a cleaner, more polished arena rock sound that didn’t sacrifice any of the band’s legendary power, Townshend masterfully integrated synthesizers within said full-bodied sound, and Daltrey comes of age on this album, singing not only with his usual cocksure swagger but with a tenderness as well; this album established him once and for all as one of rock music’s finest singers. As previously noted, the album starts with “Baba O’Riley,” one of the best rock anthems ever (as per usual, a “teen anthem,” Townshend’s specialty). Just thinking about the looped synthesizer intro leading into those dramatic da-da-da piano chords pumps me up, and when Moon’s drums kick in I can’t help but play along. Amazingly, the song gets even better, Daltrey’s masterful “out here in the fields” vocals being the icing on the cake (this is where he became Rock God Roger). Of course, Pete sings the more sensitive “don’t cry…” section before Keith kicks the song into overdrive along with Pete’s propulsive power chords before a final “teenage wasteland” chorus leads into the fast-paced drums/violin (the latter courtesy of Dave Arbus) duel that provides a scintillating climax to an all-time classic. Whew, I’m tired just writing about that one, but damn it if “Bargain” isn’t almost as great, albeit in a much more low-key way. According to Pete, “this song expresses how much of a bargain it would be to lose everything in order to be one with God," but more important than any meaning is the song’s delivery. You just gotta love those mournful synths, which give the song a wistful flavor, and Moon and Daltrey in particular are at the top of their game. Like several songs here, this one is part ballad, part hard rock, but few of the band’s songs have ever come together so perfectly. The short, simply strummed acoustic tune “Love Ain’t For Keeping” is also good but comparatively modest (I actually prefer the far more rocking version with the great guitarist Leslie West that appears on Odds & Sods), while “My Wife” is a classic John composition, arguably his best what with its butt kicking groove (as per usual led by Keith), strong riffs, humorous lyrics (a John trademark), and even some well-placed horns. The next few tunes are less impressive but still enjoyable: “The Song Is Over” is a bit corny perhaps but it’s still a pretty, melodic, and powerful semi-ballad, “Getting In Tune” also features Nicky Hopkins on piano and is another half-ballad, half-rocker with a catchy chorus, more commanding lead vocals from Roger along with some cute backing vocals from the others (another band trademark), and some good soloing, while “Going Mobile,” featuring Pete on lead vocals, may be a minor pop song but it’s an enjoyable effort nevertheless due to its catchy acoustic melody, some wah wah soloing from Townshend, a fun jam ending, and more effectively used synthesizers. Lest this review get too long, suffice it to say that “Behind Blue Eyes” and especially “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are additional all-time classics, joining “Baba O’Riley” and “Bargain” but perhaps providing an even a better 1-2 punch. OK, what the hell, I have to describe these two as well. I mean, you really feel for the sad soul “Behind Blue Eyes” during the ballad parts, but then it’s air-guitar time during its blistering balls out rock section (i.e. “when my fist clenches crack it open”…), with some great fills from Moon (his specialty) and one of Daltrey’s most vulnerable vocals topping it off. Last but certainly not least is “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the progressive 8+ minute epic that inevitably provided the finale to many a concert. The song’s most notable attributes are its haunting keyboards, Pete’s raging power chords (particularly on the intro and outro), it’s catchy chorus and political lyrics, and several solo sections, all of which lead into the greatest scream in rock history and a dramatic overall finale to rival “A Day In The Life.” Anyway, I’m not sure why I went into such detail with this review, most of you who own a radio already know most if not all of these songs, but I guess I got a bit excited. You see, this has always been and always will be one of my all-time favorite albums, it’s the Who album I grew up with and I don’t think that they ever topped it. Although many people prefer their concise, energetic raw early singles and others cite their rock operas as the band’s most “important” contributions to rock’s evolution, I believe that not only is Who's Next the greatest Who album, but that it's one of the absolute peak recordings of the rock era. Simply put, this focused masterpiece showed that when The Who put it all together they were an awesome force with few equals.
Who’s Next: Deluxe Edition (MCA ’03) Rating: A- (rating only applies to live disc)
The 1995 reissue of Who’s Next included remastered sound (a given) and several bonus cuts, most of which were intended for Lifehouse. These bonus cuts included the original version of “Pure and Easy” (I prefer the later version on Odds & Sods), a previously unreleased version of the Marvin Gaye classic “Baby Don’t You Do It” (I prefer The Band’s version on Rock Of Ages), a live version of "Naked Eye" previously only available on their 30 Years Of Maximum R&B box set, a previously unreleased live version of “Water,” an alternate take of “Too Much Of Anything” (again, I prefer the version on Odds & Sods), and “I Don’t Even Know Myself” (previously only available as the b-side to the “Won’t Get Fooled Again” single). There’s some value to these tracks, if not all that much in all honesty, but in 2003 the Who’s Next: Deluxe Edition was released, and though again the bonus tracks on disc one, which vary from the ’95 reissue, are primarily for completists (certainly this version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” can’t compete against its more famous counterpart, for example), disc 2 contains a 14-track live show (recorded at the Young Vic on April 26, 1971) that again shows why The Who are considered one of the greatest live acts ever. Granted, The Who live were very much a visual experience: Townshend relished his guitar hero role with his wild windmill power chording, Moon was an octopus-like flurry of animalistic activity, Daltrey personified the rock God singer (along with Robert Plant) with his rugged good looks and theatrical microphone twirls, and John, well he just stood there but he sure was a great bass player. Famously, the band ended each concert by trashing their instruments, which did no favors to their bank accounts but which always provided an exciting "holy crap look what they're doing!" climax to each show. Needless to say, no audio concert can quite capture the excitement of being at a Who concert (unfortunately I was only able to attend the “going through the motions” reunion tour of 1989), and these performances are comparatively straightforward and are therefore far less revelatory than the concert captured at Leeds. Still, for those of you who thought Who's Next was too slick and overproduced, you'll no doubt better appreciate these rough and tumble versions of "Love Ain't for Keepin'" (electrified for the stage) and "Getting In Tune," though there's no getting around the fact that the synthesizers are badly missed on "Bargain." These are energetic, well-recorded, highly enjoyable performances by a great band near – if not always at - the top of their game, and the song selection is interesting as well, with live versions of Lifehouse outtakes such as "Time Is Passing," "Too Much Of Anything," and "Naked Eye" inevitably standing out. All in all, disc two alone justifies the hefty price tag, and for you audiophiles out there, the Deluxe Edition is supposedly the first time that the original master tapes were used for the CD remastering.
Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy (MCA ’71) Rating: A+
This classic compilation of early Who singles contains some of their most influential and greatest work, and I’d rank it alongside Who’s Next as the band’s single greatest studio album (though I suppose that’s cheating given that this is a compilation). Meaty Beaty features The Who at their most disarmingly unpretentious, before rock-operas and ambitious spectacles became the order of the day, and I recommend it over any of their (many) later hits collections because it coheres terrifically as an actual album without containing too many tracks that are redundant from other essential albums like Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia. The ‘60s was a strange time in that many bands, particularly in the U.K., didn’t put their best songs on their actual albums, and The Who were certainly guilty on that front, though “The Kids Are Alright,” “I Can See For Miles,” “My Generation,” “Pinball Wizard,” “A Legal Matter,” and “Boris The Spider” have already been discussed in previous album reviews. Still, non-album singles that first appeared on a full-length album here included the band’s spectacular first single, the Kinksy “I Can’t Explain,” the superlative “Substitute,” and other undeniable winners such as “Happy Jack,” “Pictures Of Lily,” “The Seeker,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “Magic Bus,” and “I’m A Boy.” Indeed, Townshend has always considered The Who a singles band/live act first and foremost, and these short, catchy teenage anthems (generally about alienation, rebellion, and lust) comprise a well-constructed album that expertly documents a specific period in the band’s evolution. Everything that made The Who great can be found right here: superb songs penned by a genius songwriter, ferocious playing including Entwistle’s fat, rolling bass lines, Townshend’s limited but innovative feedback fueled guitar, Daltey’s macho vocals, and Moon’s extraordinary drumming, which served as the backbone for everything the band did musically. Songs such as “My Generation” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” served as a blueprint for future punk bands, none of whom had the wit, imagination, or sheer talent of The Who. The Who also had a knack for catchy melodies and harmony vocalizing, and songs such as “The Kids Are Alright,” “Happy Jack,” “Pictures Of Lily,” and “The Seeker” (to name but a few) are instantly alluring, showing other future acts just how good “power pop” could be. However, far more than the historical importance of these singles, which simply cannot be denied, the main reason that you should buy this collection is because it will reward you with consistent listening pleasure, again and again. Note: Unfortunately, this album has been in and out of print while a deluge of inferior “greatest hits” compilations have hit the market, including 1981's Hooligans, 1983's The Who's Greatest Hits, 1988's Who's Better, Who's Best, 1996's My Generation: The Very Best Of The Who, 1999's 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best Of The Who, 2002's The Ultimate Collection and 2004's Then and Now: 1964-2004. Along with sticking around too long and having far too many reunion tours, the band’s continuous, crass repackaging of their back catalogue has only served to tarnish their legacy. To simplify matters, I’ll state that the only two Who compilations that are must-haves are Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy and Odds & Sods (more about the latter one later), though I’d recommend downloading “Let’s See Action,” “Relay,” and “Join Together,” three great non-album tracks that are appear on neither.
Quadrophenia (MCA ’73, '96) Rating: A
Another great but seriously flawed album, this ambitious second installment in the Who’s rock opera fetish is Townshend’s tribute to Mod culture as seen through the eyes of a young schizophrenic named Jimmy. Actually, Jimmy is a schizophrenic four times over due to excessive pill popping, and each member of the band represents one of Jimmy’s personalities. As per usual with any concept album, this all gets a bit confusing at times, but overall Quadrophenia tells a far more coherent and interesting story than Tommy. Now, I’m an American who knows squat about U.K. Mod culture, but I was a teenager once, and as such I can easily relate to the frustrated and disillusioned young man’s struggles. Besides, much like its spiritual predecessor Tommy it’s the individual songs on Quadrophenia that matter far more than the story itself. Simply put, “The Real Me,” “The Punk Meets The Godfather,” “5:15,” “Doctor Jimmy,” and “Love, Reign O’er Me” are among the greatest rock songs of all-time. Of course, this being a double album, there is some filler, and as with Tommy the band again repeats certain themes throughout the album, stealing a melody from “5:15” for “Cut My Hair” and reprising parts of “Love, Reign O’er Me” several times, for example. But at least Pete, who wrote and arranged every song, always varies the arrangements, and he also cuts some of his most melodic guitar solos, while the band’s ever-expanding sound prominently features piano, horns, strings, and lots more synths. Granted, at times the album is overproduced, as the songs themselves are sometimes drowned out by the abundance of sounds, and the album on the whole will likely seem a bit monotonous at first. Quadrophenia is an album you need to live with for awhile to fully appreciate, after which I for one developed a healthy admiration for album tracks such as the title track (which serves the same purpose here that “Overture” did on Tommy), “Dirty Jobs” (I like the melody and Roger’s vocals on this one), “I’ve Had Enough” (I enjoy this song’s multiple individual sections and the entirety of it fits together exceedingly well), “Sea And Sand” (more multiple sections, tender vocals from Roger, and terrific soloing from Townshend), “Drowned” (a solidly enjoyable take-no-prisoners rocker with some stellar piano work by Chris Stainton), and “Bell Boy” (another excellent melody and Roger vocal, plus Keith “sings” (!!) and it has that symphonic touch that’s such a big part of this albums sound). As for the certifiable classics, which are easy to pick out, “The Real Me” gets the album off to a rousing start (after the forgettable “I am The Sea” intro), with great riffs, phenomenal bass playing, symphonic horns, a busily spellbinding Moon performance, a raging Roger vocal, and an exciting climax on which the song builds and builds. The also-explosive “The Punk Meets The Godfather” is all about its flawless riffs and catchy, theatrical vocals, but really, the performances of all band members are spectacular here and throughout the entire album, really. “5:15,” about a particularly memorable train ride, is probably the albums best-known song (even then it was only a minor hit, though the album itself continued the band’s recent success by hitting #2 in the U.S. and U.K.) and is another knockout, with great use of horns (though perhaps they’re a tad too prominent) making for a dramatic, moving (yet more great vocals from Roger), and flat-out rocking centerpiece track. On the epic front, both towards the end of the album, are “Doctor Jimmy” (8:42) and “Love, Reign O’er Me” (5:48). Both songs are utterly fantastic, the famous latter track perhaps more spectacularly so, with Roger’s striking, earth-shattering vocals, Moon’s pulse-pounding drum flurries, and those lush synth-strings being the most notable attributes of the song, which provides a stellar climax to the album. I mean, the sheer power of the band at their best can damn near be overwhelming, enough so that the occasionally uneven material and at-times overly cluttered sound become but minor flaws of yet another major work. Note: Get the remastered 1996 reissue, which remedied most of the much-criticized aspects of the original pressings (Roger’s voice being too low, John’s bass too high, etc.). In fact, the band’s pleasure with the remastered version of the album played a large part in their regrouping (yet again) for a small scale Quadrophenia tour in 1996, which won rave reviews and won back some of the credibility that was lost from the last “cash in” stadium reunion tour of 1989. Note #2: I highly recommend the excellent 1979 film Quadrophenia starring a brilliant (if often incomprehensible) Phil Daniels (not to mention a perfectly cast Sting in his first film role), which vividly crystallizes the storyline. In fact, after seeing the film it’s hard not to think of scenes from it while listening to significant portions of this album.
Odds & Sods (MCA ’74, '98) Rating: B+
Looking to both release an album in 1974 and again beat the bootleggers (a la Live At Leeds) who were distributing crappy versions of songs not yet officially released, John Entwisle pored through tapes of unreleased songs. In some cases the band fixed up songs here and there, others were good to go but simply hadn't fit whatever album they were working on at the time, and the end result was Odds & Sods, one of the better "rarities" collections out there. Of course, with many of these songs now appearing as bonus tracks on other reissues, albeit often in different versions, this album isn't quite as special as it once was. Then again, the remastered/reissued version of this album added 12 songs to the original version, and as per usual with these albums that's the one I'd recommend getting. Among the original eleven songs, some such as "Postcard" and "Now I'm A Farmer" are very atypical and not in a good way, while others are overly generic ("Put The Money Down"), are included purely for historical purposes ("I'm The Face," the band's first song recorded back when they were The High Numbers), or are good ("Glow Girl") but also appear elsewhere (in this case on The Who Sell Out). So that's nearly half the album that's pretty forgettable, but the rest of the material is grade-A stuff, including "Too Much Of Anything," a catchy, melodic, country-ish sing along, and "Faith In Something Bigger," another catchy pop nugget on which their harmonies are the highlight. Arguably even better is "Little Billy," recorded for an anti-smoking ad that was never used, but best of all are "Pure And Easy" (one of several Lighthouse outtakes), "Naked Eye," and "Long Live Rock," which actually became a minor hit and perennial radio favorite. As with many of the songs on Who's Next, "Pure And Easy" (which would've fit perfectly on that album; in fact, its melody shows up at the end of "The Song Is Over") is part ballad, part rocker, and it contains a lovely flowing melody and poetic lyrics, while "Naked Eye" features some of Pete's best studio guitar work ever. As for "Long Live Rock," it's The Who in full on anthem mode, though this one is notable for being influenced by '50s rock 'n' roll, for its enjoyably ironic lyrics, and for Roger and Pete's throat-shredding vocals. Among the bonus tracks, most were unreleased for a reason, particularly the ones recorded in the mid-to-late '60s, including a couple of Motown covers ("Leaving Here," "Baby, Don't You Do It"), a pair of tracks that pale compared to their definitive Live At Leeds renditions ("Summertime Blues," "Young Man Blues"), a humorous but minor Eddie Cochran cover ("My Way"), and their famous "save Keith and Mick" cover of "Under My Thumb," which also pales next to the Stones original (also, where's "Out Of Time"?). Fortunately, there are several keepers as well. The exceptionally pretty keyboard-heavy version of "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" (guesting Al Kooper) and the rocking, Leslie West assisted "Love Ain't For Keeping" may be my favorite versions of those songs, for example (the latter is worlds better than the version on Who's Next, largely due to Leslie's soaring guitar work). "Time Is Passing" is utterly gorgeous, surpassing the version on Pete's first solo album Who Came First since it sounds more fully fleshed out and has that lovely harmonium sound going for it. Also included is the short, odd Tommy discard "Cousin Kevin Model Child," the forgettable "We Close Tonight," and a studio version of "Water," a stage favorite from the early '70s that sounds much better live, alas. Still, excessive filler aside, it's hard to fault the suits at MCA for being overly generous, as Odds & Sods remains an extremely interesting album (albeit one that's designed for hardcore fans) in the way that it shows off so many different sides of the band. Besides, there are a handful of essential Who songs here, or essential versions of Who songs, that can't be found anywhere else, so if you're a big fan of the band you'd do well to pick this album up.
The Who By Numbers (MCA ’75, '96) Rating: B+
After years of flaunting his massive ambitions with rock opera theatrics and extravagant live performances, it was time for Pete Townshend to scale back and take stock (mid-life crisis, anyone?). With nary a teen anthem in sight, sound-wise stripped of arena-ready bombast and cheesy synthesizers, The Who By Numbers is a more modest song cycle about growing old with rock n’ roll. Rather than pounding drums, blistering power chords, and throat shredding vocals, these performances are far more subdued, befitting an honestly reflective collection containing highly personal meditations about topics such as life on the road and the toll it takes (i.e. “ignoring my wife”), the pitfalls of stardom (“how many friends have I really got? You can count them on one hand”), and alcoholism. Coming from the man who penned the immortal line “hope I die before I get old” this album is indeed a humbling coming to terms with advancing age, and his band’s mellower overall sound points the way towards later Townshend solo albums such as Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. As for the songs, they're actually quite good and underappreciated, with only "Slip Kid" and "Squeeze Box" ever receiving any radio airplay, the former infrequently at that. “Slip Kid” features good riffs, a powerful piano-enhanced groove, and an easily singable chorus, while "Squeeze Box" is the band's most atypical hit and as a result isn't particularly popular with hardcore fans who feel that the song isn't at all representative of what the band is about. It's also quite overplayed, but that doesn't take away from the lighthearted, horny song's plentiful merits, as more than anything the playful, adventurous (The Who playing country and western, replete with accordion and banjo?) song is flat-out fun. It's not "Baba O’Riley" or "Love, Reign O’er Me," that's for sure, and you could say that as such it demonstrates the group’s diminished expectations of themselves on this outing, but if you take it for what it is, it is quite enjoyable. Anyway, this is a consistent album that rarely rises too high or sinks too low, but the resolutely adult ballads "Imagine A Man" and "They Are All In Love" certainly stand out by virtue of their sheer prettiness and honesty (Townshend about the latter song: "It was about money, about law courts, about lawyers and accountants"), and "Dreaming From the Waist" is a rocking yet evocative highlight, with incredible bass playing from John and lyrical lead guitar playing from Pete. Pete's stellar guitar playing also highlights the passionate, confessional "However Much I Booze" and the memorably bitter "How Many Friends," and he even goes it alone on the intimate ukulele piece "Blue Red and Grey" (with help from John on horns). What's fascinating about this album is how, despite his rock star status, Pete (whether singing himself or more often filtered through Roger) seems genuinely miserable in most of these songs, and Entwistle throws in his own cynical shot on the band-referencing rocker "Success Story." Clearly being in The Who was a commitment, a job at this point, and I suppose the band do sound a bit tired, with Roger and Keith in particular sounding more restrained than usual. Then again, that's exactly what most of these songs call for, and though it's no classic, especially considering the band’s ’67-‘73 hot streak, The Who By Numbers is still a strong collection of songs that gets better with repeat plays. If nothing else, it provides an interesting peek inside the psyche of a troubled, confused soul, and the fact that most of these songs are atypical Who compositions that don’t receive any airplay further makes The Who By Numbers a disarming left turn from a band who were letting down their guard. Note: The three live bonus tracks on the reissue are fairly negligible.
Who Are You (MCA ’78) Rating: B
After a three year gap, The Who finally came back with Who Are You, the band's last album with Keith Moon, who overdosed within a month of the album's release. Keith was in a bad way, being depressed about his recent divorce and suffering from alcoholism, and truth be told his playing on much of the album is sub par. That's not the album's only problem, however. For one thing, the bright synthesizers, which may have been ahead of their time back then but which sound quite dated today, are back in full force and are damn near overwhelming at times. The songs are hit and miss as well. Among the misses, John's sci-fi based "905" is forgettable aside from its interesting electronic intro, and I'm not crazy about the jazzy music and overly earnest lyrics of "Music Must Change," either. Although melodically not unpleasant, the ballad "Love Is Coming Down" is melodramatic as well, and "Guitar and Pen," an operatic show tune about songwriting inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan, is also atypical and not very successful (Entwistle: "I think it's too pompous, too classical"). Unsurprisingly, this somewhat odd album wasn't exactly a fan favorite from the get-go, and I wasn't crazy about it at first either, though it has grown on me over time. After all, "New Song" has a rugged Roger vocal, a catchy chorus, and memorably cynical lyrics (“I sing the same old song but with a few new lines”) about how unimaginative radio was (or should I say, is). Yeah, those bright and shiny synths are all over the place and are hard to ignore, but how can you not love the "let it rain?" bridge? Despite what Roger termed its "slushy strings" (a disagreement over which caused him and Glyn Johns to come to blows), I'm also quite fond of John's equally bitter rocker "Had Enough" (sung brilliantly by Roger), and his "Trick Of The Light" (that's three John songs!), though not a great tune by any means, also at least rocks convincingly. Back to Pete, "Sister Disco" has those ever-prominent, overly synthetic strings, but its chorus sure is hooky, and the title track is simply one of the best Who songs ever. Containing a compellingly autobiographical storyline, this one is also synth-heavy but still hard rocking, with great performances all around, even by Keith and especially by Roger, whose dramatic vocal delivery is positively inspired (as a side note, this was also the first song I ever heard on the radio that used the f-bomb, though most radio versions edited that word out). The song contains several sections, including a beautiful bridge on which Pete's pretty piano playing and the band's strong harmonies are showcased, but of course the best part of the song is how it builds towards its rousing finale, which is guaranteed to make me scream along a la "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." Anyway, some obvious problems (too many synths, too few crunchy guitars) aside, all things told this harshly criticized album is a lot better than many make it out to be. Certainly at this point Townshend was still trying his best, and in fact in several songs he seems to be acknowledging the difficulty of trying to stay a vital force this late in the game. Though you can almost hear Moon fading away at times, Townshend indulges his technological fetish to a dangerous degree, Daltrey can come across as melodramatic (John, as usual, remains unchanged), and the material here is hit-and-miss, Who Are You nevertheless is an often-enjoyable album, one that marked the end of an era.
The Kids Are Alright (MCA ’79) Rating: A-
I guess I should've included this with Meaty Beaty and Odds & Sods for being a highly worthwhile compilation album. Then again, this isn't your typical compilation album at all since it mostly compiles together scattered live performances from over the years, many of which are excellent. The soundtrack album to the documentary film of the same name - see the DVD as soon as possible, as the visuals really enhance tracks such as "My Generation," "A Quick One While He’s Away,” and "Won't Get Fooled Again," and the movie includes songs not included on the soundtrack (and vise versa) - The Kids Are Alright is far from perfect, as no songs appear from Quadrophenia, The Who By Numbers, or Who Are You, and several overly familiar studio versions appear yet again. Still, there's some fantastic live stuff here, much of which is unavailable elsewhere. Among the highlights are their famous performance of "My Generation" on The Smothers Brothers TV show, though the amusing interviews and literally explosive outro are the most memorable things about the song, three songs ("Sparks," "Pinball Wizard," "See Me Feel Me") from their monumental Woodstock performance, excellent later performances of "Baba O' Riley" and especially "Won't Get Fooled Again" that were shot specifically for the movie, and my favorite version of "A Quick One While He’s Away," recorded live in 1968 for The Rolling Stones Rock 'n' Roll Circus. Heck, this may be my favorite live performance of all-time, period, especially the last two minutes or so, which are simply incredible. Granted, some of the stuff here is redundant or isn't quite up to their sky high live standards, but most of the material making its first appearance on a Who album here is terrific, making The Kids Are Alright another must-have compilation if you're a big fan of the band.
Face Dances (MCA ’81) Rating: B-
The tragic December 3, 1979 concert in Cincinnati where 11 fans were trampled to death should've been an omen to the band that maybe the end of Keith Moon should've been the end of The Who. After all, much like Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, Moon was a one-of-a-kind drummer who was utterly irreplaceable, and though the band decided to soldier on, hiring ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones (a fine drummer but a poor fit for The Who), things were never the same. Part of the problem was that Pete was now more interested in his solo career than in the band, and in fact this album's more streamlined, keyboard oriented sound seems more of a piece with Townshend’s recent solo albums than your typical Who album. Indeed, many of these synth-heavy songs sound like an airbrushed version of the band, as the palpable sense of excitement that used to define The Who at their best is largely absent. Those criticisms out of the way, I do enjoy a fair amount of Face Dances, which is actually a solid effort, albeit one that these days gets easily lost amid The Who’s more distinguished discography entries. The album's undeniable classic is "You Better You Bet," a great full-bore rocker on which even Jones shines and Roger absolutely rules. The other obvious highlight is "Another Tricky Day," which features a great bass-led melody, hooky vocals, and nice harmonies; it's a winner all the way around, really, and along with "You Better You Bet" is the only song from this album that I occasionally hear on the radio. Among the best of the rest are "The Quiet One" and "You," a pair of autobiographical John Entwistle songs that actually approach heavy metal, and as such quite frankly sound out of place on an album peppered with mellower Pete Townshend compositions. Which doesn't change the fact that I enjoy both; the former features John in rough voiced mode and became something of his theme song on later tours, the latter features dramatic vocals from Roger and angry finger pointing lyrics (I also like the cute lighter bridges, though these are somewhat cancelled out by the cheesy "save me" sections). As for those mellow Pete songs, the best of the bunch is probably the gently melodic and singable "Don't Let Go The Coat." The other tracks, including "Cache Cache," "Did You Steal My Money," "How Can You Do It Alone?," and "Daily Records," are also rarely unpleasant, merely forgettable and boring (and therefore not worth going into more details about). So, about half of this album functions as easily skippable aural wallpaper, about 1/3 of it is enjoyable but flawed, and two tracks approach classic status. That's not a bad ratio, but it's not all that impressive, either, especially when you consider that most of the time when listening to this album I can't help but think, "is this really The Who?" Many would argue that no, it isn't.
It’s Hard (MCA ’82) Rating: C
Can you say "contractual obligation?" Rather than break up the band he clearly wasn't interested in leading anymore, Pete and company came back with the weak It's Hard, on which the band basically went through the motions so they didn't have to return the hefty advance checks that their record company had given them. Since the band didn't put much effort into making this album, I'm not going to put much effort into reviewing it other than to note that even the band's dire last gasp of a recording (or so we thought) contains a near classic in “Athena” and an absolute classic in “Eminence Front.” "Athena," a catchy, melodic rocker with alternating vocals from Pete and Roger, would be merely a strong album track on earlier albums but is a clear highlight here, while the repetitively hypnotic "Eminence Front" is a great song by any measure. This atypical classic is all about its awesome, eminently danceable, pulsating groove, though its looped synthesizer melody and Pete's pained vocal again make it seem more appropriate for a solo project than The Who. As for the rest of the album, which received an unfathomable 5 star review in Rolling Stone, it's mostly forgettable, and not in the pleasantly forgettable manner like the worst of Face Dances, more like an "I can't believe how far this band has fallen!" level of annoyance. As for other items, I'll duly note that John again writes three songs (a la Who Are You) and that Roger seems especially ill-suited to sing many of these boring adult-themed songs. There are some decent songs such as the title track, “I’ve Known No War,” and "Cry If You Want," but believe me these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970 (MCA ’96) Rating: A
Amazingly, despite having prime live stuff in the vaults, the band instead decided to release the dreary post-Moon live albums Who's Last, which documented their first "farewell" tour in 1982, and Join Together, which documented their later "farewell" tour in 1989. The numerous other rip-off compilations and their decidedly weaker later studio albums caused The Who's reputation to suffer in recent years, with many seeming to come to the conclusion that the band is overrated. Nonsense! Any artist should primarily be judged by their prime work, and The Who at their best were among the best bands ever. Also, in recent years the band (or MCA - I fault both) has thankfully begun to rectify past mistakes by releasing prime material previously locked up in the vaults, and Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970, one such item released 26 years after the fact, joins Live At Leeds as the prime Who live documents. For those who don't know, the huge 1970 festival was the most famous Wight (an island off the south coast of England) concert, largely because it was one of Jimi Hendrix's final live performances. The Doors, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, The Move, T. Rex, and Jethro Tull also played that year, but as per usual back then The Who's performance eclipsed them all. In short, this is a tremendous live album, with an agreeably rough and heavy sound, and a whopping 30 songs, including almost the entirety of Tommy. In truth, I tend to skip most of the more straightforward songs that are duplicates from Leeds - that excludes the "Shakin' All Over" medley that also includes "Spoonful" and "Twist and Shout," and another fine romp through "My Generation" - since these versions are generally inferior, and as such I consider this album a perfect companion piece to the '95 Leeds reissue. In addition to more Tommy, another difference is that Leeds ('95 version) has old songs like "A Quick One, While He's Away" and "Tattoo," whereas this one has later Lifehouse-era songs like "Naked Eye" and "I Don't Even Know Myself," as well as a nearly 11-minute version of "Water" (the best version I've heard, though it's still not a great composition per se). As for a Tommy comparison with the original, it depends on what you're in the mood for; the original studio version offers a more melodic, multi-colored palette, this one cuts out some of the excess fat (the only song I really miss is "Sensation," and the band wisely cut the "Underture") and wins hands down in the raw power department, culminating in a definitive, truly towering version of "We're Not Gonna Take It." Some may fault the band's performance as "sloppy," with Pete in particular missing notes or sounding out of tune at times (likely while jumping around the stage or windmilling like a lunatic), but this album isn't about hitting the right notes. What it is about is pure primal power and a rare band chemistry, both of which are on ample display throughout. Perhaps the album is overly generous, and as such is for the serious rather than the casual Who fan, but said serious fan should love this.
Endless Wire (MCA ’06) Rating: B
The Who have been fairly active on tour in recent years – remember how they stole the show at Paul McCartney’s 9/11 benefit concert at MSG? - even after the drug-induced heart attack death of John Entwistle in 2002, but the band’s first new studio album of original material in twenty-four years still came as something of a surprise. What’s also surprising is how ambitious this album is, comprising 19 tracks over 56 minutes, including a 10-song mini-opera a la the early days. Unusual in this cd age, Endless Wire plays like an LP, with the first 9 songs occupying side 1 and the "Wire & Glass" mini-opera taking up side 2. Musically, there are references to previous songs – it’s hard not to hear the looped synth intro to “Baba O’ Riley” on “Fragments” or the intro to “5:15” on “Into The Ether,” on which Pete adopts an ill-advised Tom Waits-like vocal delivery. Familiar themes appear as well (Pete’s ongoing spiritual quest, his belief in the tremendous power of music, obsessing over his band’s legacy), as do familiar characters like Ray High from Pete’s solo album Psychoderelict, and musically speaking the album probably has the most in common with Who By Numbers in that it’s mellower, with Pete sometimes plucking a mandolin or banjo and even taking a solo spotlight here and there (“God Speaks Of Marty Robbins” and “You Stand By,” for example). It’s overreaching ambition recalls Tommy and Quadrophenia as well, of course, and though this album predictably falls far short of those landmark recordings, in part because as per most albums these days this one is probably about 15 minutes too long, it nevertheless is a solid effort, certainly better than It’s Hard or what I was expecting at this late stage of the game (Pete and Roger are both in their ‘60s, after all). The obvious album highlight is “Mike Post Theme,” a melodic rocker with intelligent lyrics on which the band break out their old arena rock moves, with most of them working quite well (I dig those singable harmonies too). Another notable track is “A Man In A Purple Dress," which sees Roger ranting against hypocritical religious leaders and the frenzied press who assumed the worst when those child pornography charges (since dropped) against Pete came about. “Black Widow’s Eyes” shows how deep and gruff Roger’s voice has become in his later years, while “It’s Not Enough” is an intense, accusatory rocker on which Pete lets loose on guitar a bit. As for the mini-opera, which was based on the novella The Boy Who Heard Music that Pete posted as a blog on his Web site last year, the songs are too fragmentary and the storyline too vague for its own good. That’s nothing new, though, and the disjointed end result works better than it has any right to. As for the individual songs, most of which are less than two minutes long, “Sound Round” and “Pick Up The Peace” get things off to a fast, hard-charging start before things slow down on “Unholy Trinity” and “Trilby’s Piano.” “Endless Wire,” on which Pete sings something akin to a campfire sing along, and “We Got A Hit,” a melodic rocker with catchy harmonies and another rough Roger vocal, are probably the medley’s most memorable tracks; more fully fleshed out versions of both of these songs are included as bonus tracks (there’s also a bonus DVD). Finally, “They Made My Dreams Come True” is a nice thank you to the band’s fans before “Mirror Door” provides a meatier offering following an abundance of very short songs; “Tea & Theatre” then provides a nice low-key fadeout to the mini-opera and the album itself (excluding the aforementioned bonus tracks, of course). Anyway, as per most bands of The Who’s stature, anything they do at this point will be compared unfavorably to past glories, but Roger and Pete have clearly given it their all this time out (unlike on, say, It’s Hard), and the end result is a worthwhile approximation of what The Who used to be. I wish that the album was a bit more easily graspable and didn’t take itself so seriously, but the album rewards repeats plays as heretofore hidden layers are revealed. Really, Endless Wire is about as good as anyone could’ve hoped for at this point, and that’s good enough for me. Note: For those interested in the personnel on the album, Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) and Peter Huntington split drumming duties, while Pino Palladino plays bass. Also, Simon Townshend (Pete's brother) and Billy Nicholls add backing vocals, while John "Rabbit" Bundrick helps out on keyboards.
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