The Who

The Who formed in 1964, before my parents had even met.  My mother celebrated her Sweet 16th that year, and got to see her crush, Paul McCartney, perform with the Beatles at the Montréal Forum that year.  As the 60s progressed, she fell in love with a bad boy, Mick Jagger, a yin to McCartney’s yang.  Jagger had that sexy swagger, those pouty lips, and he just dared you to come at him. To this day, 56 years on, my mom still loves her some Mick Jagger.  She maintains that sweet spot for McCartney, though.  My introduction to music came from my parents.  My dad was more into the Beatles than the Stones.  He also loved Nick Drake and Pink Floyd.  And Nazareth. My mom, meanwhile, loved Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.  But The Who were not part of my childhood musical education.  I’m not sure why, but I have no memory of my mom, my dad, or even my step-father being a big Who fan.  My step-father, the Old Man, he was a rocker.  So why The Who weren’t his bag, I don’t know.

Instead, FM radio introduced me to the Who as a child, I particularly loved ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’  Still do.  As I got older, and got into ska, punk post-punk, and so on, I came to realize that The Who were the grand daddies of this scene, with their 60s output.  They were the original Mods.

But then Keith Moon died in 1979 and The Who kinda stepped back some.  They didn’t break up like Led Zepellin did when John Bonham died, nor did they soldier on with a new member, such as when Bon Scott of AC/DC died.  They have released a few forgettable albums and toured, including their 1989 Retirement Tour.  That didn’t stick.  Then bassist John Entwistle died.  And so the Who was down to just two: Guitarist and song-writer Pete Townsend, and Roger Daltrey, the vocalist.

A couple of summers ago, at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Berkshires, Townsend rolled through with his re-imagination of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, with a bunch of guest singers, including Billy Idol.  It was amazing, but I couldn’t help but think that the songs weren’t quite right without Daltrey’s voice and his swagger.

And so, all of this is to bring me around to WHO, the very first eponymous album from The Who, and, amazingly, it is only their 12th studio album.  Some of these songs have been toured by Townsend and/or The Who.  Some are newer.  What is kind of amazing is that this collection of tracks is, for the most part, very good.

The two opening tracks, ‘All This Music Must Fade’ and ‘Ball and Chain’, set the album on its way on a strong note.  ‘All This Music’ begins with an organ and layered vocals, before Daltrey arrives and declares ‘I don’t care/I know you’re gonna hate this song/And that said/We never really got along.’  Of course, Townsend writes the songs and lyrics, and I can’t help but wonder if this is actually a bit of a love letter between the two, as they’ve always kind of been at each other’s throats, but recognized their utility to each other.  In fact, Townsend and Daltrey were never actually in the studio together in recording WHO.  At any rate, the chorus of sorts is Townsend chanting ‘What’s yours is yours/What’s mine is mine/What’s mine is yours/And yours is mine.’  What else could this be but a passive aggressive male love song?  It is also a fantastic song, carried along by Daltrey’s soaring voice.  Sure, it’s a bit deeper, a bit gruffer, and I don’t know if he can still hit the high notes, but Daltrey’s voice has aged like a fine Scotch.  Oh yeah, Townsend can play guitar.  We get, between the rhythm and lead guitars, and the stop and start of the track, a call back to their 60s heyday.

‘Ball and Chain’ is a song Townsend has been carrying around for most of the century, as it is written in response to Guantanamo Bay.  The song starts off with what feels like a familiar piano bit, which, if turned into a synthesizer and sped up, could be ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’  The lyrics are unambiguous:

Down in Guantanamo
We still got the ball and chain
Down in Guantanamo
We still got the ball and chain.
That pretty piece off Cuba
Designed to cause men pain
Whoa, when you light up in Cuba
You won’t feel the same again.
‘Hero Ground Zero’ is a call back to the glory days of The Who, as Daltrey sings about the plight of the stadium rock star.  And he does so over slashing guitars, and a surprising string section, which drives the song along.
Years ago, my friend Steph, who is a drummer, taught me how to listen to The Who properly, noting that the music was actually driven by Townsend’s guitars and Moon’s drums, that was the rhythm and there was all this space in between for a lead guitar, for Entwistle’s bass, and, of course, Daltrey’s voice.  And that’s what I find so enjoyable about the good songs on WHO, they are Who songs.
The Who are obviously legends of rock’n’roll, staples of classic rock stations.  But once upon a time, they brought a brand new bag to rock music.  They weren’t the twee sweet shite of early Beatles, they weren’t the street-fighting men of the Stones.  They weren’t the brawling brothers and historical revivallists of The Kinks.  Their music differed from the other bands, too, in exactly the way Steph said.  And WHO provides plenty of reminders of this.
It is not entirely the case that here are the grandfathers back to show and tell the kids how it’s done, in large part because, in all honesty, I can’t think of anyone who writes music like Townsend does.  But this is a case of two ageing rockers in their mid-70s reminding us that not only are they not dead yet, they can still rock out.
I’m not sure The Who break any new ground here, but I’m not sure I care.  What we get is a classic Who album.  And I don’t know about y’all, but for me, there is something very comforting about Daltrey’s voice, as it has aged into a powerful tenor. Much to my surprise, I really like this album.