Friday, 12 October 2007

Top 100 Albums - #63: Then And Now: 1964-2004 (2004)

The Who's second appearance comes in the form of a compilation, released to mark the 40th anniversary of the band from the release of 'I Can't Explain'. It is also the source of the first new Who recordings for 22 years.
After Keith Moon's untimely death in 1978, The Who continued with the help of keyboardist John 'Rabbit' Bundrick and former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones. The group released two more albums, the pop rock Face Dances (1981) and the cry for help It's Hard (1982), but it was clear that, on the live circuit especially, something had gone out of the band, perhaps permanently. After the release of the delapitated live album Who's Last (1984) to commemorate the 'farewell tour', the band called it quits. There were subsequent reunions - a half-arsed set for Live Aid in 1985, a 25th Anniversary tour in 1989, a revival of Quadrophenia in 1996 and concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999 and 2000 - but none of them produced any new material. Following the death of John Entwistle in 2002 - on the eve of a sell-out US tour - surviving members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey began to consider the possibilities of recording together again.

But before we can get to the new stuff, we have to sit back and review 18 of The Who's biggest hits and most memorable songs. We begin with 'I Can't Explain', their first single released as The Who under the management of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. It's a very punchy little number, which sees Townshend and Entwistle merging the guitar and bass parts together so that they are almost indiscernable. As a Mod song, this is a very good song, even if Townshend's knack for summing up his generation doesn't especially come through. It is also interesting to see Daltrey sing in his early, awkward style.

It is easy in the 21st century to write off 'My Generation' as, amongst other things, one of the most over-played tracks of the 1960s. But give it more than half a chance, and it's a treat. Entwistle's bass chords are simply brilliant, serving more than enough proof to his claim as the man who revolutionised bass guitar. The first hints of Moon's breakneck speed and mad fills are also present, and Daltrey's stutter is perfectly executed. Even if the message of the lyrics became an albatross around the band's necks - I hope I die before I get old and all that - at the time this was one of the most radical songs around.

Unfortunately, we also get the bad side of the 1960s in this early assortment of singles. The first slip-up of this compilation is 'The Kids Are Alright'. Taken from My Generation (1965), the use of harmonies is reminsicent of the surf music which Townshend hated (and Moon loved), and the sound of the piece means that, Moon aside, all that is distinctive of The Who is lost in the mix of a better-than-average 3-minute pop song. 'Substitute' is a great deal better, not least because it grows on you instead of coming across like so much throwaway pop of the days. Daltrey and Townshend vie for the vocals while managing to sustain a very nice melody. It's a much better effort lyrically as well from Townshend, just look at the second chorus:

(Substitute) Me for him
(Substitute) My coke for gin
(Substitute) You for my Mum
At least I'll get my washing done

'I'm A Boy', the first single from A Quick One (1966), is the first real hint of concept from Townshend. This song, about a mother with four girls and designating one of them as a boy, actually had its origins in a musical he had been writing called Quads; set in the year 2000, it takes place in an age where "you can order the sex of your children, and this women orders four girls and one of them turns out to be a boy, so she pretends it's a girl... horrifying!"¹ Primitive rock opera aside, this is another good song because of two things. One, lyrically it's a return to form for Townshend insofar as he is writing about society rather than fantasising. And two, musically, it's an insight into the chemistry of the band. Daltrey has an air of aggression and swagger about him as he bellows the lines over Keith's crash.

No sooner had he returned to form, though, than Townshend returns down Kooky Lane and creates havoc in the process. And this is not the kind of autodestructive havoic for which the Who became rightly renowned. 'Happy Jack' is another relic of the 1960s pop scene which makes little sense, a waste of the energies of Messrs. Moon and Entwistle. (For the trained ear amongst us, listen out for the cry of "I saw you!". This is Townshend shouting at Moon. After Keith insisted on singing on the tracks, he was locked out of the studio during the vocal take, but responded by pulling faces at Townshend throughout the successful takes).

'I Can See For Miles', the only number on here from The Who Sell Out (1967) is often called the peak of The Who's output.² Released as their initial onslaught on the States got underway and the Mod scene had well and truly disappeared, it is better-than-average at best. Daltrey's delivery is very off-putting, since this rather psychedelic, swirling number is more suited to Townshend's voice. Moon's fills drown out the bass in this mix and overall it's too forgettable to justify its reputation. 'Magic Bus' is below-par but for a different reason. This is the Who's attempt at late-1960s psychedelic folk - well, 'folk' as in acoustic guitars and the drum kit swapped for a couple of percussion instruments. Entwistle was never fond of this song, and he had a point. While the version on Live At Leeds (1970) benefitted from Townshend's echoey guitars and Daltrey's braggadachio³, here it's tinny, irritating and just plain stupid.

And so we enter into the classic era, leaving 60s pop behind us for good. The two offerings from Tommy (1969) are mixed. 'Pinball Wizard' is, of course, well-known, well-loved, and well-deserving of a place in any Who collection. Before Who Are You (1978), it features some of the best acoustic guitar Townshend every laid down. Daltrey has finally found that majestic voice which would put him right up there with great rival Robert Plant in the league of the best rock singers. Just by hearing it, you get the impression of the band going up a gear - the trapping of the singles market are wisely cast aside and replaced by the slight grandeur of early rock opera.

'See Me, Feel Me', on the other hand, is, not to put too fine a point on it, cheating a bit. This 'quiet section' of the opera - so called because Roger could finally hear himself sing on stage - belongs at the end of 'We're Not Gonna Take It' (although the phrase of music is a motif throughout the album). Though within the context of both the rest of the song and the album this works great - as does the version in the film from 1975 - here it feels stilted and out of place.

'Summertime Blues' is lifted from Live At Leeds and speaks pretty much for itself. It's the only non-Townshend song on the album - it was written by Blues legend Eddie Cochran - but like the rest of the concert it's raw power is unassailable. Here Entwistle returns to prominence on both bass and vocals. You can feel the energy coming off Daltrey as he drives through Townshend's power chord, while, in all this time, Moon is on another planet busy with his cymbals.

Out of all the songs on Who's Next (1971), 'Behind Blue Eyes' seems a strange choice when put alongside 'Baba O'Riley' or 'My Wife'. However, as one of Townshend's more tender numbers - in the era predating The Who By Numbers, at any rate - this is a very good effort. Daltrey proves his range, keeping the volume down and allowing room for Townshend on both vocals and acoustic, resisting the temptation to pounce and scream the lyrics. Cometh the hour, cometh the Moon; in the last third he showcases his talent with his witty improvisations over the lyrics with a bravado that John Bonham never matched.

And of course, there is room here for 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. Indeed, how could there not be? If something like 'I Can See For Miles' was typical of The Who during their mod and post-mod years, then this, aside from anything else, is the benchmark against which all their 1970s output must be measured. Everything that made The Who exciting, progressive, raucous and rivetting is here. Moon's drumming is both tight and flamboyant; you listen to his drums and imagine him with a smile on his face as he plays like a lunatic. Entwistle anchors the song while finding time to cram in notes in his fills where you never thought there was room. Townshend is flying high on the guitar, backed by the revolutionary synthesisers. And Daltrey - well, the scream says it all. Eight-and-a-half minutes of unbeatable genius.

Out of all The Who's subsequent output, Quadrophenia (1973) is the only album which has ever stood a chance of matching it. If the stuff included on here is anything to go by, it's pretty much true. '5:15' is a riot, full stop. Townshend starts the song off tenderly with his guitar and vocals, but from then on in, it's Moon, Moon, Moon. Here he is in his element, as backed by Entwistle's horns he swings around the kit hitting everything in range. Daltrey's vocal delivery is impeccable considering most of it is outside his natural range. The whole piece is absolutely splendid, and nothing more needs to be said.

'Love, Reign O'er Me' is equally majestic, though again for different reasons. It's a lot shorted than the album version, and the ordering of the verses and choruses are swapped for some reason. But even without the rain, the extended intro and the proper verses, this is still one of the greatest love songs ever written, certainly ever written by Townshend. Here he lets the guitar and strings lay the perfect groundwork for Daltrey, who delivers with gusto and passion a performance which again extends his range, producing a magical piece of music.

Having reached such heights, we are brought down to the realities of band life with a jaunty bump. 'Squeeze Box' is the only track from The Who By Numbers, and it's a poor choice. It was out of kiltre on the album and it's out of kiltre here. While Townshend's other more merry numbers of this period - like 'Blue, Red And Gray' - had substance, this is just a minefield of innuendo strung together like a pop song for a period long gone.

The title track of Who Are You is a damn-sight better, least not because it is bereft of any banjo. The familiar crash and synthesiser combinations have been written off as cliched by the more nostalgic of fans, this is still a very fine effort. Although Moon's abilities had by this stage all-but deserted him - thanks to a lethal cocktail of drink, drugs and much fine food - he is really trying, and in the process he comes up trumps on a few great occassions. Daltrey's bluster is a little off-putting, but it's not a tiresome or self-indulgent song, whichever way you look at it.

There is only one offering from the immediate post-Moon era on here. That's perhaps for the best. 'You Better You Bet' is taken from Face Dances and is a middle-brow pop song which tries a little too hard to recapture something lost forever. As hard as Kenney Jones might try, there is a massive hole in the mix where Moon once thundered along. Having slated it thus, this is still a pretty reasonable song; the big flaw is not the song on its terms, it's just that it doesn't have the same gripping, memorable feel to it as the classic era output did.

Finally, we come to the new stuff. Both 'Real Good Looking Boy' and 'Old Red Wine' were recorded in 2004. The former, described by Rolling Stone as "a soaring mix of swing, crash and an explicit touch of Elvis Presley"³, it's an affectionate and heartfelt number from a Townshend who has disposed of all the demons which guided the original Who, and turned them into contentment and a song of thanks to rock'n'roll. 'Old Red Wine', on the other hand, is a sweeping elegy to John Entwistle, poking fun at his foibles and contributions to the band which helped to make it great. Daltrey's voice is huskier, as it is throughout on Endless Wire (2006), but it's a great job and proof of the life left in this great band, despite the loss of two core members.

Then And Now is not to be viewed as just another Who compilation designed to introduce you to the band in a hotchpotch, commercially-biased way. The chief advantage of this is that it both brings Who fans and the casual listener (almost) bang up to date. By adding on the two new tracks - which seems to be a trend in the world of greatest hits collections - it sets the tone for the recordings on Endless Wire, thereby helping a whole new generation get into The Who. Some of the choices are a little odd - most of the best stuff from Who's Next and The Who By Numbers is lost in favour of the songs the general public are more familiar with. However, considering the role of the album is to introduce you to a band without being comprehensive, this does its job amicably, with few slip-ups along the way - save where individual tastes are concerned.

3.80 out of 5
¹ Pete Townshend, quoted in Andy Neill & Matt Kent, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of The Who, 1958-1978 (London: Virgin Books, 2007), p.107.
² Ibid, p.149.
³ David Fricke, 'The Who: Then And Now', Accessed on October 22 2007.

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