2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of ‘Face Dances’ by The Who, the first studio release after the death of drummer Keith Moon. If there was any real doubt that the band would never recover from the loss, that tepid release with overly constrained Kenny Jones on drums was a pretty clear sign that the magic was gone – though it took the even-worse ‘It’s Hard’ the following year to REALLY kill the band.
But even before the release of ‘Face Dances’ there were three signs that the remaining members of the band were headed in different directions: between 1980 and 1981 each released a solo album.
John Entwistle was the first to have released a solid solo album, with ‘Smash your head against the wall’ followed by ‘Whistle Rhymes’ in the early 70’s, followed by not much of anything for a while. In 1981 he released ‘Too Late the Hero’, which I snapped up immediately upon release. In retrospect it is not a great album, but coming as it did just as The Who was about to release a new recording – it sent a message! And given that many of the songs here are better than anything he offered for the Who recordings, it seems the message was intended.
During the mid-70’s Roger Daltrey had a few hits over the course of a few solo records (in case you’re doing the math … that is a pretty lousy ratio!), but they were much more on the light rock and pop side than his typically hard edged Who vocals (e.g. ‘Giving it all away’, ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe’). Then in 1980 he appeared in a minor British film called McVicar – and more importantly released a ‘soundtrack’ record that was really just a solo album. This record has more hits – and more good songs in general – than the rest of his solo albums combined! It brought together all of the members of the Who in different capacities, and once again outshone Face Dances.
McVicar has a great bunch of songs, from Bitter & Twisted to the top hit Without Your Love, but my favorite has always been Free Me. Between Daltrey’s screaming vocal and Entwistle’s pounding bass, this feels more like a Who song than anything on Face Dances:
Most of the blame for Face Dances being mediocre (and ‘It’s Hard’ being terrible) is laid at the feet of Pete Townshend. Townshend was the leader of the group in pretty much every way – he wrote the songs, commanded the vision, and was the central visual spectacle. And, in spite of watching Keith Moon booze & pill himself to death … Townshend was getting dangerously close to doing the same thing to himself. Townshend had some very creative years in the 80’s … but very little of that was directed at The Who. His album Empty Glass from 1980 signaled something of a turn-around, and contains his most honest and introspective work in years – and his best rocking tunes.
Empty Glass has a load of great songs, with Townsend’s top charting ‘Let My Love Open the Door’, personal faves Empty Glass and a Little Is Enough, and the template for the closing songs for the last two Who albums, Gonna Get You. But it was Rough Boys that had me learning the cool guitar intro lines and has stuck with me as my favorite song from the album.
With hindsight it is always possible to discuss how something fell apart or went wrong – the Beatles are a great example of that. But with The Who … even back in mid-March of 1981 when Face Dances was released it was already clear that something special about the group was gone. Whether it was the death of Keith Moon, the Cincinnati tragedy, or some combination of these things that allowed the tensions straining the group for years to finally take over we will never really know. But what we can say is that it was pretty obviously over … even 30 years ago.