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Saturday, 17 March 2012
The Who "Face Dances" (1981) (News, Views and Music 137)
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The Who “Face Dances” (1981)
You Better You Bet/Don’t Let Go The Coat/Cache Cache/The Quiet One/Did You Steal My Money?//How Can You Do It Alone?/Daily Records/You/Another Tricky Day
What you get out of listening to ‘Face Dances’ depends on what you’re expecting. Play it back to back with the great 70s splurge of Who creativity (‘Who’s Next’ ‘Quadrophenia’ and as we’ve tried to argue on this site the lesser-known ‘Who By Numbers’ and ‘#Who Are You?’ too) and you’ll be bitterly disappointed. See it as (almost) the last Who release and it’s a less than fond farewell also, with the band floundering and coasting rather than taking on all-comers and sounding like the greatest rock band of all time. But see this album in the context of The Who’s problems, the fact that they’d lost original drummer (and so much more) Keith Moon and had to re-invent themselves all over again if they were to carry on at all, then ‘Face Dances’ is an intriguing sideways look at what the band might have sounded like a little older, a little slower and a little lyric rather than music-heavy compared to before. ‘Face Dances’ wasn’t received too well at the time, although there is a small handful of fans who now rate it among the better Who albums, but as a signpost to a new sound, its a fascinating one, with the band making good on their promise that ‘music must change’ (a song from 1978).
As we’ve seen on our ‘Who Are You?’ review, Pete Townshend took the sudden rise of the punkmovement hard, much more so than other aging rockers who either ignored or sought to emulate it. The fact that another generation was coming along demanding basic roots rock and roll with a snarl must have pleased Pete no end, after years of trying to make The Who fulfil this very dynamic – but that said, in Pete’s mind The Who still were the rawest and ,most powerful band out there and hated the idea that they were no out of touch and speaking for ‘my generation’, not every alienated and dis-affected youth. By this time The Who were all in their mid to late 30s, hardly old-sounding now that most of our AAA crew are still going in their 60s and 70s, but a frightening prospect for the genre of rock and roll that was always described as ‘youth music’ in its, well, youth. It’s to the band’s credit that, rather than fight the punks on their own terms (as per Wings’ unreleased and embarrassing ‘Boil Crisis’) or go the other way and embrace disco (as per The Stones on ‘Miss You’ in this same period)or stay doing what they’d always done but louder (as per everyone else) The Who tried to invent a whole new style, a logical progression of a genre that was growing stale.
The only problem for us fans nowadays is that the experiment is unfinished. Apart from afew glorious debut solo albums (and most of those recorded after years of being unknown, rehearsing a new sound and practising to get things right) inventing a new wheel takes time to get it right. Pete Townshend’s new composing self has only just going by the time of both this album and follow-up ‘It’s Hard’ in 1982 (perhaps a cry of help over the new style as well as a risqué double entendre) and we never get the pay-off when his style has reached its zenith, as we did with ‘Tommy’ ‘Who’s Next’ and ‘Quadrophenia’. Instead what we have here is the latter day equivalent of ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, the second album by the band recorded when they were only half-sure of the direction they were going in.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that Townshend was working on his own records simultaneously with The Who albums in this period, in an alarming burst of post-alcoholic creativity that also saw him sign up to be consulting editor at publishers Faber and Faber. For Pete this fact is good news as he gets to experiment much more without risking the band’s career and gets to write his most autobiographical songs on great albums like ‘Empty Glass’ (1980 and our classic album review no 77) and ‘All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes’ (1982), songs too personal to give to Roger Daltrey to sing. Unfortunately for us Who fans taking all the personal admission and guilt out of Townshend’s writing leaves him writing ‘pop’ songs rather than rock songs or ballads, ones that are fascinatingly structured and ones full of wordplay than never before, but without the heart and soul of The Who at their best, the one band who in the past had always sounded like they meant what they said. The ‘title track’ is a case in point: attempted for this album but not released till Pete’s ‘Cowboys’ album in 1982 as ‘part two’ (we still haven’t had part one yet!), it’s the kind of love song that isn’t great in itself but would have made for enough humanity and emotion to make the other ‘Who’ tracks around it sound great. ‘Daily Records’ is a good case in point: its one of Pete’s wittiest songs, about how his need to write about what he’s feeling makes his songs sound like a kind of aural diary – but unlike the similar why-am-I-writing-this? Songs of the past two Who albums there’s no emotion and no gravitas to the song so, no matter how clever, it sounds like it has no point. Roger sounds especially badly served on this album, without the chance to ‘get inside’ Pete’s songs as he normally does so well (Pete’s songs often fall flat without Roger there to interpret them – you could write a whole essay about the vulnerable, weedy, empathetic Pete writing songs for the macho ‘Roger’ character and fulfilling his fantasies and in time we probably will) and he sounds awfully uncomfortable at times. For all of Roger’s complaints over Pete’s more personal songwriting throughout the 70s, as least he sounds as if he knows what’s going – on songs like ‘Cache Cache’ he doesn’t sound any the wiser as to what’s going on and if he doesn’t know then neither does the listener.
Instead, the only emotion we do have, heard in songs by Pete and John Entwistle, is bemused hurt and anger. Both Pete’s ‘Another Tricky Day’ and John’s ‘You’ make for a really unpleasant end to an album, both open letters to the rest of the band about how The Who has stopped being fun. Although Roger’s gone on record as saying he enjoyed making this album and the chance to do something different and Pete has remained un-characteristically quiet talking about this album, John often complained that this album was an awful experience to make. Roger and Pete often clashed in the studio but John reckoned that he and Keith were able, between them, to get them to make up and go back to work – left on his own, with only a new drummer to help out, the arguments got worse. Both of these songs are directly aimed at another member of the band but it’s hard to tell who – John sounds as if he’s singing to both Pete and John despite using the word ‘you’ (perhaps a different verse is about each of them?) while Pete’s ‘social crisis’ doesn’t seem to fit Roger or John. In the past Who songs about frustration, anger and bitterness, such as ‘The Real Me’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’ were direct and powerful, packed with pointed lyrics and musical riffs that somehow mirrored their contents. Here it just sounds as if the band are airing dirty laundry in public and need to get something off their chests.
Again, though, that doesn’t make this album bad. Had you come to this record fresh, without any knowledge of The Who’s powerful past, it’s still an enjoyable album (well, most of it). Like ‘Who Are You?’ this record is a curious blend of rock and pop, something the band hadn’t really done since leaving singles behind circa 1967,with Pete’s quirky songwriting rather than his emotions on show. Just have a look at the subject, which is all very un-Who like: ‘Cache Cache’ is a philosophical argument about letting metaphorical bears out of their cages (!), ‘Don’t Let Go The Coat’ is a very Yoko Ono-ish song about letting your dreams fade without realising it and ‘How Can You Do It Alone?’ is a story-song, complete with a narrator who clearly isn’t Pete or Roger discussing the down-and-outs of life. ‘Did You Steal My Money?’ goes even further, being arguably the only anti-youth song recorded by one of the greatest teenage-association bands of all, actually taking the younger generation to task after a spate of attacks on war veterans (Pete will redress the balance with ‘I’ve Known No War’ on the next album, a sort-of attack on soldiers everywhere). Even the hit single and one song from this album that everyone knows, ‘You Better, You Bet’, is a kind of anti-love song about a relationship that’s clearly one-way and not the usual idea of true emotional love at all. In fact, in its own way this album caught the new wave slightly anti-sceptic feel of the early 1980s better than any other ‘old’ band ever did, with the result that this is a stylised, detached album very much like Blondie, Adam and the Ants, etc, but played through the medium of rock and roll.
One point fans often make when dismissing this album is that Keith Moon doesn’t play on it so the drumming must be awful. Actually poor Kenney Jones, drummer for The Small Faces and close friend of Keith, was the perfect choice for the way the Who were turning out at the end of the 70s a s slightly slower, less flamboyant beast. As anyone who knows the Faces albums well (and you should, they’re the closest the 1960s came to the out-and-attack of the early Who) they could rock like the best of bands. Both Keith and Kenney are flamboyant, driving drummers who can push a band on like never before and are arguably rock’s two most straight-forward drummers (without the jazz tinges of, say, Charlie Watts or Bobby Elliott). But there the similarities end: Moony made it his point to be all over the place, treating the drums as the lead instrument and adding bits that other drummers would never dream of coming up with; Kenney leads from the front with the main beat of a song the most important thing, no matter how many extra-curricular cymbals get smashed along the way. Personally I think he’s a great drummer, especially with The Small Faces but also with The Who (and particularly on the live recordings of the day, when he sounds much more energetic and committed than the rest of the band). It’s just a shame that the material Pete and John are giving him don’t give the room to breathe that they used to give to Keith. That said, the band will come close right at the very of their time together the following year, when the rat-a-tat-tat of closer ‘Cry If You Want’ will become the best Who song in years.
Perhaps a more crucial change to the band’s sound was Pete’s lack of confidence as a guitarist. After years of having Keith around to fill in the ‘gaps’ in his playing Pete suddenly heard his playing laid bare and sought to cover it in two ways. On stage Roger Daltrey, actually quite a promising rhythm player, began to play guitar in the group for the first time since 1962 (when seeing Johnny Kidd and the Pirates had inspired him to make The Who a power trio-plus vocalist). But even more significantly the band brought in a keyboard player for the first time, with John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick the secret star of this album and adding a touch of colour to the retro rock of The Who. Again, ‘Rabbit’ really came into his own on tour but already on this record it’s his touches on the album that are the most memorable, from the opening flurry on ‘You Better You Bet’ to the one then-contemporary sound on the album, the criss-crossing ‘Did You Steal My Money?’
One other thing that drags this album down is how much better it might have been had The Who stuck some of their more traditional sounding songs on it. The trio of outtakes that were recorded during these sessions and later released as bonus tracks on the album are all worthy of a place on the album. ‘I Like Nightmares’ might be a novelty song but Pete’s rare vocal in this period is a delight, with Pete laughing at his love of chastising himself and his run of moody albums in the 1970s by telling us that he even ‘loves nightmares’ and the fright and powerful feelings of guilt they give him, making him feel as if he’s alive. ‘It’s In You’ is even more Who-like, with a scatter-shot guitar-bass battle and a song where Roger sounds more at home than any on the album, urging his girl that she’s got the courage to make something out of life (and some curious references to ‘Moonie’ earning his ‘wraith’, as if someone is late in paying their respects). Best of all ‘Somebody Saved Me’ is perhaps the greatest Pete Townshend composition of any in this period, drawing on a real incident when an alcoholic and drug-fuelled Pete was nursed back to life by a fellow user, who actually died during Pete’s attempts to clean-up. Along the way the song got twisted and turned into a love-struck narrator thanking the girl of his dreams for keeping away because if she’d have paid him any attention ‘I’d have wanted you forever’. The way Pete slides off the song by sighing ‘somebody saved me’ on a sudden and unexpected change to a minor key is one of the most moving lines of his whole catalogue. Whilst I can understand why Pete kept it for his solo album (that version is inferior by the way, sounding like it’s been recorded after one take too many when the band aren’t ‘feeling’ it as here) it’s a crying shame that this song, at least, didn’t make the final running of ‘Face Dances’ because it would have made it a much more emotional, three-dimensional album, with some real feeling in amongst all the cleverness and re-invention. Even the 1979 incarnation of ‘How Can You Do It Alone?’ (heard here as a bonus live recording) sound better than the finished version, making you wonder just what was going on during these sessions and why an album with a fairly promising start to recording came as unravelled as it did.
Instead there’s only one great song and no, unlike most reviewers I’m not nominating ‘You Better, You Bet’ or even a Pete Townshend song. John Entwistle’s ‘The Quiet Ones’ is a fabulous noisy rocker – the only out-and-out rocker on the whole record – and is just so, well, Entwistle that it deserves to be better known. Frustrated at being pegged as the ‘quiet’ one of the band (chances are you’d be quiet too, surrounded by Townshend, Daltrey and Moon!) Entwistle talks about the positive benefits of being quiet (everyone listens to you the few times you do have something to say) and how communication is over-rated, before adding in a classic line ‘I ain’t quiet – everyone else is too loud!’ The fact that John chooses this of all songs to get The Who to play at their loudest says much about his sense of humour and it remains one of the three last great Who songs from their final days (the other being Townshend’s ‘Eminence Front’ and ‘Cry If You Want’ from next LP ‘It’s Hard’).
In fact, ‘It’s Hard’ – long neglected as the poorer selling, made-in-a-hurry contract-fulfilling sequel to this album – is actually the superior in every way. The band have come to terms with the ‘new direction they’re heading, a much tighter and more polished sound than their usual one and are writing material to suit it. Chances are we’ll be writing that review sometime soon, but then do any of you Who fans really need either LP? Frankly no – if you get the chance to download the three tracks I’ve highlighted then excellent, but apart from that The Who are clearly attempting an experiment here and its one that fails compared to The Who of old. Due to a combination of the loss of Keith, Pete’s doubts about his playing, the lack of emotion in the songs and the work going on with Pete’s solo albums there’s something about both of these albums that doesn’t really work. I’ll protect the other late-period Who albums for all I’m worth (hence ‘Who Are You?’ and the marvellous ‘Who By Numbers’ making it to our ‘main’ list of reviews), but although there are good things to say about both records and hints that The Who could have developed their ‘new’ sound into a workable and worthwhile series of recordings there’s simply too many mistakes to care. The Who also seem to have the ability to rock, something which is an absolute calamity for a band that had always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world (OK so the Stones used that slogan too, but they’re more a fascinating rock-blue-country-swamp rock hybrid than a logical update of the 1950s raw power as The Who are and were).
That said, to dismiss this album out of hand would be unfair. ‘Face Dances’ is far from the worst studio album in my collection as many fans point out (though farewell live album ‘Who’s Last’ is a strong candidate for worst live album). There are times when what The Who are trying to do really comes together, when the Who manage to successfully come up with a medium paced-strut that suits their aging vocals and playing well, when Pete’s words finally make sense in Roger’s hands and John’s bass roars out of the blocks as powerfully as ever. There’s one truly classic track here (and even that’s not up to the highest standards of the Who days of old) but there’s very little that’s really poor and the first side in particular is a lot better than this album’s usual reputation suggests. That’s especially true if you own the excellent CD version with the three excellent bonus tracks and had The Who carried on to do lots more albums like this one as a sort of ‘second career’ they might have been pretty good all round (‘It’s Hard’, an album that no one except me likes it seems, is better still). In fact, many songs are a curious hybrid of bits that work and bits that don’t. In fact ‘Face Dances’ is an apt name indeed for an albumthat seems to dance about all over the place, never quite staying in one genre for long enough to define it.
Speaking of faces, the one true redeeming feature of ‘Face Dances’ is the cover, one where the band’s ‘four faces’ (shades of Quadrophenia there) really do dance across the cover. In keeping with the huge promotion that went into this album The Who came up with a grand design, commissioning our old friend Peter Blake (who made the ‘Sgt Pepper’s album collage) to orchestrate a series of paintings by other established and up-and-coming artists. The result is a patchwork quilt that reflects this album’s bittyness well and is certainly striking. David Hockney (who paints the far-right hand painting of Roger) and Richard Hamilton (the far-right hand painting of Pete) are the best known, but for my money the imaginative painting by ‘Colin Self Of Norwich’ of the ‘inner workings’ of Pete Townshend (third from the left) and the very accurate study of Roger (again third from left) by David Inshaw are the best. Quite what Kenney Jones thought of painter Joe Tilson drawing various parts of his anatomy that, presumably, weren’t out on display when the photographs were taken for the artists and re-drawn in cubist style is left un-recorded! The finished product was big news at the time and even hung in London’s Tate Gallery for a while (though sadly it was long gone by the time I went for a recce there to study the collection of JMW Turners!) In fact it was the success of this cover in shop-window displays (along with the unexpected hit status of single ‘You Better You Bet’) that made this the best-selling Who album in years, making #2 in the UK charts for the first time since 1973’s ‘Quadrophenia’. It’s also one of the most successful Who album covers for summing up the eccentric and piecemeal parts of the contents. If only the album had been up to the ones in the days of the old then this could have been the start of a whole new brave start for The Who – as it is this album’s directionless and the in-fighting during the sessions robbed them of any chance of a second coming.
The album leads off with it’s best known song ‘You Better You Bet’, the last Who hit (though the forgotten ‘Athena’ from ‘It’s Hard’ was the last single proper) and traditionally the closing spot for most Who compilations. Like much of this album, it kind of half-works really well and half falls flat on it’s face. The bits that work are the chirping keyboard synth opening by ‘Rabbit’ Brundrick’, the logical updating of the squeal of synths that started earlier 70s classics (back when The Who were the first to play around with synths rather than mellotrons) and the lovely sweeping melody that somehow manages to combine the power of the Who’s youth with a slightly more laid back mature feel. There’s also a classy chorus that seems to come out of nowhere, ably supported by Pete and John’s harmonies (ironic, really, that they sing together so much on this album when their friendship was at its lowest ebb) and Entwistle’s marvellous full-throttle bass riff. So what’s not to love? Well, the lyrics to be honest. The theme of the song is of how much love a relationship needs to work, with Pete arguing against his earlier song ‘A Little Is Enough’ by having a partner who ‘when I say I love ya you scream you better bet your life’. Only the narrator of this song is still left saying ‘I don’t care how much you love me, a little really is alright...’, making this a very confused song indeed. Like many of Pete’s songs in this period they’re about a confused relationship (‘I know that the match is rough!’ he memorably sang in 1980’s ‘A Little Is Enough’), but this song isn’t ‘about’ a confused relationship, it’s trying to offer some sort of advice about what to do in an older, mature relationship that’s set in its ways. It’s also, frankly, not as good as ‘A Little Is Enough’, which had a marvellous addictive hook (stolen from Prokofiev!) that perfectly matched the sentiments about knowing that a relationship is bad and not knowing how to leave it all the same. This song’s melody and words simply don’t fit and Roger struggles more than we’ve ever heard him trying to convey the message, singing at a slightly higher pitch then normal that really strains his vocal. That said there are some clever lines here that clearly hit a nerve with the Who’s aging audience, picking up on a real nostalgia feel when the narrator ‘escapes’ into the world of T Rex and ‘Who’s Next’, the band’s classy album released 10 years previously, a lovely self-reference that’s a nod to long-term fans who most likely were doing just that in their lives themselves. As with much of the album, there’s much to commend about ‘You Better You Bet’ but there’s an awful lot about this composition that rings false or sounds contrived and confused too.
The opposite problem could be said for ‘Don’t Let Go The Coat’, which features great lyrics and an awful tune and is the first Pete Townshend to be directly inspired by the sayings of Pete’s ‘guru’ Meher Baba since, well, ‘Who’s Next’ funnily enough. The song was inspired by a Baba teaching when he tells his followers they should ‘wear’ his sayings draped over their shoulders, as a ‘protection’ against life, but shouldn’t devote their full life to only following his word and neglecting themselves – or take the robe off completely and go against his sayings. Pete, feeling a spiritual neglect in the last half of the 70s, was clearly moved by the words. The song suits Roger’s more lived in and deeper voice well (he actually has a pretty high voice for a singer for most of the 60s and 70s, but with so much weight behind it that he ‘sounds’ deeper than he really is) and does a good job on what might well be Pete’s message to the rest of the band. He’s revealed in interviews since that at his lowest ebb in the late 70s, in a mess of booze and drugs, he asked the heavens whether he should be doing something more with his time than write rock and roll songs. The answer came back: ‘keep playing rock and roll till further notice’ (though whether a true vision or a hallucination Pete was never quite sure). Pete’s lyrics here , I think, are asking the band for help and forgiveness: the narrator realises he’s ‘lost’ contact with the spiritual force that gave him life (ie the band) and the ‘body’ the narrator needs isn’t a loved one but the ‘body’ of noise Pete can’t get on his solo albums. Equally, the line ‘It can’t be real rock and roll unless I’m hanging on to you’ only makes sense if Pete’s talking to the rest of the band.In this context the line ‘I can’t bear to live forever as a loner’ is a really sad one that cuts much deeper than the usual ‘heartbreak’ songs and the line ‘I need your body, but I can’t just demand’ suggests that Pete really is trying to mend his ways. All this would have made for a terrific song had Pete allowed the band to put their touches onto the song as he promises in words – instead what we’re left with is a rather lumpy, leaden mid-tempo song. Entwistle’s bass has no room to work and Kenney Jones’ attempts to ‘do’ a Keith Moon by adding every touch of colour he can are easily his worst drumming on the album. Only Roger sounds as if he knows what Peter really means in this song, but its just too different and too, well, bland for Who lovers to take into their hearts as they should. Only the middle eight really comes alive, especially the harmonies that join in for the lines ‘I won’t let go like a stray at a heel’ (whatever that line means) and sound as if the band really is coming together at last.
‘Cache Cache’ is also an experiment too far and a song that I still don’t understand despite reading that Pete’s inspiration for it came one night when his insomnia was bad on holiday and he went out walking in Vienna till he found a zoo, staring back at the bears in the cage. The words, such as they are, are a series of rhetorical questions asking if the listener has ever had to put up with a series of hideous incidents, adding a very new wave ‘o-o-o-o-h’ singalong chorus. It could be that, like ‘Who Are You’ (the single), this is Pete trying to attack the younger generation on their own terms, claiming ‘I’m one of you’
Whilst at the same time looking down at youth from the hazy rose-tinted glow of middle-age. Pete seems to be putting down his own younger self at times in this song, laughing at the preposterous idea that he could ever believe that music could change the world and that ‘a smile’ can cure all and that a ‘happy face’ can keep you warm at night. The song ends with Roger’s narrator finally finding a golden bed of flowers, with all the contedness he’s ever dreamed of and sleeping there ‘for a hundred hours’ – his message seems to be to his younger self that, yes, I sold out and became all the things the younger generation now hate me for - but I couldn’t sleep in that rat-infested hobble anymore. The slightly turned-down tone of the band’s backing makes sense here, then, but sadly Roger’s at a loss for the words and the ‘o-o-o-o-oh’ backing and whispered ‘cache cache’ chorus quickly tires. There’s a neat frantic guitar solo, too, in which Pete out-classes all the punks 20 years his senior (alas there aren’t many of his solos on this album, which is a great shame). Also, at least Pete sounds inspired writing about his past in such a surreal way that only monkeynuts reviewers like me think they can ‘connect’ with what he’s writing and frankly I’d rather hear the ‘what the hell is going on?’ feel of this track than tired repeats on an old formula. I still don’t quite get where the bears fit in however (I don’t remember them being references in ‘My Generation’, to which this song is yet another reply by the elder Townshend, still shocked that he didn’t die and instead grew old).
My favourite track though, as we’ve seen, is Entwistle’s dementedly noisy ‘The Quiet One’, on which The Who rock as well as they ever did and John’s husky voice sounds like he’s been smoking a thousand packets of cigarettes a day. Pete is inspired to turn in another blinding solo, far more controlled and emotional than his normal recent solos and Kenney Jones proves that even if he can’t quite keep up with Keith Moon he can keep closer to him than most. The lyrics are, of course, hilarious, even for one of ‘The Ox’s songs: The Who’s heaviest song since ‘The Real Me’ eight years before is matched to a series of lyrics about how great it is to be quiet and how, unlike blabber-mouths, you can get more shock factor with what you say with the least amount of effort. Entwistle was, of course, unhappy with the band in this period and felt his ideas were being over-ruled (he was especially cross at the record company insisting that Roger had to sing most of his songs, although luckily he gets to keep this one fort himself). Perhaps that’s why he decides to scream this song rather than sing it and why it’s all so wonderfully loud. Many fans don’t like this track, seeing it as closer to heavy metal than rock, but frankly that’s wrong: players of The Who’s ability are simply too good to sound all leaden and lumpy like every example of that genre seems to be (being noisy for the sake of it starts being boring by track two of any heavy metal album) and Pete in particular adds the passion and emotion that the majority of heavy metal songs just don’t possess. Anyway, the band could be playing tubas and be backed by the spice girls and I’d still love this song for the great pay-off line ‘I ain’t quite, everyone else is too loud!’ (sung, naturally, at the top of John’s voice and across a barrage of heavy drumming!) This song sounded particularly good live, as you can hear if you own the CD copy of this album (even Pete says ‘that was most enjoyable’ at the end!)
‘Did You Steal My Money?’ is another song I love and no one else does, a very unique song for The Who that sounds closer to Madness’ blend of ska and rock than anything else the band ever did. Really taking sides against the youngsters now, this is Pete arguing that having no respect for anybody is a bad thing, especially in a moving middle eight about a war veteran banged on the head and robbed for his gold watch (he gets to keep his stitches, as Roger sings and Pete writes at their most sarcastic). The song is highlighted by a classy overdubbed multi-tracked vocal from Pete asking the title question over and over and finishing each other’s sentences, with Roger’s lead vocal sounding as if he’s being batted from side to side and doesn’t know how to escape. Hearing Pete and Roger bounce off each other is a delight (and doesn’t happen as often on this album as before) and Daltrey, especially, is on tremendous form, cajoling pleading patronising and demanding the question of the listener, not taking no for an answer. There’s also an interesting second verse that takes the song away from youths beating people up to look at other more respectable ways of doing the same thing (asking ‘did you steal my money?’ of agents, lawyers, managers and bankers) that give the song more depth. If only, though, the band had developed Pete’s two-line opening to the middle eight (‘How we can forgive a grievance now that we all live with demons?’ a very Townshend couplet about repercussions and ripples from certain actions that could have made for an even stronger song, especially with Pete singing the lines about how everyone has something to be sorry for in such an angelic falsetto!) Wow, two great tracks in a row, perhaps this album isn’t so bad after all?
Then again the second side of ‘Face Dances’ is quite possibly the weakest The Who ever made. The only listenable song out of the four tracks that make up this slab of vinyl happens to be the first one, ‘How Can You Do It Alone?’ and even that song sounded better as a rock-heavy jam heard in a few concerts during the first post-Moon shows (one of which is heard on the CD as a bonus track). Another unique song in The Who’s back catalogue, this piece is a story-song, with four verses that find the narrator accidentally coming across the people society has deigned are ‘wrong’ (sexual perverts, under-age girlie mag readers and eventually the narrator himself for wanting sex with his girlfriend when all she wants is a shower). I might be on shaky ground here but its easy to read this song as yet another in a long line of songs relating to Pete’s childhood trauma of abuse by an uncle (a fact that only came to light when Peter, researching the idea, logged onto a restricted pornographic site and was ‘cautioned’ by police). Like the less savoury passages on ‘Tommy’ (‘designed’ by Pete but given to Entwistle to write when Pete found them too hard to write), this song sounds like Pete trying to come to terms with offenders who do something wrong but that he and the band have deliberately white-washed the song so that it’s about people naked under raincoats and teens buying adult magazines rather than something worse. Roger copes well with another song far away from the usual Who type of material and Entwistle’s busy bass with the wandering hands is the perfect accompaniment. That said, the band could have made of the central idea of the chorus (namely ‘how can you do it alone?’), added in a proper resolution (the song merely fades on the chorus) and taken some of the repetition out (we hear the same identical chorus four times). There’s also a curiousinstrumental burst using what sounds like bagpipes played on a synth (darn, there’s another one I could have added to our bagpipes top five a few weeks back!) and military drumming from Kenney Jones, which are impressive in and of itself but bear no resemblance to the rest of the song. A bit hit and miss then.
Frankly it’s an awful lot better than the tired new wave outburst ‘Daily Records’. As we’ve seen, the lyrics to this one are fine, if a bit oddball: Pete’s so into his songwriting that he thinks his suffering is good for his music and is anxious when he’s contented because for a songwriter that’s bad. Pete bemoans about growing older more directly than he ever has done before (‘no sooner do I work out how to wear my hair then they change it’ – compare with Quadrophenia where a change of style is a chance to be someone different and a new opportunity to define who you are). There’s also some great lines about how Pete’s records are ‘daily records’ about his life and growing older, about how this ‘stage in life’ is difficult because Pete still has to perform these songs on stage and, best of all, how everything that made him a ‘big star’ with his peers (booze, drugs, money, sex and rock and roll) ‘don’t impress’ his children who care nothing for such things. Had we heard this song with a normal Who backing or even as a gentle Townshend demo I’d love it – but oh God the backing to this song is dreadful. It’s as if The Who have lost all knowledge of how to rock and that they’re trying to ape a genre (new wave) that they don’t understand in an attempt to sound trendy, the very antithesis of what this song is all about. Roger sounds awful (like an old man singing along to his children’s records), Pete and John’s backing vocals are irritating beyond belief, Kenney Jones is all over the place, Entwistle struggles to find a place for him in this new alien style of music and over-plays for perhaps the only time on a Who record and Pete’s brief guitar solo is as bored and lifeless as they come. Only ‘Rabbit’ Brundrick comes out of this song well, adding some spoof-Abba piano chords to Townshend’s dramatic lines about a ‘stage’. Amazingly, worse is still to follow...
‘You’ is the second Entwistle song on the album and an awful disappointment after the greatness of ‘The Quiet One’. It’s the first in a pair of songs that end ‘Face Dances’ on a very down note indeed and seem to be about the problems within the band. While hearing about inter-band politics can be highly revealing (CSNY made it an art-form in the 1970s, with all four writing about each other time and time again), both of these songs sound like one long whinges. Enwtistle never spoke about this song as far as I know so we’ll never know, but for the record I think the first verse (about ‘making music’ before a ‘slap in the face’) sounds like Pete’s alcohol-fuelled mood swings of this period) and the third (about a ‘girl’ blowing hot and cold, depending on their mood with ‘poisonous eyes’) sound like Roger (the second is a rather generic verse seemingly added to make the song sound more like it’s about a marriage). John clearly wasn’t happy in this period being trapped in between Pete and Roger’s arguments without Keith there to soften the blow and to be honest nobody sounds that happy in the recording studio either. Roger tries to have fun with the sneering vocals but they cut too deeply to be the sort of song you can have ‘fun’ with and John’s menacing strutting bass line makes the whole sound more like a horror film than a pop song. A bit of a mess to be honest.
The album fizzles out altogether on ‘Another Tricky Day’, which is a lighter song from Townshend on the same subject, about how a friend gets off on their own ‘social crisis’, with every slight thing built up out of proportion. At long last Townshend lets rip on the guitar riffs as per The Who of old, but it’s on the wrong song: this is another curiously faceless MOR song that could have been recorded by anyone, with only the typical interplay between Pete and Roger to give it a ‘Who’ sound. It could be that Pete is getting his own back on the rest of the band and defending his actions on the last song, but then again the character having histrionics doesn’t sound like either John or Roger. Could it be that Pete is attacking himself in song again? Certainly the subject of the song seems to be some form of musician (hence the ‘rock and roll will never die’ in the end of the last chorus, sung more sadly than on ‘Long Live Rock’ in 1973). Certainly this song is pessimistic in the extreme, outdoing even Pete’s great 1967 masterpiece ‘Melancholia’ in how ‘life is worthless’ and the papers ‘bring heavier rain’. Me, I’m all for sad songs when the situation calls for it, but having a sad song about your inability to write anything happy is odd in the extreme and for all the gusto The Who put into this piece it’s a sorry end to conclude an album with. Like the rest of ‘Face Dances’ there are positives though: again ‘Rabbit’ is on top form, with his open chords nagging the narrator on to greater things and a sweet reflective moment near the end of the song that promises great things before sadly falling back on a straight fourth repeat of one of Pete’s less inspiring choruses.
‘Face Dances’ ends on a sorry note, as if the band arguments and frailties and the doubts of whether a band in their mid 30s should still be making rock and roll music are peeking through the surface of how this is The Who’s big re-invention of themselves as an older, mature band. There are good points to be had on nearly every song on this album, but hardly any of these songs actually congeal into anything as substantial as in the days of old. Had the band continued I fancy I’d have liked ‘Face Dances’ a lot more, as the flawed attempt to find a new sound before the band finally mastered the art of sounding older and wiser without losing the raw power that made the band’s name. To be honest The Who had to do something after Keith Moon died and it’s good that at least they tried to adapt to their new, slower sound rather than trying to sound like they used to, but worse. But then arguably Pete Townshend had been trying to adapt and change the band’s sound ever since day one (and especially since Keith began to fall apart and play more erratically somewhere around 1973). This album proves how great the original Who sound was more by what’s missing than what’s there and to be honest is an album made for Who aficionados only – although then again, after going through the highs and lows of The Who story and heard just how much empathy and emotion is in most Who recordings how we could we all be anything but Who aficionados?
A complete collection of Who reviews:
'The Who Sing My Generation' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-who-sing-my-generation-1965.html