A track-by-track commentary on 20 of the band's most explosive tracks
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.”