Two best-ofs, including first new studio recordings in 22 years
The original intention had been to release Then & Now, which spans 40 years of Who recordings, in the US only. However, surprise at the rapturous reception received by the remaining 50 per cent of The Who and their various helpers at recent British gigs apparently persuaded Polydor into a rethink. Hence the significant overlap between these two collections. Still, you’d have to have been clapping pretty hard at the Royal Albert Hall to desire to purchase both.
Then & Now traces The Who’s development via their singles. The bristly, luminous “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation” haven’t diminished with age, as it was often feared they would. Fuelled by a mixture of stylishness and adolescent discomfort, innocent exuberance and insolent nihilism, they still carry a charge that makes present-day indie seem dead at the roots. “Substitute” and “Happy Jack” exhibit Townshend’s burgeoning narrative skills, but their greatest moment was “I Can See For Miles”?no one, not even The Beatles and the Stones, matched its blazing sense of epiphany.
They bulked up in the ’70s but still endured, although “Won’t Get Fooled Again” might have seemed like their final burnout, their last word. Quadrophenia (represented here by “5.15”) was an advance on Tommy, and you could even make an argument for 1978’s Who Are You. Townshend was always passionately engaged with an idea of “rock”?what it could be, what it ought to mean. He could be forgiven for thinking he’d forged a workable, energetic but reflective Anglo-American model that could provide a long-term template. Which is maybe why when punk came along and savagely scotched all his notions, it so compounded the devastation he already felt at Keith Moon’s death in 1978. Although they’ve never disbanded, the ordinary “You Better You Bet” apart, The Who effectively ceased to function in the early ’80s.
Of the two new tracks here, “Real Good Looking Boy” is most interesting without un-greying The Who’s hairs, a semi-comic tale of two young men wishing they could be handsomer/more iconic, obviously based on Townshend and the better-looking Daltrey, the sometimes inappropriate cipher for the former’s awkwardly self-examining lyrics. “Old Red Wine”, meanwhile, is a tribute to John Entwistle, of which the best that can be said is that, in the ranks of paeans to fallen rock comrades, it isn’t quite as bad as George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago”.
Singles Box Set Vol 1 also contains the two new songs and is of further appeal to completists in that it also includes the B-sides. These are fitfully intriguing?the mock-blues of “Bald Headed Woman”(B-side to “I Can’t Explain”), for example, while mid-’60s efforts like “In The City” and “I’ve Been Away” have the tupperware fragrance of period kitchen-sink anxiety.
(There probably hasn’t been a better ‘British’ group than The Who). However, these songs were B-sides for a reason and, placed as they are after their superior flipsides, it means a drop in the pace and quality of this collection on every other track. Better, perhaps, to have farmed them off to another CD.