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January 16, 2012 • Music Diary, Reviews

Vinyl Re-Visions: The Who – Who Are You (Rock, 1978)


The Who – Who Are You

OK, so I admit that I am cheating here – Who Are You is available on CD, and in fact I have owned it on CD for more than 25 years.

But let me explain – I bought this album in 1979 after Keith Moon had died and I had seen ‘The Kids Are Alright’ for the second time in theaters. At the time The Who were really popular on rock radio, and actually there was a special cut of Who Are You for AM radio which asked ‘Who the heck are you’? But as the 80’s turned and the Who released Face Dances and It’s Hard which I initially enjoyed but as I moved more and more away from rock and pop I distanced myself from The Who – particularly the post-Moon stuff.

Through the years I have never been in sync with pop culture, so as I have described before I even failed to get my choices played during an ‘All Who Request Weekend’ … and that is before radio got as bad as it is now! As a result Who’s Next has never been my favorite, and due to the popularity when I bought it I had never digitized Who Are You.

But wait – don’t I have it on CD? Yes, it was given to me as a gift in the mid-80’s as I was starting to convert over to CD from vinyl and cassette, and I had listened to it a few times in the car through the 25 years I’ve had it … yet I never imported it into my iTunes library – until now.

What changed my mind was pulling the vinyl recording out of my storage area in our closet where I have the bulk of my vinyl: I was grabbing other records for this series such as Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy (and others … but I won’t break the surprise), and this was in the same box so I pulled it out. I put it on and found myself very much enjoying the songs – much more than I recalled. So I dug through my CDs to find the CD version, ripped it to iTunes and put it on my iPod. We were taking a drive for a shopping excursion, so I put it on and found that everyone rather enjoyed it. Since then I have listened a few more times and have rediscovered the strengths – and still recognize the weaknesses – that make this recording well worth checking out.

Summary: Pete Townshend recently said that he considers Quadrophenia the ‘last great Who album’. And while I will discuss my feelings about THAT soon with my review of the recently released remastered edition of the album, let me just go ahead and state that Who Are You is the last GOOD Who album.

The Who had an interesting period in the 70’s. Starting off on the major commercial and artistic high of Tommy, into the failed Lifehouse project that spawned the massive success of Who’s Next that was full of synthesizers and over-dubs and other studio work, and then followed by the combatative Quadrophenia that very nearly tore the group apart, then sliding through more time apart than together into the introspective and minimally produced Who By Numbers and finally to the music-focused (in just about every way) Who Are You.

New Song – This song launches strongly and quickly shows exactly what we will be getting on this album: a harmonically interesting song with a tight beat that separates it from most arena rockers, yet still strong rock in the Who tradition, strong Daltrey vocals, with awesome bass work by Entwistle showing off his chops and multi-genre influences. Keith Moon shows a hit-or-miss impact from the beginning, with flashes of brilliance and times that he seems barely able to make his way around the kit anymore – fortunately Entwistle is there to pick up the slack. There are also plenty of synthesizers as backing and also the use of the Arp Avatar synth guitar accompanying Pete’s crunchy sound to provide a complex layering.

The songs are … well, angsty. Looking at the cover the picture is stark and the band look much older than their early-30s ages. And the song themes deal with aging, fear of irrelevence, and sorting out their own place in life and music. Everyone talks about the ‘not to be taken away’ in the context of the irony related to Keith Moon’s death, but for me it is more about a group who has finally found themselves in the elite rock star status and feel that grip loosening as punk and disco and prog rock take over. This song in particular is really interesting musically, yet spends the whole time questioning itself – it is a theme that recurs the whole album through.

Had Enough – Leave it to Entwistle to present a plain and bleak world-weary portrait of his place in life. The modal harmonies of the verse are surprisingly interesting, with the chorus connecting things well with the ‘fooling no one but ourselves’ refrain leading into Daltrey warning ‘here comes the end of the world’ adding to the over-wrought feel. But it is musically solid and more adventurous than the typical Entwistle fare.

905 – I was afraid that a song about cloning created in the wake of news of the ‘test tube baby’ would seem quaint more than 30 years later. Instead, it seems more like a science fiction focus now, and I really enjoyed the flowing long-form melody that simply lays on top of the synth-heavy backdrop. Evidently this and ‘Had Enough’ were originally written for a rock opera Entwistle envisioned about a cloned human with implanted childhood memories living with an identical clone (503) who eventually snaps when he’s ‘had enough’.

Sister Disco – This song remains an enigma to me: I don’t care about words, but they nonetheless often become engrained and suddenly I’ll be singing and someone will ask what a song is ABOUT. Is this song about the death of disco? Yes. Is it about music as a continuum? Absolutely. Is it about how all music goes in cycles? Sure. Does it address the frustrations of Townshend constantly feeling like the victim of being just ahead of so many trends and therefore watching others reap the profits? I think so.

Musically there are two things I love: Entwistle is simply stunning in how he drives the beat with his pulsing disco-like lines, and Townshend’s ARP-2500 ‘mad skillz’ are just insane! You have to realize that this is WAY before MIDI and computer-based sequencing, so stuff like you hear here and elsewhere required HOURS of manual programming of analog sequencers (I can only imagine what Kraftwerk was doing). The way that Townshend blends various musical styles seamlessly really works well with the lyrical themes.

The other thing I love is the acoustic guitar coda – given how synth heavy the song is, and how the end is massively layered in complex lines, having an acoustic ‘outro’ that seems to say ‘it is all just music after all’ is absolutely perfect … and leads wonderfully into the next song.

Music Must Change – Given that there were several times when Keith Moon laid out on drums, I never thought twice – and find it really suits the song well. It is only recently that I learned that it was Keith Moon’s deterioration that left him unable to cope with the 6/8 time signature. The squeaky shoe sound and Entwistle’s bass paired with deft Yamaha CS-80 keyboard work provides a great backdrop. As for Townshend, he is brilliant throughout – my favorite guitar work ever from him as he channels Pat Martino. Daltrey’s uncertainty in the second verse is extremely effective. Unlike other songs, the theme here is concise and strong – and not just a little bit pretentious.

Trick of the Light – Most song-writers have a style, a certain song-type they can toss-out at a moment’s notice. I remarked on Paul McCartney with that on Band on the Run, and this song is very much in Entwistle’s wheelhouse. It is about a rock star worries of sexual inadequacy with a prostitute. What I have always loved is the monster 8-string bass solo. The whole song is just dripping in over-the-top bass moves – and that is the only reason I listen to what is otherwise my least favorite song on the record, and one that still sounds long at just over 4 minutes (it could have been cut at 3 minutes and benefitted).

Guitar and Pen – I still remember a review from when this came out originally panning this song, saying ‘never spend your guitar or your pen … thanks for the advice, Pete’. And lyrically it is rather nonsense, which Townshend himself admits in response to criticism that it is too ‘show tune’-ish. But I love the building intensity, the fun playfulness, and the overall cool arrangements.

Love is Coming Down – A gorgeous ballad that has a rather minor-key feel and depressingly downbeat lyrics to match, but with an occasional glimmer of hope that peaks out. Drenched with orchestral strings, and featuring one of the best vocal performances ever by Roger Daltrey, it is just a thing of beauty – and one of the most over-looked songs by the band.

Who Are You – somewhere between it being one of the top played songs on rock radio, AM radio, ‘classic rock’ stations, and now as the theme to CSI amongst other appearances, chances are just about everyone on the planet has heard this song. It really is the ‘easy single’ from the album, and in that era of AOR (album oriented rock) was the driving force to carry the album to #2 on the pop charts and double-platinum status very quickly. You know it, I know it … and it is just the same powerful closer of a song we all know and love. It is as over-played these last several years as it was in the late 70’s ironically.

Choice Track (and why): “Music Must Change” – Pete Townshend is generally regarded as one of the great rock guitarists but never at the top with the true ‘lead’ guitarists. The reason is simple – extended solos are not his style (or forte) and that is the ultimate requirement of being a ‘guitar god’. Yet this song shows why he has been a driving force in rock music for so long: complex chord substitutions, interesting lines with genuine musical value, and a song structure that is both subtle and deep.

You Might Love This If: You are a fan of the group or rock music in general. If you have only heard the title song and are seeking more from that era, this is an easy recommendation. It is an album that divides fans, as some lyric-focused listeners don’t appreciate the introspection on music. I find that the music itself has aged extremely well – particularly compared to the awful 80’s Who records. And while we see Keith Moon at his worst, we have some of the greatest work from Daltrey, Entwistle and Townshend.

Oh – and one final note: I also have the ‘remastered’ version released in 1996 which is the one on iTunes, Amazon, etc. I had grabbed the Quadrophenia re-release and assumed I would also get better sound quality than the 1985 CD version (which was so haphazardly released that ‘905’ is labeled as ‘3.905’ on the back – it is the third song) … I was wrong. The sound is thinner, the mixes have been altered to drive the bass to the background, some songs extended (particularly egregious is Trick of the Light which added 45 seconds MORE), and generally just an inferior overall production.

Where to Buy: Amazon.com has the MP3 Album for $9.49

Here is a YouTube video featuring ‘Who Are You’ in a recording session video (as seen in ‘The Kids Are Alright’:

2 Responses to " Vinyl Re-Visions: The Who – Who Are You (Rock, 1978) "

  1. I can never decide if I’m a huge an of The Who, or Townshend, or both.  Townshend was a revelation to me as a teen–tall, skinny, goofy-looking, articulate, and (quite obviously) angry as hell.  Townshend showed that you can be all that, and be a success in life *anyway*, in spite of all the prom queens and cool kids and football stars ignoring and/or tormenting you.  On their “farewell tour” in, what, 1982, Townshend did two thing that endeared him to me forever.  First, even though he had stated publicly over and over again that he was not–repeat NOT–going to smash guitars any more, the first night in D.C. at the Cap Center, Townshend (notoriously hard on his strings) snapped an E-string and got so angry, he chopped down his microphone stand with his guitar.  Playing for nearly 20 years, battling heroin and tinnitus and the death of a great friend and all the madness of the late 70s, still *cared* enough to get angry about his music.

    The second thing was when Townshend, on the same tour, gave an interview (always an excellent interview subject, he) and said something like, “All those kids made fun of my big nose when I was growing up and I thought, ‘Right; I’m going to get so famous I’ll be shoving this huge honker at you from every magazine cover in the country.'”  This was a drive and intensity that any “outcast” kid could understand, and it made him my hero for life.

    And now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll download the full, enhanced version of the film “The Kids are Alright,” thanks very much.

  2. I can never decide if I’m a huge an of The Who, or Townshend, or both.  Townshend was a revelation to me as a teen–tall, skinny, goofy-looking, articulate, and (quite obviously) angry as hell.  Townshend showed that you can be all that, and be a success in life *anyway*, in spite of all the prom queens and cool kids and football stars ignoring and/or tormenting you.  On their “farewell tour” in, what, 1982, Townshend did two thing that endeared him to me forever.  First, even though he had stated publicly over and over again that he was not–repeat NOT–going to smash guitars any more, the first night in D.C. at the Cap Center, Townshend (notoriously hard on his strings) snapped an E-string and got so angry, he chopped down his microphone stand with his guitar.  Playing for nearly 20 years, battling heroin and tinnitus and the death of a great friend and all the madness of the late 70s, still *cared* enough to get angry about his music.

    The second thing was when Townshend, on the same tour, gave an interview (always an excellent interview subject, he) and said something like, “All those kids made fun of my big nose when I was growing up and I thought, ‘Right; I’m going to get so famous I’ll be shoving this huge honker at you from every magazine cover in the country.'”  This was a drive and intensity that any “outcast” kid could understand, and it made him my hero for life.

    And now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll download the full, enhanced version of the film “The Kids are Alright,” thanks very much.