Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You Are Who?

(Ruminations on The Who’s album, Who Are You, Masquerading as a Bootleg Review)

The other day, I was looking through an old hard drive and stumbled across a bootleg album entitled You Are Who?, one of several packages compiling demos and outtakes from The Who’s 1978 album (and final release with Keith Moon), Who Are You. I had no memory of acquiring it. As near as I could figure out, it has been in my possession, unheard, for probably at least two years. I guess the reason for this is the fact that Who Are You is not my favorite Who album. In fact, I was always of the opinion that it was probably the weakest album that the original configuration of that band ever did. Still, I think I always saw something in that album, certain confessional qualities, a feeling of searching in the songs (at least the Pete Townshend compositions) that redeemed, or at least informed, even the weakest songs, even if it did not necessarily mitigate the album’s ponderousness and overproduction. I guess it was that last element that made me want to hear the songs in a more primitive form, stripped of the intrusive horns, the sappy strings, and the all around dense and muddy production.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that the Who had long since peaked by the time Who Are You was released, with their classic albums, Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia, behind them. However. It was only after this time that Townshend stopped relying on the rock opera format to supply his emotional stand-ins to express his turbulent mental states while remaining safely behind the curtain. (It must be recalled that even the hard-driving Who’s Next consisted of songs from the aborted rock opera, Lifehouse.)

With The Who by Numbers in 1975, the songs became more directly autobiographical. On that album, Pete was beginning to candidly deal with the issues of the trappings of success, complete with allusions to personal issues with substance abuse. Between the time of The Who by Numbers and Who Are You, however, it seemed (perhaps only to Pete) that that success was being threatened. Townshend’s songwriting had matured, but as the band got older, he felt he was losing his connection with the rock audience, particularly the younger members. Whereas the fame of the Who was originally predicated on their articulation of the angst and rage of youth, by the late seventies, they were dinosaurs. The only angst that Townshend was articulated by that time was his own.

Townshend’s preoccupation with feelings of alienation, fears of obsolescence, and doubt of his abilities to write music that could connect with the new audience are what make Who Are You a more coherent album than The Who By Numbers. While some may argue that The Who By Numbers is a superior batch of songs, it does not have the focus that Who Are You has. It virtually functions as a concept album in spite of itself, providing a stark image of Townshend dwelling in his own insecurity, able to write about little else. It is notable that Who Are You is the album that relied most on John Entwistle’s contributions (one third of the album was written by John, which is to say three of the nine songs). I am sure that the most ardent fans of the Ox would be (rightly) offended by the assertion that his songs were included because Pete had nothing better to throw in, but on an album in which writer’s block seems to be a running theme, the heavier reliance on John’s songs seems poignant. (In fact, John’s idiosyncratic songs about a futuristic test tube baby, a cynical misanthrope at the end of his rope, and a john visiting a hooker to allay his fears of inadequacy, fit the tone of the album beautifully.)

This seemingly haphazard unity of theme actually results in a more harrowing expression of rock star alienation than a sprawling theatrical work like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. On that album, Roger Waters created a sprawling work that illustrated the growing distance between himself and his fans, which also served to justify his own piggish behavior in the wake of his band’s success (in interviews, Waters claimed that the work was largely a self-examination after an incident at a Floyd concert in which he spat in a rowdy fan’s face). Who Are You, on the other hand, is more direct and less self serving. Instead of a constructed narrative based on themes of alienation, decrepitude, and self doubt, the songs on the album are the direct fruits of those feelings. The fact that some of the songs are weaker offerings, and others are downright embarrassing, provides a feeling of sincerity, a sort of a “warts and all” effect. We are being spared nothing.

This was not entirely true, as the demos reveal. You Are Who? features several demos of songs with themes about romantic difficulties were left off the final album (some for very good reason). “Never Ask Me,” a song about frustration with an uncommunicative lover, manages to be both overwrought and superficial. On “Love Is Wine,” a rather forgettable track, Pete ponderously applies a metaphor of intoxication and addiction to romance, something he would do far more deftly several years later in the song “A Little Is Enough.” “No Road Romance,” a song about the absence of love from casual road sex, illustrates that being wanted by millions of beautiful women causes “only frustration and overload.” While this song would be more at home on the Who Are You album due to its theme of alienation (in this case from Townshend’s own penis), it is too difficult to empathize with the song’s chief complaint, and it feels quite justifiably left out. On the other hand, “I Like It the Way It Is,” a lovely song that weighs contentment against complacency, simply would not fit on the album due to its delicacy. It seemed more to be tailor made for Townshend’s solo albums. Sadly the song would not see the light of day until the demo would be released on Scoop 3, the third collection in the series of albums on which Townshend would later compile many of his demos himself.

Two of the songs on the disc, “Keep on Working” and “Empty Glass” would end up not on Who Are You, but would instead be featured on Townshend’s next offering, his solo album for which the latter would end up being the title track. The song “Empty Glass” seems to be particularly well suited to Roger Daltrey’s vocal range and style, and its inclusion on this set (as well as another version as a bonus track on the 1996 remastered CD) make one wonder what a full Who recording would have sounded like, and why it was left off.

Daltrey and Townshend in the late 70's.
Mainly, however, the set is illumining for the differences between the demos and their completed versions on the albums. In fact, some of the demos are more palatable due to the fact that they are not weighed down by excessive horn parts or saccharine string sections. However, the main difference is hearing the character of a song as sung by Pete on its demo, and its subsequent interpretation by Roger on the album. By the late seventies, Townshend’s voice had become stronger and more expressive, but still had a more raw quality that was well suited to conveying the ambiguous and complicated thoughts and emotions that had come to be the cornerstone of Townshend’s songwriting. Daltrey’s voice had become stronger as well. As a matter of fact, I would propose that it was the strongest that it ever had been, or would be. Live footage from that time finds Roger having final discovered how to harness and control of his vocals without any loss of expression. His voice had all the richness, depth, and aggression that it always had, but had become a more reliable instrument, with fewer cracks and bum notes. However, even while Daltrey was arguably at his peak, his voice had always been better suited for putting across the melodramatic, operatic narratives, such as Tommy and Quadrophenia. With the new, more personal direction of the songwriting, Townshend was proving to often be his own best interpreter, often much more nuanced, if less powerful.

For example, on Who Are You’s opening track, “New Song,” a confident Daltrey sounds defiant and cynical about the fact that he’s “writing the same old song with a few new lines, and everybody wants to hear it.” Daltrey seems to be looking down his nose at his audience that is too dumb or blind to know the difference. On the demo version, Townshend sounds more anxious, wondering how long he can get away with this cheap trick, all the while feeling sad for himself and his audience. His fear of “plagiarizing something old,” which, in this case, seems to be less about stealing someone else’s melodies or lyrics than it is about stealing old themes and emotions from his younger self, resonates more fully.

Pete’s more vulnerable voice comes close to saving a couple of the albums weaker songs. “Love Is Coming Down on Me” is still intense and somewhat overwrought, but more palatable with Pete singing and using synthesizers in place of a string section. To be sure, the song’s final version is a masterpiece of emotional, theatrical bombast, if you like that sort of thing.

The demo version of “Guitar and Pen” only hints at the corny theatricality that pervades the final recording. However, this song, which sounds like an outtake from a Stephen Sondheim musical, is essentially unsalvageable due to its subject matter: writing about writing. It plays like a scene from a Broadway musical about the Who. It is easy to imagine the scene where a young Pete is sitting on his bed and being serenaded by the future version of himself urging him to express his teenage angst in song. It seems like self congratulatory roadkill that would be a truly insulting offering were it not for the fact that its placement on the Who Are You album gives the song a feeling of self delusion, Townshend outwardly celebrating his genius when he himself doubted it. His writer’s block had gotten so intense that he had nothing else to write about but memories of when he had things to write about.

The demo for “Music Must Change” is less illuminating. In this case, the rawness of Townshend’s vocals reveals little. Instead of expressing a different emotional take on the song, here it is simply one of the many unpolished elements of the recording. Unfortunately, while Roger gave a fine and nuanced reading of the song for the album, even that version has an unfinished feeling to it as well. This was largely due to the lack of a drum track. Whether it was due to an atrophying of Keith Moon’s drumming abilities, or simply a lack of facility in uncommon time signatures (in this case, anything other than 4/4), Keith was unable to play the song. Sadly, the jazz-tinged song only came into its own after Moon died, when it was played live with the unfairly maligned Kenney Jones behind the kit. At that time, it became a highlight of the Who’s live set, whereas it seems like a footnote on the album. In spite of this, the song’s lyrics are central to the album’s theme. The song addresses the need for a new direction in popular music, but Townshend, as a member of what had become the old guard, had to question if he had the ability or credibility to find that direction. Though he is as frustrated that music had become stuck in the mold that he helped to create, he realizes that the music scene was “chewing a bone,” still trying to get milk from the teats of dinosaurs who refuse to die and fossilize. He also acknowledges that “the high has to come from the low,” that the new music will more likely come from the younger generation, not yet spoiled by success.

Pete with Paul Cook and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols
the night on which the events described in "Who Are You"
Listening to the demo for the album’s title song, it is surprising how much of the final track is built around Pete’s demo. While it was nothing new for the Who to use a synthesizer track from Pete’s demos as the basis for a song, it was odd to hear how many other elements carried over as well. The signature backing vocals and the marvelous acoustic guitar solo were both originally found on Pete’s home recording. The rest of the band were then brought in to overdub and polish what seemed to be an already completed arrangement. Once again, the major difference was Daltrey. On this track, his power and defiance were in contrast with Townshend’s seemingly drunken combination of belligerence and self-loathing. However, whereas Townshend’s delivery seems more true to the lyrics, Daltrey’s compelling delivery prevents the song from degenerating into depressed nihilism.

The disc is filled out with some tracks taken from the soundtrack of the film The Kids Are Alright, including a powerful version of “Who Are You.” Unfortunately, as old video tapes of the film had pitch problems, the song sounds sped up here as well. A curious addition is a song called “Peppermint Lump,” credited to an eleven year old girl named “Angie,” which was arranged and produced by Pete, who also played rhythm guitar on the track. The song, which the record label described as “a blatent attempt to corner the preteen and postpunk singles buyers,” is completely out of place here, but as a footnote in Pete Townshend’s career, I guess I’m glad it’s available somewhere.

You Are Who? is surely not essential listening. I would not have not even bothered if I were not a rabid Who fan, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has less than an insane obsession with the group. However, listening to it was an enlightening experience if only for the fact that it resulted in me listening deeper to the Who Are You album with a more open and critical ear. Hearing the origins of the songs on that album side by side with songs that didn’t make the cut gave me a much more specific emotional context in which to place the finished work. Ultimately, this gave me a much deeper respect for an album which I had largely dismissed for many years. I will not try to argue that Who Are You equals or surpasses the albums of the band’s heyday, but I will say that it does have considerable depth, and that Pete’s forthright treatment of his own uncertainties make it extremely compelling and a rewarding listening experience for people willing to listen with a more sensitive ear. 

1 comment:

Arturo Ui said...

Fantastic review. I am going to listen to the whole Who Are You album again, with a fresh ear--it's been nothing but skipping to the "Who Are You" and "Sister Disco" tracks for too long now. Totally agree about Daltrey being at the peak of his vocal powers, and the touching personal nature of even Pete's weakest songs on the album. It must be a strange, crazy thing to be Pete frickin' Townshend and realize that yes, even you have a lifetime cap on artistic output.