A GUEST POSTING by MARTIN
The brains and talents behind the New Amusements Blog
In response to your recent post about The Who, and the divided opinion the band clearly generates, I thought I’d better have a go at a Who ICA. Mindful of some of the criticisms that earlier post elicited, eagle-eyed readers will notice there’s nothing here from Tommy (…even though everyone loves Pinball Wizard, right?)
Anyway, here goes – ten tracks to encapsulate the greatest band never to have a number one single (and yes, I’m expecting some flak for that too…)
It has to be, doesn’t it? Not only did it lend its title to their debut album, it lent its message to a generation. And the beauty of this is that all the band get their moment – Roger gets that stuttery f-f-f-in’ vocal, John and Pete get to do a call and response with bass and guitar in the middle, and Keith gets to showcase the cascading, scatter-shot drumming that would come to be his trademark and which stills sounds fantastic now – the impact it must have had in 1965 is hard to imagine.
How far the band had come, in just a couple of years, embracing psychedelia for all it was worth. The chiming guitar line that runs through the chorus is what really elevates this though, and warrants the inclusion here. It’s simple and, in places, sounds like it on the verge of veering off-key… but it never does. Of its time, yes, but also timeless, and an early indicator that a band that would never completely lose the Mod tag had other things on their mind from a very early stage.
3. Baba O’Riley
The opening track from the band’s most satisfying album, Who’s Next, with a keyboard line that, once heard, is never forgotten. There’s something about hearing a maturing band passing comment (judgement?) on a teenage wasteland that stands up today, perhaps more than ever? Pete lays down some great power chords in this too, punctuating the looping keyboard riff.
Another from Who’s Next, this time illustrating beautifully how The Who weren’t all about power and bombast, but could lay down a delicate, semi-acoustic ballad as well as most. It also highlights the vocal harmonies that band could achieve, something that is often overlooked when the industrial-strength Daltrey vocals are so often the focus.
If memory serves, this closed Who’s Next, and is a perfect song to close Side One here. If you asked me to summarise The Who in one song, it would be this – everything is here, and then some. From Pete’s windmilling power chords, Roger’s shredded vocals (“Yeeeeeahhhh!”), John’s thunderous, dextrous bass and the aforementioned cascading, syncopated Moon drumming. This, right here, is an archetype of The Who, and another track that benefits from a memorable keyboard part.
6. The Seeker
From odds and ends round-up Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy.
The Seeker was memorably used to great effect in American Beauty. There, it soundtracks Lester Burnham after he quits his job and goes off, somewhat literally, to seek some fun. You can see what they did there. Anyway, for a band that were often criticised for being too serious, too pretentious, this reminded us that they still knew their way around a feelgood, rock-out, punch-the-air tune.
7. I’m One
Sorry (not sorry) for this, the first of three tracks from Quadrophenia. Yes, I know it’s easy to knock. A pretentious concept album with allusions of grandeur, dressed-up in cod-psychology… I get all that. But it tells a story, a great story, here in album form (never mind the film [and yes, I bloody love that too]). Here, Pete takes lead vocal over a bucolic acoustic guitar line, singing of our hero Jimmy’s individuality (and of Pete’s too, no doubt). Another reminder that The Who weren’t all about power and decibels…
…although they could do power and decibels as well as just about anybody. Here, Jimmy has a bit of an epiphany, realising that his life, the parental abode and his job are all totally unfulfilling. Maybe even the things he has held dear – music, fashion, girls – maybe they’re not all they’re cracked up to be either. And here, in musical form, that sense of disappointment, of disillusionment, builds and builds, gets angrier and angrier and then emerges on the other side, musically lighter but lyrically bleaker. A breakdown in musical form.
I sometimes wonder if the band’s management ever thought, “You know, we’ll support you doing all this arty-farty concept album guff but do us a favour, at least give us a single or two.” And so Tommy got Pinball Wizard and Quadrophenia got 5.15. A great, dynamic song that directly follows I’ve Had Enough on the album, and is a perfect riposte from the schizophrenic Jimmy: a paean to not caring, to getting trashed, to rebelling, to not giving a toss. And how about the way the brass elevates the chorus? Oh, and the beginning, with the entwined guitar and piano behind the plaintive, “Why should I care?” is one of the band’s finest intros.
10. Who Are You
There’s a case to be made that the band should have called it a day after Quadrophenia. But they weren’t done, and were still capable of the occasional moment of genius. Who Are You is one such, with its semi-autobiographical Townshend lyric (after going out drinking with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, Pete really was found in a Soho doorway by a policeman, who let him go if he could safely walk away). There’s great musicianship here too, not least for the soon-to-be-gone Keith Moon, and ex-Zombie Rod Argent contributing piano. Like a lot of Who songs, it has a false ending, almost petering out but coming back stronger. A great way to close the ICA, as it closed the album of the same name; as the last to feature Moon, there are many who feel that it should have closed the band too.
And that’s that. Narrowly missing out? Substitute, I Can’t Explain, Pictures of Lily, So Sad About Us, Bargain, The Real Me, and countless others. They might not have had a number one single, but as an albums band (unapologetically so), there’s depth to The Who canon. I urge the doubters and naysayers to explore it.
Cheers, hope you can use this.