Back in '75, when I was just 12 years old, I went downtown to the Crest Theatre to see the Fresno premiere of "Tommy" cos Elton John was in it. I was all excited to actually see him perform "Pinball Wizard," and sure enough, it lived up to my expectations. Except for one small fact--I was disappointed that the band destroying their instruments behind Elton wasn't his normal band, but rather The Who, whom from the soundtrack album I gathered were responsible for the music in the first place. It didn't strike me for years that the first thing The Who ever did for me was cause me to see a Ken Russell film at such a young age.
Tommy didn't get me into The Who--it took the hype surrounding Keith Moon's death for my teenage self to buy Who's next, and then Quadrophenia, Who Are You , Live At Leeds, and Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. By the time 1979 rolled around, I was dotting my o's with arrows and scrawling Pete Townshend lyrics all over my math books. Nobody wrote songs that spoke directly to me like he did. And with their collective instrumental firepower kicking those songs ever-higher, it only made sense to me--even as I was discovering punk--that The Who were the greatest band ever.
Unfortunately, the deeper I dug into their past the worse they got in real time: I made myself like Face Dances and It's Hard, but those misbegotten records pailed compared to the bootlegs I kept finding after I exhausted their official albums. And the Who themselves, stripped of one-quarter of their perfection before they were ready, stopped reaching. They'd always been about breaking barriers and going further. Sometimes--lots of times--they took nosedives--even Who's next was a compromise from the original vision--but as long as Keith was alive, they always went forward. No one knew that the 1979 stock-taking of The Kids Are Alright and Quadrophenia movies was going to be their raison d'etre for the rest of their career. In other words, rather than moving forward constantly, their career became celebrating their career. The Who had become a dead shark.
Of course, in the same fanatical matter I took their songs to heart, I took their decline to heart. So whereas I loved them on the '80 tour (my graduation present to myself), the 82 tour wasn't as much fun. By the time of '89's reunion tour, R.E.M. and U2 and The Replacements had eclipsed them on my own personal scale, and when Pete Townshend gave a cynical, hateful interview in Musician on the eve of that tour, I all but stopped listening to them. If he didn't give a fuck anymore--this person who wrote so many caring, beautiful, personal songs--why should I?
It's five years down the road now, and now I'm used to Tommy on Broadway and Roger Daltrey Pay-Per-View specials and I've even forgiven Pete Townshend's cranky middle-age. And now MCA--a record company which never deserved The Who and has been treating their back catalog shoddily for years--tosses a mondo four-disc Who box set our way. And surprise surprise after years of crappy reissues, I'm pleased as punch to report that as way to recapture respect they've all but pissed away, 30 Years of Maximum R & B is pretty damn definitive. Because after all the bad feelings and reunions and revivals and movies and stage versions and interviews and solo albums and biographies and everything else is stripped away, what you actually have left is about 10 years of Maximum Rock and Roll. Which is fine, cos during that ten years ("the decayed of The Who"), no band played it better. Period.
Disc one is anchored around all of the major early singles; many are in pristine remixed condition, which means that we actually get to hear Keith Moon at his young peak. "I Can't Explain," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" "My Generation"--powerful, funny, dramatic, definitive pop songs, full of brains and balls and heart.
Topping it all off, and finally available on these shores, is the fantastic unedited version of "The Kids Are Alright," which combines Beatlesque harmonies with a drums/guitar break which so freaked out Decca, their original American record company, they chopped it right out. Disc one also features tracks from their first two albums, My Generation and A Quick One, most notably "The Ox," one of the wildest instrumentals ever recorded; their cover of The Rolling Stones "The Last Time" (cool, but not nearly as cool as their version of "Under My Thumb"); and a weird studio/live hybrid version of "A Quick One While He's Away," Pete Townshend's first excursion into the song-suites (not "operas") which would dominate the next several years of his work.
Disc Two is dominated by most of the criminally underheard The Who Sell Out (but why "Sunrise" instead of "Relax"?) and all you really need of the massively overheard Tommy (except for "Christmas"). Best of all are the songs featuring the thundering hard rock sound they were getting in concert. The Live at Leeds "Young Man Blues" and "Summertime Blues" still amaze--all four members stretch the songs to their breaking point before somehow coming back together again. And the live "Underture" (aka "Sparks") might just be the most exciting rock instrumental ever--it builds and crashes and roars and basically explodes into smithereens all within a set structure: like Armageddon in a box.
Meanwhile, somehow -- amazingly -- they were taking that sound and harnessing it in the studio: songs like "Little Billy," "Jaguar," "Dogs," "Our Love Was, Is" and Entwhistle's "Heaven and Hell" were by turns big and powerful and poignant and hilarious and eminently hummable. And all of them were b-sides, outtakes or album tracks, almost never to be heard on radio which--to this day--concentrates on about a dozen Who songs max.
Of course, luckily for all of us, one of those dirty dozen is "I Can See For Miles," where they took their juxtaposition of angelic harmonies and nasty noise to its logical extreme. It's the perfect blueprint for rock music. Pete's one-note solo breakdown and the rollercoaster drums and John's big ole eternal bass rumble are one thing, but the single bam! bam! of Moon's snare before the last verse signal a secret knowledge of the dynamics of rock music that no other band has really ever figured out. And its always sounded wonderful on any radio station anywhere.
Disc Three. Who's next. You know this one. But what's surprising is how the tracks you've heard a million times fit so well with the other songs they were doing at that time. "Baba O'Riley" goes into a brilliant live "Bargain" followed up by "Pure and Easy" which sets up "The Song is Over" and of course "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," about which there really is nothing left to say. The quality level stays sky-high: a incendiary live "Bony Moronie," and a triptych of amazing (and mostly obscure) singles: "Let's See Action," "Join Together" & "Relay." During the early 70's, The Who left everybody behind. Pound for pound, song for song, they were the finest rock and roll band on the planet, embodying everything--great songs, balls-out playing, studio smarts--great about rock music. Then they made their best album.
Ever since "The Kids Are Alright" movie had nary a mention of it, Quadrophenia has been underrepresented in the umpteen Who best-ofs, live albums and retrospectives. Thus, only four songs from that two-record masterpiece--one of which is a funkily weird remake of "The Real Me" with Kenny Jones on drums. Which makes sense, since Quadrophenia stands completely on its own: out of context, many of the songs are diminished. But as a grand glorious whole--a album about mods by a band of poseur mods featuring the furthest thing from mod music imaginable--it worked as the epitome of arty hard rock. And the mod angle was mostly a framework through which Pete Townshend could write one last time from the perspective of a teenager. And as such, it was a culmination of, and a break from, their early career. After that, Pete confronted his adulthood, a subject which was never quite as fun as when he was dissecting adolescence..
Disc four tries valiantly to turn the last two decades into something coherent. It starts strongly enough: "Long Live Rock" has always been smarter than its title, and "Slip Kid" and the live "Dreaming From The Waist" (featuring a fantastic Entwhistle bass solo) well represent the strong, if massively depressing The Who By Numbers. But while "Naked Eye" is one of Pete's greatest songs ever, why a live version where Daltrey forgets half a verse? And does the world really need another live version of "My Wife?" After that, it goes right downhill--only "Who Are You" (the single version, which deletes the third verse) and "You Better You Bet" (which is just a great pop song, period), have any life in them at all.
Thus, my main quibble: If they didn't have to at least try to live up to the "30 years" claim on the box they could have used, say, "The Good's Gone," "Getting in Tune," "Christmas," "Under My Thumb," "When I Was A Boy," "Baby, Don't You Do It" "Circles," "Naked Eye" (studio), "Relax," "How Many Friends" & "Dogs Pt. 2" and wrapped the entire thing up with "You Better You Bet" and it would have been perfect.
Instead, they end it with flaccid covers--"Twist and Shout," "I'm A Man," and a D.O.A. version of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" that once again, nearly 20 years later, made me wish for Elton John's band. My other quibble is the relative paucity of new live material from their first decade. Unless, of course they're saving it for the retrospective live album hinted at in the notes. And hopefully, if they do, they won't bother with any post-Keith stuff, which has been documented ad nauseam.
But those are minor quibbles--lord, those are minor quibbles, especially in context. After all, its practically a law that box sets peter out. Especially in light of the first three and one-half discs, which should firmly re-establish their tarnished rep to those who need it re-established and hopefully bring some new believers on board. As far as I'm concerned, this set proves, once and for all time, that for the first decade of their existence, The Who were the greatest rock and roll band ever. You should own it.
Back to my Writing Home Page
This document last modified 09 August, 1995.
I was listening to Foo Fighters -- Foo Fighters