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The Who "Endless Wire" (2006)
Fragments/A Man In A Purple Dress/The Mike Post Theme/In The Ether/Black Widow's Eyes/Two Thousand Years/God Speaks Of Marty Robbins/It's Not Enough/You Stand By Me
Wire and Glass (A Mini-Opera): Sound Round/Pick Up The Pieces/Unholy Trinity/Trilby's Piano/Endless Wire/Fragments Of Fragments/We Got A Hit!/They Made My Dream Come True/Mirror Door/Tea and Theatre
"Music makes me strong"
The Who took an eternity to finally get round to releasing their eleventh album, following a massive twenty-four year gap which is amongst the longest of the entire AAA canon (only Cat Stevens' return as Yusuf represents a bigger one). The differences between the 'first' farewell tour in 1982 and the new-look Who were many, for band and fans, as the group who hoped they'd die before they got old sang about old age for the first time on an album that's dominated by themes of love and loss. It's a slower, more reflective Who than the last time around, with the band's firepower reduced by the loss of Keith Moon, the absence of Kenney Jones (not invited back past 1982, mainly on Roger's insistence) and the unexpected death of John Entwistle in 2002 just as the first ideas for the Who's big return were being discussed. Some bands would have ignored the line-up changes and just carried on, but instead of trying to re-create the impossible The Who embrace the changes with a (largely) slower, quieter and humbler type of an album (at least until Keith Moon's Godson Zak Starkey arrives on the mini-opera - they never did quite find a replacement for The Ox, though Pino Palladino does as good a job as anyone could in the circumstances). Usually bands grow more cynical and despondent with age, but The Who seem to have spent their career in reverse: 'Sings My Generation' was the band's sarcastic riposte to life in 1965 - 'Endless Wire' by contrast enjoys old age and is a generally happy back-slapping album with the angst reserved for attacks on the Christian Church. At times that works: The Who were always more mature than their years beneath all that surface noise and this album's most affecting songs deal directly with the loss of half the band and friends lost along the way, while being thankful for being around at all on 'Tea and Theatre' 'Mirror Door' and 'The Mike Post Theme'. At other times though The Who just try to roar on like they always did with less than half the horsepower of the original band - with 'Endless Wire' sounding at different times like a natural end of the 'wire' that had been threading across their work for forty-odd years and at other times simply 'endless' (and not in a good way). One of those reunion albums that's a bit hit and miss ('Good news...we scored a hit! Bad news...we scored a few misses too!'), 'Endless Wire' was hailed as the band's best album since 'Quadrophenia' when it came out and is now talked about as the best since 'Who Are You'. In truth it's not quite as strong as the under-rated 'Face Dances' or 'It's Hard', though it's equally far from worthless.
At first 'Endless Wire' was purely financial: fans who know the attack on miser 'Silas Stingy' from 'The Who Sell Out' will know already that John Entwistle's relationship with money was a complex one, with the bassist spreading his money the way The Spice Girls spread zig-a-zig-ahs. The original plan was for John to get a decent set of songwriting credits on an album that was an almost-sure seller alongside Pete and a new album of new material made a nice change for fans tired of forking out for repeated live tours and souvenier concert CDs and DVDs (which was how The Ox had managed to just-about keep afloat in the past, alongside occasional albums and wird children's TV soundtracks - here's looking at you 'Van-Pires and Motor-Vaters'). That plan sadly changed when John died of a heart attack in a most Who-like manner (he died from a heart attack at a hotel at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after a night snorting cocaine and sleeping with a groupie, which is probably the way Keith wanted to go) but by then Roger and Pete's interest had been piqued and their enthusiasm for the album was too strong to slow down. However a band with three-quarters of the original line-up remaining is quite a different prospect to one with half and the question has to be raised: should this album still have gone ahead? There's nothing here that wouldn't have worked better as a Townshend solo album with Roger cameo-ing or a Daltrey record with Pete as a 'special guest': putting 'The Who' name when it barely sounds anything like them is heaping a whole load of pressure and attention on an album that struggles to bear the load. With so much working against The Who (the loss of half the band, the age gap and the change in band dynamics) they sound caught between sounding like The Who of old and the band they might have transformed into had they never taken that break and trapped between the ambition of old and just making do. The Who are slower and older across this album in a bigger way than just age and Pete 'n' Roger sound less like The Who than they do on their respective solo records (where just a short time ago Pete was re-living his youth on 'White City Fighting' and Roger had 'Rocks In His Head' and was acting like a teenager whose just discovered heavy metal). John's tragic death notwithstanding, there doesn't seem much reason for this: even 'Real Good Looking Boy' and 'Old Red Wine' (the songs recorded for this album's trial run in 2004 and included on the 'Then and Now' compilation that year) still sound recognisably like The Who, with tales of identity and reflection that sit well with the rest of The Who canon stretching back to 'I Can't Explain' and the choice of bandname; by contrast 'Endless Wire' doesn't 'feel' like a Who album.
Which is odd because there's actually a lot of snippets here that are recycled from the past and I'm not the first reviewer to point out that there's something for fans of all eras of Who-dom here. 'We've Got A Hit!', the reminder of the giddy days of 1964 when 'I Can't Explain' was shooting up the charts after the missed opportunity that was the first single (under the mod-ish name 'The High Numbers'), does a pretty good facsimile at the windmilling early Who. 'Mirror Door' is practically 'Tommy' in miniature, dealing as it does with trying to get in touch with people who can't communicate while the two snarky songs about religion ('2000 Years' and 'The Man In A Purple Dress', whose Pope John Paul II if you hadn't already guessed) are also taken straight from the ending of 'Tommy' where pinball does not a religion make. The very opening of the album's 'Fragments' is pure 'Baba O'Riley', albeit played on the slightly later vintage synthesisers that provided the soundtrack to the 'Tommy' film. 'You Stand By Me' is an update of 'I'm One' from 'Quadrophenia' with the same fast-flowing acoustic guitar chords and realisation that the 'one' Pete's narrator once conjoined to is still there for him after all this time (all this despite perhaps the biggest life-changing event in tall of those missing years: Pete is no longer with teenage sweetheart Karen Astley, with whom he lived for twenty-six years after their 1968 marriage, but musician Rachel Fuller his steady partner since the mid-1990s).
'In The Ether' is hopeless and suicidal 'Who By Numbers' territory. 'Unholy Trinity' recalls the slightly awkward fun-with-synths-and-push-Roger-to-the-limit-with-impenetrable-lyrics-ism of 'Face Dances' and 'It's Hard'. There's something here for every Who fan to love and it's true parts of this album (specifically It's Not Enough' and 'Pick Up The Peace') do such a good job of re-creating the archetypal Who sound that it's hard to believe that so much time has passed. However there's an empty hole running beneath this record which was never there before, even on the two records they made after Moony died, which basically comes down to the fact that Pete is no longer brimming with ideas and Roger no longer knows how to read his partner like a book. There are some great individual moments on 'Endless Wire' but nothing that feels like The Who of old, with all the details and gimmicks rather shoe-horned on top rather than being part of a living breathing entity that arrived fully formed into Townshend's consciousness. Sorry to say all those Who references sound like they're here more out of desperation than inspiration as Pete struggles to find his writing voice again after a whole thirteen years between projects. 'Wire' is an album that doesn't hang together well, awkwardly divided between noisy rockers and snail's pace ballads that sounds like two completely different bands and with the first and largely downbeat half thrown off track considerably by the second and largely upbeat concept work of the second half.
As for that suite, sweetly named a 'mini-opera' in deference to 'A Quick One While He's Away' released almost forty years to the day earlier, it speaks volumes to me that I've never quite been able to work out what 'Wire and Glass' is all about, even though I felt I understood the much-maligned and overly complex 'Lifehouse' plot straight away. Reportedly it's based on a short story Pete wrote in the 1990s when he was working for publishers Faber and Faber and tinkering with his autobiography (delayed until after even this album). 'The Boy Who Heard Music' is a Tommy-sequel of sorts that also re-uses the characters from 1993's odd solo odyssey 'Psychoderelict'. Trapped as an old man in 2035 and wondering how he ever got to this point in his life, 'Ray High' (as close enough to Townshend himself as you're going to get) wakes up in a mental institution with a shaky memory that slowly comes back to him. Three childhood friends, who are all born of different religions, befriend Ray and keep him company and are inspired to form a band named 'The Glass Household' after hearing of his tales of derring-do in the 20th century. The three friends turn into stars but each has their own separate problems (the story turning into a little like an AA meeting version of 'Quadrophenia' where their mental state and different phobias and addictions resemble those of Jimmy's four personalities). It was reportedly while researching Gabriel's 'story' (an addiction to child-porn and the discovery that he himself was abused as a child) that Pete was working on when the police called round to arrest him for an ill-judged attempt to access internet porn a couple of years before this album was released (for the record it makes sense that Pete would immerse himself in work in this way and he'd long talked about his own theory that he's been abused at an aunt's house but that he'd been too young to remember and had 'blocked' the idea for years - that's why Tommy ends up being abused at the hands of his Uncle and Cousin if you're wondering, though when Pete found himself too emotionally involved to write those songs he handed the idea over to John Entwistle instead). History repeats itself and Ray leaves his house to Gabriel in his will, watching from above as his old friend ends up repeating all the same mistakes and living as a recluse himself. A planned reunion gig in New York is interrupted by the events of 9/11, but the band soldier on and find that, like Lifehouse and Tommy, music is greater than any personal problem and it can heal an audience even when the performers are suffering inwardly themselves. A typically rambling and downbeat-with-a-hopeful-ending Townshend work, it's an obvious starting point for The Who's own slow journey to reuniting and 'Endless Wire' may well have worked better had Pete written a whole story around the work.
As it is 'Wire and Glass' feels unfinished and the story is impossible to follow even for those who've read Pete's novella (published on his Eel Pie website and since sadly removed - a shame as it was the first truly 'interactive' Lifehouse-style Townshend work, with Pete adding ideas and dropping bits after advice from fans). The 'Glass' band are clearly The Who and yet they rarely sound like The Who except for the beginning and ending and the songs are all bitty ninety second fragments that don't blend in well with one another. Only the finale where Ray dies and goes through the 'Mirror Door' to a long list of names and the whole theatre drinks to the memory of dead rock legends much missed does the concept make some sort of sense: it's a memorial to the power of music that was made to make us all feel better, even when those who made it were ill or stoned or struggling to make sense of life themselves. Before then we get more Meher Baba imagery, as 'God' (ie Ray) lives life backwards and predicts the rise and fall of a teenage band of apposite ragamuffins who sound suspiciously like The Who. In a way it's the summation of why 'Endless Wire' exists at all, because in Pete's imagination it's better to go on creating and trying to make the world a better place even when he's lost inspiration for what he writes and his own life is in turmoil and he's in danger of becoming the 'recluse' who wants to deal with no one. A reminder of how good and valuable humanity can be, even when individual humans are weak and easily manipulated (hence perhaps the earlier songs on this album discussing the church's silent stance after accusations of child abuse and the hypocrisy of the way Pete was treated as an 'innocent' victim), it's at the end of the album where 'Endless Wire' finally makes sense and finds some salvation and healing (long overdue if you've come here straight from the 'original' ending to The Who's career, where 'Cry If You Want' effectively admits that even after seventeen years of screaming their phobias and rages The Who still aren't 'healed'). 'Tea and Theatre' especially has a poignancy that all the best Who recordings have and by paying tribute to John and Keith at the end of the record ('One of us gone, one of us mad, one of us me, all of us sad') it really does feel as if all The Who are represented and in the room by the end of the CD.
However to get to the end you have to sit through an awful lot of half-baked ideas that don't really work - and that's something that's unusual for The Who (even 'Face Dances', the weakest album till this, has a half-decent half-album going on). Big concepts are raised and then forgotten about again straight away, musical hooks are played and then ignored for the rest of the song and sudden nuggets of inspiration (such as 'In The Ether', which should be the most moving Townshend song in years) are ruined by bad judgement in arrangement or production (in this case it's Pete choosing to sing the track using his best Tom Waits impression, which works rather less well than his usual, purer and fragile voice would have done). Roger sounds great - better than he did on either his last album or The Who's recent concert tours in fact - and by all accounts was thrilled to be back working with his old colleague again now that he was old enough to appreciate him (this album, which Roger had been asking to make for years, may also have been a 'thankyou' present for Roger's impressive solidarity in the face of Pete's porn scandal when - encouraged not to speak himself with a pending court case - Roger went on the attack and stuck up for his old pal through thick and thin; if our original hypothesis of The Who on this website is correct and The Who really is the sound of the school bully speaking the words of the class 'victim' then this is a neat full circle for two men who had nothing in common but a love for music when they started and who ended as equals, both coming to realise the true worth in each other). However Roger still can't relate to the words Pete is giving him (at least until 'Tea and Theatre' which is a sentiment he shares) and the result is like 'Face Dances' all over again - a great vocalist is singing songs that haven't been explained to him and which he doesn't understand and so can't live and breathe the way he used to. For his part Pete doesn't always sound as if he knows why he's here, singing more lead vocals than usual on a Who CD but rarely in his 'own voice' (Pete's 'acting' being Pete Townshend here, either because being himself was too painful in the public glare of the period or because it's been so long he's forgotten how to do this - or perhaps because, even forty years on, Pete still isn't sure who he is anymore). As for the backing band gathered to play like The Who even though most of them had never met the band before, they understandably struggle to re-create such a distinctive sound and only old friend and 'fifth Who' 'Rabbit' Brundrick digs deep into the songs to find the raw soul within (his playing on 'In The Ether' is exquisitely solemn, even while Townshend is going for laughs). The result could have sounded like a 'tribute' band, but in the end they don't sound remotely like The Who at all (at least until Zak Starkey comes along - and by rights he should have been on the whole record, but then he was on loan from fellow AAA-ers Oasis at the time).
The end result is a bit of a mess to be honest, unworthy of The Who name in all but a few places and suffering from the lack of John and Keith more than it lets on, whilst also hampered by Roger's aging voice and Pete's writer's block. Fans who praised it as the best Who work since the big guns either found something in this sorry set I didn't or were deluding themselves that the highs were a bit higher and the lows not as low as they feared they might be. There is, granted, a number of moments when the years fall away, the pieces fall into place and this reunion project makes perfect sense: The Who-style drive and fight of 'It's Not Enough' (an angrier 'You Better You Bet') and 'Pick Up The Peace' (a calmer 'Dr Jimmy'), the prisoner-falling-in-love-with-prison-guard storytelling of 'Black Widow's Eyes', the opening to 'In The Ether' and the bittersweet finale of 'Tea and Theatre'. However 'Endless Wire' is an album that spends so much time lurching from one extreme to another (especially in the 90-second-snippet-filled 'Wire and Glass' opera) that it doesn't spend enough time celebrating what it gets right and is all too quick to move on to some disastrous idea, like reducing The Pope to a 'man in a purple dress' speaking nonsense (an unusually cruel target: you can't blame one man for the sins of many, just as we don't blame The Who for rock and roll delivering us The Spice Girls), rhyming 'Sound' and 'Round' for no other reason than they sound like they should go together or writing a tribute song to a TV theme writer that basically says 'life is a bit rubbish and then I hear a quiz show theme and I'm cured!' The Who never made another album after 'Endless Wire' and they are now on - or so they've promised - their 'final' final farewell tour (we've been here before folks). That means that The Who catalogue will almost certainly end at this point and that's a shame because there is a great final mother of all concept albums inside Pete and Roger waiting to get out - you can hear it in the better moments of this album. 'Tea and Theatre' though a worthy last encore and if you treat the rest of this album as the same (the chance to wave goodbye and consolidate old themes, rather than explore new ones and re-launch The Who as a powerful force in modern music) then it does make more sense. Sometimes, though, with reunion albums it's a case of hearing what you want to hear from yesteryear and I fear that's a complaint from which we have no cure: we will get fooled again...
'Fragments' sounds naggingly familiar, as if the ghost of 'Baba O'Riley' is dancing a quickstep but on some noisy modern synthesiser that's apparently meant to sound retro - instead it sounds far more dated than the cutting edge ones used on 'Who's Next' (which were amongst the first synthesisers used on record, assuming for the moment than their precursor the mellotron was an 'analogue' bit of kit). However the song itself isn't too bad once the drums, Roger and Pete kick in, in that order and this is one of the few songs on the album that really does sound like The Who. The lyrics are as fragmented as the title suggests but at their best sound very traditionally Who too, taking the old favourite theme of identity and imaging mankind as a once-whole creation that's been 'burst into a billion little fragments' that have to track each other down to stay 'whole'. Oddly this isn't a Meher Baba principle but 'fits' with the philosophy of 'Tommy' and 'Quadropehnia' et al, that you can't cut yourself 'off' from other people however tempting that might be sometimes. Unfortunately, like many a song on 'Endless Wire', an interesting concept isn't taken much further and in practice most of the lyric comes across as a meditation tapes urging us to 'breath out' and 'breath in' to the rhythm of the life-force. Still, a positive start.
Roger is in good voice for 'A Man In A Purple Dress', but Pete's take on organised religion is less inspired. On the surface this is a song about the then-Pope John Paul II's hypocrisy by staying silent over the child sex abuse inquiries that were then rocketing the British and especially Irish press. Pete blames the Pope as the highest rung in the ladder for covering up the discussions and tries to make him out a foolish figure, a man in a dress who stands for nothing. Under the surface it's clearly more about wondering how human beings can be so wicked and evil and yet pretend they're doing good, with the Pope just standing for every cleric who ever used their position of power to abuse those who would never be listened to if they spoke out. Even under that Pete is singing from the point of view as an innocent whose been dragged through the mud while the 'real' villains are out there getting away with more crimes that nobody seems to be stopping. Usually Pete's songs of outrage and injustice are his best - especially when using the powerful voice of Roger to sing them ('Won't Get Fooled Again' being the obvious example, to which this song is a more specific sequel). But this is an unusual song - and a brave one to put second on your first album of new work in nearly a quarter of a century - and Pete trips over himself working out exactly who he blames while Roger sings with precision and quiet brooding rather than murderous intent. A few screams and a few names might have made this attack more worthy of space on the album, but in context of Pete's troubles of the time it feels more like him defensively going 'don't point the finger at me - point it at them!' while realising that his very real anger has to be turned down for a world audience. The Who don't often dilute their feelings, but it feels like that's what's going on here - maybe they should have kept this for the sequel and for the feelings of anger to die down? On the plus side, Roger has rarely had as much fun as he has here singing 'You men are pratts in your high hats!'
'Mike Post Theme' should work better than anything on the album. After all, it's a hymn to the power of music with Pete/Roger in the audience this time and experiencing how the 'listening to you' boomerang of feeling from the audience works firsthand. There are some witty songs about playing after all these years too and all the obstacles, defensively reasoning what no-good reviewers (like me!) are probably going to say and referencing 'My generation' while they do it: 'We're not bold enough, we're not cold enough, emotionally we're not even old enough!' However somewhere along the line the song unravels into a Who parody full of wildly thrashing guitars and Roger's screams with no reason for either - especially as the subject of this song isn't a fellow 60s refugee (you can imagine The Who being inspired by their old rivals The Kinks or the Stones) or some new kid on the block with the same rock and roll spirit (umm has any younger band ever had the same spirit? I guess Oasis if you're feeling generous but even they were long in the tooth by 2006...) but, umm, Mike Post, the composer of such US TV theme tunes as 'L.A. Law' 'Quantam Leap' 'Hill Street Blues' and the never-ending 'Law and Order'. Which goes to show that musical inspiration can come from anywhere I suppose, but somehow this revelation feels like a let down rather than a mischievous joke: The Who have now grown so apart from their younger selves that they're learning about the musical world from daytime TV, not the world of music bursting into action outside their door. 'We have to face the truth some time' runs the chorus, but the truth is that there's a little bit too much recycling and not enough inspiration going on here (Pete partly recycles the main bah-da-da-da-dah-dah riff from his solo song 'Stardom In Acton' from 'Chinese Cowboys' in 1982). There is, at least, a 'You Better You Bet' style saving grace near the end when Pete-Roger wonders how his wife ever puts up with him - he's too slow to propose and he's even slower to grow up but knows that every rockstar of every generation will go through the switch from taking down the world to 'writing a song for his common-law wife' in the end, just as The Who did. It's a nice bit of comedy on a song that doesn't know quite how seriously it wants to take itself.
'In The Ether' ought to be the best song here by a country mile. Pete is writing to be The Who or to sound like people want him to sound but instead pours out his heart and soul on an exquisite ballad about struggling to get up the courage to leave his wife of multiple decades for a new life with his new and patient girlfriend. Imagining himself caught in nothingness, unsure who he is anymore, it's a very Who expression of pain that uses the old references ('I can't explain where I am or how I'm in pain!') far more naturally than elsewhere on this CD. Pete is confused and frightened, but the 'rhythm' of the vibrations from the new person in his life (very Lifehouse!) both rocks him off to a comforting sleep and rocks him into action. By the end of the song, the pain has grown into becoming 'heavenly hell' as Pete realises that for him, now, nothing else exists but the prospect of new love dangling before him as the only practical way out of the 'ether'. An alternate reading has this as Pete's latest Meher Baba song, trying to reach out to his creator as his only hope for understanding life (even so the lines sound more romantically inspired than spiritual, but hey a song can have two interpretations and this wouldn't be the first Who song to be about both). So far so brilliant, but perhaps unsure of just how much of himself he wanted to reveal on this song Pete chickens out and goes for laughs, singing in a growl that's somewhere between a grizzly bear and a tone-deaf jazz troupe. This recording is painful to hear, which is perhaps apt given the painful place it comes from, but ultimately this song is about beauty and hope and a cleaner, sweeter Townshend vocal (or even one from Roger in falsetto if Pete really couldn't bring himself to be this naked and vulnerable) would have made the point so much clearer. Frankly it also comes far too early in this album - 'Ether' should be an emotional climax that we build too, not thrown away so early (plus it's subject matter makes it a better fit for the 'Wire and Glass' opera than most of the tracks that made it there). Rabbit Brundrick, perhaps Pete's most sympathetic musical partner post 'Quadrophenia', instantly 'gets' the song though and refuses to go for laughs, instead playing very haunting piano chords that help Townshend slowly find his way out of the maze of his own making. Even with all the things working against it, the beauty of this track still shines through and it's arguably the second-best here behind 'Tea and Theatre'.
'Black Widow's Eyes' is an interesting song to think about, if not always to listen to. Pete recounts the first-hand telling of a kidnapping (human trafficking was the other big scandal in the UK news of the time - and still is) through the eyes and voice of Roger, who acts out the scenario as if it was the most romantic moment of his life. This take on 'Stockhausen Syndrome' (captors falling in love with their jailors) is told like a Mills and Boon story with a touch of innuendo as the robber 'takes our your gun and shatters me'. What's 'really' going on arrives in verse three, where in an 'Athena' style reveal the narrator admits they were 'infatuated' by an intense situation and mistook it for 'real love' before later realising his mistake. There's a nice simile where Pete compares the growing feeling as being in a station when an 'express train thunders nearby' - there's nowhere to escape, the arrival is inevitable and you can feel it rumbling for an eternity beforehand. Otherwise, however, this song feels a little bland by Who standards, with a simple switch between chorus and verse that doesn't leave much room for expression or windmilling and the ending (where she is abandoned at the station pining for her lover-robber) is terribly cliched by Who standards: he should have been hit by a train at the very least. Still, this song wins a few merits for trying something nobody had really done in song before (at least to my knowledge - apparently the internet's too one quick search later).
Next we're back at the religious pulpit, with Pete celebrating/denigrating 2000 years of Christianity (or at least that's what we assume - Pete allegedly wrote it after watching the Mel Gibson film 'The Passion Of The Christ', perhaps the most controversial and divisive movie made since 'Tommy'). Pete-Roger have been waiting for a sign that is clearly long overdue and for someone to take up the reigns of Christianity, wanting to know if he got it 'right' and that 'I have loved you' or 'I have served you' well and weren't just wasting their time. However the song doesn't seem a pure fit there and so this track might be the one clear Meher Baba song on the album (according to his followers he was the last 'prophet' sent by God), it sounds as if even as big a believer as Pete is beginning to have his doubts with all that's happened to him and the world since the last Who album. Baba's main belief is that every human has been 'imagined' by God and we are here to as a 'test' to create the ultimate world in the future, like some giant version of 'The Sim's computer game. This track has Pete impatiently waiting for the end of the programme, feeding back into this record's theme of loss by wondering what John and Keith are up to on the 'other side'. Pete also ties in the new love of his life, wondering if the chance to love was 'as you intended' and whether 'you really lived and died for me'. Unfortunately, as with so many of these 'Endless Wire' songs, a good idea feels trapped in a groove the song is reluctant to leave and what could have been a nice song full of mystery and magic ends up a song that keeps saying the same things over and over. Roger sounds good - amazingly so given that this isn't exactly a natural fit with his voice either - but Pete's off-hand harmony vocal doesn't.
One of the more obvious songs of loss, maybe it was Entwistle's death or some other close friend that inspired Pete to think about the death in 1982 of another childhood hero, singer-songwriter-guitarist-racing driver Marty Robbins (a fascinating character, he gave up a primetime variety show on TV to race Nascar cars - and largely be disqualified for not having the right qualifications, taking part just because his money allowed him to). Or maybe, given the timing, Pete is really singing about the 'loss' of The Who here and having to put to bed a particularly huge part of his life for all those years given that this song works better as autobiography than tribute (Robbins is mentioned only once in the song bar the title). Pete imagines 'himself' being born into the world 'on a whim', 'opening one eye' after being asleep for an eternity and waking from a dream 'to hear the music play'. In the song the music that comes from the heavens is 'predicting Marty Robbins', perhaps Pete's early sojourns with the wireless in his bedroom knowing that he'd hear something worth listening if only he persevered. 'Music and time were the perfect plan' he sighs, recalling his other autobiographical song 'Guitar and Pen' as he sings the most Who-like lines on the album about music being his companion while he 'needed to grow and know exactly Who I Am'. Another fascinating lyric, but unfortunately for a song about music being inspiration and muse this song doesn't sound all that inspired - the music is a few quiet folkie acoustic lines that come and go without really forming into much of a melody. Pete's best performance on the album can't disguise the fact that Roger might have sung it better though or that this track would be better suited to passion rather than muted thought. Still, Pete's revealing songs are often amongst his best and while not amongst the best it's good to hear another postmodernist take on songwriting from a musician who probably spent more time thinking about his craft and why he does it than most.
'It's Not Enough' is so clearly designed as the album's single that it's strange to report it never was released as such. Perhaps significantly, the most Who-like song on the album, with a weight and power the other songs lack, largely wasn't written by The Who at all but by Pete's girlfriend Rachel Fuller who helped out when her boyfriend suffered writer's block with an album to compose (he takes co-billing for changing a few things around). It's intriguing as her take on her boyfriend's perfectionist tendencies and is clearly written by someone who knows Pete well, perhaps better than he does (the same goes for Polly Samson's lyrics for David Gilmour in this period). Roger roars that he/Pete always needs 'that little bit more' and can never be satisfied, no matter how much work he puts in, no matter how much money he spends to do good, no matter how much he creates, he's always chasing something more. Equally, as per 'You Better You Bet' and 'A Little Is Enough', no matter how much Roger-Pete opens his heart, gives his heart and soul and offers everything to the universe, the outside world always asks him for more (Pete is a classic INFJ if you know your Myers-Briggs types!) You hope that Pete wrote the middle eight, though, given that it's effectively his promise of devotion to his co-writer and co-partner: 'My friend once warned me of you, that you'd hasten my end, because I have leant every ounce of my juice and my essence is spent'. However Pete comes to a realisation: he can't ever express his love enough because it's just too powerful. He imagines losing 'her' to another and the pain it will cause and fits in an in-joke for vocalist Roger 'I'm the one who will scream, but it won't be enough!' However, while this is one of the album's better songs, with an angular chug and menace that suits The Who and emotional power galore for Roger to get his teeth into and a proper chorus and mega production values to boot...fittingly perhaps, somehow it's still not quite enough. The song feels slightly hollow, slightly too angry, slightly too confused, slightly too pedestrian by The Who's high standards while the lead guitar really doesn't sound like Pete despite the album credit (I'm willing to bet 'acoustic guitarist' Jolyon Dixon performed it instead).
'You Stand By Me' is an 'I'm One' style song about solidarity in numbers and the importance of belonging to a 'group' not for identity but for salvation. Pete is clearly singing about his recent child porn charges on this track as he thanks either Roger or Rachel or both for getting him through some hard times and believing in him unquestionably when it seemed most of the rest of the world didn't. Pete knows now, unlike his younger 'Jimmy' self, that he can survive alone - but he feels 'pride' by the people taking his side 'against those who lied' and if they believe in him then he feels he can too. 'You are the strongest back I've ever known' Pete sighs in awe at the partner(s?) who helped carry him singlehandedly out of trouble. A sweet song then, but like many on 'Endless Wire' there still doesn't sound enough of substance here - the point could have been made in a verse, not a whole song and doesn't really lead anywhere. The tune is also so close to 'I'm One' that Pete would be suing himself for plagiarism if that weren't just silly, even if it is rather lovely to hear Pete back playing the acoustic guitar again.
The whole of the second half of the album is taken up with the 'Wire and Glass' mini-opera, which is more of a suite of supposedly interconnected songs a la 'Tommy' rather than a single track of the 'A Quick One' variety' - The Who's first, really, since 'Quadrophenia' (even if most of their albums share a 'theme'). The bad news is, even with knowing the novella that inspired it, 'Wire and Glass' is a hard piece to follow - a lot more impenetrable than 'Lifehouse' which did make sense even if it was all cerebral rather than action-based and the songs didn't always reflect the plot - and many of the most 'relevant' songs to the plot have already been heard as full standalone pieces in act one! The good news is that the fast and furious pace means these songs sound a lot more Who-like and though largely recorded separately they do have a certain flow and ebb to them.
'Sound Round' for instance has perhaps the single best Who-like charge of the record as a guesting Zak Starkey pushes the band so hard that the decades slip away. Roger's narrator is 'young and in my camper van' (going mobile?) while 'the world seems old - and new'. Returning to 'My Generation', the narrator has kind of woken up to find his friends 'dead and gone' just as they once promised - which is surely a reference to John and Keith. After waking from a long slumber the Pete-Roger hybrid monster can feel the 'pulse' once more like they used to as youngsters - the same pulse they felt 'listening to' their audience on songs like 'Listening To You' and 'Relay'. This song is simpler than both, being basically about a 'sound' that 'goes round', but that's no bad thing with The Who's spot-on return to their old years (Roger especially sounds thirty years younger!) being one of the single best things on the record. Shame is only lasts 81 seconds though...
'Pick Up The Peace' continues the good work, with a pretty good summary of the slightly slower Who sound circa 'Tommy' and 'Quadrophenia' (this is a calmer 'Dr Jimmy' with many of the same chords) and one of the better lyrics of the album. Roger-Pete is back 'in the ether', witnessing the three children he'll go on to befriend whilst feeling cocooned and separate from time and space. In the story narrator Ray High can see how their lives will work out already on first meeting (did we mention? INFJ!) and regrets, 'Who Are You?' style, at 'losing the game they've won' simply by growing older and losing touch with the public. However this isn't a sad song but one of great hope and spirit as Roger urges us to pick ourselves up and 'get off our hands and knees' in a way that only a singer with his authoritative bark can. The result is another fine song with a much tighter performance than the standalone songs - but at just 88 seconds barely seems worth plugging the guitar in for. This could have been a whole concept album by itself and feels rather thrown away reduced like this with only one verse and chorus and a whole lot of brilliant shouting.
'Unholy Trinity' talks about the three teenagers who make up the 'Household Glass' band - and yes it does seem more than just a coincidence that The Who were a trio for years before Keith joined (they just used short-term 'filler' drummers back then) and were again when they started this album. Three different children from three very different backgrounds and with three different characters find things that makes them all smile and they all 'hear the music and remember being free'. In another reference to an old friend, Roger sings that 'We Are The Sea', the three of them finding unity by dreaming the same dream and fighting the same fights with music replacing the darkness in their lives - the 'sea' being a usual Who/Meher Baba metaphor for love. Alas this folkie number isn't as memorable as the previous two songs and is again very short - at 127 seconds it doesn't exactly outstay it's welcome - but it's still a cut above some tracks here.
Alas 'Trilby's Piano' is one of those impenetrable Pete-sung songs that Roger probably admitted he hadn't got a clue how to sing. A number of quickstepping rhymes ('My angel Trilby said I will be what I should still be...') try to make commercial a song that manages to cover the album themes of love, loss and religion all in one. My guess - and this really is a guess compared to most Townshend songs - is that it's nothing to do with the musical or the plot or the ether or band of teenagers at all but another love-song-with-a-twist for Rachel. 'No one else could ever love me blind like this' Pete coos, perhaps the most in love we've ever heard him (and a little is definitely not enough this time round), while he also references fate from three different religions ('Hymie' being a slang word for a Jew - not usually a good one, though it's worth pointing out that in period interviews for this album Pete admitted another nagging memory brought up by writing his autobiography was how much he identified with the Jewish Polish boys he grew up with in his neighbourhood- this sounds more like childish teasing than anything else). The problem in the song is that nothing is simple: every relationship seems to be in a love triangle - the downside of the unholy trinity - and becoming two after becoming one is difficult when you run around in threes. Or something like that. To be honest I suspect even Pete isn't too sure what this song is all about. The song ought to be a pretty one, but sadly the tune has been dosed with some very artificial sounding strings, which recall 'Street In The City' (from Pete and Ronnie Lane's 1977 spin-off album 'Rough Mix') but without the same class.
Finally we get round to the title track as 'Endless Wire' finds the unholy trinity breaking into Ray's house and reading the 'masterplan' of the 'ether man'. The three look on numbly as they realise that their whole future has been mapped out for them by a man who doesn't really exist in their 'dimensions' and they re-act with confusion and doubt. Though this song features one classic rhyming couplet ('He'd show us to our portals...to entertain the mortals') this song is more plot and exposition than song and recalls the 'linking' songs from 'Tommy' like 'Extra Extra' and 'Go To The Mirror' more than anything else. The fact that the chorus is slow and dirge-like and features the words 'endless...endless...endless' over and over again also make this track seem a lot longer than it's 111 seconds really are.
'Fragments Of Fragments' is more Baba O'Riley style strings and synths, repeating the opening lines about 'breathing' from 'Fragments' as the characters get disassembled and sent back through time and space to the prehistoric days before The Spice Girls came along (or something like that). It's basically the same song with less hope and more sarcasm, with multiple Pete's singing rather than Roger as they sing in a 'soundround' overlapping each other. The lyrics have the distanced parts trying to reassemble and become 'one' again, but the confusion of the song and the slightly awkward tone of the performance suggests that they haven't quite got it there yet. In Lifehouse there was a 'note' that united everybody, as projected through an early version of the internet - here there's just a jumble of notes as people breathe 'in' and 'out' at different times. What they need is a conductor. What they need is The Who - oops sorry, The Glass Household.
Who arrive with a bang on The Who pastiche 'We Got A Hit!' The song is far too short to do this part of the plot justice (the full length version included on most copies of the CD as a bonus track is better and adds a full 90 seconds to the 80 second original) but it works well as an affectionate reminder of what The Who were and what they were all about. 'We broke down barriers, we found a dream and we were the carriers!' roars Roger as we get another 'Listening To You' style song about The Who reflecting the feelings of their audience and sending it right back to them as a lightning rod. Just as this song is getting a bit too self-congratulatory though comes a very Who-style second verse slap: 'We talked a load of crap...but they wanted more, we got a hit!' The verse 'cut' from the record (well, included at the end as an afterthought) runs as follows: 'We came under pressure, we needed time to fly, inside the case of treasure there was an evil eye!' Suddenly that 'hit' doesn't sound such 'good news' as The Who become jaded and cynical and lose sight of their purpose in coming together in the first place. Performed rather aptly with the bounce of The Who's earlier days (think 'Happy Jack' and 'I'm A Boy') you have to ask why the band hadn't sounded like this before as they were clearly still capable of sounding like their young selves on short bursts of magic like this. Another of the album's better songs and better heard in full.
The one link that works really well is having the sarcastic rejoinder to all that freedom and hope turn into the even more bitter and sarcastic 'They Made My Dream Come True'. Pete sings a lyric of his sadder memories from The Who (sorry The Glass...) rock and roll circus: the people who died in the audience, those who sobbed when the band split up and the 'lies and drugs and drunks and fools' who went alongside the rock and roll juggernaut that was meant to spread enlightenment not all this mess. Pete knew what he was getting into though (and in the context of the story Ray knew how it was going to end anyway) and sighs angrily 'Is this not all just part of the showbiz rules?' Sounding not unlike 'Behind Blue Eyes' this sad lament manages to sound just 'true' enough to overcome the bitterness in the lyrics - the way Pete sings it, he still might just feel that this period of his life was his dreams 'coming true' because it allowed him to communicate for good or bad. Again, a longer version of the song would have had more impact though.
'Mirror Door' is prime Who recalling Tommy smashing the mirror with a sudden moment of clarity and realising who he is or Jimmy the Mod deciding that he'd actually quite like to live after all even if life is one long list of disappointments or the performers of 'My Generation' figuring that actually they'd rather like to get old and stay alive if it's all the same to you on 'Who By Numbers'. In this work the 'mirror' is on the one hand death (or at least the ether-filled version of it) as the young band grow old disgracefully and end up in the same place Ray High has been across the mini-opera; on the other hand, as Pete admitted in interviews, the 'mirror' was his way of re-acting to his audience and using the act of creativity to work out what he and his generation were really trying to say and have the music help put it into words. The 'mirror door' is a world beyond without the need for words or individuals, it just 'is' with everyone's feelings and personalities intermingling (the 'true' end for 'Lifehouse' before 'Won't Get Fooled Again' became associated with the ending). It's also a chance for re-birth (by rights this Meher Baba-inspired song should come with water imagery too...), with Pete-Roger-Ray wondering what he'll be once he makes it out of the 'mirror door' and back onto Earth again, will he be rich - or poor? At peace - or at war? 'Ray' snaps with the impatience of one from afar who can't understand that no one on Earth can hear him and who live their lives in ignorant bliss of what comes next. There are also references back to 'Tommy' and 'Quadrophenia' where music is a uniting force for good and an expression that makes the creator feel 'important' when he taps into what he sees beyond the 'mirror door': 'I always looked for a place where I could belong - but you can find me in this song' (how INFJ?!?). Sadly after such a promising multi-layered beginning the song settles down into rock and roll tribute song, with a long list of names of those dearly missed that are both expected ('Buddy, Elvis, Eddie C' - 'Summertime Blues' performer Cochran, naturally) and unexpected ('Amadeus and Ludwig Van, Henry Johann and the Doo Dah Band' - more commonly known as Pete's classical 'heroes' Mozart, Beethoven, Purcell, Bach and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band). While it makes sense The Who would want to pay tribute to their heroes it's a shame it had to come at the expense of what sounded like a more interesting and entirely different song. Still, balancing concepts with a catchy tune is what The Who do best and it's good to find them remembering that at least once before the record ends.
The final encore is even more moving. 'Tea and Theatre' is a more personal look at loss, with John and Keith very much in the imagery. Realising that there are just two people left who shared all those times together, Roger's voice and Pete's words invite the other for a quick onstage hug as they celebrate all those times shared and milestones achieved they were too busy to enjoy the first time round. 'We did it all - didn't we?' asks Roger, his voice now an awed whisper compared to the know-it-all rough and ready teen of The Who's earliest years. But doing what The Who did was always going to come with a price and so it is here, laid bare in the simplest terms possible: 'One of us gone, one of us mad, one of us me, all of us sad'. I'm not sure whether it's Keith or John who 'failed' (Keith died youngest but most people around him were amazed he made it to age 32 as his life was a runaway train; John died perhaps more needlessly): both men's deaths certainly changed The Who sound and lead to a 'great dream derailed'. It seems so odd and yet so right after all those years of open warfare to hear what may well be the final song on the final Who album actively cultivate a peace, as Roger-Pete urges the other to 'lean on my shoulder - it's over now'. However while band members die and bands split and reunite their music lives on forever and this isn't a sad song so much as a celebratory one. The songs 'still smoulder' after all those years and that's good enough for one lifetime so Pete and Roger leave the stage, arm in arm, for a farewell tribute drink: not the boze this time but a simple, humble cup of tea, their work done. *Sniff*No of course I'm not crying, I just have something in my eye that's all - honest! Who'd have though the journey that started with being unable to explain or an unwillingness to grow old should end with The Who eruditely saying what they'd been trying to say from the first and embrace old age, frailty and death. It's a remarkable farewell song and about as fitting an ending as The Who could ever have, finally putting an end to the admittance at the end of the 'first' career (on 'Cry If You Want' from 1982's 'It's Hard') that nothing had really changed and Pete's narrator was still as scared as when he started for here, at last, he's found peace.
'Tea and Theatre' then is a proud and dignified end to a long and worthy career and 'Endless Wire' is worth existing just to offer us that definitive goodbye. Other bits of the album really comes together too though these are, perhaps, more qualified successes: 'In The Ether' 'It's Not Enough' 'Pick Up The Peace' 'We Got A Hit' and 'Mirror Door' all have something worth saying or say nothing particularly well. The problem comes with treating this album as one that's worthy enough to stand alongside the 'big boys' of the 1960s and 1970s and as an actual living, breathing (out and in) work in its own right. Though the ideas are there they're largely too complex and ambitious to work in the way they've been presented here (though, like 99.9% of Who fans, I never got to see it before it closed I sense the 'musical' version of the internet novella 'The Boy Who Heard Music' works a lot better with more space for the songs to breathe) or feature lightweight vague memories of what The Who used to be until well into the album's second half, at times coming across more like a Rutles-version of the band than a band featuring two core founder members. Though every Who album is wildly different and they vary in quality occasionally too the other ten all had something in common (yes, even 'Face Dances') - they were all memorable and provided something no other band could possibly have given the world. 'Endless Wire' feels a bit more ordinary and less memorable until things finally come together right near the end, less special somehow - even though this album should have been even more special after fans had grown up across a generation assuming there would never be another Who album. The weight of expectation is ultimately just too much to bear, even if fans and critics alike were jumping over themselves to congratulate the band just for coming back. In truth what we needed as a full finale was a whole album up to the complexity and emotions of the last two tracks without so much filler material, but then the odds were stacked against them with Pete suffering from writer's block since 1993 and Roger's last few solo albums not a patch on his first. In that context it's impressive 'Endless Wire' is as good as it is and I guess any Who after so long away is welcome in any form. Thanks goodness they didn't die before they got old, eh? Just, please, don't call this album 'the best since 'Who's Next' ever again - it's an interesting coda to The Who canon, not a major chapter.
Other News, Whos, Reviews and Music from this site includes:
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
'The Who Sing My Generation' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-who-sing-my-generation-1965.html
'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
'It's Hard' (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-who-its-hard-1982-album-review.html
'Endless Wire' (2006) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-who-endless-wire-2006.html
‘WHO’ (2019) https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-who-who-2019.html
'Quadrophenia' (Director's Cut Box Set) (2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/abeach-is-place-where-man-can-feel-hes.html
'Quadrophenia' (Director's Cut Box Set) (2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/abeach-is-place-where-man-can-feel-hes.html
Surviving Who TV Clips 1965-2015 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-who-surviving-tv-and-film-clips.html
Non-Album Recordings Part One 1964-1967 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-who-non-album-recordings-part-one.html
Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1968-2014 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-who-non-album-recordings-part-two.html
Pete Townshend “Scoop” 1-3 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/the-who-pete-townshends-scoop-demo.html
The Best Unreleased Who Recordings https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-who-best-unreleased-recordings.html
Live/Solo/Rarities/Competition Albums Part One 1965-1972
Live/Solo/Rarities/Competition Albums Part Two 1972-1975 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/the-who-livesolocompilationrarities_9.html
Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Three 1976-1982
Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Four 1983-1990 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/the-who-livesolocompilationrarities_23.html
Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Five 1991-2000 https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/the-who-livesolocompilationrarities_30.html
Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Six 2001-2014
Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-who-five-landmark-concerts-and.html
Essay: Who Are You And Who Am I?: http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-who-essay-who-are-you-and-who-am-i.html