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