Garage Band For Rent (part 1) – The Who
Garage-rock has been primarily an American cultural phenomenon that exploded principally in the areas of Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis from 1965 on. The standard-bearer of the movement were a bunch of bands who on one hand were mainly influenced by the electric groove of the British Invasion (The Beatles, The Animals, Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds, Rolling Stones or Zombies) and by the distorted power-chords by the great Link Wray and on the other hand took to the limit the speed, the fury and the lack of technique of rock ’n’ roll and R&B with a heavy dose of psychedelic influences: the same bands that were later celebrated in the legendary 4 LP box Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972) compiled by Jac Holzman and Lenny Kaye for Elektra.
Therefore garage-rock is mainly an American story as much as it is American its transfiguration into an anticipation of punk-rock: Mc5, Stooges, New York Dolls, Patti Smith and Alice Cooper will do anything but throw Chuck Berry and Johnny & The Hurricanes into an insane spin-drier and detonate the sleepy (at the time) legacy of the original American rock scene of the 1950’s. The exponents of the British Invasion were bound to the garage-rock concept only for their lo-fi recording techniques, because their style was mainly influenced by “traditional” blues and it will either remain conformed to it or embark on a trip to pop experimentations.
The two great exception are represented by The Who and The Kinks from London and responsible for some of the most loud and crucial guitar solos of the entire rock history: coming from a socio-cultural context of poverty and marginalization, they were struck during the years by a long series of public psychodramas and, before turning to other directions, invented a bunch of killer-riffs that will give birth to hard-rock and heavy-metal in just a few years.
The Who formed in the late 1950s when Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle (three guys from Hammersmith, a proletarian district in West London) join together. Daltrey was a rebel, insensitive to the rules imposed by family and school (in fact he was banned) and with an history of hospital recoveries, abuse of nicotine and snubbed busyworks: even if he swallowed a rusty nail when he was only 3, he was blessed with an extraordinary powerful voice and an irresistible charisma (despite his short height). Townshend, the son of a professional saxophonist, was enlightened a few years earlier by Rock Around The Clock (Fred F. Sears, USA, 1956) and is a true expert in American music. Entwistle has a jazz background, a rugged constitution (that’s the reason for his nickname, The Ox) and some good amps he can bring to the concerts.
The Who was completed when joined by Keith Moon, a guy called “mentally retarded” or “idiot” by his professors, but capable of an incredible fury when sitting behind a drum set. Even though their technical skills are still being discussed today (only Entwistle is unanimously credited as a great instrumentalist), also Who’s detractors (among them Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple) recognize their originality and their ability to foresee (and sometimes create out of nothing) styles and poses that will become indelible trade-marks of rock ’n’roll. For example the tradition of destroying the instruments on stage is not a choice (as it’s commonly considered), but it’s a consequence of an empiric experience: performing on stage at the Railway Tavern in September ’64, Townshend accidentally broke the neck of his guitar and then destroyed it in a fit of rage while the audience went crazy. The following evening Moon is already doing the same thing with his drum-kit. Even if this is not philosophy but just show business, it still defines the iconographic immortality of a band that will be celebrated as the primary source of inspiration for metal and punk generations to come.
According to the film theorist Christian Metz, a group of shots ordered in a meaningful, linear sequence could be defined as a “syntagm”: the syntagm of The Who (i.e. the editing of the main features that define their own essence) is excess. Excess of decibels, watts, pain (inner and physical: due to high volumes Townshend will become almost deaf), gossip, a dangerous lifesyle. An excess that stands out like a reaction to the petty bourgeois “old” England society because also in the UK new generations understood that this music gives the opportunity to dream for a “iconoclast” future (obviously also r’n’r will soon turn into a cage of conformity in reverse, but that’s another story).
The “retarded” Moon, the “shy” Entwistle, the “short” Daltrey and, above all, the “hooter” Townshend can yell out against the same society that ostracized them all the anger and dynamism that they hold in their bodies and all this in exchange for a huge amount of money (often squandered because of the insane habit to destroy hotel rooms). Every molecule moves towards emphasis at a crazy speed in the universe of The Who. Nevertheless, even when Townshend’s narrative inspiration merges into gigantic albums (the so-called “rock-operas”) that have almost nothing in common with the killer anthem of the beginnings in term of timing (often endless) and stylistic gaps (often indisputable), even then the final result it’s always closer to a derailing artistic big-bang than to the coeval progressive.
The magic trick works until beyond the noise of guitars and drums it is possible to notice a bleeding heart capable of turning the metaphorical exaggeration of Tommy (a pinball wizard, deaf and blind due to abuses he underwent in his youth) into a moving rock’n’roll masterpiece. But starting from mid ‘70s, just some years before the death of Keith Moon due to an overdose of sedatives and brandy (the coroner found 32 tablets of Clomethiazole, with the digestion of 6 being sufficient to cause his death) excesses revolt against their own prophets and The Who let themselves go: one tries to find some comfort in oriental religions, another finds more and more difficult to shout like in the god old days while the last one continues to imagine epic and never-released concept-albums (as far as we know so magnificent that when compared to them The Lord Of the Rings could seem as a beginners book).
The four minor works released in between ’78 and 2006 along with the solo records released by the members are a bunch of botched albums by a band of ramshackle and drunk stand-up-comedians. Despite of an encouraging debut, Daltrey will soon be responsible for an indescribable series of horrible records. Entwistle’s first albums are really good, but he hit the bottom in the ‘80s. Moon didn’t even make a real record, because his only solo work (featuring only covers) is nothing but a true mess where he almost doesn’t play (in any way the albums doesn’t deserve its bad reputation because if you listen to it with the right disposition, it can be really funny). Townshend staggers: the spiritual albums are nothing exceptional, the first rock album is almost a rough-punk masterpiece (Let My Love Open The Door and Rough Boys, this one dedicated to “my sons and to Sex Pistols”, stand out like two of his best song ever) while the rest is a disaster of boredom that, even if it sound fairly rough on stage, wanders through unfortunate musicals, minor unreleased material from his archives, horrible electronic sounds and awful novelist ambitions.
Obviously not one of these venial sins can diminish the relevance of the excesses of fury and fragility the band was capable of. The rage of My Generation and its gallery of characters are history: from the boy with identity crisis of Substitute to the transsexual of I’m a Boy, from the psychopath of Happy Jack to the band itself whose desperate need of unconventionality yells out in the distorted detonation of the title-track with lyrics (“I hope I die before I get old”) and sounds (a series of outbursts and electric bombings) that remind a battle cry screamed against the whole world. The zenith is, obviously, the legendary stutter of Daltrey framing a whole existence of delusion and frustrations (“why don’t you all f-f-f-fade away”).
The music of the early Who is characterized by a wild and primitive boost that is somewhere connected to the beat of Bo Diddley, The Rolling Stones’ ramshackle rock-blues and some sharp Anglo-Irish folk: all these elements are scientifically took to the extremes not only in the parodies of the commercials included in Sell Out, but also in the more articulated tracks (give a listen to the 9 minute A Quick One, While He’s Away [’66] or to the 6 minute mini-suite Rael [’67]) and in the prolixity of the most gigantic frescos (some songs from Tommy are just fillers).
The noisy apotheosis of the band can be found in the blast of Live At Leeds, one of the greatest live album ever, where Daltrey shouts out his angst with fury, Townshend distributes high-volume guitar riffs, Entwistle gives the most muscular performance ever played by a bass and Moon goes completely crazy: a part from the impressive covers (Moose Allison’s Young Man Blues, Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues, Johnny Kidd’s Shakin’ All Over), the rendition of My Generation is simply immortal with its killer guitar solos, rough explosions, rhythmic exploits and suburban noise (starring also excerpts from other songs as Underture, Naked Eye, The Seeker, See Me, Feel Me).
The Who of My Generation (’65) are not the same ones of Who’s Next (’71), which is definitely their best studio album ever: they are elegant and mature for sure, but the real secret is that they play complex music scores (comparable to orchestral ones) sounding as noisy as a construction site. The fact that the album was born from a never-released concept album (Lifehouse) demonstrates how prolific the band was, capable of merging synthesizers (that in other hands would have sounded artificial), a homage to Terry Riley’s minimalism and Meher Baba’s doctrine (Baba O’ Riley is just the mix of them) into the 9 minute Won’t Get Fooled Again, perhaps the best moment of the entire hard-rock history.
Quadrophenia is still fairly good, even if keyboards are more present: something’s worth the good old times (the neurasthenic The Punk And The Godfather, the joyful instrumental The Rock, the grand-finale Love, Reign O’er Me and in the epic symphony of Doctor Jimmy), but the narrative fusion of personal memoirs and psychology analysis (Jimmy, the main character, has four different personalities, each one of them is the reflection of one of the band’s members) is less interesting. Anyway, in just 8 years The Who started many revolutions and Townshend’s guitar on My Generation lead the way for feedback, forerunning Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck.
Originally appeared on:
1965, My Generation (Brunswick) 8.5
1966, Ready Steady Who [ep] (Reaction) 8
1966, A Quick One (Reaction) 8
1967, The Who Sell Out (Track) 8
1968, Magic Bus: The Who On Tour [gh+outtakes] (Decca) 6
1969, Tommy (Track) 8.5
1970, Live At Leeds (Decca) 10
1971, Who’s Next (Decca) 9.5
1971, Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy [gh+outtakes] (Track) 8
1973, Quadrophenia (Track) 8
1974, Tommy [soundtrack] (Polydor) 6
1974, Odds & Sods [outtakes] (Track) 8.5
1975, The Who By Numbers (Polydor) 7.5
1978, Who Are You (Polydor) 7
1979, The Kids Are Alright [soundtrack] (Polydor) 8.5
1979, Quadrophenia [soundtrack] (Polydor) 7.5
1981, Face Dances (Polydor) 7
1984, Who’s Last [live] (MCA) 6
1982, It’s Hard (Polydor) 5
1982, Join Together – Rarities Vol. 2: 1970/73 [outtakes] (Polydor) 7
1983, Rarities vol. 1: 1966/68 [outtakes] (Track) 7
1985, Who’s Missing [outtakes] (MCA) 7
1987, Two’s Missing [outtakes] (MCA) 7
1990, Join Together [live] (Virgin) 5
1994, Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B [box-set] (Polydor) 7.5
1996, Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970 [live] (Columbia/Legacy) 8.5
1998, Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970 [live, dvd] (Rhino) 7
2000, BBC Sessions [live] (Polydor) 9
2003, Live At The Royal Albert Hall [live] (Steamhammer) 6
2004, Then & Now 1964-2004 [gh+outtakes] (Polydor) 8
2005, Quadrophenia & Tommy Live [box-set, live, dvd] (Warner) 6.5
2006, Endless Wire (Republic) 5
2008, Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who [movie, live, dvd] (Universal) 8
2008, At Kilburn 1977 + Live At The Coliseum [live, dvd] (Image Entertainment) 8.5
2009, Greatest Hits [gh+live] (Geffen) 8.5
2009, Thirty Years Of Maximum R&B Live [live, dvd expanded] (Universal) 8
1970, Happy Birthday [w/ Ronnie Lane] (Universal Spiritual League) 6.5
1972, I Am [w/ Friends] (Universal Spiritual League) 6
1972, Who Came First (Track) 7.5
1976, With Love [w/ Friends] (Universal Spiritual League) 5
1977, Rough Mix [w/ Ronnie Lane] (MCA) 8
1980, Empty Glass (Atco) 8.5
1982, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (Atco) 5
1983, Scoop [outtakes] (Atco) 7.5
1985, White City: A Novel (Atco) 6.5
1985, White City: The Music Movie [vhs] (Vestron) 6
1986, Deep End – Live! [live] (Atco) 6.5
1987, Another Scoop [outtakes] (Atco) 7.5
1989, The Iron Man: The Musical (Atlantic) 4
1993, Psychoderelict (Atlantic) 5
1999, Live [live] (Platinum) 7.5
2000, Lifehouse Elements (RedLine) 5
2001, The Oceanic Concerts [w/ Raphael Rudd, live] (Rhino) 6
2002, Scooped [outtakes] (RedLine) 7
1973, Daltrey (Track) 7
1975, Ride A Rock Horse (Track) 5
1977, One Of The Boys (MCA) 6
1980, McVicar [soundtrack] (Polydor) 5.5
1984, Parting Should Be Painless (Atlantic) 4
1985, Under A Raging Moon (Atlantic) 4
1987, Can’t Wait To See The Movie (Atlantic) 3
1992, Rocks In The Head (Atlantic) 5.5
1994, A Celebration: The Music Of Pete Townshend & The Who [live] (Continuum) 6
1998, Concert @ Home [live, dvd] (Intersound) 6
2005, Moonlighting [gh+outtakes] (Sanctuary) 6
1971, Smash Your Head Against The Wall (Track) 7.5
1972, Whistle Rhymes (Track) 7
1973, Rigor Mortis Sets In (Track) 6.5
1975, Mad Dog (MCA) 6.5
1981, Too Late The Hero (WEA) 5
1996, The Rock (Griffin) 5
1999, Left For Live [live] (J-Bird) 5
2000, Music From Van Pires [soundtrack+outtakes] (Pulsar) 5
2003, King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents In Concert [live] (King Biscuit) 7
2005, So Who’s The Bass Player? – The Ox Anthology [gh+outtakes] 7
2006, Edge Of The World [w/ Glenn Tipton & Cozy Powell] (Rhino) 5
1975, Two Sides Of The Moon (MCA) 6