Rating: 6 (library disc)
I wonder if the name of this group changes when it's used in the objective case (e.g., "I really dig The Whom.") Anyway, thanks to all the respondents who participated in the poll, but I found Tommy at the library (by the way, the person who suggested Tommy is a single, not a double, disc was right - I remember listening to it years ago on a double LP, and I must say I'm amazed that a record company would put two records on one CD just because it fits; that seems so consumer-friendly that I thought it violated industry standards), so my purchasing decision is made (the poll was running heavily toward Quadrophenia anyway).
This is Townsend's first rock opera, and I think he gets the opera part right but misses a bit on the rock. He really captures a lot of the elements of opera, from the absurd plot (fans complain about the disjointed nature of the plot here, but if you've ever been to a regular opera, you know the program often contains synopses like, "Fine della Città, having observed Formica Fischio in the ballroom with Bambola Albero, decides it is time to avenge his father's death and proceeds to prepare a large pie while singing the aria 'La luna gioca i tamburi negligentemente'") to the repeating musical themes (not just the obvious ones like "See Me Feel Me", but also little touches like reprising the "Pinball Wizard" chords in the coda of "I'm Free.") Another vital operatic principle that comes through is that the music must support the emotional value of the libretto; listen to the raging rhythms of "Go to the Mirror", the lilting melody of "Welcome", the unresolved harmony relaying the worry in the chorus of "Christmas." The overture, however, is more reminiscent of Broadway shows, with its (admittedly well-done) medley of tunes rather than a more delicately crafted theme-and-variations typical of opera. Nonetheless, Townshend has done about as well as a first-time operatic composer can be expected to. Of course, most operas run two to three hours, but this one is plenty long as it stands. (In fact, the instrumentals "Sparks" and "Underture" are questionable - this is an opera, not a ballet, right?)
Some of the rock writing, however, sounds underdeveloped. "21" could be a great song - it has a lovely melody and a touching sentiment - but it veers off too quickly into the second section. "We're Not Gonna Take It" - a song title made for rock and roll if ever there was one - is a bit too cheerful, of all things (substitute Twisted Sister's version and you've got the right attitude). And handing over two songs to Entwhistle was a big mistake. The tunes are insipid, the lyrics gruesome, and the harmonizing just drives home the ugliness (can pretty harmonies redeem boring tunes? The answer here is no; they just draw attention to the fact that the melody's not going anywhere.) Other places, though, Townshend comes up with winners: "I'm Free" soars over a terrific guitar line, "The Acid Queen", while overly drawn out, trades on some generic chord changes with an unexpected triplet strum over the bar, and "Pinball Wizard" combines it all: a strong riff, catchy melody, and subtle variations in the chorus each time to keep you listening.
The Who turn in a surprisingly restrained performance. What impresses most is the singing: previously, the harmonies had been a bit dodgy, but here almost all the backing vocals add depth to the tunes without straying off key. Daltrey's not belting here, but neither is he in wimp mode: his voice is more like a chamber music tenor, delivering the tunes for the listener's delectation with putting too much "interpretation" into it. That's particularly appropriate on these tunes, as they would definitely suffer from his roaring style. Moon and Entwhistle are calmer than usual, and it's good, because these tunes are fairly complicated and don't deserve too much bashing. Each gets in plenty of good licks, though: Entwhistle's bass line makes "Pinball Wizard", and Moon's drumming is the only interesting thing about "Underture." Townshend is sticking mostly to acoustic guitar, and he reveals a side of himself I hadn't expected to hear: he's actually quite a picker. There are mandolin-style trills, chromatic runs, and Merle Travis-style picking throughout. Nice work.
Tommy is an amazing concept - I'm not familiar with a lot of rock operas, but this is the only one I know of that clearly works on operatic principles, and not just stringing story-songs in a row. However, as usual with the Who, a lot of the songwriting is underdeveloped, and there are large sections of this piece that fail to engage the listener. Lots of points for a brilliant idea, many docked for failure in its execution.
The Who had such a great sound that a lot of people think their songs are great too. It's not so, but what a sound! John Entwhistle's bass is thunderous and metallic, and Keith Moon's drums are all over the rhythm, churning up the sound. Pete Townshend's guitar tone is nothing out of the ordinary, but his style is full of grand Beethovenesque gestures. Throw in Roger Daltrey's stentorian tenor and you've got a sound that blows out of the speakers and knocks the listener back a few inches.
However, this sound is all about power, and a lot of subtleties are lost - for example, I really can't imagine anyone dancing to the Who (when Entwhistle played in Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, he said he had trouble with the laid-back bass style required for the Rascals tunes in the set, and furthermore, he didn't enjoy playing them). This is music designed to be listened to - it's no wonder they started writing rock operas: opera is the ultimate sit-down-and-pay-attention music.
If you're going to play music that demands attention, though, it should be more interesting than this. A fourth chord now and then, maybe a minor key, a melody that does something other than piddle around the blues scale.
Compounding this problem is the fact that the Who were really a great singles band - that is, most of their inspiration and energy went into a couple great tracks a year designed to capture the radio audience, and the rest of their albums were filled with tracks that had clearly had less attention paid to them. A pretty good case can be made (and has been, by Dave Marsh) that the whole of Tommy is less inspired than "Substitute." Not that there's anything wrong with that - much of the greatest music in rock and roll was made by singles bands. Unfortunately, the Who didn't realize their true nature and persisted in thinking that all their album tracks deserved the same time and space as the terrific singles. Who's Next suffers as a consequence.
The album opens and closes with two of rock's all-time monumental songs - "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." If you haven't heard them, you need to run out and grab one of the several dozen Who's Greatest Hits collections floating around immediately. Quite simply, this is the sound of the apocalypse scored for synthesizer and rock band. These two songs are essential pieces in any rock and roll collection.
The rest, alas, is filler of varying quality. Sometimes they forget the elements that make up their awesome sound, and become average-sounding soft rockers ("Song is Over", "Getting in Tune"), other times they get their roles confused. They don't ask Daltrey to play guitar; why do they have Townshend sing? His voice is thin and warbly, and ruins otherwise decent numbers ("Goin' Mobile"). Others are pretty enjoyable, but lack a little something that would make them great. "Bargain" has the pounding Who sound, but a flimsy bridge. "Behind Blue Eyes" is musically interesting, but the lyrical conceit is sophomoric and distracting. "My Wife" pounds along nicely and features a terrific horn line (I love how it moves from one speaker to the other) but a lousy vocal. And almost every song is too long by about 15% - the endless fade-outs, thrice-repeated choruses, and pointless instrumental passages get on my nerves. If you're looking for the essential Who collection, don't buy the hype for this record. It's fine, but as with all singles bands, you really need a compilation to get their best.
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy
Squirm factor: 5
Now this is where true Who-lovers should rejoice. It's a collection of their hit singles through the sixties, along with a few of their popular album tracks (as with a lot of British bands, many of these singles were not issued on albums until this type of collection came along). Man, there is some fine rock music here!
The best is "Substitute" with a vicious acoustic guitar and fuzzed out bass, and one of Pete's finest lyrics - "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth." As with a lot of these tracks, the vocals feature three-part harmonies that unfortunately take a bit of the edge off the rocking spirit; not to mention that Daltrey hasn't quite achieved that window-shattering roar he developed in the seventies - he sounds pretty tame most of the time, sort of like a slightly less effeminate Colin Blunstone.
Other highlights are "The Kids Are Alright" which sounds nothing like The Who we know and love, but does have a great Merseybeat feel and vocal hook, and "I Can See For Miles", the most perfectly paranoid rocker I've ever heard, with a disciplined drum line for once.
The funny thing about this album, though, is that a lot of the songs are kind of dumb. "I'm a Boy", "Pictures of Lily", "Boris the Spider"? No wonder the group had such a spotty chart record; one minute they're raging about the line between illusion and reality, the next they're crushing arachnids.
Others are faintly arrogant: "A Legal Matter" is apparently meant to be humorous, but I'm not getting a lot of yuks from a man abandoning his child. "My Generation" is just plain obnoxious - how dare The Man keep you from expressing yourself through amphetamine abuse? Wonderful bass licks, though. I find "The Seeker" particularly self-aggrandizing; only Pete Townshed, self-proclaimed rock messiah, would write a song about the pursuit of wisdom from rock records - the singers he mentioned were exploring those boring old standbys religion, philosophy and literature in the search for enlightenment. Silly them!
Anyway, this comes as close as you'll find to an essential Who record. Too bad it's not in print.
I'm going to catch a lot of flak for this, but I'll say it: this album is a mess.
This is the kind of sacrifice I make for you, my loyal readers: I hated this album the first time I heard it, but to be fair to one of the web-reviewing world's most revered platters, I gave it three more spins (understand, now, this is close to six hours of listening). I liked it less each time.
Basically, the songs all sound like the aural equivalent of a Persian rug left out in the rain: all the colors have run together into a blotchy, undistinguished wreck. I'm still not sure of the difference between "Sea and Sand" and "Drowned." And does Townshend realize that it is possible to write songs in a key other than D major?
The endless repetition of the basic themes is grating as well, particularly since a couple of them, "Bell Boy" and "Helpless Dancer" don't stand out as great rock and roll tunes ("Helpless Dancer" would make a fine mazurka, however). If there were something unique about these songs to help the listener navigate through 90 minutes of bombast, this would be a lot easier to listen to. As it stands, it's just these four tunes over and over interrupted by even less distinguished songwriting. Apparently a lot of the impact is supposed to come from the lyrics. Too bad the mix is so brittle, with infarction-inducing bass and paint-peeling treble, that all the midrange gets lost. Four times I've listened to this album, and I still don't know what "5:15" is about.
The songwriting aside, the fundamental problem is a mismatch between the performers and the repertoire. The Who were great at one thing, drama, and it shows: the standout cuts are "The Real Me", "The Punk and the Godfather," and "Love Reign O'er Me." All these songs are written with an emphasis on accent, power, and naked emotion, and the group delivers them to amazing effect. Check out the bass runs on "Real Me," and Daltrey's magnificent catch-in-the-throat singing on "Love Reign O'er Me." The whole band creates an immense wall of sound in the chorus of "Godfather."
Elsewhere, though, Townshend is writing more sophisticated stuff that calls for a gentle groove or a nuanced vocal, things that the Who simply can't deliver. He would have been better off giving this material to a performer with an introspective vocal style and a penchant for r&b, like Dr. John or Leon Russell. Take "I'm One": it starts off nicely enough with a country-style guitar line, then Moon and Entwhistle come crashing in playing anything but a country groove - in fact, the song loses its groove completely. "5:15" has one of the great horn lines in Entwhistle's career, clearly derived from a Motown-style influence, which would sound great with a popping back beat, but it gets in the way of the clattering drums and the whole song turns into a big stew. Daltrey's leather-lung vocals don't do justice to a lot of these songs either. "Helpless Dancer" seems to be intended as a whimpering cop-out but Daltrey makes it into a belligerent protest. The verse of "Bell Boy" is a dreamy, romantic ode, but in Daltrey's hands it becomes a fatwa (and whoever's responsible for the harmonies on the chorus should be sent to remedial music theory class). The throwback to "Zoot Suit" in "Cut My Hair" is supposed to be ironic, a musical wink, but it comes across stridently instead. And Pete, the man who mistook his voice for something people want to listen to, gets in far too many vocal appearances.
Another big letdown comes from the synthesizers. On Who's Next they had a unique sound, standing out as yet another piece of the ensemble. Here, they sound like cheap violin emulators, and their tinniness is distracting. There's one nice moment, though, in "The Dirty Jobs": under "I'm getting pushed 'round" they make a low note and it sounds just like a real string section "digging" on the lower strings.
I don't mean to imply that there's nothing good here; catchy nuggets can be found, such as the chorus of "The Dirty Jobs", and the "Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim" section of side four. But all too often they're overwhelmed by unsympathetic playing and singing, and surrounded by lengthy instrumentals with no leading voice. This is the wrong band for this music, or vice versa.
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