The Who (1971)
This is probably the most important compilation ever released. Though the Who’s first couple albums were a bit spotty, the singles they released during this period were second to none. The genre of punk admittedly has lots of different roots and forefathers (which you’ll see as this column continues), but the Who had more to do with its creation than any other band, bar the Ramones.
Not only that, they also invented art rock, with ambitious, socially conscious multi-part tunes that relied on mixing the band’s muscular sound with delicate melodies, philosophical lyrics and interesting textures. This direction was informed by Pete Townshend’s upper-middle-class education and youth, and his exposure to the Mod cultural movement. The four young men expressed themselves equally through anger, music and quirky humor. They were the first to tackle issues of gender identity, fickle race and class relations, and masturbation, and they even explored more kid-friendly, silly material in songs like “Boris the Spider”. This era of singles (from 1965-1971) also deserves recognition for bringing the Mod lifestyle (and its complimentary economic class) into the cultural spotlight for the first time. I will explore it more fully later, but it was essentially the voice of the British working class.
Not that the Who could be tied to any one movement or ideology; they were a legendarily volatile and contradictory collection of personalities. Head songwriter and mastermind Pete Townshend was alternately soulful, unsatisfied and aloof. He jumped about on stage, creating some truly awesome guitar fireworks, including his famous windmill strum. Roger Daltrey was the confident, personable face of the band, willing to fully sell Pete’s vision with his stage presence and utterly remarkable voice (not to mention some histrionics of his own). His larynx-shredding, operatic style became the industry standard for vocalists in the 70s.
If you weren’t already tired of superlatives, forgive me for suggesting that the Who’s rhythm section was quite probably the greatest in any sort of music ever performed. Keith Moon will never be forgotten in the collective consciousness, because his manic energy, devilish pastimes and pranks, and sheer creative drumming madness made the man almost inhuman; a whirling dervish of goofy, arbitrarily destructive power. There could be no counterpart more opposed to this than bass wizard John Entwistle, an extraordinarily quiet, wry and savvy master of the instrument (and occasional songwriter). He gave the public a new perception of the bass’ potential, and his playing is cool and complex enough to listen to on its own. He was always the anchor of the band’s live show; a stoic presence and mechanically tight foil to their roughshod brilliance and antics. Together, they went on to vitally influence rock music, as documented by this collection, which I will now continue talking about.
MBB&B charts this rebellious, contrarian group’s evolution through (and counter to) the various trends of the 60s. In the beginning of the British Invasion, when most bands tried to toe the line for mass appeal, the Who rocked harder than anyone. Their explosive sound shook the foundations of what was acceptable in the wake of the tamer beat groups. They only dabbled in psychedelia, instead choosing to amp up their sound with “I Can See For Miles” and raising the bar for noise in rock ‘n’ roll. Likewise, they subtly poked fun at the hippie mentality with “Magic Bus”. In a time of back-to-basics roots rock, the Who pioneered the high-concept, spiritually-focused song cycle known as the rock opera. After the Beatles broke up and the Stones spoke as prophets of a darker age with “Gimme Shelter”, the Who voiced their disillusion and angst with “The Seeker”, an anthem that will never lose its resonance so long as teenagers don’t know what to do with themselves.
This brings up an essential point: The Who were the first band to truly understand adolescence; not as the appealing, idealistic Beatles/Stones dichotomy, but as a messy, confounding, exasperating and powerful experience of change and heightened emotion. Their love songs were either bitter, hopelessly longing or wonderfully ambiguous (“The Kids Are Alright”). Their protests and social comments were venomous and righteous. And their playfulness always bled through, keeping the proceedings from becoming too pompous. Townshend’s compositions remain timeless even beyond that age, however, because those emotions continue throughout life, constrained and balanced though they may be. The Who were emotionally raw and honest, speaking for disaffected, directionless youth better than the prissy, good-looking Beatles or the tough, confident Rolling Stones.
In the late 60s and 70s, the Who eventually settled into a trademark style, a mèlange of blues, folk, country and rock they called “Maximum R&B”. At this point, they were extremely adept at balancing artistic endeavor with anthemic pop instincts, formulating the arena rock genre. This phase culminated in the aborted multimedia epic Lifehouse, which was turned into FM radio smash Who’s Next (covered earlier). Eventually, Townshend’s messianic spirituality and curiosity for innovation turned him to synthesizers. His tinkering with these was very fruitful, predicting synth pop and new wave with milestones such as Quadrophenia (to be discussed later) and Who Are You. But that is beyond the purview of this compilation. The years 1965-1971 were lean and mean ones for the Who, yet they proved to be incredibly rewarding.
Comparisons are inevitable between the three titans of 60s rock, and so here is where the ‘Oo fit into the continuum. The Beatles captured teenage romance and joy; the Rolling Stones exuded anger and lust; and the Who channeled frustration, loneliness and the search for meaning, completing the basic categories of pop music. In terms of their aesthetic appeal, the Beatles were emotional, the Stones were physical and the Who were mental (in every sense of the word). Anyway, if you only listen to one record in my entire Listening To History project (assuming you’ve heard some key Beatles and Stones tracks), make it this one. Not every tune is life-changing, but at least 12 out of the 14 are very important in the development of rock music. And if you don’t enjoy “I Can’t Explain”, there is quite simply something wrong with your brain.
Key track: “My Generation”, but you will be a generally smarter, happier and cooler person if you listen to the whole thing
See also: Odds And Sods – The Who (1974)