The Who

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: The Who

Why it’s daunting: For a hugely popular classic-rock band, Pete Townshend and crew have always been reluctant to focus on one strength or peg their discography to a single sound. While Townshend devoured studio time while advancing the rock album to a lofty art, he also turned the singles game into an idiosyncratic playground in the mid-to-late ’60s. The band’s greatest anthem, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” aimed for a more complex message than the usual peace-and-drugs bromides circulating at the time. The Who never fully lumped itself in with psychedelia, blues-based macho hard-rock, or even the mid-’60s Mod movement with which it was briefly identified. Even the most perfunctory Who compilation will span, at the very least, from the band’s early R&B and garage-rock inspirations to the mystical psychedelia of Tommy to the synth-framed epics of Who’s Next. Each Who album harnesses Townshend’s strong leadership as a songwriter and the infamous personal conflicts within the band. Townshend, bass player John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon each aggressively pursued a busy style of play, and somehow cohered behind Roger Daltrey’s increasingly tremendous vocal presence. 

As if The Who’s legacy isn’t complex enough already, the era of CD reissues and bonus tracks has revived a lot of neglected Who songs that stand up to the ones that got proper album or single releases. Not to mention originals and covers that served as live staples and never got a definitive studio treatment. Even better, Townshend himself sometimes had trouble explaining his concept-album ideas to his bandmates and producers without first making his own extensive demos. The Who looks like a disaster on paper, but achieved legendarily forceful results onstage and on record. 

Possible gateway: Live At Leeds (1970)

Why: The Who’s embrace of variety can paint an unjustly sloppy picture for newcomers who start with just any old compilation. (And there are a staggering number of those, even for a band this famous.) Granted, the band had already been through many phases by 1970, and the fact that Leeds includes most of them only helps fuel the chaos of its live show. Current CD versions of Leeds (vinyl fiends beware: The original LP was edited down to only six tracks) begin with “Heaven And Hell,” a basically live-only song Entwistle wrote. The sheer primality of the Leeds performance reconciles early singles (“Can’t Explain”), covers (Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” among others), just a little from Tommy (they performed the entire thing, but you’ll only get “Amazing Journey” and “Sparks” unless you spring for the “deluxe” double-disc version), and one-off singles from the brilliant (“Substitute”) to the daffy (an absurdly drawn-out jam of “Magic Bus,” on which Daltrey and Townshend negotiate the sale of a “bus-age wonder”).

Leeds captures not only the brute force The Who achieved while playing live in its prime, but also the perverse technical finesse a band needs to create a really grand racket. A cover of Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller” begins with a whoop from Entwistle’s bass and the unmistakable clatter of Moon winging across all his toms, but ends up leading into “Tattoo,” a gentle song (From 1967’s The Who Sell Out) about two young brothers who decide they must get tattoos to become men. (“My dad beat me, ’cause mine said ‘Mother,’ / But my mother naturally liked it, and beat my brother,” Daltrey sings.) “Young Man Blues” unleashes an improvisatory side that never showed up on studio records, especially as Townshend abruptly slides off the blues scale to drag menacing, dissonant chords up the neck, leaving Entwistle to smoothly pin it together. For those who don’t have the time to watch the documentaries or read the biographies, the introduction to “A Quick One While He’s Away” provides a look at the band’s love-hate chemistry and sense of humor. (It also makes the original studio version on 1967’s A Quick One sound junky.) Townshend explains that the song is a mini-rock-opera in which Entwistle plays an “engine driver” who seduces an innocent young woman (played by Townshend), and Moon can be faintly heard goading Townshend from behind the drum kit.

Next steps: Ultimately, there’s no getting around the four-sided behemoths Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973). Before jumping into the two concept double-albums The Who actually completed, hear the one that collapsed. Lifehouse was to integrate “a portentous science-fiction film with Utopian spiritual messages into which were to be grafted uplifting scenes from a real Who concert,” (as Townshend later explained in liner notes) as well as a process that would provide individual fans with their own computer-generated musical themes. After Townshend struggled to put all this into fucking English for his bandmates’ benefit, producer Glyn Johns talked him into putting out a regular album of not entirely connected songs, some of which were originally intended for the project. Still, Townshend’s constant habit of trying new ideas isn’t at all lost on 1971’s Who’s Next. The opener, “Baba O’Riley” (which people will mistakenly call “Teenage Wasteland” for all eternity), and the closer, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” fused his new interest in dense, arpeggiated synthesizers with giant power chords. Unlike most of Tommy’s songs, the ones intended for Lifehouse sound even better next to less-conceptual stuff like “Bargain” and “Getting In Tune.” The biggest leap on the album is the way “Behind Blue Eyes” works its way to anger from a core of loneliness and desperation, and more specifically, how Daltrey has grown subtle enough to carry the song from an acoustic lament to an anguished plea: “If I swallow anything evil, put your finger down my throat.” There are harder-rocking Who songs, just none more startling.

After that, it’s a little easier to make sense of Tommy—on which the band grappled with almost as tricky an idea, but glued it all together anyway—and Quadrophenia, which is about as all-muscle as one can ask of a double album. On both, Townshend builds on several distinct melodic themes, showing off their strength by repeating each throughout the album and combining them all into instrumentals (Tommy’s “Sparks,” immortalized in the film Almost Famous). Tommy relies much more on slightly cheesy transitional tracks that merely tell you what’s going on in the story of a boy who goes deaf, dumb, and blind after a childhood trauma, then eventually recovers and becomes a cult messiah. Quadrophenia’s narrative centers around a fan of the early Who named Jimmy, who turns out to have four split personalities, each corresponding to a Who member with his own dedicated song and melodic theme. (Townshend, of course, gives his personal one the big finale, “Love Reign O’er Me.”) Fortunately for such a self-referential project, Quadrophenia draws from each Who member the performance that’s most, well, him. The kids who wrote “My Generation” say their piece again, this time with all the ferocity of Who’s Next and more, on “The Real Me” and “The Punk And The Godfather.” Better still, Quadrophenia has a way of looking outside its own potentially suffocating concept: “The Dirty Jobs” and “Helpless Dancer” shift focus away from Jimmy to a cast of blue-collar laborers and undesirables. From there on, the album is less about just a teenage Mod than about how heroic it is just to deal with all the garbage everyday life hurls at you. 

The Who turned both concept albums into movies, and neither is a substitute for just listening to the original album while thumbing through the supremely dorky liner notes. The Quadrophenia film stays pretty faithful to the original music, while the Tommy film offers a mess of reworked tracks courtesy of such guests as Eric Clapton, Elton John, and even Jack Nicholson. (Granted, the Ken Russell-directed Tommy features a scene in which a TV spews out champagne, baked beans, and other sloppy foods at a crazed Ann-Margret, which was apparently enough to earn her an Oscar nomination.) 

Early on, Townshend envisioned The Who expanding more thoroughly into film and other media, so it’s worth witnessing his attempts to put visuals to his concept projects. Speaking of Who film endeavors, The Kids Are Alright offers a user-friendly overview up through 1978, including the legendary TV performance of “My Generation” that ended with Keith Moon blowing up his drum kit.

Where not to start: Releases after Moon’s 1978 death (It’s Hard and Face Dances) and anything after Entwistle’s death (2006’s Endless Wire) aren’t necessarily to be avoided, but first-time listeners will want to hear the unmatchable chemistry of the original lineup. That lineup also made 1975’s The Who By Numbers and 1978’s Who Are You, which don’t have the same sense of lunging forward as Who’s Next or Quadrophenia. In the case of The Who, the difference between one best-of compilation and the next actually matters. Many of them try to go all the way from “My Generation” to “You Better You Bet,” and they all end up leaving out something great. Don’t grab just any. Unless you’re willing to shell out for all the albums and/or a big box set, try for something at least halfway focused: Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy boasts not only the greatest compilation title ever, but also a fairly coherent roundup of The Who’s best singles up to 1970: “Can’t Explain,” “The Seeker,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “I Can See For Miles,” etc. As broader introductions go, MCA’s My Generation: The Very Best Of The Who is pretty solid.

As for the proper early albums, The Who Sell Out includes “I Can See For Miles” and is framed as a cheesy British radio broadcast, complete with weird commercials. A lot of the admittedly well-crafted tracks are in a psychedelic pretty-boy mode that fortunately didn’t last long for The Who. It’s still worth buying for the “ads” on the cover, which include Roger Daltrey lounging in a bathtub full of baked beans. But if you wind up truly infatuated with The Who’s wackier ideas, then by all means dive in.

Filed Under: Music

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