Monday, 25 November 2013
The Who "It's Hard" (1982) (Album Review)
"Athena, all I ever wanted to do was please her, my life has been so settled and she's the reason, just one word from her and my troubles are long gone - but I think I'll get along!" "Athena, my heart felt like shattered glass in an acid bath, I felt like one of those flattened ants you find on a crazy path, I'd have topped myself to give her time she didn't need to ask, was I a suicidal psycopath?" "Look into the face of a child, measure how long you smiled, before the memory claimed, how could children remain?" "Athena, you picked me up by the lapels and said 'leave her', I felt like walking up to heaven on an empty metre, and now you're stuck with a castrated leader, And I hate the creep - no I didn't mean that! But I just said it?!" "Up here on the ledge, I'm getting pushed to the edge, people line up behind me to step into my shoes, up here in the precipice, I'm getting close to my nemesis, people fighting each other to jump into my blues" "Sleep is for fools who never see the sunrise, who never get to live twice!" "I was a face in a magazine, when you were still playing with your plasticine, now you're dogging my tail, riding my slipstream" "I know you, young and dumb, I know where you're coming from don't know where you're going to, but I've been there the same as you" "I wake up in places I don't even recognise, a stranger in paradise" "The song goes on - I'll sing again until the music enervates" "Anyone can do anything if they're dealt the right card, I'm thinking about my life lord - and this life is very very hard" "Fear is the key to your soul, and that makes you dangerous, so dangerous, to yourself" "The sun shines, people forget, girl smiles, people forget, forget they're hiding, behind an eminence front - it's a put on!" "There's a scene, indelibly it hangs before my eyes, in our teens, incredibly close, together with no ties" "I'm moving on to something better, there must be something better than this, she's got me so confused, as to whose being used!" "Once it was just innocence, brash ideas and insolence, but you will never get away, with the things you say today, you can cry if you want!" "Don't you get embarrassed when you read the precious things you said? Many years ago when life appeared rosy red? No one ever shared your bed, nothing ever filled your head, except yourself and little ted, and scary dreams that you were dead" "Didn't you writhe in anger when you saw the man in his big car? Didn't you drive a banger and a gallon didn't get you far? Should have been a famous star, but that ain't what you really are, you could shout your last hurrah while they are busy propping up the bar" "Now you know your leaders lied, does it stop you acting snide? Or are you a still a boy that cried tears that should have long since dried?"
The Who "It's Hard" (1982)
Athena/It's Your Turn/Cook's County/It's Hard/Dangerous/Eminence Front//I've Known No War/One Life's Enough/One At A Time/Why Did I Fall For That?/A Man Is A Man/Cry If You Want
Remember that bright and breezy Who optimism that you could go anyway, anyhow, anywhere you choose? It's finally gone, 17 long hard years after the band's second single and four very hard years since the death of Keith Moon. We've been hearing about Pete Townshend's problems up front for at least the past three albums now and finally The Who give up any claim they have to be a with-it and virulent band and instead come up with the middle-aged album title to end all others: 'It's Hard'. Somehow this album feels inevitable. All twelve of these songs are about struggles of one kind or another - unusually not necessarily those of the band for once - which has become a theme that's been growing in size since day one to the point where the struggles and failings have finally overshadowed any bounce and joy The Who once had. Legend has it this is a terrible album, made a good four years after the band should have knocked it on the head and that with Pete's songwriting split between his solo albums and the bands and without Moon the Loon on board to provide the rock and roll there is no point to this album. Like many a legend behind albums we've spoken about before on this website, the myth is wrong, but the first thing to say about this album is how uninspired it feels. Surely the last Who album (for 24 years at least) should end with a bang not a whimper? The band who vowed to die before they got old can't possibly sound as middle-aged as everyone else can they? Surely, after the poor reception to previous album 'Face Dances', they haven't been fooled again?
That said, I like this album a lot more than every other Who fan seems to. 'It's Hard' isn't deep enough to compete with the really clever Pete Townshend epic concepts like 'Lifehouse' and 'Quadrophenia', there's none of the gripping emotional honesty of 'Who By Numbers' and even the neglected 'Who Are You?' features slightly better songs, but if you came to this album like I did after reading so many vicious and venomous reviews then the first thing to note is how good most of it is. Ironically enough (given the title) The Who still know each other so well that there's a kind of breezy nonchalance about this album, which means that even though it's clear no one is putting the effort in as they did years before still everyone involved is talented enough to care at least a little bit about how the album will turn out. While Townshend's hardly on top form to compare to past glories, many of his songs for this album are more interesting than their reputation suggests, stretching Pete's palette with songs that are both autobiographical and less devastatingly painful than in the past. John Entwistle is also right back at the heart of this album, as The Ox always should be, his fat bass propping up many an otherwise generic 80s sounding production and his songs sounding closer to Pete's style of writing than they've ever been. New-ish drummer Kenney Jones isn't even close to matching his old mate Keith Moon and is audibly less energetic than his Small Faces-late 60s self, but his drumming is actually more suited to Pete's simpler, less dramatic new 'pop' songs than the rockier Moony would ever have been. That leaves just Roger sounding at times as if he doesn't belong here, curiously mixed to sound as if he's standing 'above' everybody else, in a mix that already sounds like it has everyone playing in their own boxes rather than together like The Who should be.At times, though, Roger clearly relishes the material he's been given, barking the hell out of 'Cook's County' and Pete's very personal 'I've Known No War', while album and (first) career closer 'Cry If You Want' is his single best vocal since 'Quadrophenia'.
By a strange twist I ending up buying both this album and first album 'My Generation' on the same day and the first thing that struck me was how similar both albums were, despite the 17 year gap. 'Generation's famous cover is one of the few to actually feature the band and they leer with all their teenage might, with Pete's sarcastic cynical expression particularly priceless. For only the second time since you actually get to see the whole band's faces up properly on 'It's Hard' (ignoring the silhouettes of 'A Quick One', the band appearing as specks reflected in a motorbike's rear windows on 'Quadrophenia', the classic cartoon sleeve of 'Who By Numbers' and the paintings of 'Face Dances') and they're almost the same. The band still look tough and resilient and Pete's expression in particular seems to be looking straight through the camera once again, but the faces are now battle hardened, weary. (Note, though, the appearance of a then-modern-day pinball machine, which instead harks back to 'Tommy'). The music's a bit like that too. There's no mad instrumentals or James Brown covers this time around, but it's interesting to note how many of the songs Pete wrote in his teens imagining life in the future (the divorce-laced 'Legal Matter', the breakup song 'So Sad About Us' and the belief in being in a gang where someone can understand you on 'The Kids Are Alright') are still themes touched on on this album, only from memory and hard-earned experience rather than the imagination and observation. Equally, just imagine for a moment that you're playing this album to someone who didn't know The Who chronology very well: would they really guess that 'It's Hard' opening track 'Athena' wasn't by the teenage Who? (it's about the ups and downs of having a crush after all). The Entwistle song 'It's Your Turn' is even about being aware that there's another generation behind you, experiencing exactly the same things you once did, and that it's your duty to help not hinder them as they try and beat your achievements. It's as if the Who's career is a circle, not a line, and somehow they've ended up leaving at the point where they once began, writing 'pop' songs again rather than rock songs, before all the concept albums and rock suites came along to stretch the band's abilities to higher things.
Then again, the main problem I had with 'Face Dances' - apart from the all-too glossy production which is sadly back again here -was that there wasn't really a 'theme'. That album, released in a hurry after Moony's death in 1978 in an attempt to keep the band together and prove to the world that The Who still had life in them, was the first since 1966 not to be strung together by some linking theme (we'll ignore 'Who's Next' as a special case for now - 8/9ths of it was intended for the monster concept album 'Lifehouse' after all). Robbed of Pete's bigger ideas that album seemed emptier than it should have done, as if the band had simply tossed a lot of songs that shouldn't belong together in a pot and then undercooked it with some slightly under-par recordings. The songs might not be an awful lot better and the production might be just as bad, but 'It's Hard' does have a sort of thematic unity that allows the band to stretch their sound without each song on the album sounding like it's coming from another band and the group do seem to be at least interacting with each other here (if anything, they've maybe rehearsed a bit too well rather than not enough as before).
We've already picked up on the theme of 'struggle' as hinted at by the title. This album might as well come with the subtitle 'people are suffering' because that's the line we get over and over again, in a variety of different ways, along with Pete's fears that suffering is about to get worse. More specifically, this is the closest we get to a Who anti-war album after 17 years of not going near the subject everyone else from the 60s seemed to talk about (along with 'love'). Much of this album was written against the backdrop of Britain's stupidly gung-ho invasion of the Falklands Islands and while Pete is vaguer and less personally involved than, say, Pink Floyd' Roger Waters he'd clearly passionate about making his audience think twice about their support. 'I've Known No War' is particularly personal (Pete was born on Armistice Day itself, 19th May 1945, thus making him the equal-oldest person alive to have 'never known war' first-hand still alive in 1982) and it's so obvious a song it's amazing that it wasn't written earlier (surely, surely, there's a family story there about Pete being born within hours of the declaration of peace and being greeted by family/friends/his street as some sort of saviour/symbol/story to gossip about over the washing up, although sadly even in his book Pete doesn't reveal what it is- '1921' from Tommy' touches on a child's birth being linked to hope after a devastating war, although in this case it's World War One, not Two). Note how Roger's voice sounds so right here though, interpreting Pete's personal lyrics a rally cry for a generation and angrily barking them out in a Jefferson Airplane we'll-get-peace-by-force-if-necessary kind of a way. The theme turns up again in 'Cook's County' - the obtuse lyrics aren't always the clearest, but it was inspired by Pete watching a documentary on an American hospital where Vietnam veterans were still being treated for their injuries mental and physical ten or more years on. You can almost hear Pete shouting at his television over what he sees and trying to impress on The Who audience that violence in warfare has longer impact and more repercussions than guitar smashing. 'Why Did I Fall For That?' (a weary sequel to 'Won't Get Fooled Again') is more general but sounds in part like Pete imagining the jingo-istic soldiers of the Falklands coming home in the future as tired and cross with their Government and media as the Americans had been after Vietnam. John Entwistle may not have had war on his mind, but his song 'It's Your Turn' is even closer to the spirit of 'Won't Get Fooled Again', recognising in a 'Father-and-Son manner that every generation goes through the same struggles and fights the same fights, which should bring closeness not distance the way it does.
In fact, 'It's Your Turn' bridges the two themes. Like many a Who song from 'I Can't Explain;' onwards, the distances between people and the inability to communicate is a key theme of this album. 'Athena' starts off as a 'party' song as Pete's narrator comes very close to leaving his stable life behind for what will surely be a quick fling with a girl he hardly knows (the story is true - more on it later...), but just in time he realises he doesn't know her and is actually disliking her more the more he gets to know her ('Athena' is about the dream of a better life, not how great the girl is - all of those lyrics are 'red herrings'). 'Dangerous' is an Entwistle song about how no one can ever really get close to another person - fear, of what they will find out or of rejection, will always stop them revealing absolutely everything about themselves. 'Eminence Front' picks up the theme and runs with, with a society of strangers who pretend they're ok filling their lives with everyday nonsense but are really living behind an 'eminence front', a world full of paranoid, neurotic failures frightened that the rest of the world will find out their awful secrets without realising everyone has them too. Pete's 'One Life's Enough' then goes one stage further, tracing the history of the band (in the most un-Who like song of their whole discography it should be noted) and the spaces that have grown between them with age before wishing that the band members hadn't grown so far apart because at times their life together was pretty great.
The final theme takes us back to where we started, the album ending with a one-two punch about what the band have learned (or haven't) during their nearly two decades together. I don't know if it's terrific or terrible that The Who end at least their first career the same way they started, as a weak and nervous character still haunted by all the demons that used to follow him and more. The most striking and deepest song on 'It's Hard' by far comes at the very end with 'Cry If You Want' where Pete does just that, venting to his neuroses and all the things he's failed at in a manner that makes this song sound like an outtake from the 'suicide album' 'Who By Numbers' (Pete hates people calling it that and says he was in a good place when he made that record but, heck, it doesn't sound that way to my ears). With Roger spitting and stuttering away just as he did on 'I Can't Explain' nearly two decades earlier the true Pete Townshend is finally revealed as a vulnerable, lonely, big mouthed, naive, narrow-minded little boy and all the bravado of the past 17 years is shown as a 'front' (an eminence front perhaps?) The fact that Roger sings the lion's share of the song in his tough bravado manner, just as he's done for almost everything The Who have ever done, only drives the point home (At the simplest The Who are the sound of the clever, imaginative, talented kid so fed up of being picked on that he's enlisted the help of the school bully to get his point across with fisticuffs while knowing this probably isn't really the answer). Like The Wizard of Oz revealing himself from behind the curtain, Pete finally comes clean here and admits what he's been doing for so long and the result is enough to make us cry, with Pete finally growing up and admitting on (what was intended to be) the last song he ever gave to Roger to sing that he's been 'using' him to cover up his real self. Moreover, this song follows one of Pete's maturest songs 'A Man Is A Man', where tough-guy Roger is forced to admit that real men aren't the ones who beat people up and drink the most but the ones who aren't afraid to cry and show their real selves That's the real difference between this album and 'My Generation' and it's a lesson hard earned, so it's fitting that the band 'learn' it right at the very end. Indeed, after following them for so long and through so many change, the revelation is enough to make a Who fan cry too.
That maturity follows on this album's 'sister' , Pete's solo album from the same year 'All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes'. As well as finally offering the song 'Face Dances' to the world (after it's non-appearance on The Who album of the same name and thus confusing fans for three years) the album gave us several songs in the same vein as this album, reflections on aging and regret over past mistakes (even the curious album title comes from an idea of Pete's about how 'you can never hide what you are really like' and how, to each nation, it's the 'other' countries who are the clear enemies with their slit eyes or funny teeth or whatever- in truth no person can be intrinsically all good or all bad and any portrait of one race as being all of these things is simply brainwashing). Indeed, I wish to goodness that Pete hadn't been forced to effectively 'cut himself in two' by signing a separate solo deal for himself shortly before Keith's death in 1978 forced the band into action because had the best of this material (especially high point 'The Sea Refuses No River' and the bitter I-Am-A-Rock style 'Somebody Saved Me') together with the better half of 'It's Hard' would have made for one hell of an album. As far as I can tell, Pete's decision over what songs ended up on which album seems to be entirely random - as with his previous solo album 'Empty Glass' he was only saving half the best material for himself, he didn't particularly save the most Who-like songs for the band ('Slit Skirts' is the best Who-style song of the 80s although Pete cut it solo) and some of the songs on 'Chinese Eyes' attack the themes 'It's Hard' skirts around head-on. Our advice if you can is to buy the two albums and put them back to back on a single disc (they just about fit if you take the bonus tracks on each album away!) - that way you get a real feel for what Pete Townshend was up to in 1982!
Not every song on the album is up to the power of the last two. Heck, some of it - especially 'One Life's Enough' and the title track are pretty awful really, the kind of thing any semi-talented hack writer could have come up with given a few minutes to spare and isn't even up to the worst songs on 'Face Dances'. The Who have clearly slowed down from the power they had a decade before and at times they sound like an anachronism on their own album, with the very tinny 80s production and the lack of any real space for the band's great improvisatory musical interplay making them sound anonymous and small, rather than loud and proud of it. Play this album back to back with any Who album between 1965 and 1975 and you can't help but feel disappointed. And yet, there's more than enough audible evidence that the band were thinking hard about this album. Pete's songs aren't the best batch he ever wrote but many of the themes he touches on reach real heights and come to a very fitting conclusion for what the band knew pretty much from the start would be their last record. At times the band play with the fire of their younger selves despite all the distractions; at others they take off into new unexplored territory that's every bit as exciting and thrilling as taking us back to the places where we've been. At a little over 50 minutes the album is good value for money (they could arguably have trimmed it a little) and there's a real feeling in the air of trying to put things right after the blandness of 'Face Dances'. Had The Who decided to carry on there are still many interesting places half-explored across this album where the band could have gone - and yet all round it's quite a fitting end to the band's career too, with just enough nostalgia and yet just enough newness to remind you of what The Who always stood for. Bands can't help it when they get old. They're usually left with the stark choice of trying to cover up the fact that they're stuck doing the same thing in a trap or branching forward somewhere near their fans won't like. Time records 'It's Hard' as being an album that succeeds at neither, rocking limply where the band used to soar and going down cul-de-sacs the band should never have gone down in the first place. I say it succeeds a little at both, with just enough memory of the Who power surges of old without neglecting the adventurous and willingness to try new things that made them one of the greatest band of their age. Accept that this is a great band past their peak but still capable of greatness and you won't go far wrong.
The rattling 'Athena' which opens the album is a true story (sort of). A life long Pink Floyd fan, Pete was intrigued by the recently completed film of 'The Wall' and seeing as none of his other friends wanted to go roped in an old friend named Bill Minkin that Pete hadn't seen in a long time. Suffering one of his periodic lapses, Pete ended up going back onto the drugs he'd been struggling to kick for much of the past decade and made a bit of a fool of himself, figuring that the friend Bill brought along with him was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. Her name wasn't Athena but 'Theresa' Russell, the actress 12 years Pete's junior (you can hear the song with the original name 'Teresa' - note the change of spelling, suggesting Pete didn't actually know when he wrote the song - on Pete's third collection of demos and oddities 'Scoop 3'). With his own near two-decade marriage to wife Karen in disarray (Pete simply didn't go home and bought a second house to live in somewhere around the end of the 70s) and his inhibitions temporarily removed by the drugs his system had been craven, Townshend decided he was truly in love and would spend the rest of his life with this girl, planning his next moves for how to elope with her - without ever actually speaking to her (she wasn't interested by the way and was actually secretly engaged to director Nick Roeg). Shocked the next morning by how easily he nearly threw his life away, Pete came up with this dark horse of a song, which seems to be a straightforward love song until the last verse when the narrator realises he never actually liked the girl in the first place ('I hate the creep!') and that it was the excitement of running away that appealed to him, not the person he was running away with. It's probably no coincidence that 'Athena' is the name Pete changed hers to - among other things, in Greek mythology Athena is the Goddess of law and justice and of keeping people in their rightful place. You can see this song as simply the latest instalment of Pete's writing about his marriage and his increasing confusion as to whether to commit fully or leave altogether: in effect this is simply a sequel to the even better 'A Little Is Enough' from his 1980 solo album 'Empty Glass', where 'I know that the match is rough' and the relationship will never work out, but the narrator is torn between his 'heart' telling him he's 'right' and his head telling him he's 'wrong'. In fact that debate is heard here musically, Roger's vocalist pleading 'she's just a girl!' while Pete and John chip in with the chorus line 'she's a bomb!', knowing how easily the girl's prettiness can disrupt his stable life. More straightforward than most Who songs and with a poppy beat, 'Athena' was the last Who single to ever make the charts, although I'm surprised it didn't do better than a chart high of #28: perhaps people just expected deeper things from The Who? Treat 'Athena' as a bit of pop fluff with a clever hypnotic riff and some sterling work from Townshend on guitar and you can't go far wrong.
'It's Your Turn' is one of John Entwistle's greatest songs for The Who, right up with 'Boris The Spider' and 'Success Story'. This song is much closer in style to Pete's way of writing, however, building on the lyrics of the latter song and 'Who By Numbers' in general by suggesting that a career in the music business isn't a life-long job but a baton that should be passed between generations. 'I know you, young and dumb, I know where you're coming from' sounds so like a Pete Townshend line you can't help but wonder if he had some input into the song, John reaching out to the generation behind the 'baby boomers' and offering both help and warnings. The difference, though, is that while Pete was spending time in clubs with younger musicians and urging them to ';finish the job we started', all John sees is an endless cycle of bands hitting the same brick walls when they reach a certain age - a scenario we now know to be true (the 50s rockers generally faded away when the 60s happened - the 70s and 80s rockers ended up hitting the same brick walls as 60s musicians when the 80s and 90s happened and bands got pushed aside for the next 'new' and exciting young thing). John's lyrics about being 'pushed to the ledge' show that the band's falling record sales have hit him hard (Entwistle always had money problems, more so than the rest of the band, so he must have noticed the extra downturn in money much more). Some of these lyrics are exceptional - the 'next generation' are 'waiting in line to step into my blues' in the first verse, experiencing all the problems and hardships The Who have been warning against to no avail for 17 years. There's a curious duality to this song though: on the one hand Roger (using John's words) beckons 'Come On' and adds 'It's your turn!' while in the next breath we are told that the next big thing are 'riding in my slipstream' waiting to overtake (see Jack The Lad's similar 'Fast Line Driver' for a full metaphor of this idea), but The Ox isn't about top give way, acknowledging his 'inner rocker' that wants to stay up all night 'like a vampire' and to never go to sleep ('Sleep is for fools who never see the sunrise...and never get to live twice!') John even speaks to the band, admitting that their growing age is a problem (the youngest in the band was turning - Shock! Horror! - 37 when this album was being made) and using the younger voice to mock the band with the line 'you're running out of ideas!' A clever, classy song which comes across like a mix between 'Father and Son' and The Who's own 'Punk And The Godfather' (but sadly without a similarly beautiful yearning middle eight), it's just a shame that there isn't more of a memorable melody to 'Its Your Turn' and that the band seem to be lost in a fog of 198-0s production instead of playing from the heart. It's a shame, too, that the band automatically gave this song to Roger to sing in an attempt to sound more 'commercial' - as good a job as he does, John should have been left to sing this one.
'Cook's County' is a bit of a strange song. As we've noted, Pete was inspired to write this one after watching how Vietnam Vets were still struggling some ten years after most of them had been sent home from the war, thanks to a documentary about the Cooks County Hospital, Chicago, built especially for Veterans (weirdly enough, out of all the districts in America to choose, Cooks County was also the setting for medical drama Chicago Hope in the 1990s, although the links to the song end with the name). In years gone past Pete would have tried to 'connect' with the mind of the patients, what caused their suffering, reflecting on their past and how the ripples from ten years ago still last (it could have been another 'Quadrophenia', only with Jimmy in a mod-hospital bed instead of a scooter). In 1982, though, Pete can only tell us about what he feels about the situation and it's one of hopeless frustration. 'People are suffering!' Roger shouts on his behalf, 'I'll say it again!' The closest he comes to actually making a statement is with the rather lame 'when you go looking for trouble, remember it's already looking for weaker men!' - the closest to an anti-war message across The Who's entire discography (this is a band whose reputation was built on violence, remember, although to their credit the Who always refused to endorse violence as a means to an end). The most interesting part of this song isn't Roger's Vietnam verses but Pete's manic middle eight which instead goes back to his own feelings about the ripples of ten years coming back to haunt you and the band's own injuries over time slowing them down. 'The song goes on, I'll sing until the music enervates, the sting of pain will dull and finally fade away, through centuries of history it reverberates, on curving comet's track the music makes it's way...' This is Pete admitting to us that the band are in a rut but that, if we stick with them, they'll find a way out of it again because the band's reputation has always gone in cycles (the parallels between 1982 and 1968, the year The Who released no albums and just four increasingly flop singles, are clear in his mind; Pete is waiting for a 'Tommy' moment of inspiration that never comes - there's even a rather odd live album 'Who's Last' in the schedules, right where the rip-off compilation 'Magic Bus - Who On Tour' used to be). Ultimately, though, this middle eight is just a brief moment of light in a rather heavy and awkward song that has no solutions to offer, only more problems and which ends in a sea of mass vocals echoing off each other 'saying it again and again and again and again...' and still not finding any answers.
Talking of people suffering, the title track of the album is as fed-up as The Who have ever sounded, 'Who By Numbers' excepted. No one who listened to The Who in 1965 for escapism and because they could do anything their audience couldn't would have guessed that the band would be writing a song like this in 17 years: 'It's very very very hard...so very hard!' seems like the ultimate antithesis of 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere'; this isn't a narrator who'll batter down any doors that block him but a man trapped with no way out. It's tempting to see this as Pete's manifesto for 1982; trapped - for the moment - on a treadmill that saw him writing songs for himself and The Who and in a marriage that was effectively existing in different time zones, it's no wonder Pete is feeling trapped. Uniquely, the atheist Who even call to their maker for advice ('Deal me another hand, lord, because this one's very hard!') Unusually Roger seems to have really got behind this song - which was one of only three tracks from this album the band played regularly - perhaps because it's faintly bouncy melody and snappy quick-stepping lyrics are easier and less emotional for him to sing than the similarly 'down' songs on 'Who By Numbers'. There's also plenty of space for the 'old; Who sound, Pete playing one of his more convincing solos of the album and John and Kenney hinting at what a great rhythm section they might have become had The Who lasted longer (it's less 'distracting' and 'fun' than the old Who sound, but still has lots of power on songs like this one that have enough space for bass and drums to really fly). Some of the lyrics are quite witty too: 'Any kid can fly, few can land...Any gang can scatter, few can form'. However, you can't escape from the fact that this is just the sound of someone moaning without giving us any reasons to feel sorry for him or any solutions to give us hope. Just think what a younger Pete Townshend would have done with this song: 'Won't Get Fooled Again' was born out of similar frustration and yet there's layers to that song that this later one can only dream of. There's also the feeling that if it really is very very very very hard like the band sing in the song, why not give the band up earlier? Again, you have to wonder why Pete gave this song to The Who to sing (as the title track of their album no less) rather than keeping it as a private sulk for himself; did he really want to make his dissatisfaction with the band this public?
'Dangerous' is the second of three Entwistle songs and a track that's more in common with the songs the Ox came up with for 'Face Dances'. Not many fans seem to like Entwistle's latter-period Who songs and they still pale by comparison to the Who grunt of old, but John's work is actually closer in style and spirit to the old 'Who' than anything Pete is writing by 1982. Had the band been ten years younger and the keyboard riff had been played on a 'proper' early synth a la 'Who's Next' rather than one of those tinny 80s things then I could see this one becoming a minor classic. Roger sings the song again, which is a shame, as is the fact that this must be one of only a handful of Who songs not to feature any guitar at all, but at least John's overworked bass is placed right at the heart of things in this song. Lyrically this is another slightly more muscly take on one of Pete's favourite themes, about the gaps between people and how 'fear is the key', keeping us apart from every human we meet and preventing us from revealing our true selves (perhaps John has finally worked out what 'Who By Numbers' was all about?) Sadly this arrangement - with its call and answer vocals, Roger's AOR radio lead and that godawful synth makes it sound like a throwaway, but like so many similar Jefferson Starship songs treated the same way in the early 80s both tune and lyrics are actually pretty daring. Just note that middle eight, about how 'the next stage in evolution' is also doomed to failure because our inability to trust will always be the achilles heel of humans. It's just a shame that the band couldn't go for another take or re-arrange this song - the live version added as a bonus track to the CD re-issue of 'It's Hard' knocks spots off this rather awkward studio version.
'Eminence Front' sounds like Pete writing in reply to John on his own take on the barriers between people ('It's just a put on'!) Pete builds on 'dangerous' analysis of fear with his own take on people's 'defences' - that everyone secretly thinks they're superior to everyone else. This song has long been seen as the biggest success story of the album and for good reason: there's a real 'bounce' and energy about this one that many of the other songs from this album lack and the fact that the band go for nearly two minutes without singing (in a neat copy of 'Baba O'Riley') really adds mystery to this song. On paper the lyrics sound trite when they do finally come in, but given their simplicity are rather clever, listing all sorts of people from all walsk of life smiling to themselves thinking to themselves that they've fooled the opposition when the last laugh is on them because they don't know everyone else is playing a game too ('The big wheel spins, the hair thins, still people forget!') It seems quite odd that the Who have never really tackled mis-communication before on an album (unless you count the vague hint of 'Behind Blue Eyes' ) and yet it appears here two tracks in a row: given that the band started off writing songs about the inability to articulate frustration (eg Roger's stuttering on 'My G-G-G-G-G-Generation' ) you'd have thought this topic was a shoe-in (perhaps Pete didn't want to pinch Ray Davies' favourite topic from him?!) Pete's guitar playing, so sidelined throughout the rest of the album, really shines through here with some marvellous rhythm guitar staccato punches and while Entwistle sounds slightly at sea in the new surroundings (he doesn't start playing till two minutes in either), Kenney Jones sounds far more comfortable here than he does on all his other 20 Who recordings with The Who. Pete's sole lead vocal on the album is wilder than Roger's, yet somehow seems to 'lift' this song more, without all that gravel and grist, somehow making a song about flippancy with the single silliest Who chorus line in their history ('Come on, join the party dressed to kill!') sound like something substantial as well as fun. The only 'modern-day' Who song that 1980s audiences really took to, 'Eminence Front' has a real swing to it and is the most contemporary sounding song on the record, even though the song is arguably trying the least hard to sound like a new wave band. Overall, this is the album's biggest success story by a mile - although it probably speaks volumes that this is also the one song that sounds nothing at all like any previous Who song.
Side two starts with 'I've Never Known War', the heartfelt plea to gung-ho militants after another world war in the wake of the Falklands invasion and increasing tensions in the middle east. The single most moving moment of 'Tommy' for me is when the baby is born just as peace is declared; it was a great surprise to me when I learnt that this was semi-autobiographical (although Pete was born at the end of World War Two, not One). Carefully ignoring battles in distant continents (technically speaking there wasn't a single week in the 20th century somebody wasn't at war with somebody somewhere), Roger sings on Pete's behalf how he's never known war - and if he did he'd be mighty confused as to who to fight for because he'd only be able to fight for who he wanted to win, not which country he lived in. There are some great images in this song: the unknown soldier's 'lonely tomb' opening to engulf a new generation of gung-ho trainee soldiers who don't know what they're getting into, how this time around the war will be decided by a single button rather than a 'frontline' and best of all the old war veteran whose own medals are hidden away forgotten in the loft because 'his grandchildren can't see the glory, and his own children are bored of the story'. Pete's brutal chorus cry that 'I've never been shot at or gassed, nor tortured nor stabbed' is one of his best too, stripping away all the glamour of war. The band turn in their second strong band performance here, this time with Roger at his album best as he belts out the vocal against Kenney's suitably military-style drumming and Pete's scratchy synths (which again recall 'Baba O'Riley'). The Who's first anti-war song was a long time coming, but its 90% of the way towards greatness: I just wish the band had found a better ending (the track should end when Roger does, instead of drifting into an aimless instrumental filled with syrupy strings) and added one of our website's beloved middle eights to really get the message across. Still, this is a good song with a strong message, powerfully played.
'One Life's Enough' splits fans right down the middle. Anyone whose played Pete's three 'Scoop' collections of demos will know that writing an 'aria for synths' seems to have become something of a career obsession by the 1980s. On paper, hearing Roger sing virtually solo to Pete's synths (as well as a part played by band friend Tim Gorman) should be a delight and Roger copes well with the challenge, on a song that's actually pretty close to his own ballad-dominated solo albums (Pete, not all that complimentary about anyone in his book - especially himself - goes out of his way to heap praise on his partner's input into this song). However, this track doesn't belong on a Who album - especially in between two of the heavier rockers of the album - and the song seems deliberately designed to sound as twee as possible. After hearing Pete's lovely score for Ted Hughes' atrocious work 'The Iron Giant' this song makes more sense (there's always been a bit of theatricality about Pete's writing, which suits this style of telling stories and plots through atmospheric vignettes) and it's arguably the closest here to what will become Pete's de facto style of writing post-Who. Personally I hate the music (which belongs in a Lloyd-Webber musical, not a Who album), but I'm quite fond of the words which take a really nostalgic look at Pete's first meeting with first wife Karen and - by association because the two events happened at more or less the same time - forming The Who. 'There's a scene, indelible it hangs before my eyes, in our teens, incredibly together with no ties' is a great opening verse, setting up a scene that could refer to either and Pete (via Roger) revels in the memory and how wonderful it was. Now, though, in the present (with both band and marriage nearing the end of their life) he sorrowfully bids them goodbye, figuring that he's already experienced enough greatness from both to last a lifetime and 'one life's enough for me'. Sniff! Lyrically, then, this is one of Pete's most satisfying songs but dear God did the music have to be so dreadful? Even Pete sounds so fed up with his own treacly piano playing that he offers an extra noisy 'thump' on the piano just to prove it's really him. This song should have been kept for a 'Roger Daltrey Sings Pete Townshend' album - it has no business here, even if it does sound like a fond farewell to a band reaching the end of their road.
The similarly titled 'One At A Time' is Entwistle's last ever song for The Who and it's much less prosaic. This time the henpecked narrator of 'My Wife' has escaped and been living it large - but now after years of being with as many girls as he can manage he's worn out and can only manage 'one at a time'. One of the band's simpler songs of the period, you can hear the band having fun trying to make this song as basic and raw as they can and thankfully John gets to sing this time, his worn-out voice the perfect accompaniment to the song (though Pete's harmony vocal is a neat touch - this is only the second time since the 1960s that we've heard Pete and John sing together; the other was another Entwistle song '905'). Better yet, John's brought his brass section with him (once such a part of the Who sound but last heard on the gorgeous 'Blue Red and Gray' back in 1975) and the multi overdubbed Entwistle's play a great riff, somewhere between 'Brassed Off' and 'The Adams Family'. Some better lyrics would have helped, but this isn't a song about perfection: this is a rocker letting down his hair after recording all the weightier Who songs on this record and better lyrics would have just got in the way! The one part that really does work on this song, though, is the middle eight - especially now that (we hope) Entwistle has indeed 'gone on to somewhere better', the orns straining at the leash to resolve back to their preferred major chord. Only another slightly anodyne production that spaces the instruments out from each other stops this being another album highlight.
'Why Did I Fall For That?' has the 'bass-heavy' feel and wordy, impenetrable lyrics of 'Face Dances'. Unfortunately, musically this is a light and fluffy song (more pop-ish than anything The Who did when they were a bona fide 'pop' act in the 1960s before 'Tommy' came along) and lyrically this is a re-working of the deadly serious 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. As a result, this song is pulled in too many directions to really work, but it is easy on the ear (even on the parts that shouldn't be) and does have some serious points to make (much of which are undermined by the tv quiz show vibe of the music). Just as Pete predicted his generation would only end up falling for the next messiah to come along after seeing through the 'old' one ('Won't Get Fooled Again' was less than a year before Watergate, remember), lo it came to pass. Some of these lyrics are genuinely funny, with one verse finding Pete describing a smiling nation unknowingly walking to their doom ('Four minutes to midnight on a sunny day') and another claiming that the 60s generations went after the wrong battles ('We're impotent and neutered like whining cats, we've found the piper but we've lost the rats!') Unfortunately, as with most of 'Face Dances', it's Roger who sounds 'neutered' by the song, unable to bark it with his usual authoritative tones and having to go back to his 'smiling' vocal style which doesn't suit him half so well. John's bass booms as loud as ever, but everyone else here sounds lost in a world where they don't belong: Kenney's drums are just too heavy and the synths too fluffy for this sort of landscape to work. The chorus is also maddeningly banal when compared to the might of 'Won't Get Fooled Again' : 'The kids are crying 'why did you fall for that, dad?' A shame, because there are some nice moments here and the idea of The Who as the 'parent generation' getting told off by their children for not going far enough when they had a chance is a strong one (and clearly one that's been on Pete's mind ever since he told the Sex Pistols to 'finish the job' the drunken night he wrote 'Who Are You?') But there are too many mistakes here, with this song trying to be too many styles at once, including the sound of a contemporary pop band The Who are simply too powerful and loud to become comfortably. All together now: 'Why did The Who fall for that?'
'A Man Is A Man' is a pretty song that always seems to get a bad press among Who fans. Certainly it's got as little to do with The Who as 'Why Did You Fall For That?' and 'One Life Is Enough', but of all the possible futures the Who display in their post-Moon years, this is one of the best. Roger turns the vocal down a fraction, Pete sings in harmony with him and the backing track sort of drifts alongside John's angry snarling bass offering a real contrast to the settled surroundings. What's more, The Who kick back into their old style for the middle eight ('Every one is looking for fame'), returning to the old 'Quadrophenia' days when the song's hidden fears and doubts about getting left behind by one's peers or gang get 'hidden away' in the contrasting section, just to show that they can still do this when they want to. The lyrics, though, are maturer than anything on 'Quadrophenia' (and goodness knows that was a mature album), The Who finally dropping their matcho posturing front and admitting that real men are those who give in to their real feelings and cry, not those who beat people up in bars. You'd never believe this was The Who if you just happened to hear it one day, anonymously, on the radio, which does seem like a waste of all that power and talent. But somehow it's heartwarming to know that this angry band, who once threw guitars into the ceiling out of frustration and snarled and stuttered their inability to connect to the human race have finally let their guard down in song and admit that 'having a heart makes your big talk seem really small'. What's more, view this song as a sort-of sequel to 'The Punk and The Godfather', with the old rocker now a kindly father figure offering advice rather than a fading wannabe warning futilely that the next generation are about to make all the mistakes of his own generation and more, and it's pretty Who-like after all: the opening verse, with the narrator chastising a younger figure for 'getting attention only because you block the stairs' when they could be doing something with that bravado and guts is very 'Quadrophenia'. Pete was never better than when he was writing for misfit youths who were mixed up rebels without a clue what they were rebelling against, giving them a voice and a shoulder to cry on, whilst knowing exactly where all that untamed fire and anger was coming from. This is pretty much the last of Pete's songs on the theme to date and while it's not his best (and is delivered here in such an anonymous way the younger generation would never want to hear it), it's lovely to hear Pete wrap up the Who's career by returning to the themes that got the band started in the first place. After all, who listening to 'My Generation' in 1965 would guess that the same band would come to the conclusion that 'a man is a man' when he reveals his human side 17 years later (who, indeed, would guess that the band would still be going in 1982?)
The other album highlight, though, sounds like a template Who song. The band end their career with 'Cry If You Want', the most venomous bitter anti-self song of Pete's whole career (and given this is a career that has included both 'Who By Numbers' and 'Empty Glass' that's really going some). Having revealed across the album that every person is an inwardly screaming vulnerable terrified blob of paranoia, Pete finally, bravely strips away all the dressing that's allowed the Who to sound like as arrogant and brash as they always have. For the last time (for 24 years at least) Peter makes the most of having Roger as his 'voice', using his tough boy tenor to finally reveal himself as a suit of armour for the quivering heap of fears and doubts Pete's narrators have always secretly been. Trapped in a prison made out of the same snarling guitar part and Kenney Jones' brilliant march-like drumming repeated over and over, Roger excels himself as he turns nasty, dismissing 17 years of hard effort and glorious worshipped songs as 'innocence, brash ideas and insolence', gleefully claiming that now in 'old' age 'you'll never get away with the things you say today'. He then attacks the 'loser' at the heart of the song, who couldn't get girls before writing songs and in one damning sentence 'where nothing ever filled your head, except yourself and little Ted and scary dreams that you were dead'. Figuring that this is his last chance to leave the Who's fanbase of disenfranchised youths with closure, Pete pushes the song as far as it will go before offering absolution, offering himself (and the listener) the chance to become a 'real' man and 'cry if you want'. The lengthy instrumental section, that finds a double tracked Pete repeating his latest mantra over and over ('let your tears flow, let your past go') is truly beautiful, offering a last moment of empathy to them and us, offering healing and absolution. Roger then kicks in again, refusing to let the past go, remembering a time when the adolescent Pete used to envy stars in their big cars without knowing the pressures of having people listen to what you say and want answers from you before damning him for not even following that through properly when he had the chance ('Should have been a famous star - but that ain't what you really are!') And so ends the song with a devastating self-portrait of the mess of Pete's life in 1982, with The Who's standing as a spokesperson band at the forefront of the revolution long dead, ruined by apathy and luxury and as apart from The Who's original fanbase as he ever was: 'Rash commitments, heavy raps and left-wing spiel all compromised, you fall in love with other's wives, drive them nuts with empty lies, angry because you lost the prize, forgot the colour of your eyes'. Another brief respite eases the pain but a final angry verse brings matters to a head, as - with the words to 'Won't Get Fooled Again' ringing in everyone's ears - Roger unveils his final attack and the final lines of The Who's career (or so they think...): 'Now you know your leaders lied, does it stop you acting snide, or are you still a boy crying tears that have surely long since dried?' If The Who are the ultimate adolescent band - all that rage, all that adrenalin, all that confusion - then this last song is the moment when the story ends the only way it possibly can end, with the band growing up. So ends one of the bravest 'goodbye' statements from any band and a fitting end to their career, even if Pete - as ever - is far too hard on himself and us. Again, could this song have been the result of a 'discussion' between Pete and John (this song shares more than a touch of the sentiments of 'You' from 'Face Dances', although this time the song is turned inward rather than directed at poor Roger!)
Overall, then 'It's Hard' is, well, hard to listen to for anyone who comes to this album straight from the hope of the 1960s albums and the battle-weary cries of the 1970s that change is still possible. In many ways the band should have ended The Who the minute Keith Moon died and left it as a fitting memory - but then The Who were the first to admit that their style had to 'change' and change is what they always did best, right from their third single onwards. 'It's Hard' is certainly a more fitting end to the band's career than 'Face Dances' would have been: that album tried desperately hard to make The Who an anonymous heavy metal band with pop twinges and pretend things were still the same as ever; this album is even more awkward with the settings it gives us for every song in the post-Moon era, but it's apologetic about it all, with lyrics at one point literally promising 'stick with us - we'll get the hang of this soon'. Some of the songs here - notably 'Eminence Front' 'A Man Is A Man' and 'Cry If You Want' are honestly as great as anything The Who have ever done, as witty, observant and powerful musical statements as any band can make. The problem is both that the other nine songs don't come anywhere close to matching these and that the settings for these songs aren't always suitable, leaving the Who adrift in a very 80s sounding sonic landscape, followers in other people's musical footsteps rather than the pioneers they always were. If you have the patience to lower your horizons sufficiently, however, and have a CD player with a good skip button then there is much to admire about 'It's Hard', which may well be among the weaker Who albums but does at least show that the band were still trying and still cared even at this late period in their careers. It is hard going at times, this album, but the band know that and even draw attention to it with their album name - put the effort in and this album will reward you, though, with small nuggets of pure Townshend genius (and sometimes Entwistle genius too). Think of this album as the party guest who stayed a little too long, got himself a little out of sorts and passed out on your lawn before being sent home, but whose company you missed the minute you'd booted him out the door. Overall rating: 5/10
Other reviews of 'Who' albums from this site you might be interested in reading:
'A Quick One While He's Away' (1966) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/news-views-and-music-issue-67-who-quick.html
'Sell Out' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/19-who-sell-out-1967.html
‘Tommy’ (1969) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-who-tommy-1969.html
'Live At Leeds' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-33-who-live-at-leeds-1970.html
'Lifehouse' (As It Might Have Been) (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/news-views-and-music-issue-81-who.html
'Who's Next' ('Lifehouse' As It Became) (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/news-views-and-music-issue-14-who-whos.html
'Quadrophenia' (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-60-who-quadrophenia-1973.html
'The Who By Numbers' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-69-who-by-numbers-1975.html
'Who Are You?' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-72-who-who-are-you-1978.html
'Face Dances' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/news-views-and-music-issue-137-who-face.html
'Empty Glass' (Townshend solo 1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/pete-townshend-empty-glass-1980.html
'Quadrophenia' (Director's Cut Box Set) (2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/abeach-is-place-where-man-can-feel-hes.html