A track-by-track commentary on 20 of the band's most explosive tracks
A miserable October day in London, 2002. Roger Daltrey is staring out of the window at the colourless metropolitan sky, looking smart but sombre in a dark pin-stripe suit. Ominously, Uncut’s interview with The Who’s vocal powerhouse comes the afternoon following a memorial service for bassist John Entwistle, who died on June 27 this year; on the eve of a scheduled tour of America which they valiantly honoured (roping in Pino Paladino as an emergency replacement for ‘the Ox’).
Twenty-four years after the death of drummer Keith Moon in September 1978, Entwistle’s passing now means that Daltrey and guitarist/songwriting genius Pete Townshend are the last men standing in England’s other great surviving rock band.
Lest we forget, back in the ’60s The Who were the only British combo who proved themselves worthy of ranking alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, turning the hierarchy of UK pop from a dynamic duo into a holy trinity. Beginning as a pop-art explosion of R’n’B feedback and mod frustration, by the end of the decade, along with Jimi Hendrix (who was already indebted to the unorthodox musicianship of early Townshend), on a purely sonic level The Who had permanently transformed the molecular structure of rock’n’roll. Be it patenting the modern ‘rock opera’ with 1969’s behemoth Tommy, setting the sound levels for the next decade of headbanging metal-heads with 1970’s Live At Leeds or the technological ambition inherent in the synthesized sheen of 1971’s Who’s Next, The Who broke barriers, moulds and eardrums at virtually every turn. The secret of their success?
“Two things,” considers Daltrey. “One, Pete wrote fucking great songs. And two, he had such incredible individual people to play them. I mean, talk about icing on the cake! Pete had a good cake, but he also had the same thickness of icing on top.”
The new Who CD, The Ultimate Collection, is partly in memoriam for Entwistle and partly for those who need reminding of The Who’s matchless contribution to the rock acropolis. Though at the height of their powers The Who prided (and possibly over-indulged) themselves on their albums, it was always the 45rpm pop single that provided the greatest thrills, from the brusqueness of 1965’s “I Can’t Explain” through to 1981’s Moon-less curtain call “You Better, You Bet”. Where their ’60s counterparts either split (The Beatles), struggled (The Kinks) or, in the case of The Stones, stopped caring about singles, the “’Orrible ’Oo” continued to churn out provocatively original A-sides well into the ’70s, regardless of whatever ambitious (and often abortive) rock opera Townshend may have had up his sleeve at the time.
As Townshend wrote himself in a 1971 review of their own Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy singles collection for Rolling Stone magazine, The Who’s earliest mandate was a religious belief in the 45 format and little else: “We, I repeat, believed only in singles.”
Thirty years on, Roger Daltrey, too, has plenty to say about the purity of the singles aesthetic in the age of Pop Idol. “I made some rude remarks recently about Simon Cowell in an interview,” he guffaws, “but I’ve changed my opinion of him because you need to have a bland period so that all these young groups will get pissed off and start coming through. You can see it happening now with a lot of the new groups, The Coral and all that lot: they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough of this shit, let’s get out and make some noise!’ So thank you very much, Simon Cowell, you did it, mate! Make no bones about it, shit like Pop Idol and American Idol will lead to the creation of the next punk. The seeds are already out there. It’s great!”
Young men going out and making noise was exactly how one might describe The Who’s raison d’être when they first formed as The Detours in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, in 1962. Youth, in all its arrogance, was a vital ingredient in those early days, an attitude crystallised three years later on “My Generation” in which they unwittingly provided their future critics with a well-worn taunt in the infamous decree of “hope I die before I get old”. For a man now fast approaching 60, Daltrey’s healthy pallor is a terrific advertisement for the merits of four decades of the rock’n’roll lifestyle; a shockingly well-preserved yin to the dilapidated yang of his peers (there’s only four months between them, but he looks a decade or two younger than, say, Keith Richards). All the same, even today, one broaches the “My Generation” conundrum with Daltrey at one’s peril.
“I find it incredibly tedious when people bring that against us now,” he glares. “For me, age has nothing to do with it. It’s a state of mind.”
Of his own mortality, and the question mark that hangs over the future of The Who – wherever he and Townshend decide to step on from here – Daltrey is quite confident.
“It can’t be the same because John Entwistle was a genius at his style, there’ll never be another like him,” he says, unruffled. “But that’s not to say we can’t go on. As soon as you start playing that music, John is alive again, just the same as Keith’s always been alive whenever we play. That’s the great thing about music, it transcends this life. We never know when we’re gonna pop our clogs, we’re all in the drop-zone at our age, but life goes on and music will certainly go on. The Who’s music will go on long after I’m gone and Pete’s gone, and that’s everything I believe in. Right now, I’m very optimistic about our future.
“I mean we have been incredibly lucky,” Daltrey concludes. “I wake up every morning thinking, ‘Gawd – what a life!’ When you think about the great bands of all time, there’s only a handful like the Stones or The Who who’ve gone on for as long as we have. And you think – why us? It’s an extraordinary life we’ve had. Why we should come together and make that noise and create that extraordinary thing? God knows. Life is weird.”
A case of “I Can’t Explain”?
“Ha!” laughs Daltrey, rolling forward in his seat, “Exactly! I can’t explain!”
Producer: Shel Talmy
B-side: Bald Headed Woman (Talmy)
Released: January 1965
Highest UK chart position: 8
It’s early 1965. The Beatles are busy working on Help!, while only with their sixth single have The Rolling Stones finally found the courage to issue an original composition, “The Last Time”, as an A-side. Enter The Who, who take just 125 seconds to announce their arrival as the hardest new beat group on the block. A short, sharp three-chord shock eulogising not love per se but its universally problematic corollary: emotional inarticulacy. Quite simply – “I Can’t Explain”. Beside the benign prettiness of Lennon and McCartney’s then-current “I Feel Fine”, Townshend’s first in a daunting series of fantastic songs (not to mention fantastic riffs) posed a beguiling alternative. Aggressive, minimal, darker but, above all, a formidable pop construction. That said, its chopping rhythm was blatantly indebted to The Kinks (whose “You Really Got Me” had preceded “I Can’t Explain” by five months), a similarity magnified by their use of Kinks producer Shel Talmy, who was dubious enough about his new protégés to ensure session musician/future Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and vocal trio The Ivy League were roped in to add professional gloss, much to The Who’s displeasure.
Legend has it that a few weeks after the single’s release, Townshend was accosted in his native Shepherd’s Bush by a gang of kids, thanking him for expressing their feelings on record, and urging him to write some more in the same vein. Already, just one record down the line, The Who’s creative linchpin was being handed the weighty responsibility of spokesman for a young generation unfulfilled by the Stones’ Anglicised R’n’B or the Fab Four’s Mersey beats. Townshend wouldn’t disappoint them.
Daltrey: “Well, it’s that thing – ‘I got a feeling inside, I can’t explain’ – it’s rock’n’roll. The more we try to explain it, the more we crawl up our own arses and disappear! I was very proud of that record. That was us, y’know – it was an original song by Pete and it captured that energy and that testosterone that we had in those days. It still does.
“Yeah, it was very Kinks derivative because we were huge fans of theirs, we supported them on so many shows. But as a producer, Shel Talmy just stood and watched a lot; he didn’t communicate with the band. When we turned up to record it there was this other guitarist in the studio – Jimmy Page. And he’d brought in three backing vocalists, which was another shock. He must have discussed it with our management, but not with us, so we were thrown at first, thinking, ‘What the fuck’s going on here?’ But it was his way of recording. We were in that studio for no more than two hours. A-side, B-side, played the thing four times and that was it. Obviously, if we’d had to do our own backing vocals that would’ve meant overdubs and more studio time, so that was how Shel worked. Pete could’ve played the lead but in a way it was a privilege having Jimmy Page on one of our records… he ain’t a bad guitarist, y’know?”
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (Townshend/Daltrey)
Producer: Shel Talmy
B-side: Daddy Rolling Stone (Blackwell)
Released: May 1965
Highest UK chart position: 10
If “I Can’t Explain” was a surly knock on the door of mid-’60s British pop, its sonically irascible follow-up, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, blew the hinges off. Marketed by managers Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence) and Kit Lambert as the world’s first “pop-art record”, its radical use of feedback, string glissandi (or ‘plectrum scrape’) and Townshend’s overdriven ‘Morse-code’ pick-up stammers successfully captured The Who’s stage chemistry and amp-abusing anarchy in a studio environment.
Citing bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker as his primary muse, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” was almost jazz-like in Townshend’s revolutionary structure, chopping between high-harmony Beach Boys choruses and spacious, seemingly improvisational breakdowns just about tethered down by the simple piano boogie of guest Nicky Hopkins and Moon’s tom-tom stampedes. It also marked the only joint composer credit for Townshend and Daltrey, the latter invited to finish off and “toughen up” the former’s basic lyrics, asserting an almost Nietzschean, autonomous super-ego. The angry, young sound of pop art in motion, the song further defined its age when it was selected as a temporary title theme for Ready, Steady, Go.
Daltrey: “We were doing this feedback stuff, even before that. We’d be doing blues songs and they’d turn into this freeform, feedbacky, jazzy noise. Pete was getting all these funny noises, banging his guitar against the speakers. Basically, the act that Hendrix is famous for came from Townshend, pre-‘I Can’t Explain’. ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ was the first song when we attempted to get that noise onto a record and that was a good deal of time before Hendrix had even come to England. The American pressing plant sent it back thinking it was a mistake. We said, ‘No, this is the fucking noise we want. CUT IT LOUD!’”
Producer: Shel Talmy
B-side: Shout And Shimmy (Brown)
Released: November 1965
Highest UK chart position: 2
What began as a slow blues number addressing Townshend’s disgust at his peer group’s ill treatment by their perplexed seniors ended up being not only the most famous song in The Who’s canon but the most lyrically belligerent, musically lawless expression of adolescent insolence ever committed to vinyl. Timeless in its antagonistic disregard for the establishment, regardless of any attempts to update or improve on the song – from Patti Smith’s expletive-ridden assault at the dawn of punk to Oasis’ recent stadium rock-out – nothing and nobody can enhance the unadulterated savagery and intent of The Who’s original “My Generation” as it first appeared in late 1965.
Though Townshend would divulge several different anecdotes to the press as to what inspired the track, the most popular story is that the Queen Mother, who was regularly chauffeured down the Belgravia street where the Who guitarist was living that year, took umbrage with his latest motor parked outside (a Packard hearse) and had it towed away by police.
It took three separate studio sessions to transform his outrage into the youth anthem we recognise today, speeding it up from his bluesy demo and fortifying its message of elderly detestation by having Daltrey affect a stammer. Thus, 30 seconds in, as the singer seemingly struggles to articulate himself, an aghast nation held its breath anticipating an F-word that never came.
For those such as the Queen Mum on the receiving end of Townshend’s ire, it may as well have, since “My Generation” virtually amounted to one three-minute ‘fuck off’. It comes as no great shock to learn that Entwistle broke something in the region of three bass guitars in acquiring the desired sound (his unaccompanied solo was a triumph in itself) while during the finale Moon gives the impression of an eight-armed man spontaneously combusting over four kits at once.
To call it a mere pop record is absurd (as was the fact it never actually made No 1). In the UK charts of Christmas 1965, when The Beatles were unobtrusively vowing “We Can Work It Out” and The Rolling Stones were being only slightly bolder by scoffing “Get Off Of My Cloud”, the unruly hubbub of “My Generation” wasn’t so much a pop music watershed as an apocalypse that changed the landscape forever.
Daltrey: “I have got a stutter. I control it much better now but not in those days. When we were in the studio doing ‘My Generation’, Kit Lambert came up to me and said ‘STUTTER!’ I said ‘What?’ He said ‘Stutter the words – it makes ⌦it sound like you’re pilled’ And I said, ‘Oh… like I am!’ And that’s how it happened. It was always in there, it was always suggested with the ‘f-f-fade’ but the rest of it was improvised. But… it’s a fucking great record, it really is.”
Producer: The Who
B-side: Circles (aka Instant Party) (Townshend)
Released: March 1966
Highest UK chart position: 5
Despite 1965’s opening Top 10 hat-trick, by the spring of 1966 The Who’s grievances were considerable. There was a messy contractual divorce from producer Shel Talmy that was to cost them dearly, Townshend announcing on national TV that their music had no quality and amounted to sheer “musical sensationalism”, fisticuffs on stage and off, and the temporary resignations of both Daltrey and Moon exacerbating a climate of imminent self-destruction.
Thankfully, such pandemonium didn’t prevent Townshend from delivering another lyrically audacious, three-chord masterpiece. “Substitute” began as the guitarist’s reaction to media comparisons that The Who were a ‘substitute Rolling Stones’. This sarcastic germ soon grew into a sneering manifesto of class-conscious self-deprecation, harsh enough in its abusive demeanour to be adopted by The Sex Pistols a decade later as a ready-made punk calling card.
The bitterness of Daltrey’s confession (the controversial “I look all white but my dad was black” had to be removed from the US version) was intensified by Townshend’s deployment of a 12-string acoustic (a noticeable change in texture after the electric hysteria of its antecedents), Entwistle’s Motown-inspired hookline and Moon’s rhythmic typhoon (though, bizarrely, the drummer was so pilled that he professed to having no memory of the session, accusing his bandmates of recording it behind his back with an impostor).
Their fourth consecutive Top 10 hit, it still didn’t appease Daltrey’s own sense of unease that they were veering too far into the mainstream at the cost of their earlier, militant R’n’B roots.
Daltrey: “I still couldn’t find that voice on songs like ‘Substitute’. I found it very, very difficult to sing pop. My voice was very gravelly. I couldn’t identify with it, whatever the hell it was. Pop was alien to me. I didn’t really find my voice until we got to Tommy. ”
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: In The City (Moon, Entwistle)
Released: August 1966
Highest UK chart position: 2
The first inklings of Townshend’s loftier ambitions as a composer became visible with this, statistically The Who’s joint most successful UK hit alongside “My Generation”. “I’m A Boy” had arisen from a proposed musical, “Quads”: an Aldous Huxley-inspired sci-fi yarn set in 2000 where children are delivered to order. When a mother requests four girls, she is accidentally supplied with three daughters and a son by mistake. Thus “I’m A Boy” is the aggrieved protestation of the male baby whose blinkered parents still insist on raising as a female.
Such a preposterous concept was lost on the public at large, to whom “I’m A Boy” would have arrived as a curious and deliciously subversive comment on gender identity. Yet however ludicrous, it was undoubtedly one of the most compelling 45s of their career thanks to the unreserved fury of their combined musicianship. Entwistle’s French horn (more prominent still on an alternate take featured on 1971’s Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy compilation) and Townshend’s baroque middle-eight – revived on “Pinball Wizard” three years later – provided a mischievous lacquer of mock-highbrow theatrics.
Moreover, those in any doubt as to the genius of Keith Moon needed look no further than his percussive earthquake here, which lays siege to the entire tune. Ironic, then, that “I’m A Boy” should have been kept off the No 1 spot by Jim Reeves’ “Distant Drums”.
Daltrey: “It seemed to me as though Pete was being guided into these big ideas about rock operas by Kit Lambert because Kit’s father was Constance Lambert, the founder of Sadler’s Wells and a very famous English composer. Kit was very aware that music didn’t have to be a three-minute single. He was very respectful of the importance of the three-minute single but he was determined to make it expand from that, that rock and pop was a much bigger thing than just three minutes. On ‘I’m A Boy’, I tried to sing it like a really, really young kid, like an eight-year-old. Not the voice of an eight-year-old but the sentiment – and I think that came across.”
Happy Jack (Townshend)
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: I’ve Been Away (Entwistle)
Released: December 1966
Highest UK chart position: 3
Another ridiculous lyric, this time about a tinker on the Isle Of Man and his torment at the hands of local children, “Happy Jack” continued The Who’s unbroken Top 10 chart assault despite the lyrical absurdity and corresponding musical irregularity (fractured, once more, by two furious instrumental spasms commandeered by the mercurial Moon).
That the band had, for the time being at least, overcome any differences in personality showed in its high-spirited execution and Townshend’s giddy parting cry of “I saw ya!” The remark was directed at Moon, who had been banned from the track’s vocal overdubs since his tones were far from dulcet. After destroying the concentration of his bandmates by pulling faces from the control booth, the impish drummer was ordered to lie still on the floor so they could sing their three-part harmony without distraction. Just as the track finished, Moon raised his hand, visible above the dividing glass, instigating Townshend’s now infamous aside, which stayed on the master cut as a teasing in-joke.
It was also unusual that a single as idiosyncratically English as “Happy Jack” would spearhead The Who’s long-overdue campaign in the US charts, becoming their first to successfully enter the American Top 30.
Daltrey: “I remember when I first heard ‘Happy Jack’, I thought, ‘What the fuck do I do with this? It’s like a German oompah song!’ I had a picture in my head that this was the kind of song that Burl Ives would sing, so ‘Happy Jack’ was my imitation of Burl Ives!
“But listen to Moon on that track – in those days he was so distinctive. Even from the very first night he played with us. We got Keith, this kid we didn’t know out of the audience, on the drums and it was like this fucking jet engine starting. I was like, ‘What the fuck’s THIS?!’ It was such instant chemistry. Really, we couldn’t have had any other drummer. He was incredible.
“The funny thing about Keith, though, he was a total Beach Boys nut. Even in the ’70s, if The Beach Boys had asked Keith to join them and leave The Who, he’d have left us. He was an absolute fanatic. That first night he joined us his hair was bright ginger ’cos he’d gone out and bought a bottle of peroxide to become a Californian bleach blond – but with his jet black hair and the peroxide he’d gone like a bloody carrot.”
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: Doctor Doctor (Entwistle)
Released: April 1967
Highest UK chart position: 4
Undisputed ‘most famous pop song about masturbation’ ever (bar The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese”, perhaps), “Pictures Of Lily” happily avoided censorship in the UK thanks to its agreeable, almost saccharine melody, shaken only by Moon’s occasional threat of suppressed, skin-shattering violence and Entwistle’s peculiar ‘elephant call’ horn intermission.
The eponymous ‘wet dream’ heroine was vaudeville star Lily Bayliss, whom Townshend had seen on a vintage 1920s postcard at his girlfriend’s flat (the reverse of which had been inscribed with the line “here’s another picture of Lily”). The saucy Victoriana theme was echoed in its press campaign of risqué nudes from the same era, one of which was later emblazoned upon the sides of Moon’s specially designed “British Exploding Drummer” kit.
A sizeable hit at home, though perfect for a time when UK pop was shifting towards a softer, psychedelic Arcadia (Pink Floyd, Sgt Pepper, Donovan), it seems The Who themselves saw “Lily” as little more than a euphemistic quick one off the wrist.
Daltrey: “When Kit and Pete came in and said this is the next single, yeah, straight away I saw the words and knew what it was about. So I deliberately thought I’d sing it the opposite way, with complete innocence. So instead of it being something suggestive, it tweaks it the other way and gives it a little bit more intrigue. But ‘Pictures Of Lily’ never sat well on stage for some reason.”
I Can See For Miles (Townshend)
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: Someone’s Coming (Entwistle)
Released: October 1967
Highest UK chart position: 10
As 1967’s Summer Of Love turned to winter, staunch mod figureheads like the Small Faces and The Kinks were already succumbing to psychedelia’s tranquilising odour (on “Itchycoo Park” and “Autumn Almanac” respectively). As a mind-altering pop headrush, “I Can See For Miles” was as close as The Who dared follow; hypnotic enough in its stinging single-note guitar sustain to pass as ‘trippy’ if still too intense to mask the inexorable rhythmic brutality.
The result, also included on their glorious The Who Sell Out LP, was nevertheless astounding. A brilliantly simple song (Townshend had kept it in reserve for over a year), “I Can See For Miles” excelled the sum of its parts courtesy of Kit Lambert’s power pop production: an H-bomb of a tune crash-landing through the airwaves from another galaxy.
Despite making the Top 10 here and in the US (their first sizeable hit there in the wake of that summer’s historic Monterey International Pop festival performance), its failure to reach No 1 left its composer indignant and disillusioned about the state of the singles market. As Townshend later said, “I spat on the British record buyer.”
Daltrey: “I think it’s one of the best-produced singles we ever did. We spent literally a whole day putting down layer and layer of harmonies on the ‘miles and miles’ section. I always loved that song and you listen to the drumming on it, it’s extraordinary – like a steam engine. That time, though, psychedelia, it was ⌦a bit too spongy for me. I found it pretentious and I didn’t like it – I couldn’t wait to get back to a good bit of Otis Redding. We did get into it in some ways but the difference between The Who and all these other bands getting into psychedelia was that, though we were all into the anti-war movement, every time we went on stage we were showing them what war was really like! At Monterey they’d come to hear all this peace and love music, not see us smash up our gear and blow things up. That’s what we did – woke them up a bit! That was all part of our success, though. The Who were the odd men out, totally different.”
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: Call Me Lightning (Townshend)
Released: June 1968
Highest UK chart position: 25
1968 would be The Who’s wilderness year. It was a worrying 12 months of taking stock after the lukewarm reception to The Who Sell Out that began with a disastrous tour of Australia and New Zealand with The Small Faces; a band whose style Townshend would attempt to emulate on their next single, “Dogs”.
Recorded the same month that Marriott and Lane’s “Lazy Sunday” went Top 10 in the UK, the song was cut from the same cloth of mockney music-hall; a love story set among the debris of lost betting slips at White City’s dog track, complete with Goons-like comedy voices and lyrics celebrating a working-class diet of meat pies and beer.
Virtually disowned by the group since, “Dogs” is still three minutes of whimsical yet imaginatively arranged mod Vaudeville (Moon’s tumultuous rhythm is vintage Who), although its poor chart performance – their first legitimate 45 not to go Top 10 – was illustration enough of their pre-Tommy rut.
A musically unrelated instrumental sequel, “Dogs Part 2”, later became the B-side of “Pinball Wizard”, credited to Messrs Moon, Towser and Jason; the latter two ‘composers’ being Townshend and Entwistle’s actual mutts.
Daltrey: “ ‘Dogs’? Oh… [buries face in hands]… shit! That’s just bizarre. Actually, I’ll tell you what it is, it’s just Pete’s tribute to Ronnie Lane. He was such a lovely geezer, Ronnie, they were great guys, The Faces, all of them. But I think it’d have been better if Pete had just given the song to Ronnie in the first place. As a Who record, it was all a bit frivolous for me.”
Magic Bus (Townshend)
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (Entwistle)
Released: September 1968
Highest UK chart position: 26
Like “Dogs”, The Who’s only other new release during 1968 – “Magic Bus” – seemed trivial. Salvaged from a demo Townshend had cut circa “My Generation” three years earlier, it was also scraping the barrel of their dwindling resources. However, the song’s inherent R’n’B simplicity – anchored in ⌦an archetypal Bo Diddley beat with a contrived bartering patter between Daltrey and Townshend likewise inspired by Diddley’s 1958 jivin’ rap prototype “Say Man” – would work well in concert. As captured on 1970’s Live At Leeds, “Magic Bus” became the unlikely focal point for future Who performances, much to the chagrin of Entwistle, who found his repetitious monophonic bassline an unchallenging chore.
With its quasi-psychedelic lyrical imagery evoking Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 pan-American pilgrimage in a customised Harvester school bus, it’s surprising that the single failed to make a bigger impact upon the post-Pepper, pre-Woodstock charts on either side of the Atlantic in a year when LSD-spiked trippiness was fast becoming valuable pop currency.
Regardless, Townshend was by now too preoccupied with more spiritual matters to care about this, their second successive chart failure. A changed man after being introduced to the teachings of the mystic Indian guru Meher Baba, as “Magic Bus” hit the shops Townshend was already putting The Who through their paces with the grandiose musical designs for his ‘rock opera’, provisionally titled “The Deaf, Dumb & Blind Boy”. The Who’s permanent recovery was but a pinball table’s tilt away…
Daltrey: “D’you know I can’t even remember recording ‘Magic Bus’. I must have been stoned on something! I don’t have a lot to say about that song but it’s strange, the fans love it because it’s a Bo Diddley riff, and that always worked. But I know John did find it very tedious.”
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: Dogs Part 2 (Moon, Towser, Jason)
Released: March 1969
Highest UK chart position: 4
As undisputed rock classics go, the premise for this – The Who’s most celebrated anthem bar “My Generation” – is as unorthodox as it gets: an awestruck, third-person account of a blind, deaf mute and his remarkable proficiency at bagatelle.
Despite protestations from those such as Radio 1’s Tony Blackburn that the disc was “sick”, “Pinball Wizard” was still the most accessible offering from the admittedly convoluted narrative of Tommy, 1969’s double-length ‘rock opera’ with which they would become forever synonymous. That the song returned The Who to the UK Top 10 probably said less for its illogical lyrics than it did the momentum provided by Townshend’s fluttering acoustic rhythm track and its volcanic intro – often imitated but never bettered.
While Townshend professed to seeking musical inspiration from the likes of Henry Purcell, the introduction of pinball itself into Tommy’s plot was even more contrived – to guarantee that friend of the band/New York Times critic Nik Cohn, himself a pinball freak who was extremely distrustful of the ‘rock opera’ concept, gave the album a rave review.
Whatever the intention, the plan worked. It was in America, rather than at home, that Tommy really struck gold. Had it not, The Who would almost certainly have been finished, since its success saved the band from financial ruin after years accruing crippling debts by the systematic destruction of hire-purchase equipment in the name of showmanship.
Yet Tommy was to change more than just their bank balances. “Pinball Wizard” marked the beginning of the end of The Who as a singles machine as Townshend eschewed the immediacy of their ’60s legacy for works increasingly epic in both lyrical scope and musical arrangement. At the same time, Daltrey’s discovery of his true singing voice as the eponymous deaf, dumb and blind messiah set a lung-busting precedent for the heaviness to come.
Similarly, Entwistle and Moon’s onstage transformation of the album’s 70-minute song cycle into a roof-raiser helped earn their reputation as the greatest live act on the planet as the ’70s dawned. Their days as a pop group now over, rock superstardom, and attendant ills, beckoned.
Daltrey: “Kit’s production on ‘Pinball Wizard’ is absolutely tremendous. The whole montage of sounds he got in emulating the pinball machine is extraordinary. I don’t think he got enough recognition for his work on that. Not necessarily the sound he got – because most of the time making Tommy we were out of our boxes, God knows what we were doing – but the actual arrangements and the ideas, the harmonies and the structures.”
The Seeker (Townshend)
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: Here For More (Daltrey)
Released: March 1970
Highest UK chart position: 19
For all its success, Tommy also brought its fair share of misery for The Who, threatening to engulf the band completely as they accrued a new ‘snob rock’ audience (becoming, as Entwistle groused, “the kind of band that Jackie Onassis would come and see”).
As their first single of the ’70s, “The Seeker” seemed a reactionary attempt to return to their earnest roots of rock without opera. Its confident, three-chord rhythm riff was indeed classic Townshend, but not so the lyrics; a dated quest for enlightenment name-checking The Beatles, Dylan and Timothy Leary. Far from a brand new start, “The Seeker” sounded like a requiem for the previous decade, marred by a muted Moon performance.
The drummer’s lack of enthusiasm was to be expected, though it was for far graver reasons than apathy towards the music. Barely a fortnight before its recording in January 1970, Moon had been invited to open a nightclub in Hatfield, Hertfordshire – an evening that was to end in tragedy. Upon leaving the venue, Moon and his party were attacked by a gang of skinheads as they prepared to drive off in their Bentley. Moon’s chauffeur, Cornelius ‘Neil’ Boland, stepped out of the car to fend them off. During the ensuing scuffle, Moon panicked and drove the car forward, unaware that Boland had been knocked to the ground by the mob. Crushed beneath its wheels, Boland was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital within the hour. Though vindicated by the police enquiry, Moon’s guilt over his friend’s death would torment him till his own untimely passing eight years later.
Daltrey: “I was never ever fond of ‘The Seeker’. To sing that song, to me, was like trying to push an elephant up the stairs. I found it cumbersome, the first song we’d ever done where I thought, ‘Nah, this is pretentious.’ I haven’t heard it for so long that, to be honest, I couldn’t even tell you what it sounds like.”
Producer: The Who
B-side: I Don’t Even Know Myself (Townshend)
Released: July 1971
Highest UK chart position: 9
It would be a good year after “The Seeker” before The Who finally managed to escape from Tommy’s shadow with 1971’s Who’s Next, still regarded by the majority of fans and critics as their most accomplished album (a new deluxe two-CD edition is currently scheduled for release in 2003).
It proved to be an especially problematic transition for Townshend, who had been hatching plans for his Lifehouse project in the interim. Lifehouse was another extravagant rock opera heavily influenced by Meher Baba, one so complex in plot and staging requirements (an interactive cinematic performance fused with what promised to be an improvised concert lasting not hours but days) that it made Tommy seem like a nursery rhyme.
His failure to convince his colleagues that Lifehouse was feasible dealt Townshend’s ego a hammer blow, even if the best of its proposed songs would form the basis of The Who’s new repertoire for the next two years.
While originally the power ballad “Behind Blue Eyes” had been earmarked as The Who’s Next tie-in single, concerns over its supposed ‘un-Who like’ nature resulted in the album’s awesome eight-and-a-half minute finale, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, being halved in length and substituted in its place. Best appreciated in its unabridged album incarnation, the song was a sublime A-side all the same, joining the sacred elite of “My Generation” and “Pinball Wizard” as evidence of The Who at their most anthemic.
Even by today’s standards, the contrast between Townshend’s ferocious windmill guitar riff and his pioneering synthesizer backwash (which, as Daltrey points out, is actually an organ put through a sequencer) is electrifying. Daltrey’s vocal, too, was his most savage since “My Generation”, and the perfect vehicle for the song’s cynical thesis on the nature of revolution.
Strangely, it was this, rather than the contentious shortening of the album master, which was to cause Townshend regret in the single’s aftermath. Berating its apoliticism as “irresponsible”, the author of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” went as far as to nominate it “the dumbest song I’ve ever written”.
Daltrey: “That big scream I did on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ was totally instinctive, but it became kind of the focal point of the song. It pisses me off because I don’t get any royalties for it! But I hated it when they chopped it down. I used to say ‘Fuck it, put it out as eight minutes’, but there’d always be some excuse about not fitting it on or some technical thing at the pressing plant. After that we started to lose interest in singles because they’d cut them to bits. We thought, ‘What’s the point? Our music’s evolved past the three-minute barrier and if they can’t accommodate that we’re just gonna have to live on albums.’”
Let’s See Action (Townshend)
Producer: The Who
B-side: When I Was A Boy (Entwistle)
Released: October 1971
Highest UK chart position: 16
In spite of the rave reviews Who’s Next garnered, Townshend casually considered it “quite unadventurous”, while his bitter brooding over the fate of Lifehouse ensured that, by their next epic, 1973’s Quadrophenia, they became a band divided.
It was symptomatic of the disharmony that Entwistle, Townshend and Daltrey would all embark on solo careers. As Moon, who followed suit with 1975’s Two Sides Of The Moon, commented: “To get the four of us talking around a table is a major achievement.”
With exhaustive touring commitments to fulfil, it was ironic that, at a time when The Who were busy establishing themselves as the greatest albums band of their day, they were forced to stay afloat by issuing a trilogy of non-album singles. All three were Lifehouse cast-offs sharing the theme of unity-through-music central to the plot of Townshend’s lost magnum-opus. The first, “Let’s See Action” (a Who’s Next outtake), was a driving honky-tonk shuffle in which the personality clash between Daltrey and Townshend would be metaphorically illustrated by their shared vocal duties; the former’s motivational call-to-arms in harsh contrast with the latter’s folky, philosophical middle-eight and Krishna-style chant.
Daltrey: “Pete was going through a terrible bitterness about the fact that Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t got behind making Lifehouse as a film. But the reason they didn’t get behind it was because they couldn’t get to grips with the narrative, and I still feel to this day – even though Pete’s done his Lifehouse Chronicles box and done it as a radio play – well, I’m sorry but though there’s some incredible music in there and some sparks of theoretical and theological ideas, I think the narrative thread of the story is about as exciting as a fucking whelk race! But I always liked ‘Let’s See Action’. It’s got that texture of explosive rock’n’roll bits mixed in with a laid-back, almost country feel. I still love the sentiment behind it, too.”
Producer: The Who
B-side: Baby Don’t You Do It (Holland/Dozier/Holland)
Released: June 1972
Highest UK chart position: 9
Spiritually renewed after making a personal pilgrimage to Meher Baba’s tomb in India, when Townshend reconvened The Who in May 1972, the guitarist was still insistent that they busy themselves with yet another rock opera. “Rock Is Dead – Long Live Rock” was a foggy history of The Who, so foggy that after a month’s work Townshend himself pulled the plug on the sessions, compensating their wasted efforts by salvaging “Join Together” (which, like “Let’s See Action” and “Relay”, was actually written for Lifehouse) as another intermediary 45.
Pushing the envelope of The Who’s experimental ambitions, the track was a bold prog-folk fusion of traditional rock fare with Jew’s harp, harmonica and synthesizer. Expertly arranged (Entwistle’s late entry past the one-minute barrier upping the ante with hair-raising precision) and bookended by an ambient spaghetti-western intro and coda, “Join Together” managed to sustain a healthy chart presence at home in an otherwise fractious year for the group.
Daltrey: “I remember when Pete came up with ‘Join Together’, he literally wrote it the night before we recorded it. I quite like it as a single, it’s got a good energy to it. But at that time I was still very doubtful about bringing in the synthesizer. I just felt that with a lot of songs we’d end up spending so much time creating these piddly one-note noises that it would’ve been better just doing it on a guitar. I mean, I’m a guitar man. I love the guitar; to me it’s the perfect rock instrument. I don’t think Pete did much with those sequencing things that he couldn’t have done on the guitar anyway.”
Producer: The Who
B-side: Waspman (Moon)
Released: December 1972
Highest UK chart position: 21
Of their three Lifehouse-related singles prior to Quadrophenia, “Relay” was by far the most impressive: a torrent of squelching synths, Daltrey’s hoarse screams of “revolution” and a plethora of dirty Townshend licks that amounted to a revised “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with added funk.
Daltrey concurs, yet although it instigated an unforgettable TV appearance on the BBC’s Russell Harty Show enlivened by Moon’s impromptu striptease (later featured on the The Kids Are Alright documentary), its mediocre chart placing excluded it from most Who hits compilations thereafter (the new Ultimate Collection included).
Moon himself was reportedly piqued that co-producer Glyn Johns had restrained his customary shattering cymbals on the track (hence its uncharacteristic tribal rumble), though the drummer was compensated when it came to the screwball superheroics of the flip – “Waspman”.
Daltrey: “Ah, ‘Waspman’. Keith’s wonderful creation! That was hilarious. There’s a long story behind that track. It all happened on a flight from Copenhagen back to London. We hit some bad weather and, my god, I’ve been in some planes that have done some things in my time but this fucking plane was like a rollercoaster ride, it almost flipped over.
“We’d got through this weather and it all sort of levelled out and everybody was puking and sitting in almost total silence. Now, meantime, Moon’s disappeared. He was sat with this groupie bird who had this tiger-skin coat which he’s taken, and her bra. Needless to say this girl had very large mammaries. So he disappears up the back of the plane to the bog. Everybody’s still puking and the captain’s come out and he’s standing there apologising, saying it’s the worst weather he’d ever been through.
“Then from the back suddenly there came this ‘bzzzzzzzzz!’ We looked round and it was Moon stood with the two bits of her bra over his eyes like big fly eyeballs and he’s got her tiger-skin coat tied round his neck like a cape. And he shouted, ‘Don’t worry, folks – Waspman’s here to save you!’ And he did this thing up and down the plane buzzing away as Waspman, kissing all the women and just fucking around in general. By the end of it everybody was just rolling about laughing. He’d taken the edge off that hairy situation and cheered everyone up.
“So that’s how ‘Waspman’ was created. We’d already done ‘Batman’ a few years before so we said, ‘OK, we’d better write a theme for Waspman!’”
Producer: The Who
B-side: Water (Townshend)
Released: October 1973
Highest UK chart position: 20
Were it not for the cult of its 1979 celluloid namesake, it’s unlikely that The Who’s Quadrophenia would have earnt its hallowed status in mod culture. The irony of a musical set in the mid-’60s about a disaffected young scooter-boy told through the medium of ’70s rock at its most progressive and inflated was, and still is, overriding.
Entwistle and Daltrey would both criticise its unsatisfactory mix, while outside the studio graver troubles were stirring. A week before its inaugural live performance, rehearsals disintegrated in a scrap between Townshend and Daltrey, ending in the former’s temporary hospitalisation with amnesia. To cap it all, the Quadrophenia tour was a shambles, blighted by wonky backing tapes and Townshend’s arduous narration between numbers.
Nevertheless, in “5.15” The Who pulled another bombastic rock 45 out of the bag that, like “Pinball Wizard”, held its own when divorced from its parent concept. Against a Stax-like Memphis soul stew of vamping brass and call-and-response vocals, Daltrey becomes “Jimmy”, pilled “out of his brain” on a regular commuter train. Reluctantly, The Who agreed to plug “5.15” on Top Of The Pops – an alien environment for any self-respecting ‘serious rock group’ in 1973 – but heroically smashed their equipment and earnt a life ban from BBC club premises after Townshend flicked a two-finger salute at the show’s producer and Moon attacked a steward who refused him entry to the bar.
Emotionally raw after the recent breakdown of his marriage, barely six weeks later at a show in San Francisco Moon would collapse behind his kit mid-song after “mistakenly” downing gorilla tranquillisers. While medics rushed to his aid backstage (unbelievably, the gig continued with a replacement plucked from the audience), Townshend informed the crowd, “You’ll have to wait – without him, we’re not a group.”
Daltrey: “I was much more comfortable as a singer by Quadrophenia. Jimmy I found a really easy character to sing, but my main regret on that album is the recording process. Ron Nevison, who was the producer at the time with Pete, recorded it with echo on the vocal which can never be removed now. It just makes the vocal sound thin. It was the biggest recording mistake we ever made. The echo diminishes the character as far as I’m concerned. It always pissed me off. From day one I just fucking hated the sound of it. He did that to my voice and I’ve never forgiven Ron for it. That brass on ‘5.15’, though, is all John. He played everything. Really, it was the only single on Quadrophenia we could have released.”
Squeeze Box (Townshend)
Producer: Glyn Johns
B-side: Success Story (Entwistle)
Released: January 1976 (UK)
Highest UK chart position: 10
Thanks to that year’s Ken Russell feature film adaptation, by 1975 Tommy was still proving to be a lead weight around their necks, a matter which depressed Townshend no end. After a near two-year lay-off (punctuated only by 1974’s Odds And Sods collection), with rumours of a split ricocheting around the music press, their next album proper – Who By Numbers – would be Townshend’s bitterest collection yet; a stark exorcism of his demons from alcoholism (“However Much I Booze”) to industry paranoia (“How Many Friends”).
Having taken their eyes off the singles market, it was odd, then, that the album’s least representative track – the innocuous, knee-slapping “Squeeze Box” with its bawdy innuendo (“we all knew it was about tits,” mused Entwistle) – should provide The Who with a hit single three months later, particularly since its composer claimed he’d written it while trying to master the accordion in just 10 minutes.
Daltrey: “Who By Numbers is very dark because Pete was going through some terrible agonies, but I didn’t realise this at the time. He was also starting to write himself into a very cosy situation where nothing was shared, which put the rest of us in a very difficult position because you don’t want to upset a working apple cart. We thought, if he wants space, we’ll give him some space – when what we should have done was been there saying, ‘You all right, Pete?’ But that’s just the way he was and still is. There’s a side to him that is like a stone wall and what he really wants you to do is knock down the fucking wall and come through it, which takes a lot of effort all the time. I understand it now but I didn’t understand it then. So it led to this brooding, deep, introspective album. He was boozing a lot and I think he was having problems with his marriage, trying to balance that family life with rock’n’roll. Cos they don’t balance. But I love that album.
“What’s great about ‘Squeeze Box’ is that it’s so refreshingly simple, an incredible catchy song. A good jolly. I’ve never had a problem with that song because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is and I love it for that. Live audiences love it. Nothing wrong with a bit of ‘in-and-out’, mate!”
Producer: Glyn Johns and Jon Astley
B-side: Had Enough (Entwistle)
Released: July 1978
Highest UK chart position: 18
Though revered by punks, Townshend was fully aware that by 1977 The Who represented everything The Sex Pistols and their ilk sought to destroy – artistically complacent, country house-dwelling millionaires. “I used to wake up in the night, praying to be destroyed,” he said.
Fittingly, his self-effacing acceptance of punk played a major part in a drunk and disorderly day that would later form the basis of “Who Are You?” – the title cut of what perhaps should have been the final album. On the day in question, January 20, 1977, Townshend emerged from a rancorous publishing meeting to iron out the group’s finances several thousand pounds better off but depressed that rock’n’roll could be reduced to the language of accountancy. Deciding to drown his sorrows at London’s Speakeasy club, he happened upon the Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Faced with one of their idols drunkenly babbling on about how he’d sold them out and lost his ideals, Jones and Cook retorted, “That’s a shame, we really like The ’Oo.”
A severely pissed and emotional Townshend then staggered off into the Soho night where, hours later, slumped in a doorway, he was awoken by a policeman. Recognising this celebrity vagrant, the bobby advised him to “get up and walk away” or risk a night in the cells. At which point Townshend apparently slurred, “ ’oo the fuck are you?”
Edited down from its full six minutes for single release, against this real-life narrative “Who Are You?” still owed less to punk than it did to The Who’s track record for chugging synth-rock leviathans; a big, boisterous din but stadium rock by any other name. Their first new 45 after a two-year lay-off, they were big men but out of shape, none more so than Keith Moon, whose performance on the LP was below par.
Tragically, it was to be his swan song – just three weeks after its release, on September 7, 1978, Moon ‘The Loon’ died in his sleep, having accidentally overdosed on downers. Even if his death didn’t kill off the group, after the loss of their crucial rear guard, The Who would be incomplete thereafter.
Daltrey: “We were getting incredible accolades from some of the new punk bands. They were saying how much they loved The Who, that we were the only band they’d leave alive after they’d taken out the rest of the establishment! But I felt very threatened by the punk thing at first. To me it was like, ‘Well, they think they’re fucking tough, but we’re fucking tougher.’ It unsettled me in my vocals. When I listen back to ‘Who Are You?’ I can hear that it made me incredibly aggressive. But that’s what that song was about. Being pissed and aggressive and a c***! It was only a few years after that I realised what a great favour punk did the business. We toured with The Clash in 1982, we took them to the US with us, and I used to fucking love watching ’em. I’m still a huge Joe Strummer fan.”
You Better, You Bet (Townshend)
Producer: Bill Szymczyk
B-side: The Quiet One (Entwistle)
Released: February 1981
Highest UK chart position: 9
Though many purists put a full stop to The Who after the death of Moon, the band’s reaction was to soldier on. On the evidence of their final two studio albums with ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones – Face Dances (1981) and It’s Hard (1982) – maybe they should have called it quits. Jones was no substitute as a musician, nor as a mediator between Daltrey and Townshend. Even Entwistle would reflect that his memories of recording both records were far from happy and “a kind of blank”.
Still, as a post-Moon postscript there’s no denying the former album’s “You Better, You Bet” was Townshend’s last truly inspired Who anthem. It certainly bears all the hallmarks, from aerated synthesizer intro to rebounding power chords and Daltrey’s yobbish choruses (“you bettarrr!”).
All this and a namecheck for T. Rex. The single fought its way into the UK Top 10, past Adam & The Ants and The Human League, to claim The Who’s place as old but obstreperous gatecrashers at the early-’80s pop party. Probably their last convincing shot of maximum R’n’B.
Daltrey: “A wonderful, wonderful song. The way the vocal bounces, it always reminds me of Elvis. But it was a difficult time, yeah. The Moon carry-on was much harder than carrying on after John, because we’re more mature now. I hate going over this but, in retrospect, we did make the wrong choice of drummers. Kenney Jones – don’t get me wrong, a fantastic drummer – but he completely threw the chemistry of the band. It just didn’t work; the spark plug was missing from the engine.
“The first tour Kenney did with us, though, he was absolutely fucking brilliant. But after that he settled into what he knew, which was his Faces-type drumming, which doesn’t work with The Who. In some ways I’d like to go back and re-record a lot of the songs on Face Dances, but ‘You Better, You Bet’ is still one of my favourite songs of all.”