Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Who album by album

The Who were a rock band who were at their height from 1965 to around 1973. They developed in Acton, West London from Roger Daltrey's band the Detours. As well as Daltrey, the band included guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon. They are mostly associated with a dynamic live act, which involved smashing up their equipment, the "rock opera" double album Tommy, and a string of popular singles in the Sixties.They are also responsible for what has been acclaimed as the best ever live rock album, the original vinyl version of Live at Leeds.

Their best known singles are "My Generation" (1965), "Substitute" (1966), "I Can See for Miles" (1967), "Pinball Wizard" (1969), and "Won't Get Fooled Again" (1971). Along with the critically acclaimed rock opera albums Tommy (1969), and Quadrophenia (1973),  they made the best live rock album ever recorded  Live at Leeds (1970). They delivered energetic live performances with Townsend leaping in the air, shaking his guitar, and playing it with wild "windmill" strokes, Moon thrashing his large drum kit, and Daltrey spinning his mic around his head. After a performance at the Railway Hotel in Wealdstone in June 1964 when Townshend smashed his guitar in anger and frustration, the band  would often finish their act by smashing their instruments. During the height of their career they were regarded as the third most important British rock act after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.


Though accomplished and acclaimed, and containing notable elements, such as the high energy playing and live performances, socially aware and well constructed songs, a simmering attitude, ambitious albums that challenged and stretched rock music, an adventurous bass player, and one of rock's wildest drummers, the band - even at their height - were not regarded as the best British rock act. Their reputation has not been helped because their output has been uneven, and songs on the albums could often be simply turgid - going through the rock motions while not actually setting anything alight.  While elements of the band were great, the sum total didn't always work. Daltrey has a strong, clean voice - but for most of the band's career it tends to sound more like a stage musical voice than that of a rock singer - it was only during a brief period in the early Seventies that he developed the confidence to fully engage his voice and hold the stage during live performances. His stage presence, while looking good, and being full of movement, often lacked aggression and confidence, and couldn't quite match  the brooding performances of Robert Plant, Liam Gallagher, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Ian Brown, Van Morrison, etc. Townshend has great stage presence - an angry, frustrated young man exploding with energy. Yet his beard and clothes choice gave him a rather odd, geeky appearance. The  "concept" approach to song writing, and the desire to appear serious and interesting,  gave the band a rather earnest ambiance which was at odds with the more natural and genuinely interesting attitude of other bands of their period such as Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, The Animals, Them, Small Faces, etc.

The band's first released recording was "Zoot Suit" (under the name The High Numbers). A competent copy of  the 1963 recording of  "Misery" by the Detroit RnB group The Dynamics. With their first singles as The Who they laid down a series of  four top 10 singles that still stand up now,  "I Can't Explain" (Jan 1965),  "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" (May 1965), "My Generation" (Nov 1965), and  "Substitute", (April 1966). They continued with singles that often reached into the top 50, right into the early Eighties when "You Better You Bet" reached number 9 in 1981. The best of their singles after the first four are: "I Can See for Miles" (1967) - that Townshend felt it was a guaranteed hit and was bitterly disappointed that it only reached  number 9 - they never played the song live with the original members - apparently due to Moon feeling he couldn't reproduce the drumming; "Pinball Wizard" (1969) - the lead single from ''Tommy'', and the track that for many represents the best of that album; and "Won't Get Fooled Again" - a tight 3 1/2 minute edit from the sprawling 8 1/2 minute version on the Who's Next album.

The albums that gain the most attention are the four studio and one live they made between 1967 and 1973: The Who Sell Out (1967),   Tommy  (1969),  Live at Leeds  (1970),  Who's Next  (1971), and Quadrophenia  (1973).  Of those, Tommy is the album most associated with the band, and the one on which their main album reputation rests. The Who Sell Out  is the weakest of the bunch, but is frequently mentioned by music writers because the album had a loose concept (it is presented as a commercial radio station along with jingles and adverts). Apart from "I Can See for Miles, which was released as a single, the album contains no songs of interest - they all tend to sound dated and second rate.  The original vinyl version of The Who Live at Leeds is the band's best album, and serves as a great introduction to The Who. It has six songs only - the blistering renditions of the rock standards: "Shakin' All Over",  "Summertime Blues", and "Young Man Blues", and three of the band's more popular songs: "Substitute",  "My Generation", and "Magic Bus".  "My Generation" and "Magic Bus" are extended version, with "My Generation" including bits from Tommy.

The Who are essentially Townshend's band. Though it was originally Daltrey's band, his aggressive leadership, backed up by using his fists, resulted in the other three sacking him early on, and he had to beg to be let back in, which crushed his confidence and bravado until after the success of Tommy, by which time he felt he had earned his place in the band. Almost all the song-writing, and certainly the direction the band went in, and the albums they made, were Townsend. His interests and ego are displayed on the bulk of the songs - for better or worse; and sadly it is often for worse.

Good introductions to the band are the 1971 compilation,  Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, which contains most of their Sixties singles on which the bulk of their reputation rests, the 1970 live album, Live at Leeds, which represents them at their live best, and the 1969 album Tommy, their most famous album which in its ambition (or pretension),  tight (or narrow) musical focus, and generous (or unnecessary) length exemplifies their approach to making albums. 

Top tracks

 "My Generation"
 "I Can See for Miles"
 "Pinball Wizard"
 "Summertime Blues"  (Live at Leeds)
 "Young Man Blues"  (Live at Leeds)
 "Magic Bus"  (unedited version - Greatest Hits Live)
"Won't Get Fooled Again"
"Who Are You".


My Generation (1965)

Adequate debut. Contains three covers, including James Brown's "Please, Please, Please"; several Townshend penned R&B based pop songs, that were fairly typical of  British bands of the period, such as "Out In The Street"; and the singles "The Kids Are Alright", and "My Generation". The stammer on "My Generation" was developed during the recording - it didn't appear on Townshend's demo.   It's a listenable album, but not one to return to. Highlight is "The Ox", a spontaneous jam at the end of the recording sessions for the album.  It's a blend of surfing music, such as The Surfaris' "Waikiki Run", and garage/surf music by such as The Fabulous Wailers

AllMusic: 10 Score: 4

A Quick One (1966)

Weak album. All the band were encouraged to write songs, and that doesn't pay off. As with a number of bands in Britain and America, they were attempting to push themselves musically, but weren't quite ready. This comes across as sub-par pop Kinks. The band are not playing here to their strengths.
Best songs are the cover of  "Heat Wave", and "A Quick One While He's Away", Townsend's first foray into a song suite. He has spoken about it being based on sexual abuse he experienced as a child from a family member.  The band did a strong live performance of the song in 1968 on The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus, which was in marked contrast to The Stones weary performance. The film was not shown until 1996. 

Album score 3

The Who Sell Out (1967)
Some music writers like this album for the gimmick of the commercial radio jingles, combined with songs about commercial products, such as acne cream and deodorant, and see it as a stepping stone to Tommy. I find the jingles intrusive on first listen, and irritating on repeated listening. The songs in between the jingles, apart from  "I Can See for Miles",  tend to go through the motions.They have drums, guitar, vocals, and are competent enough, but are quite dull. This is a dreadful  album - monotonous songs interspersed with moments of irritation.

Score 2

Tommy (1969)
The band's most famous and notable album, and the one that will secure their name, regardless of what one personally thinks of it (and opinion is divided among music writers). The ambition and scale is admirable, and for many the concept and execution stand up well. The songs themselves are a continuation of the monotonous, uninspired thumping of The Who Sell Out, and only a handful of the twenty four songs stand up by themselves - most simply serve as a means to carry the concept or story a stage further. Though it has connections with progressive music in terms of extended song suites and an overall concept (a deaf, dumb and blind boy who starts a new religion), the band's roots in R&B, and the rather straightforward music (which lacked the melody and musical variety, ambition and accomplishment associated with progressive music), saw the album as being considered part of the mainstream rock genre. Townshend had Meher Baba in mind when writing the album, so aspects of his life and ideas are present in some of the songs and themes. Meher Baba deliberately made himself dumb, and then lived for two years by anonymous begging - feeling that it was appropriate to  renounce everything and become helpless. Tommy becomes a guru and asks his disciples to become deaf, dumb and blind - essentially renouncing what they have, and becoming helpless.

There are snatches of songs which contain some interesting and vibrant music, but the only song that stands up by itself is "Pinball Wizard". The Ken Russell film based on the album brought some life and colour to the music, and Tina Turner's rendition of "The Acid Queen" is wonderfully over the top, if a little thin and trashy. The album is over-long, overblown, and often rather tedious and uninspired, but for both ambition and status it is a must listen album.

Score: 5

Live at Leeds (1970)
The vinyl album, containing just six songs, is raw, rough, tight, and very exciting. This is the band at their peak. They only played like this for a short period, and it was fortunate that it was caught on tape and released as an official album. All the songs stand up well, though "Summertime Blues",  "Young Man Blues, and "Magic Bus" are particularly awesome. "Magic Bus" was slightly edited for the album - the fuller version is available on Greatest Hits Live, complete with the mangled tape near the start that results in a few seconds of the song being played backwards. For the energy displayed on the album, and the excellent decision to select a few hard-hitting tracks rather than overfill the album so it becomes boring (as they have done with the CD releases), this has deservedly earned the reputation as being the best live album ever made.

Score 7

Who's Next (1971)
Compared to the band's studio work since their debut, this is a crisp, rocky album full of energy. In many ways it's the band's most complete and satisfying studio album - though not necessarily most enjoyable. There are some solid, stand up songs, including "Baba O'Riley" and "Behind Blue Eyes", as well as one of the band's all time best, "Won't Get Fooled Again", but on the whole it's held back by the band's lack of musical imagination and ability. The album was made during Townshend's rock opera phase, and indeed, the album was originally intended to be a science fiction rock opera under the project title of Lifehouse, but was thankfully abandoned as being too stressful. It might be the release from the constraints of a concept that give the album it's looseness, light and energy. This is not to say the album is a great one. It's decent enough, but contains the same lack of musical ideas that plague most Who albums. The music follows a fairly narrow and predicable path which makes it less than likeable on extended play, and it's not an album that you would seek out to play again, unless you wanted some ponderous dinosaur rock.

Score: 3

Quadrophenia (1973)
We return to the overblown and excessive. Another double album rock opera. But as Townshend had already done it once, the second time is somewhat less interesting. The album has the sound of Who's Next, and also some of it's competence in delivering competent songs, but more is needed to produce special music. The band's limitations are clear here, and to spread those limitations over a double album is excessive. Plodding, narrow music, with lyrics trying to combine a story of a Sixties mod with that of the four personalities of the band, results in a mess. A decent film was made out of the concept - but that was more despite of rather than because of the music and lyrics. The two best tracks were released as singles - "5.15", and "Love, Reign o'er Me".

Score: 2

The Who by Numbers (1975)

A competent though dull album. The songs are decently structured and well meaning, but the music generally just plods along, and the singing is flat. The best song, the fun "Squeeze Box", sits uncomfortably among the dour navel gazing of the rest of the album. "Slip Kid", the opening track,  is more representative of the album, and is OK.

Score: 3

Who Are You (1978)

The last album with Keith Moon, and so the last album I will be considering. Full of synthesisers and strings, this is a dreadful album. The worse the band ever made. The band manage to pull it together for the title track - and the last song on the album - "Who Are You". but as for the rest of the album - avoid like the plague.

Score: 1

* Great footage of the band playing at The Railway Hotel as The High Numbers.
* The (Official site)
* Rolling Stone profile
* Wikipedia
* AllMusic
* (Fan site)
* (Fan site)

The Who 80 minute CD

"Zoot Suit"
"I Can't Explain"
"Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"
"Out In The Street"
"My Generation"
"The Kids Are Alright"
"The Ox"
"Heat Wave"
"I Can See for Miles"
"Summertime Blues"
"Young Man Blues"
"Magic Bus"
"Pinball Wizard"
"I'm Free" (version from the film)
"Won't Get Fooled Again"
"Baba O'Riley"
"Squeeze Box"
"Who Are You"

Daltry has a strong clear voice that carries Townshend's lyrics very effectively. The lyrical themes rarely ask anything subtle, clever or emotional from Daltry so he handles it all with ease. In the early Seventies his voice style and power could at times be compared to Robert Plant, and the yell near the end of Won't Get Fooled Again is awesome - one of the best vocal moments in rock. However, the voice is limited, clarity and strength can only offer so much.

Part of their image is the cool, angry mods wrecking their instruments in frustration. Another is their wild and energetic live act. Moon's manic behaviour and drumming. These are positive rock images, much admired by the Mod revivalists and Punks of the Seventies. Unfortunately they are are also associated with Townshend's pondering earnestness.  And they are always seen as lying behind The Beatles, Stones, And Led Zeppelin in importance - so feel a little second rate.

Effective lyrics. Sometimes very good. Often merely workmanlike.

At times the music was brilliant - but that has to be balanced by the dreary stuff that forms the bulk of their work.




Star quality

Emotional appeal
Not really their thing. But the music can get you worked up at times.

They will be remembered.

Total: 60/100

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