Monday, 7 January 2008

Top 100 Albums - #47: Who Are You (1978)

The Who's third of seven entries is Who Are You, the last album recorded before Keith Moon's untimely death in September 1978.After the release of The Who By Numbers in October 1975, The Who embarked on a lengthy tour, a tour which quickly became a globetrotting greatest hits where the running order never changed. After the concert at Charlton Football Ground in 1976 - which entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the loudest gig ever¹ - Pete Townshend put The Who on hold while he attempted to repair his failing marriage. During this period Keith Moon, stranded in Los Angeles, let himself go. In the two years before recording began, his alcohol and drug abuse reached himalayan levels, and he gained a lot of weight - all of which encumbered his already-deteriorating playing. With the band being written off by the critics, pronounced redundant by the punks and being commercially eclipsed by disco, the pressure was on once again for The Who to deliver.

This album smashes into life with 'New Song', and already you are aware of the difference in The Who. Moon's drumming is more... restrained, the synthesisers are back in abundance, and Roger Daltrey's voice is more operatic. This is a big change from the early-1970s sound, where songs were dominated by guitar power chords, primal screams and lightning quick drum fills. It may be more radio-friendly, but it still has a great deal of bite. Daltrey snarls the chorus, unaware of the irony of lines like We drink the same old wine from a brand new jar/ We get hungover but we always survive it. Some called this self-parody, but really this is an epic start.

Not as epic, however, as the next track. 'Had Enough' is the first of three tracks contributed by bassist John Entwistle, and it's already the best track on the album. With its clever synthesiser opening, it allows enough space for both Entwistle's bass and Moon's tom-toms to create the mood and set the tempo, before Daltrey screams the lines at you with anger and grandeur in equal measure. The lyrics are splendid, absolutely made for the melody and acridly honest, like a lot of Townshend's songwriting. Moon hits exhilirating peaks, Entwistle's bass thunders through like a turbocharged exhaust, and the whole band are at their best: tight, yet completely unpredictable. It's an amazing song, full of anger and disillusionment, which perfectly captures the mid-life crisis of rock.

The second Entwistle offering, however, deserves a lot less acclaim. '905' is culled from a rock opera project which used themes of science fiction; the lyrics depict a Brave New World-esque chracter, making his way through life and understanding its redundancy. The main problem with this is that it sounds too much like a lot of later, more desperate prog rock -this could easily have passed as an outtake from Going For The One (1977), Yes' first stab at popular success. Entwistle is not suited to rock opera, whether in his singing or his songwriting, and overall it's easily forgettable.

'Sister Disco' is Townshend's irony-laden attack on commercial music. He seems to mourn the death of disco, when in fact he is savaging it. This is certainly dressed up like a disco single - it's quicker, it's synthesiser-heavy and the heavily-simplified drums are shoved right into the background, almost out of the mix altogether. But this is not The Who in the 1980s, which was pure pop; the break with the acoustic guitar and drum fills is right out of The Who By Numbers and Daltrey's vocal excerpt shortly after is not that far removed from Tommy (1969).

'Music Must Change' is a strange track. The main reason for this is the almost-complete absence of drums, save for a few cymbal crashes. Moon was in such a bad state that he couldn't handle the 6/8 time signature, so Daltrey recorded his vocals to the sound of a rolling milk bottle and Townshend's footsteps. Despite its eeriness, this remains a good, if sprawling song. Daltrey is pushing his vocal range to the limit on the chorus, and yet you get the sense that he is always in complete control.

'Trick Of The Light' is the final Entwistle contribution, and like '905' it's an difficult child. The subject matter - sexual inadequacy - would have been more at home on The Who By Numbers, and suffice it to say that Townshend would have done a better job. As it is, this is an out-of-place, awkward and distinctly below-par composition. It has its peaks, but the troughs easily outway them and eventually you become bored.

The same won't happen, though, with 'Guitar And Pen'. The disco-type effects might still be there, but Townshend is back on the guitar and playing beautifully. Daltrey's voice is lighter and perfectly compliments Moon's improved, aggressive drumming - it's still pretty basic, but basic Moon is better than no Moon. The song reflects the frustration of being a rockstar, with references to the band - When you sing through the verse/ And you end in a scream/ And you swear and you curse/ 'Cos the rhyming ain't clean. It's like a more contemporary version of 'Success Story', again off the previous album.

One of the major complaints about the album is Daltrey's singing; one reviewer noted that "Roge sings in an aggressive, machoistic and bombastic sound, which does not mesh well with the introspective lyrics of Pete Townshend."² On most of the album, this might have been the case - but not so on 'Love Is Coming Down'. Backed by some nice piano and ride cymbals, Daltrey crests the high notes beautifully, not by shouting them, but by reeling himself in. Outside of the lyrics, this is a lovely song, another well-crafted number from Townshend.

The title track is easily one of The Who's most famous tracks. As I said in my review of Then And Now (2004, #63), the best thing about this track is Moon's performance. Having limped his way through the first eight songs, having moments but little more, here he is really trying and, as much as possible, puts in an exhilirating performance. The lyrics are Pete Townshend's retort to punk; they recall the fateful encounter between him and two of the Sex Pistols in a London pub, which led to Townshend being found drunk in a gutter by a policeman. And we get an extra verse into the bargain. All this aside, it's a great track, and the perfect closer.

It's not over yet, though. Being the 1996 remaster, we get 5 extra songs into the bargain. 'No Road Romance' is a perfect Townshend solo song: it's introspective, it's whimsical, and it's slight in the way it's constructed. This has quite a transatlantic 1980s feel to it, which isn't that bad when you think about it. 'Empty Glass' - or 'Choirboy', as it was pejoratively nicknamed - is much worse. It sounds like a demo recording, it has the musical finesse of an American pop group and the drum part is awful. No wonder Daltrey refused to sing it. The final three tracks are all (slightly) different versions of 'Guitar And Pen', 'Love Is Coming Down' and 'Who Are You' - they will entertain the geeks and the sound nerds, but few others.

Who Are You is surrounded in irony, in its lyrics, in the events that followed it, right down to the cover (Moon is seated in a chair saying 'Not To Be Taken Away'). As a result it has to be judged as a product of its time. On this basis it is clear that The Who had hit their musical wall. Much like Led Zeppelin, the rot was setting in even before the death of their drummer (it would be interesting to compare this album to In Through The Out Door (1979)). The band never recorded this with all of them in the studio at any one time, so what you are hearing is essentially Townshend's demoes. This creates a disparity in the finished product which only highlights the moments of retreading old ground. Having said all that, Who Are You is more than a last hoorah. It's a brilliant document of both the state of the band and the state of music in 1978. It is worth buying this just for the good bits - and there are plenty of them. This is the last great album The Who ever made. That is, until recently...

3.86 out of 5

¹ 'Quadrophenia and By Numbers' in 'The Who', Accessed on January 7 2008.
² Omer Belsky, 'Call It Who's Next Part II' (September 26 2003), Accessed on January 8 2008.

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