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The Who Struggle Into A New Age
on 12 December 2001
The Who were never, ever content to cruise in the comfort zone. Having started the 70s with "Live At Leeds", and then released the cutting-edge "Who's Next", before crowning their own achievements with "Quadrophenia" in 1973, The Who had burnt brighter and better than any other band of the period.
But the edge was being blunted. The sheer slog of re-writing and re-recording the score for the Ken Russell film of "Tommy", filmed in 1974, released in 1975, had taken a heavy toll on the band. Pete Townshend in particular was suffering. His vital working relationship with co-manager Kit Lambert had fallen apart from 71 onwards, and he was already unsure about the relevance of The Who by 1974/75.
He was terrified of them becoming just another bunch of aging rockers, unable to match their younger fire, or to move beyond to something fresh.
Also, the whole band were living lives of excess, especially Keith Moon. Hence the deep pessimism and self-loathing of the ascerbic "Who By Numbers" in 1975. After a proudly defiant series of live gigs in 75/76, The Who had once again slipped into a period of dormancy. In the meantime, younger, stroppier, snottier youngsters had taken the British music scene by the throat. The Sex Pistols, The Clash and all those who followed in their phlegm-flecked wake wanted to erase all memories of fat-cat rock bands grown older and lazy. The Who were still granted respect, but mainly for the danger and drama of their younger days.
By early 78, Moon's health and technical abilities had deteriorated sharply. He was in no great shape when the band reconvened to record this album.
So it's astonishing the album is as good as it is.
Townshend wants The Who (and their followers) to realise that times are changing. The trouble is, they're all that bit set in their ways when it comes to writing and playing. Instead of trying to speed up The Who's harder-edged tunes in what would have been an embarrassing attempt to "ape" the raw thunder of punk, Townshend wisely steered into other, newer styles. So what we get is a mix of Rock (with a capital R), jazzier material, and even a tongue-in-cheek nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. When it works ("New Song", "Who Are You", arguably "Sister Disco"), The Who sound great. W.A.Y. itself is probably the very last great Who song. When they move into territory they're less sure of ("Love Is Coming Down"), it can be hard to take.
John Entwistle contributes three songs, all with his own dark vision to the fore. And "905" may just be his best contribution to the Who cause since "Boris The Spider".
Should you buy this CD? If you're already familiar with The Who, yes, certainly. If you're not, maybe you should try a compilation such as "My Generation - The Best Of...", or "Who's Next". But if you DO take the plunge, give it time. There are very, very few utterly useless Who albums - and this isn't it. By the way, the utterly useless album is called "Who's Last". Avoid like a stinky dog.