1 who

1. The Who, Who Are You

Let’s start with the bloke seated in the chair there, the one turned around backwards with the instructional message “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY” stenciled on it. Keith John Moon celebrated his thirty-second birthday five days after the release of Who Are You. Fifteen days after that he was dead, one of the least surprising casualties of rock ‘n’ roll. He was living in a flat owned by Harry Nilsson that just so happened to be the place Cass Elliot died four years earlier. In Pete Townshend’s memoir, he noted that he’d told Nilsson not to worry about any sort of bad luck that might befall Moon while staying in an abode with such a history. “Lightning wouldn’t strike the same place twice,” Townshend insisted. Moon was on a regimen of Heminevrin, intended to combat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal while he tried to get sober. He took thirty-two tablets on the evening of September 6th, 1978. Overdose was listed as the cause of death.

If it’s not really the Who without Moon–and that vicious drum-punishing beat provides a significant portion of the band’s power–then Who Are You can be viewed as the final album by the band, no matter how many other releases bear their name. If so, it makes for a fascinating finale. For one thing, the sound of the band is quite different. After years of building up the muscle of rock ‘n’ roll with a near legendary devotion to loudness and garage band viciousness, the Who embraced electronic sounds to a degree unprecedented for them. The album is full of synths and other digital effects, often swirling around in bizarrely invigorating combinations. It’s easy to chalk up such experimentation in this era as a direct result of the flaring success of disco, but Townshend instead claimed he was trying to meld punk rock and progressive rock into a singular sound. Some might say that’s the exact equation to create New Wave.

The album opens with a jolt. “New Song” springs to life like a laser gun powering up. Roger Daltrey’s typical virile rock god vocals rest unfamiliarly (or, in a less charitable description, awkwardly) atop a pinging, restless electric melody. Keyboard flourishes simulate a pounding rain and the enveloping sound of thunder. Townshend and his cohorts are trying out music as a fully evocative soundscape, exactly the sort of approach that could be expected from creators who’s established the notion of trying to bend the simple station-to-station path of rock ‘n’ roll albums to a more cohesive whole. Many of the songs are shards of Townshend’s fabled Lifehouse project, the follow-up to Tommy that he took many swings and misses at over the years. That’s interesting when it leads to the the extreme busyness and elusive message of “Sister Disco” or the oddball anxiety of “Guitar and Pen.” It’s less satisfying when the band veers towards borderline pretension, as with the syrupy strings of “Love is Coming Down.” Still, Townshend was clearly interested in trying something new, moving his music forward in a way that was attuned with the modern times instead of merely copying trends. That’s more than could be said about many of his contemporaries.

Even the album closing title cut, the one track from this album that entered into the Who’s classic rock canon (and the song that has maybe made Townshend more money than any of his compositions by virtue of its appearance in fourteen seasons’ worth of CSI: Crime Scene Investigations opening credits), is full of easily overlooked little electronic flourishes. All of it gives the song a different dynamic, sounding like a familiar Who song filtered through an entirely different and fresh sensibility. It’s not quite at the level of full-fledged reinvention, but it does have the feel of shrewd, strategic forward progress. The Who was a band that belonged to rock fans from a generation earlier than the college deejays who were playing Who Are You in 1978. But the album makes a decent argument that the Who merited attention from the younger kids, too.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA
–3: Tormato
–2: Wavelength

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