Review Summary: The Who cannot be confined to a single disk. Yet, we keep trying...
Unlike many of their 60’s contemporaries, compiling a “best of” list for The Who is about as simple as cold fusion. Keeping in mind that this is a band that revolutionized rock music during British Invasion of the mid 1960’s, laid the ground work for punk and invented the rock-opera, we see that such a task is- at best, daunting, (and at worst, riotous). Should one rely on the band’s explosive Mod-scene roots? Or would you want to focus on Townsend’s genius during the peak song-writing years- say, from Tommy
? Would it be singles-oriented? How would you preserve the flow of the concept albums? And what to do with the late 70’s material?
Yet people will always be willing to chase after the money. And as a consequence, the market is saturated with an abundance of Who compilations; many of which are lacking, unbalanced, and sometimes just downright bad (including an out-of-print rarity, featuring Who hits and, of all people, Strawberry Alarm Clock
So what makes Then and Now
any different? The secret is in the “now” portion of the title. Then and Now
is intended to serve not merely as a chronicle of past Who triumphs, but rather to also re-introduce the band (Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey) as an active recording entity. This disk features two new Who recordings (“Real Good Looking Boy” and “Old Red Wine”), backed up with 18 essential classics selected to stir up excitement for the Who.
The new recordings, while not bad, are very distinct from the rest of the Who’s catalogue. The first song, Real Good Looking Boy
is a quaint piece of piano-driven music, topped off with somewhat obnoxious lyrical content. The similar Old Red Wine
, (written in memory of the now deceased bassist John Entwistle) is an improvement, seeing Townshend pick up his guitar and hearing Daltrey sing with the same swagger he’s always had. For true fans, whether or not these two new songs are justifiable for the purchase is subject to opinion. Those starved for material will find sustenance here- otherwise, one will find little here that they don’t already possesses. As far as song selection goes, it does a decent job of being both listenable and comprehensive- especially considering just how mush genius material this band has concocted.
[For those of you who are familiar with the Who’s extensive catalogue, you may cease reading here as the basic premise has been explained. The following is a detailed account of the album intended to give new listeners an idea of what to expect on Then and Now
The Who, in their most recognized form:
Pete Townshend: Guitar, Backing Vocals, Songwriting
Roger Daltrey: Main Vocalist
John Entwistle: Bass (Commonly referred to as “The Ox”)
Keith Moon: Drums
The compilation starts from the beginning (a logical decision), kicking off with the thrilling 1965 chart-topperI Can’t Explain
. As a great sample of the early Who sound, one can observe all the crucial elements of pre-Tommy Who: jangly guitar work, pounding bass lines, exuberant drumming, and lyrics delivered with a youthful swagger. Admittedly, the song’s E-D-A-E chord structure echoes The Kinks more so than intended- but all the same, the song is a chunk of pure bliss; partly because of the splendid musicianship, partly due to the delicate harmonies (which, by the way, belong not the Who, but rather to fellow Britons The Ivy League), and partly because we get to hear a very fresh Jimmy Page[!] cutting his teeth in some session work. And then- as soon as the last chiming rings of Pete’s guitar fade, we are subjected to the volatile blasts the adolescent anthem: My Generation
. Although relatively simple- (do you know you’re A-chord? How about a G?..), My Generation
quintessential youth-rebellion song. Driven on by the classic Roger stuttering between frantic start-and-stop guitar work, the song effectively articulates the frustrations every teen feels at one point or another (Take the immortal lyric: ?I hope I die before I get old?. How much more angst can you get?) Bassist John Entwistle also makes his presence known with a clever bass solo- but the show is stolen by drummer Keith Moon, who delivers a defiant drum barrage through our speakers hysterical enough to educe seizures. Why? Because that’s how Keith rolls.
Continuing on, the song The Kids Are Alight
reveals to us that the Who are capable write good melodies at more reasonable volumes. A more refined example of the British Mod movement the Who would later become so identified with, [b]The Kids Are Alright[b] can represent a shift in Pete’s songwriting. Instead of dealing with love and frustration in a straight-forward fashion, Roger sings with a sort of melancholy vulnerability, accepting the futility of his situation. Punctuated with bouts of keen playing from Pete and Keith, the subject material has been the subject of a small mystery, although it is generally agreed to concern conflicts between self-interests and peer pressures (presumably from Mod cliques). Afterwards comes Substitute
, another fantastic composition from the band. One of first tracks by Pete to fully utilize an acoustic guitar, Roger does a good job balancing restraint and anger, delivering a powerful grain of salt to a naive girlfriend (“I look all white, but my dad was black/my fine looking suit is really made out of sack”). Oh, and a “fly” little bass solo.
Now the first four songs were fairly straight-forward. We’ve dealt with love, cynicism, and combinations of the two themes. But the Who- Pete in particular, also had a fair dose of cheeky wit, and this was fantastically demonstrated in late 1966/ early 1967 with the release of two risqué singles: one being “Pictures of Lily”, a thinly-covered tune about a boy who discovers self-gratification (with the precarious lyric “Pictures of Lily helped me sleep at night”). The other is I’m A Boy
, and is included here. Rumored to be a remnant of a now defunct rock project “Quads” (set in a world where gender is chosen by parents), I’m A Boy is quite possibly their first major departure from conventional subject matter, instead venturing realms of an almost perverted childhood- the desperate pleas of a boy who is forced to dress, act, and pretend that he is a girl. Strikingly set behind a screen of delicate and ornate chords, the song is a beautiful contrast between innocent music and disturbing lyrics- all brought together in the end by a crashing yell from Mr. Daltrey, demanding permission to indulge in boyish pleasures such as coming home “all covered in mud.” This humorous vein is also explored- albeit less energetically, with the number Happy Jack
. Unfortunately, after five songs of gold, Happy Jack seems to pail in comparison. True enough, the quirky beat and interesting storyline do compliment the soft/loud dynamic of the chorus, but the song seems a bit stagnant- as if it were building up for a build-up that has yet to come. But every band is mortal, and we can excuse this song as a nice excursion from time to time. (One may note that at the end the song, you can observe Peter cry out “I saw you!”. In fact, Pete was yelling at Keith Moon, who was often banned from the vocal harmonies due to a poor singing voice. This would soon evolve into a game of sorts for Moon, who would provoke Townshend by attempting to sneak himself in on the sly. Or at least this is what Wikipedia.org tells me.)
Here, seven tracks into Then and Now
we a stark evolution in the Who’ sound. As their major 1967 single, the Who release I Can See For Miles
, a revolutionary cry to psychedelic Britain that is fiercely dramatic and thoroughly impressive. So much was placed on this song that at the time it was considered (or perhaps billed as) the “World’ heaviest Song”, a challenge that Beatle
Paul McCartney would respond to with his “Helter Skelter”. Brandishing abrasive guitar-distortion, bombastic drums, and a truly menacing vocal performance, ?I Can See? is easily one of the best releases of the Summer of Love. Beginning with a single low-E note, Mr. Townshend then chisels out a timeless classic rock riff as Keith bangs his way into the fray. John lays down his bass thump, holding down the beat. Then finally comes the true highlight- Roger’ echoing voice, insinuating with his cool and cocky persona that his partner has not been faithful- that she cannot hope to hide any untruths from his all-seeing vision.(“You though I’ need a crystal ball to see right through the haze”) In all of it’s glory, middle bridge shows Peter’s skill as a guitarist, creating a lush tone that almost sounds like a piece of brass fanfare, and in good 1967 style, the chorus bursts out one last, triumphant time, marching into a fading oblivion with non-stop repetition.
Having established partial, if not total mastery of the psychedelic-rock movement, the Who then moved on to other endeavors. Then and Now
uses the 1968 folk-rock classic Magic Bus
to symbolize this, and no other song is more deserving of it’s spot. Tossed aside by critics for it’s lack of conventionality and emotional value, the tune has now been snapped up by fans and revered as a classic on par with ?My Generation?. Featuring a well-crafted call-and-response format reminiscent of early blues influences (like Bo Diddley), “Magic Bus” is light, poppy, and pure fun- utilizing an array of small percussive toys one may have experimented with in pre-school. Dwelling on the situation of a man desperately trying to negotiate a price for this “magic” bus, the lyrical content here has been both scrutinized for deeper meaning, and tossed aside as unimportant. The Who’s live centerpiece, Live At Leeds
contains a mesmerizing version of this as a bonus track, helping immortalize “Magic Bus” as an invaluable staple in the Who catalogue.
But this would not be the Who’s only venture into the realm of acoustic ambiance. After four years (1964-1968) of fantastic quality but diminutive innovation, the Who finally broke away from the singles-oriented business model and began to construct a grandiose sonic venture on an epic scale. With Pete firmly gripping the reins of creativity, all four members of the Who began to pioneer a new form of musical packaging- a multi-media project, complete with a central theme and concepts, an original storyline, and an emphasis on the album as a unit, rather than as mere vehicle for releasing singles en masse?
The year was 1969. And the album was Tommy
. As the first major record to use the format of a “rock opera”, Tommy is still considered to be the definitive example of the ambitious rock-as-an-art-form school of thought. The brainchild of Townshend, the album centers on the life and fate of Tommy, the album’s protagonist whose encounter with a violent act of barbarism made him a blind and deaf mute who ultimately finds redemption in playing pinball. Steeped in poppy melodies with an array of quasi-religious overtones, Tommy is an achievement greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the album is incapable of producing coherent singles, and that’s just what Tommy did with the classic Pinball Wizard
. A song that can quite possibly signal the beginning of The Who’s peak songwriting period, Pete starts off with a beautiful guitar line inspired by the British baroque master Henry Purcell. And then, just after the 17 second mark, Pete busts out with sudden ferocity, banging out a manic rhythm as he gets accompanied by a brilliant Roger wailing like a more muscular Robert Plant. Taken from the point view of the local pinball guru who has just been dethroned by Tommy (“That deaf, dumb, blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!”), the track sports a beautifully executed rise in pitch- a holdover gimmick from past Who songs. Just as the thrashing chorus fades out, however, we are also allowed to taste a portion a calmer, more mature Who. The song See Me, Feel Me
, (distilled from the 7-minute epic “We’re Not Gonna Take It”), shows us a soulful Daltrey, crooning out in pain as Tommy’s spiritual journey comes to a close. About a minute into the song, the rest of the band joins in, laying down reasonable yet delicate harmonies (“Listening to you, I get the music, gazing at you, I get the heat”) A beautiful song, it has a tendency to get swept aside by newer fans due to it’s softer approach to emotion. But true fans will always recall the immortal Woodstock performance of “See Me, Feel Me”, and that scene of Roger before the sunrise will stand forever as one of the classic images rock and roll.
is a live performance, off of the wildly popular Live At Leeds
recording. Following in the wake of Tommy, Live At Leeds captures the Who during their prime, revamping old classics like “Substitute”, as well as pulling off renditions of early rock n’ roll songs. “Summertime” follows the latter. Credited to 50’s rockabilly star Eddie Cochran, the song chronicles the a youth’s conflicts with various authority figures, ever in search for a break (“Now you can't use the car, 'cause you didn't work a lick”). Although not totally groundbreaking, the song is unusual because it features bassist John Entwistle playing the voice of a boss, a father, and a congressman. This compilation shows good judgment in using this song to represent the year 1970 in the Who.
Believe it or not, however, even the success Tommy
and a world tour couldn’t satisfy Townshend’s musical ambition- (and if you know anything about The Who, this wouldn’t come as a surprise.) Under a deep sense of spirituality that was more than subtly influenced by guru Meher Baba, Pete Townshend developed the idea for a multi-media music-based journey. The project- called Life House
, was intended to combine the near-religious euphoria Pete would feel at concerts with a sci-fi theme of musical repression, culminating in a rapture-like salvation of concert-goers to another plane of existence. Needless to say, the grand vision never materialized in its entirety, and the project was scrapped. Yet the band salvaged a large amount of workable material from the ashes and put it on vinyl. The result is Who’s Next
, the classic 70’s rock album which is [near]-universally accepted as the zenith of the Who’s potential. Of the highest quality from start to finish, the two most well-known songs can be found here on Then And Now
, Behind Blue Eyes and Won’t Get Fooled Again.
The first of the two masterpieces, Behind Blue Eyes
, is easily one the top 10 greatest acoustic performances in classic rock. What one hears on this track is magical the sound of The Who perfecting the art of quiet tension. Where as before Townshend felt a need to express anger frustration through volume and complexity, he and Daltrey have translated a tidal wave of emotions into sound using nothing more that voice and guitar. Taken from the point of view from the misunderstood villain (a fairly clever concept), we are given an awe-inspiring look at an mental break-down about to happen (“No one knows what it's like/To be the bad man/To be the sad man/Behind blue eyes”) After 2:19 minutes, the acoustic prelude gives way to the second part of the song, with Moon and Entwistle joining in a grooving movement that vindicates Daltrey’s near-the-edge delivery of lyrics to perfection.
And then comes the crowning achievement. With one graceful motion, guitarist Peter Townshend strikes a majestic A-chord and thus commences Won’t Get Fooled Again
, a epic song that embraces all that is good about classic rock- obnoxiously high screams, wildly frantic riffs, and excessive length. We are guided into the mood by an expert half-minute synth passage, then blasted by an undying explosion- Keith’s crashing drum kick, Pete’s defiant windmill stroke, and Daltrey’s immortal banshee scream. With a thunderous roar, the song launches in the verses, with splendid detailing by Mr. John Entwistle. “Won’t Get Fooled” is an amazing stand against the failed and betrayed revolutions of the past century, masterfully lampooning the naive beliefs and hopes man has vested in these uprisings in a song that has since become a rock-radio staple. Delivered in an accepting, yet realistic tone (“And the world looks just the same/And history ain’t changed”), “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is somewhat of a magnum opus for The Who, encompassing witty social commentary and timeless rock music. Today, the chorus can still be heard ringing in or TV’s and radios...
l tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again!
After the critical accomplishment of Who’s Next
, the band began to sense that it was safe again indulge in another lengthy rock opera. In 1973, The Who released the double album Quadrophenia
. Derived from the conjunction of the ailment schizophrenia and the prefix “quad-“, the album was once slated to be a manifestation of all four band members into one central character. This original concept was disregarded, instead simplifying the album into a chronicle of a young Mod youth coming to terms with his life, his depression, and his philosophy. Towards the latter-half of the recording, we find the anti-hero Jimmy making his escape to the coastal city of Brighton. While riding the train, Jimmy reviews his life with the Mods, and becomes engulfed regret- a scene wonderfully captured in the tune 5:15
. A reference to the train’s schedule, the song is introduced with a lovely piano/guitar/vocal set, before kicking off into a raunchy groove worthy of high praise. Returning to a call-and-response deal found in early work, we can hear Daltrey and company trading off lyrics that can easily be applied to any modern youth’s troubles (“Inside, outside- nowhere is home”). Complete with a triumphant brass section, “5:15” is a proud rocker that became firmly entrenched as a Who concert number. Keith Moon and John lay down a serious beat- all the while a piano bangs out the same sequence of notes, before finishing up with a return to the intro. Concluding the album is the epic ballad Love, Reign O’er Me
, an emotional plea from Jimmy to be loved. As the story ends, Jimmy- now alone and potentially suicidal, rows off the shore, seeking refuge on a rock amidst a hard rain (pointing towards Townshend’s fascination with water a mysterious force). Evoking all of the deepest pains and sorrows that a boy like Jimmy can muster, Roger Daltrey performs the signature vocal track with pin-point accuracy, totally immersing himself in the plight of Jimmy. (“Only love/Can make it rain / The way the beach/is kissed by the sea”). With that impressive call out to oblivion, Quadrophenia finishes, leaving the listener alone to figure out what fate has in the protagonist.
And yet, even as The Who continued to achieve successes like Quadrophenia time began to exact its toll on the band. Out of Pete’s growing frustration with life on the road was born The Who By Numbers
, a record that effectively vents out strains of, among other things, touring. Taken from this album is the quirky Squeeze Box
, which itself is a catchy acoustic rehash of Townshend’s early innuendo-laden works. (Take the chorus, for example. “It goes in and out, and in and out.
”) Although still a powerful force to be reckoned with, The Who By Numbers marked the beginning of the Who’s decline (a painful process experienced by a number of fellow 60’s/70’s classic rock artists). In 1978, The Who would release their last classic song with drummer Keith Moon. Documenting a bizarre encounter between members of the British punk band the Sex Pistols
and a drunken Pete, Who Are You
was composed during somewhat of a mini-mid-life crisis fro Townshend, who was now clearly distressed by the growing rifts in the band, jealousy of youthful punk band who were now competing with the Who in terms of volatility, and the rapid decline in Moon’s health. Today, “Who Are You” stands out as a strong rocker, famous for its lyrics, astounding harmonies, and blatant usage of the forbidden “f-word”.
September 7th of that year saw the passing of Keith (in a bitter twist irony, he would overdose on medication designed to help him stay sober). You better You Bet
was written in the wake of Moon’s death, as a contractual obligation. A bittersweet song about Pete’s laments towards aging, the clever use of synth here seems to be some sort of a sign- as if The Who were giving future bands a sign that it’s ok to venture and create music with the same rebellious spirit that drove themselves on in years past. Although not nearly as strong and bombastic as their first few debut singles, it’s perhaps an appropriate way to close such a collection- a overview of a band that single-handedly changed rock music. Forever.
So then, how does Then and Now
compare to it’s rival packages? If you’re dead set on getting all of your Who fix in just one purchase, you might want invest a bit more money in the 2-disk ?Ultimate? collection. Yet if you wish to possess an album that can serve as a guide for a long term Who collection plan, you can’t do much better than right here. Comprehensive. Affordable. Easy to find. I hardly think you can go wrong?
Besides, it’s the bloody Who!!!