You can now buy 'Gettin' In Tune - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Who' in e-book form by clicking here
Oddly for a band whose most famous line was the impatience that they had to die before they got old and decayed, Who fans have had to learn a lot of patience through the 21st century. The fabled comeback album ‘Endless Wire’ was delayed by John Entwistle’s death in 2002 before turning up fashionably late in 2006 (a mere twenty-four years after the last album ‘It’s Hard’) and word was that the sequel would be right on its heels, an idea repeated most tours since then. In the end it’s taken another thirteen years for an album which has itself had its release date pushed back twice this year until it barely made it out for Christmas with a release date of December 6th, though more due to problems with the tour (where Roger lost his voice early on and had to have surgery to remove pre-cancerous cells – surgery that, fingers crossed, has done its job). Witty reviewers have been pointing out that at this rate Pete and Roger will be in their late eighties before we get a sequel and so this is in all likelihood the last Who album and have picked up on one of this album’s lines ‘one last rampage!’ I’m not sure I agree though; they said that about the last album which made this one on target to arrive not before 2030 and if ever a band are going to continue till they drop it’s The Who. I keep hoping that somehow Pete and Roger will get the recording bug again, realise how much they’re needed and that they still have so much to say (with a voice that still sounds remarkably capable of saying it compared to Roger’s fading peers).
The Who are undoubtedly as relevant as ever they were, the sound of truth and sarcasm bearing its teeth in the face of a society that demands more than ever that young popstars toe the line and behave (‘I will always be the one to speak the truth, if it don’t hurt’ is the tagline to ‘Break The News’), appealing only to the lowest common denominator who would probably run away screaming if they met The Who in a dark tunnel, even now. For our modern times the sound is spot on (bassist Pino Pallodini and drummer Zak Starkey sounding like John and Keith used to, while Pete and Roger can get on with the business of sounding like they do now): it’s how a 21st century Who would sound, with their crisp timeless sound matched to a roughly modern production, the way ‘Who’s Next’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ did. This is itself a huge improvement on ‘Endless Wire’ which was trying too hard to sound like a modern album by a modern band, albeit one that was making a deeply unfashionable rock opera. By contrast I defy anyone who didn’t know the band name to detect that ‘WHO’ isn’t by a bunch of hungry young wannabes rather than a band celebrating their 55th birthday. However what’s odd about this is that Pete’s songwriting, always so up-to-date and aware of the modern world in all it’s fallacies and self-destruction and potential greatness, doesn’t go anywhere near the modern world once. In the thirteen years since the last album the career of whole bands have come and gone, not to mention various stories in the media that seem like they belong to an era before this g-g-g-g-generation, with songs from this album about 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay released into a world that has largely left these sad memories for yesteryear and has moved on to what random fake war Donald Trump is going to start next in the erroneous belief it makes him look good and the startling statistic that there are now more foodbanks in Britain than there are McDonalds. There’s no mention of anything that’s happened in the last decade and even our curmudgeonly AAA oldies like Neil Young and Cat Stevens have caught up with that now. I would love to know Pete’s take on Trump or Brexit for instance and whether the changes in technology since the last album have brought us closer to or further away from the dystopian/utopian imagery of ‘Lifehouse’, but alas all that seems to have ended up being diverted into Pete’s new novel instead (‘The Age Of Anxiety’; the answer is mostly that it makes him scared). The world is a mess and we need The Who more than ever before, their rage and power and sharp edges and if there’s a theme to this album then I’m pleased to say that it’s a nod to ‘We Won’t Get Fooled Again’, the idea that the band are older but also, somehow, wiser, and they can see through all the band-aids that the world has plastered over it’s real problems hoping they’d just go away. Far more so than ‘Endless Wire’, which was an album largely recycled from all the hooks that The Who were most famous for, ‘WHO’ sounds like a living breathing embodiment of all things the band ever stood for, at last.
Unexpectedly, though, the old Who sound it most recalls is ‘Who By Numbers’. You would think from a band this aged and from the first of their albums to be named after the band (something groups traditionally do with their first re3cord) that they would be full of their own identity by now, confident and self-assured, but not a bit of it. The first major release in the Whoniverse since Pete wrote his autobiography ‘Who I Am’, ‘WHO’ is kind of the band’s equivalent: for all that they’ve done, for all the units of vinyl shifted, for all of the books written about them and assumptions made, Pete still doesn’t know who the Who are and never did. ‘I know you’re gonna hate this song!’ is almost this album’s first line, recalling ‘New Song’ as Pete imagines what perhaps Roger or maybe his fans will say about his new work, while ‘Rockin’ Rage’ admits that ‘I’m too old to fight…and might as well be mute’ in one of the most direct throwbacks yet to the band’s most famous generational song, while other songs have the entirety of The Who as a ’detour’ when Pete expected to be doing something else with his life or has the narrator actively getting in touch with the audience he knows he’s been ignoring for decades now (‘Street Song’). ‘Hero Ground Zero’ is also a fascinating song – for all the 9/11 references it sounds to me as if it’s set in the early 1980s when Pete felt ‘the heat of a new sunrise’ on his back, but his band were more interested in being ‘rockstars who wanted to make movies’ (quite a dig at Roger, that). This isn’t an album that sounds like anything else in the AAA canon though: our other septuagenarians worked out who they were a long time ago and have either grown to accept it (Cat Stevens),get nostalgic (Paul McCartney), act like our elder and superior because he warned us this was all going to happen (Roger Waters), worry about what comes next (Paul Simon) or ignore it (most everybody else). By contrast ‘WHO’ sounds like a slightly slower version of debut ‘My Generation’, split between being full of guilt for the fact that the band can’t fit in and half mocking the world that does. Pete has lost little of his bitterness and Roger still has the ability to put across that rage well, angry on behalf of the political prisoners still being kept in Guantanamo Bay, angry at the fire-fighting-fire that happened in the wake of 9/11, angry that the 1960s utopia died out when the decade did and nobody really came along to carry on the mantle, angry that they still have to be doing this and pointing out life’s imperfections instead of living in a perfect world. Only on ‘I’ll Be Back’, already this album’s most divisive song amongst fans, do The Who sound middle-aged (and then only middle, not old-aged). However, as with Pete’s darkness of the soul works in the mid-1970s, he no longer feels capable of ‘joining the parades’ – he has nothing to say that will comfort us and feels just as lost and messed-up as we do and feels as if he’s just going through the motions. For all that this gives ‘WHO’ a faintly depressing tone though (and even though this album is clearly less inspired and courage than the exquisite ‘Who By Numbers’), at least this is honest and makes ‘WHO’ sound like a much more ‘WHO’ album than ‘Endless Wire’ ever did.
I’ve noticed, while going back through the reviews in my Who book in order (‘Getting’ In Tune’, out in October next year folks!) how much of Pete’s writing seems to be a search for identity. There’s that band name for a start as well as various rock-operas exploring characters trying to find their place in the world (‘Tommy’ after outside hurt, Jimmy The Mod from Quadrophenia from the pressure of growing up, the characters in ‘Lifehouse’ growing up isolated and alone, ruled by a wicked tyrant government that thinks it’s trying to keep them safe). It all came crashing down in 1975 when Pete admitted he didn’t know who he was anymore and could no longer keep the truth from us – that he was a washed-up drunk has-been who’d been fooling us all this time. Quite apart from the fact that he was wrong (the brilliance of The Who was that they reflected our own less than perfect selves) ‘Who By Numbers’ brought identity back to the forefront of The Who sound again in 1975. If ‘Endless Wire’ sounds more like the albums that followed, the cleverly written and catchy but ultimately less satisfying batch of material from 1978-1982, then ‘WHO’ is back at that worry again: what place is there in the world for a writer-guitarist and a singer who retired decades ago but could somehow never quite stop? Pete never quite finds it across these songs, but it’s the fact that he’s back looking for it that brings the special magic to this album and particularly the first half, the old teenage belief that stability and happiness are right around the corner. It’s as if, when Meher Baba supposedly told Pete in 1980 to ‘keep playing guitar with The Who until further notice’ Townshend has been straining to hear what that further notice might be and still hopes he might find it, but is ready to fill in more passing time with another album (it’s notable that while Baba’s influence was strong on ‘Endless Wire’ here he’s restricted to the bonus track ‘Danny and My Ponies’).
As an aside, traditionally most of The Who’s cover illustrators have picked up on this sense of identity, of needing to belong to something without being quite sure what. You can see it in the trendy pop art outlines on ‘A Quick One’, the blue tunnels of spirit on ‘Tommy’, on John Entwistle’s join-the-dots illustration for ‘Numbers’ (where until the links are made the drawing could be of almost anything) and the sixteen-heads-as-one cover for ‘Face Dances’. Failing this The Who have always just gone with a generic ‘photo’ cover, usually one with the band playing up to camera as if laughing at how their peers do this kind of thing (‘My Generation’ Who’s Next’ ‘Who Are You’ and at a push the modern look of ‘It’s Hard’). ‘WHO’ has perhaps the most banal cover of them all with its mixture of imagery and symbolism fans will recognise (from boxers to Chuck Berry to baked beans, via pinball to mod scooters). Peter Blake’s third cover for the band is sadly more like his ‘greatest hits’ work for The Who than his genuinely daring one for ‘Face Dances’ and its all clearly meant to hit the nostalgia trail. Clever marketing maybe, but it feels wrong for an album that if nothing else is trying so hard to be honest throughout. At least no one is sitting in the baked beans risking hypothermia this time though, so at least something has developed in fifty years of making records.
One thing that alas doesn’t quite work is that this album was largely recorded in two separate parts – and it sounds it too. For all that Pete and Roger sound closer than ever in interviews these days they are clearly still struggling to work together and recorded all their parts separately. That leaves Pete in charge of the backing tracks on one side of the Atlantic, ably assisted by three bassists and three drummers (but the bulk by Piano and Zak) and unsung hero and Pete’s younger brother Simon who gets his first ever song on a Who album after thirty loyal years on the road (the nicely Who-ish ‘Break The News’). Roger, meanwhile, added his vocals later half the world away with Bob Pridden and Dave Eringa overseeing his parts. As far as I can tell Roger had little input into what Pete wrote for him – and Pete had little input into how Roger sang his words. At times this dichotomy shows: though snug, the two don’t quite fit. Roger sounds as if he’s singing along to a band who are playing in the next room, not flying centre-focus in the eye of the hurricane the way he used to. It also sounds like a Pete Townshend solo album with a guest lead vocalist rather than a true collaboration, although I guess there’s only so much input a singer who reportedly hated writing songs can ever have. Even so, as much as Pete has been telling us lately that he’s been ‘writing the sort of songs that Roger could enjoy singing’ I’m not altogether convinced by that either: the man who famously disagreed with the deeply personal nature of ‘Who By Numbers’ and ‘Who Are You?’ sounded much more comfortable on Pete’s more generic story-telling songs from ‘Endless Wire’ than he does here channelling the personal view of a brain that, by all accounts, couldn’t be less like his own. However Roger at least still has his roar largely intact to get him out of trouble; it’s Pete who really sounds lost on his own vocal tracks, underplaying his own performance so that they sound more like they belong to a different band than ever. If you happen to own the deluxe version of this album (and I’m not altogether sure you should, given that for once all the good stuff really did make the parent album) then hearing a mid-twenties Pete singing lead on ‘Got Nothing To Prove’ just pushes the point home even more: that Pete lived for every line even when he didn’t expect anyone outside close family and friends to ever his demo tapes; this Pete is putting on a ‘performance’ and on this album particularly that seems like the ‘wrong’ thing to do. If I was to put my cynical writer’s head on for a moment Worzel Gummidge style (you know, the one that has the same look of withering scorn that Pete di on the ‘My Generation’ cover) I could also tell you that things fall apart a bit on the album’s second half, when the band get out the synthesisers and slow down the tempo to a crawl for too many unfinished-sounding tracks in a row. The lyrics of this album are again stronger than the melodies, as if they are easier nowadays for Pete to write. I also laughed my reviewer socks off yet again at the people who said this album is the band’s best since ‘Quadrophenia’ as they’ve been saying every since 1975 – it’s hardly that.
No matter though – what other band even got close to ‘Quadrophenia’ in forty odd years? No that would be asking too much and all you can really ask of a modern-day album by a one-time giant who retired once because they had nothing to say is that it doesn’t hurt their legacy. The great news is that ‘WHO’ does all that and more and this album still gets one hell of a lot more right than it gets wrong. While there’s nothing here to match the highlights of even the lesser last Who run of ‘Face Dances’ and ‘It’s Hard’, ‘WHO’ is a consistently impressive record that only messes up a couple of times. Every song sounds like it could have been recorded by the ‘old’ band and a logical extension of where it all started with ‘I Can’t Explain’, a return to the simple brilliance of the sixties Who rather than the eighties Who of ‘Endless Wire’. This is something helped greatly by the power in the rhythm section admittedly, but Pete’s writing too sounds far more like his old self, as intellectual as ‘Wire’ yet far more emotionally charged. Pete and Roger aren’t just thrashing about as if they’re twenty either – there’s a layer of wisdom and understanding to this record that Pete could never have written during his younger years (dare I say it, is ‘Beads On A String’ Pete finding faith in a religion that isn’t Babaism?!?), but equally this isn’t a band who have worked out all the answers to life a long time ago and no longer have to keep in touch with their audience. Best of all there are lashings and lashings of that famous Townshend guitar underpinning everything, the first time we’ve heard it so loud in the mix since the early 1970s back where it should be. Pete sounds as messed up as ever he did, aching to belong to something bigger than himself and desperate for forgiveness, whilst as cynical as ever that the people in charge of keeping us safe and well do any such thing. There’s a moment in ‘Ball and Chain’where Pete surprises you by suddenly making his narrator middle-aged and dying of a tumour: so successful are the opening two minutes at being everything the 1960s Who stood for you could easily believe you had travelled back in time. The Who are still our ‘heroes’ who sound ready to ‘take off’ and reach new heights if only this album sells enough copies to let them and who have grown up, but who are still very much in touch with the adolescents they always were (hence my favourite line from the album: ‘I was touched by angels, who told me my future was…postponed’). WHO cares if that teenage wasteland is still stretching into old age, for this band know better than to pretend they have all the answers and WHO fans know better than to make their heroes pretend. The Who are back on track at last and if this is to be a last hurrah then it is a noble coda to a great legacy that in true Who style does thing nobody else in their g-g-g-g-generation ever could.
Album opener ‘All This Music Will Fade’ is ‘New Song’ done properly, with a few sneaky tips of the hat to ‘Substitute’ along the way. Pete-Roger never did get to become ‘black’ the way they wanted and now they’re grey they’re well aware they aren’t relevant to the music world anymore. They have no drive anymore to change the world because the world is never changed just by a song and the days of a movement for good being driven by songs is long gone. They don’t care what we think anyway because ‘we never really got along’ spits out Roger, though it is perhaps Pete talking to Roger or maybe the two of them talking to us, with memories of what happened last time (when ‘Endless Wire’ was a respectable rather than billion seller). For all that this song keeps telling us over and over why we shouldn’t be listening to this old and supposedly dated band though, it’s so hard to look away. There’s a great line that has Pete trying to get angry at everyone stealing his songs, before admitting that he’s no saint and he’s done it too. This is the one song on the album to be driven by a rock and roll riff, a fat heavy guitar sound that’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ in a tumble-dryer, falling over itself to try and grab our attention. Zak sounds impressively like his God-dad Keith Moon. Roger sounds magnificent, as if he’s found the secret of eternal youth as he fully invests in Pete’s mocking lyric in a way his younger self never could back in 1978. Sadly he won’t sound quite this good for the rest of the album, but for a second there this could easily be a vintage Who outtake. After a year of not really hearing any rock and roll on the radio at all (even Liam G’s biggest hit this year was a ballad) it sounds so utterly devastatingly good that you can’t ignore it, so immediate and dangerous and everything that was ever great about The Who. This is rock and roll back to shaking our life by the roots, demanding our dinner money and forcing us to change how we think, the way it should be. However, in a wicked twist on his usual ‘listening to you’ statement to the audience Pete whisks it all away from under our noses, a sea of mini-Townshends telling us that ‘what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine’, as if our generation don’t even deserve this music anymore now that we’ve agreed to sell out for that awful piped-in stuff. ‘Ah, fuck it!’ swears Pete on what was clearly intended to be a fade too, at once making him sound younger and more rebellious than the crowd he is laughing at and ensuring this song won’t get played on the radio after all. It also reminds me of that old adage: don’t trust anyone under seventy-four, because surely only the hippie generation ever go anything right and weren’t taken in by the system. What a start! The Who immediately sound a half-century younger than they did on ‘Endless Wire’. Attitude will get you everywhere even if, as one line of this song admits, it really is only a ‘simple verse’.
As if to underline the point made in the last song, ‘Ball and Chain’ would have been the perfect protest song for somewhere round about 2009 ten years ago – but The Who weren’t around then (perhaps because we didn’t deserve them?) It did in fact appear in an earlier inferior version as ‘Guantanamo’ on a Pete Townshend solo compilation in 2014. Roger’s bluesier voice sounds more like the rougher edges he had on his collaboration with the Dr Feelgood guitarist (a record I’m still desperate to re-name ‘Roger and Wilko’!) than anything he did with The Who and musically at least is the one track here I can imagine Pete writing purely to give Roger something he liked singing. This is Roger at his best too, angry at a world that said it would only lock terrorists up in Guantanamo Bay for a short time for questioning, angry at a world of haves and have-nots that re-acts in this over-handed way to terrorists instead of deflating the causes of tension in the first place, angry that the Western world attacked communist Cuba for corruption and then did things ten times worse, angry that the world didn’t get better or more honest as promised. This is a world where we did get fooled again, where the young leaders just took over from their elders with no change at all ‘still waiting for the big cigars’. Incidentally, around 200 prisoners have actually been released from Guantanamo Bay, though many purely to other existing prisons and to accommodate new terrorists who have been locked up instead (this is one of those very revealing modern news stories that would have been reported down the middle even a few years earlier, but now is split between the right pointing out that people were released and were only locked up to keep us safe and the left pointing out that they weren’t properly and were never as much of a threat as we were told. This fits in nicely with a bigger over-arching theme of this album that the world has been polarised down the middle between those who believe ‘fake news’ even though it is getting more blatant and more dishonest and those who see straight through it but don’t have any role-models to tell them the truth anymore. Pete ducks the question several times this album about whether that person should be him). It’s hard, though, to imagine another album where Roger would sound so right singing one of Pete’s most dense and poetic creations though: lines like ‘there’s a long to travel for justice to make its claim’ sounds more like CSN or Moody Blues than The Who. The fact that it fits this band as well as it does though has much to do with Roger’s magnificent vocal and the lashings of thick Townshend grungy guitar that sound much like the title track of ‘Who Are You’. Unfortunately this song just ends without the cynicism or even the scream of a ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ to punctuate it, so it never quite becomes a classic to compete with the days of old. Even so, is this the best one-two punch on a Who album since ‘Who By Numbers’?!?
‘I Don’t Wanna Get Wise’ is The Who growing old disgracefully and it’s so totally utterly Who-like. Pete admits to everything – yes his bandmates were drunk, yes he got lucky, yes they lost band members, frequently turned up late to gigs, he was a faker who bluffed his way through it all and the band failed at staying young the way their audience wanted them to. But by God how they meant every word (and despite the band’s image Pete slips in the very hippie line ‘we tried hard to be kind’). Everyone said The Who would grow up one day and be horrified in their old age at the antics of their youth as ‘snotty nosed kids’. Pete, though, is now older than almost all his critics back in the day and he still stands by everything the band ever did. Were they always right? No – Pete admits in a further damning verse that sounds like an outtake from ‘Numbers’ that he got smug, drugged-out, puffed up and reduced to producing ‘crap’ as he realised he didn’t actually have to be any good in order to get paid. But even here Pete knows that they had to do it, that it was the right thing to do and the universe only stopped them when they stopped believing in what they were doing, not when they were scaring the people who needed to be scared. Pete also disputes his most famous line, arguing that you should never retire when you have something to say (‘Why set a fire you plan to douse?’) Roger sounds utterly magnificent again, his vocal half boastful about having been in one of the greatest bands that ever lived and half a sneer at having gotten away with it. If, as I’ve long argued in my Who reviews, the de facto sound of this band is the kid everyone picked on using the voice of the bully to scream back at the world, then this is the song where they both pat each other on the back having ganged up on the people who truly deserved it. Though I could have done without the auto-tuned Pete harmony (even on this album this is a track calling out to be sung honestly and from the heart), this song is another winner with perhaps the best melody on the album, part ‘Bargain’, part ‘Young Man Blues’. May The Who never get wise when they can sound like this!
‘Detour’ is a detour in more ways than one and the first track on the album that isn’t top-notch. It doesn’t sound like The Who so much as an odd combination of what both Pete and Roger have been doing in their solo work – it has the same 1950s throwback sound of, say ‘Face To Face’ and all the Daltrey solo albums where he isn’t just singing syrupy ballads. It’s also, weirdly, not unlike the blues and R and B songs The Who were singing in their very earliest days back before they (or at any rate their manager Pete Meadon) discovered mod, back when they were called erm ‘The Detours’. The lyric, though, is very much about the present day again: Pete believes that ‘we’re all good people deep down’ but we’re not allowed to be in a divisive age that makes us miserable and sets us on each other in an attempt to get ahead. The Who demand that we pull a u-turn before it’s too late and ‘swerve’ back to the way it used to be. They have no qualms from me about that, although it’s interesting that the period of music we turn the clock back to here is the 1950s, arguably the last time that music (or at least successful music) was quite this generic and bland. Roger at least makes this music come alive, although the backing track never quite gets there. Pete’s guitar stings nicely (sounding like his solo acoustic renditions of ‘Magic Bus’) but every other overdub, from the very 1980s synths to the twee backing vocals, only take away from the power of this song they don’t add to it. Fittingly, perhaps, this main lyric also finds room for two ‘detours’ which sadly are only sketched in but sound like much stronger songs. One is The Who again, Pete acknowledging that he only felt safe and comfortable in this band ‘fifteen’ years in which puts it about the time Keith died and the albums stopped selling, ‘adolescent fears’ keeping the band together. Another is the fallout from a marriage, presumably Pete’s to college sweetheart Karen which ended around the same time The Who did. In keeping with many of his originally unreleased ‘Scoop’ demos and a few bits and pieces of his solo work but interestingly not much of his Who work Pete apologises for saying ‘I love you’ when he didn’t fully mean it and for ‘always leaving you holding the weight of my pain’ before ‘running away’ (this could also, of course, be a sneaky reference to Meher Baba and getting blind drunk instead of saving the universe as his guru wanted him to). Whatever it is this three-way apology is a rare album song that’s more fun to analyse than to listen to and a rare miss on this album, although even this song is head and shoulders above 90% of ‘Endless Wire’.
‘Beads On One String’ sounds as if we’ve just jumped in one go from ‘My Generation’ to ‘Face Dances’. While Pete wrote some gorgeous ballads over the years he wrote some pretty anonymous ones too and this song is alas one of those, sounding not unlike one of Roger’s solo albums until the harmonies and vocals suddenly come in. Lyrically though this song is an orphan, utterly unlike anything else any part of this band have done before. Pete apologises again, but this time to God (and not just to Meher either by the sound of it), wondering why the human race keep quoting the Bible and then misunderstanding it, ignoring the messages of peace to take lands belonging to other religions. Once again it feels like a relic from a decade ago when the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars made it feel like a second Christian crusade. The idea of humanity being different coloured versions of the same thing ‘beads on the same string’ that can’t see the bigger picture of God’s jewellery box is a strong one, though it’s unfortunate that the album has to choose this moment to get sugary with ‘Sister Disco’ style synth runs which nudges this song into uncomfortable worthy-but-dull ‘charity single’ status. Roger, too, sounds far less sure of himself here than he does roaring his head off and for the first time you can hear the age in his voice as he tries to play it sweet and tender. Remember too this album’s opening lyric about people nicking your work and not getting everything right yourself? Well, this album’s idea is taken wholesale from a band named Uncover and their album ‘Dark Arc’ from 2014 and a much more Who-ish song it sounds too (not an apology to God but an accusation that faith didn’t keep their loved ones safe from harm, before a chorus that has the narrator expressing belief again all the same). The result is a song that isn’t that bad but sounds so out of kilter with everything else (and Townshend’s damnation of the Catholic Church on ‘Man In A Purple Dress’ from ‘Endless Wire’ – he got quite a bit of stick from religious fans so is this him redressing the balance?) that it rather sticks in the throat.
Most of ‘WHO’ has been a return back to the band’s early days of simplicity and shock, but starting with ‘Hero Ground Zero’ the album makes a move towards the complexities of ‘Lifehouse’. On one level this is a simple song akin to ‘The Dirty Jobs’, with Roger a youth whose too young to have done anything but is truly bursting with ambition and possibilities. Life hasn’t got complicated yet – he doesn’t feel pigeon-holed at doing what he’s told he’s meant to be doing yet. On another level it’s about the potential of everybody to be a future hero, from the firefighters on 9/11 on. On yet another level this is a song about Pete’s ever evolving relationship with Meher Baba and his feeling that on some level he was ‘blessed’, given all the right lucky breaks at just the right time to make something of his life ‘marked by the angels’ before they drop him and he ‘sinks like a stone’. Other Pete songs for decades now have dealt with the fall-out from that feeling of no longer being ‘special’ but here, for one glorious five minute song, Pete is back in grateful mode, proud that he was chosen when he was an absolute nobody at the start of his career. This very clever song fits together several different periods of Whodom in one giant whole – the opening violin phrase mimics the Bach pieces that inspired so much of ‘Lifehouse’, the synth lick that washes in and out of the song is pure ‘Baba O’Riley’, the opening verse is a softer, happier, there’s a key change straight out of ‘The Punk and the Godfather’, kinder ‘The Real Me’, while the drum charge from Zak’s greatest performance on record yet puts you instantly in mind of The Who in their mid-1960s prime. However this is more than just the musical version of ‘Where’s Wally’ played by ‘Endless Wire’ - the lyrics too could have been from any era for they are what The Who have always done best, giving faith and hope to an under-dog who fears he’s in for a miserable life that actually turns out to be pretty wonderful. The brilliance of it all though is that this is a seventy-odd-year-old band praising youth – not slagging it off as their peers so often do, or wishing they were young, or less miserable, but a memory of how great it felt to be alive back when life was simple. That’s such a Who thing to do on what might well turn out to be their last album, wishing in a way that they had indeed died before they got old – but of course if they had they wouldn’t have learnt to appreciate their youth the way they do here. It’s hard too not to shed a tear as Roger, on Pete’s behalf, thanks fate for allowing him to never grow up, the life of drudgery he was born into (and, so most 1960s musicians reckoned would be waiting on their return when rock and roll spat them out and gave them up) ‘postponed’ past the point where he no longer has to live it anymore. Probably the album highlight on a record bulging with greatness, with Roger nailing Pete’s genius as only he can.
Almost as good and even more complicated is ‘Street Song’ a return to the dense image-laden songs of ‘Face Dances’ and ‘It’s Hard’ but far happier and played by a band who use it as an excuse for a boxing match rather than laidback pontificating. It’s all part of Pete’s long return from hibernation, getting out of the headspace of the last few decades with works like ‘Psychoderelict’ and ‘Endless Wire’ that you sense you had to be Pete himself to truly understand and make the most of and re-connecting with his audience. The Who were always at their best when holding up a mirror to the world to reflect its fears and concerns and Pete even wrote a song very similar to this one, ‘Street In The City’, about looking beyond the end of his nose to what the people in his town were up to. This song though is less arch and more heartfelt, picking up specifically on what the youth of the day – the Who of the new era – are feeling and what it makes Pete feel now. For the most part this is another upbeat, optimistic song as Pete realises that his inspiration haven’t really gone anywhere – they’re here in the world waiting for him, with human beings out there in the ‘real world’ as complicated, desperate, messed-up and yet brilliant as he remembered. Like ‘Ground Zero’ Pete goes against the curve here – where everyone else sees a world of failure, a dying planet ruled by corrupt politicians turning us on each other he sees untapped potential. This ‘street’ could be any street around the world and it’s ruled not by the ‘supremos’ but by ‘us’, the people who walk it every day. . The key line here is ‘we can shout and we can share’, a line that perfectly merges hippie-speak with the modern age and its times of social media while reflecting Pete’s long-term vision of a humanity that can move things without the need for leaders (a key theme of ‘Lifehouse’). ‘We once lacked the strength to wail…and stooped to fail’ says Pete, but he sees a huge sea-change in the way people are thinking as they walk out on protests and demand their rights. Another verse has the movement like a fire, one that the band thought had extinguished slowly coming back to life again – because the human spirit can neve3r truly be extinguished. It’s like the 1960s never went away and for a brief shining moment Roger sounds as he used to then too, holding on to long lines that strain him but on which he still sounds magnificent. Much as The Who may have laughed at the biggest excesses of the hippie era (they never really did peace and love) they were always perfect for the sense of community the age created and it’s odd in many ways that it should have taken so long to get a song like this in their canon – the closest is ‘Listening To You’ but even that song is sarcastic and bitter and this one is heartfelt. Well for the most part. Just when we think we’ve reached a big finale, all flying Keith drum-parts and Roger heavy breathing, the song leaps across a chasm and falls short, crashing on a minor key that comes out of nowhere. Just as in the days of old Pete’s worried voice peeps out from behind Roger’s, afraid that we are all just going to get fooled again. ‘Gotta keep running but you can’t get out’ he sings over and over, getting increasingly desperate till Roger doesn’t so much compete with him or shut him up as he always used to but rather lulls him with a lullaby, repeating affirmations from the main song: ‘We will, we’ve searched for so long, we sing, that street song, for so long, my darling’. This naturally leads in to one last great reprise of the main riff as the song goes for one last dazzling audience-connecting hurrah. Wow, Roger actually comforting Pete in song, now I’ve heard everything! Another album and indeed highlight as The Who take their usual scathing look at the modern world and yet still find it in their hearts and give us hope. Even my street start looks a little brighter with this song playing and boy is that saying something!
Alas, in next comes ‘I’ll Be Back’, which is a song that seems designed to drive the same audience away. The album’s most divisive song looking at internet forums, it’s the one that doesn’t really fit and one that sounds far more like what Pete has been writing in his solo career (which might be why he gets to sing it, not Roger). A love song for second wife Rachel but written with the strings that always used to be associated with first wife Karen (not least because her dad used to do the string arrangements for Pete), this is a treacly ballad about being blessed and finding a happiness and stability Pete once thought was a myth and mirage. He can afford to laugh at himself on an auto-tuned middle eight of ‘being a star wanting a big car…’, thinking he had everything in his youth with record sales, fans galore and money in the bank. However what his younger self didn’t know was that this was just another mountain he had to climb up to see what really mattered in life – love. That’s a sweet idea and contrary to what many fans think I like the idea that one of our messed up, miserable Who narrators finally gets to understand the meaning of happiness. This is what I like to think happens to all those characters after the records stopped playing: it’s the true love Tommy gets when the crowds have dispersed and all the sycophants have left; the love story at the heart of ‘Lifehouse’ finally allowed to unfurl quietly at its own pace in a new world of freedom and the ‘reward’ Jimmy gets for being brave enough to climb off his rock and give love another try. For all his cynicism and barbs over the years there’s always been a romantic heart beating in Pete’s songs and while we’ve heard that a few times in his solo work it’s lovely to hear that as part of The Who’s canon. Pete also touches on re-incarnation, believing that next lifetime he’ll be back to the grindstone looking for what he has now – but for now all he has to do is savour it until the end of his days. The problem I have is with this song is what Pete and co then did to it: there’s a very pre-war vibe with the Larry Adler/Max Geldray harmonica lick while the Rhodes piano is pure late 1970s and the slow tempo and crooning effect in Pete’s voice is 1980s coffee lounge. That’s without the vocodered middle eight which is barely the right side of rap or the sugary strings (‘What did you think that was? Mantovani?’ Well yes actually Pete, that’s exactly what it sounds like). Love can make you do funny things it seems and never more than this song, though it’s growing on me the more I play it.
‘Break The News’ is an intriguing song. It’s a track that’s trying so hard to be 1960s that it couldn’t possibly have been written by anyone actually around at the time. All becomes clear when you learn that this is a song written by Townshend S rather than Townshend P and from a true blue Who fan indeed rather than a band member (it thus becomes the first ‘cover’ to make a bona fide Who studio album since ‘The Hawker’ although then again Simon has been in the band longer than Keith Moon nowadays). Normally tapping into songs by your unpublished younger brother would be a bad move, but this is a great song, a sweet tale of love and faith that’s very in keeping with the Who tradition despite being another rare love song. For what does love mean to this narrator? It means the difficult, edgy stuff not the sloppy romantic clichés and deals with how complicated and contradictory love really is at its core. Roger’s narrator wants to be comfortable enough to ‘speak my truth’ but also wants his partner to be comfortable enough with how loved they are that she knows he would never say anything to hurt her. Like all good Who songs this one also throws back to ‘My generation’ and the idea of youth. The song looks back on a youth spent making love (with memories of ‘Love Ain’t For Keeping’ in there for good measure) and is amazed to find that it’s not just restricted to the young – this couple are getting old now and yet they still feel the same way and do the same things. The narrator’s reflection on aging: ‘life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road’, before debating the question of whether the difficulties have enabled him to grow from a child into an adult or whether he’s still the same; the narrator isn’t sure and all he knows is that he ‘doesn’t feel any different’. As ever with The Who, was this narrator always old before his time (a youthful curmudgeon) or is he perennially young and adolescent? These are very Who questions and while it doesn’t sound altogether like a Who song (it’s more like an Oasis pop song or a Britpop 1960s cover) with a particularly catchy chorus), it works well with a good chance for Pete to do some acoustic rather than electric playing for a change. Roger sounds at his weakest here, the key pushing his vocal uncomfortably high, but even that works on a rare song that couldn’t have been sung by a ‘youthful’ narrator. Overall it’s pretty, not a word often associated with The Who but something they pull off well here.
So far we’ve had most periods of the Whoniverse across the album and one that fans probably weren’t expecting is ‘Rockin’ In Rage’, a throwback to the postmodernism songs-about-writing that appeared on ‘Who Are You’. Just as on ‘Guitar and Pen’ Pete writes a song by trying to work out why he’s writing at all, figuring he has enough in hi for ‘one last rampage’. Two verse speed by as Roger sounds uncomfortably weak and insipid, singing lines that surely reflect Pete’s feelings since the much-publicised (and misunderstood) child porn charges a decade or more ago. He’s pushed to the sidelines, afraid to ‘speak the truth’ so going the other way and deciding to become mute, turning his back on a world he no longer understands and which he thinks can get along just fine without him, too old to have anything left to say. However a very Who chord change (‘Summertime Blues’ via ‘Substitute’) wakes him up as he realises why he always wrote in the first place: out of rage. He’s still as angry as ever so he tells himself he should be still writing, figuring that if he’s still here and hasn’t been taken yet when so many others have then he is surely meant to still say something worth saying. Returning back to where it (nearly) began, Pete even tells us that his task now is to learn how to ‘die right’, to have learnt all his lessons and express everything there ever was to express, his job done. This wasn’t he old age he’d imagined for himself, he tells us. He thought he would be old and worn-out, ‘freed’ to act as a kind old man whose problems were all spent. But he doesn’t feel like that: there are still too many rights to wrong, still too many crosses to bear, too many wrongs to put right. Though the ‘pop opera’ style makes this song tougher going than it should be, the song continually slowing down to show up the contrasts between the two halves, this is another very Who construct and fans of ‘Guitar and Pen’ have a worthy sequel on their hands. Roger seems to understand how to sing these sort of songs better these days too, getting into a right old battle with Zak on the false ending, before the song goes back to the start again. Also, the fact that ‘rage’ and ‘age’ rhyme makes this the perfect Who song – how have they never used that rhyme before?!?
The album deserved to end there in many ways, Pete and Roger still – quite literally – raging against the dying of the light. Instead we get a last experiment in ‘She Rocked My World’, another love song from Pete to Rachel as he tells us Who fans the biggest development since ‘It’s Hard’ (an album, remember, filled with songs about affairs and lust, a far cry from the stability Pete has found since). The biggest development is that this is an out-and-out jazz song. One imagines that Pete gave this song to Roger not so much to give him something he wanted to sing as because he couldn’t perhaps sing it himself – this piece demands a singer who can hold long notes and keep them spinning over several spins of piano chords this way and that. For the most part this song is unexpectedly faithful to the genre as Pete recalls how he met his partner in a town where ‘old friends are gone’ and he noticed a girl in a bar (not quite the true story interestingly: she was recommended to him when he was looking for an arranger for the ‘Lifehouse’ gigs of the early 1990s). When other romantic crooners sing about how a person ‘rocked their world’ they’re lying – no one could possibly mean it the way they do as this girl changes everything about his life in an instant. For the most part this is as un-Who like as it’s possible to get, but the moment when the song moves from a jazzy (5/4?) time signature to a more rock and roll attack. Interestingly Roger sounds more comfortable on the jazz than he does on this part, lowering his voice to its more natural growl instead of his higher-pitched rock voice. It’s all very nice, but very unexpected and makes for a rather odd ending to the album (and, quite possibly, The Who’s discography), even if in many ways it is a more sophisticated update of where we started with ‘I Can’t Explain’ (with this narrator unable to describe how in love he is, even if he’s more open about the fact that he is in love this time).
Onto the bonus tracks now, sadly none of which are up to the album standard and all of them sung by Pete with no sign whatsoever of Roger (did he decide not to sing on them because he didn’t understand them or were they simply not considered suitable to give to him?) In his publicity for this album Pete has been having fun at The Rolling Stones’ expense, saying that he stayed away from writing and recording because he didn’t want to end up where his old rivals were repeating themselves into cliché. However, from it’s title down ‘This Gun Will Misfire’ sounds exactly like a modern-day Stones song. It’s a rock song that’s been slowed down so the band can keep up and given a modern production style to make it sound falsely period. Unlike the rest of this album’s impressively clear production, too, everyone sounds as if they’re playing a different song entirely and it’s all a bit messy, your ear not quite sure where to go. That’s a shame because there’s a good song buried within here, touching on the themes of revolution and rule heard on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and on a few songs on ‘WHO’. Every violent revolution always come back to hurt the perpetrators, sings Pete here and if you can depose somebody because you don’t agree with their principles then they can just do exactly the same to you. He invites anyone who wants to start a dictatorship to read some history books because it never ends well: ‘the Kings may live, lose their thrones, but they’re junkies on the wire’ sings Pete, an interesting variation on the age-old Who idea of ‘Relay’, that every generation passes a baton on to someone else. Pete again backs out of trying to give true and complete answers though. He’s old enough to know ‘I am the fool who gets the ending wrong’ and never predicted most of what’s happened to us since the 1960s. However, he can’t help but urge caution to a world that seems to have torn up the rulebook and where the baddies are throwing their weight around, sure that they will never be caught.
‘Got Nothing To Prove’ was a song title that was once being mooted for inclusion on the deluxe edition of ‘The Who Sings My Generation’ before Pete decided to pull it and have a re-think. That, many fans expected, would be that and we would either see it on a ‘deluxe deluxe deluxe’ edition of the album, a rumoured ‘A Quick One’ deluxe set that never came or not at all. Few fans would have betted on the song turning up as a bonus track on a deluxe edition of a new Who alum instead and you have to ask in many ways what it’s doing here: though tidied up with a new string ove3rdub (which itself sounds oddly late 1970s) it is otherwise no more finished and no more relevant than the demos that did make that album (indeed reviving ‘As Children We Grew’ would have been the perfect thematic choice, a twenty-year-old Pete wondering what might happen by the time he reaches old age). It’s a shame too that Roger wasn’t given a re-made version of this track to sing as it’s one of Pete’s few unused demos that sound tailor made for his rockier gravelly song. Pete used to feel as if he had to play up to his angst, staring out people in the street, that sort of thing. But he fell in love and ‘she rocked his world’ and now ‘everything makes sense – and I don’t need no evidence!’ He is no longer an angry young man, pigeon-holed into a stereotype that feels he has to be angry to get noticed for now he is a fuller person. This is certainly an old-before-its-time song that maybe this is why it was re-used here, but it’s delivered in such a 1960s way that it also sounds oddly out of time, a naïve reminder of a time when love was enough to put everything right one day (a sentiment that hasn’t really been heard, except in jest, since things got bleak in 1968). This track doesn’t have the casual magic of many of Pete’s songs of that early period but it does have a very clever catchy pop chorus that’s impossible not to sing along with (‘Got nothing to prove anymore!’) and a notable deep line that’s unusual for its vintage and seemingly dropped in from nowhere that goes against everything the narrator of ‘My Generation’ stood for even back then (after meeting a rival called Michael ‘now I don’t look forward to my death, I look forward to my life’). A shame the orchestra seem to be going for a ‘James Bond’ effect while Pete is trying to deliver an honest confessional though which really doesn’t work!
Finally there’s ‘Danny and My Ponies’, which isn’t much of a song but is at any rate a very suitable place to say goodbye. This parable of a song makes no sense at all unless you swap the two-syllable biblical name ‘Daniel’ for the more mystical ‘Baba’ and assume that the narrator is Pete on a pilgrimage. Pete is desperate for answers to all his questions and appeals for anything to help him in his quest – even ‘one note’ will do, a neat reference back to the main theme of ‘Lifehouse’ – but Daniel has taken a vow of silence and can only smile bemusedly at Pete’s earnest face. He knows that the question is pointless, that there are no answers of the type his young protégé wants to know. Pete still tries, confused as to why whenever he walked in his grand clothes with his raggedy friend ‘his eyes would flash like I was the one who needed the cash’. He also didn’t see why, when there was so much to do, his friend would walk so slowly as if he didn’t really care about getting anywhere at all. The two lived very different lives and the young Pete clearly didn’t understand the way he lived at all, though he still ‘tore at my heart’, Pete sensing there was something here he had to learn. The end result is that Pete ended up singing for Baba/Daniel instead and learnt that way, trying to put together his own version of what life was – Danny’s response ‘he nodded, not moving, scratching his throat’. Only this way did Pete learn the lessons he needed to learn, his guru having never spoken a word. This is then a very moving lyric to anyone whose ever spent any time looking into Pete’s feelings for Baba and the many mentions on his own solo LPs as well as the lessons at the heart of ‘Tommy’ and ‘Lifehouse’. Unfortunately the melody is not as strong as the words, too obviously written as a ‘folk parable’ but without the life and inspiration of the ones on Pete’s Baba albums like ‘I Am’ or ‘Happy Birthday’. It is, however, a very sweet song and a very natural end for The Who, as a man who knows the answers but won’t explain inspires another man who doesn’t have the answers and yet somehow can. No idea what the ‘ponies’ in the title are though!
By chance ‘She Rocked My World’ happened to be the first song I heard from this album and I really wasn’t sure it was The Who, never mind that it belonged on an album simply called ‘Who’. I wasn’t that convinced by the early promotional guff for this album either, Pete telling The Guardian that this album was to be ‘a series of songs led by a guitar that goes yanga-danga-din’. I wasn’t sure if any album made in the 21st century should really be called ‘Who’ given that there are just half the band left (one gone, one mad all of us sad, as the only song from ‘Endless Wire’ put it so eloquently). I was wrong. This album is ‘The Who’ all over. It bursts with the brash youthful wisdom the band always made their own up to somewhere circa 1973 and somehow manages to mix the best of what came after (the courageous self-doubt of 1975-78, the wordplay of 1979-1982) and a few new experiments Pete and Roger had never tried before into a wonderful whole. ‘WHO’ sounds like it’s an official release by The World Health Organisation. In many ways it could be – it talks about the poison in the heart of society and reminds us that we used to know how to treat it, before self-deprecatingly ducking the question of knowing any answers on how to solve it.Not every track works and at just eleven relatively compact songs there’s not enough room for as many experiments as we get here, the blues pastiche the heavy ballad the religious hymn and the jazz song that should perhaps have been held back for yet more bonus tracks (the Who like their deluxe editions after all). There are indeed times when it feels like two people in two different recording studios singing against a baking band who haven’t met long enough to bond properly yet. The album cover is atrocious as tacky and backwards as the album itself is heartfelt and forward-looking. But it also sounds terrific and enough like The Who to instantly banish memories of ‘Endless Wire’, the endless weak-kneed ‘Tommy’ revivals, the greatest-hits-by-number-tours and ever so very nearly the classical version of ‘Quadrophenia’ (what were they thinking?!?) Those different parallel universe Whos suddenly don’t exist anymore, evidence of how hard it is for even great bands like this one to stay wise, to stay on their true path and ultimately what happens when you’re unlucky enough not to die before you get old.
This album is instead, you suspect, the only ending the twenty-year-old Pete Townshend on the cover of ‘My Generation’ would have allowed himself if he’d broken the band promise by living to this ripe old age – it says the same old things with the old fizz and power of youth and it continues to be as mad, as cynical and as passionate for life as The Who ever were in their youth despite all the many many things that have happened since that debut album in 1965. But it’s not purely the same – there are moments here, usually hidden away within the songs, that suggest that the band have learnt and grown, developed from that start of windmilling arms and thrashing chords and brutality. There’s a spiritual mystical core at the heart of this album that’s very in keeping with The Who’s middle period, even if it’s dressed up in the mod clothes they used to wear when they were young and concerned with being trendy. It is an album that is, somehow, more Who-like than any of the other Who albums purely because they all represented part of that rich tapestry at a time and this one sounds like the picture on the box, the maximum R and B guitar about to be smashed in violent frustration at still not living in the perfect peaceful utopian world that Pete wished so hard would happen one day. It is, near enough, where we came in with so much changed and yet nothing really changed at all. It is, still, a rallying cry for their generation who are still as horrified at the adult world as ever they were in the 1960s and who still long for the power to change it. It is the perfect album for our times and if it ends up being so the perfect goodbye. It is angry and mad but wise and focussed. It at last it puts to bed that sad half-goodbye on the band’s 1982 pause that even after seventeen years they were ‘still a boy whose tears should have long since dried’ – the tears have faded, the bittiness has flown but still they cry because it is what The Who were born to do. It is one of the reasons I love being a record collector whose still surprised, release by release, at how much of the story is left to be told by all these bands just as we think we’ve heard everything there is to hear. It is unquestionably one of the AAA releases of the decade, never mind the year. It is, despite the absence of The Ox and The Moon and the session musicians and the thirteen year gap, The Who in all their multi-layered glory. It is, after all, an album that can explain and a million light years beyond the band’s beginnings as a self-conscious ‘substitute’ for The Rolling Stones in the modern era. It is an album that, if it had arms and eyes and ears, would surely play a mean pinball. It is the end of a half-century long quest to work out who this band are and what they stand for. It is, give or take a couple of duff tracks, every bit that good. ‘WHO’ are you? Yes, that’s Who!