Bringing up pop

Three enduring English groups
By BEN GERSON  |  October 25, 2006

This article originally appeared in the August 10, 1971 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

The Who are the great late-bloomers of rock, the band present at the creation, peripheral during its maturation, and now sovereign during its hibernation/degeneration.  Hindered by an uncaring record company, they continued to toil unspectacularly through mid-to late sixties, while many of their colleagues were world-conquering.  But the problem, I think, extended beyond business difficulties.  Aside from a few rock and roll classics, “My  Generation,” “The Kids are Alright,” “I Can See For Miles,” “Pictures of Lily” and a couple of others, the Who always failed to commit totally the passion of their music to plastic.  And with records, not performance, more than ever rock’s medium, the Who found themselves sadly shut out.

One of the bands recorded limitations was a certain thinness of sound, largely attributable to the employment of only three instruments, and Daltry’s weak vocals.  Not until the heavy bass, the multiple over-dubbing and the tonal richness of Cream’s and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s high volume playing did such spare instrumentation really carry.  The Who, as purveyors of hard, not heavy rock, chose a different way out.

With Tommy, the Who scaled down energy levels, and tried not so much to reproduce live performance as to create a valid studio experience.  With less put forth, the performances were proportionately more realizable.  Peter Townshend himself stated a few years ago that the Beatles’ success was not just the brilliance of their intentions, but the extraordinary degree to which those intentions were actualized.  Call it projection, if you wish.  In Tommy, the surplus musical energy went into the conceptualization of the opera, so that its physical, emotional and intellectual components, in sum, comprised their most self-fulfilled work.  Where they had, in the past, channeled their excess, frustrated energy into smashing their instruments, in Tommy, they applied it more constructively. 

The Who’s new album is another chapter in the band’s evolution.  It is rock and roll without pretensions.  While it would seem to be a step back, chronologically if not qualitatively, it has the excitement and the presence which almost all of their previous recorded work lacked.  (Regardless of the thematic compensations, I found the rock opera a bit tepid.)  The music lies somewhere between hard and heavy, closer to the Rolling Stones than ever before.  But it is still in live performance that the Who incomparably shine.  Thursday night’s performance was the finest show I’ve seen in months.

The Who spent the last several months preparing a new act, having retired that old workhorse Tommy.  The new one relies substantially on new material.  The set opened with “Love Ain’t For Keeping.”  Townshend’s chords crashed and thundered; Moon flailed his drums; Daltrey posed and piped; Entwistle, like a good bassman, stood stock still.  With minor differences it was the beloved Who again, and the confluence of music, theatre, dance and ritual created one of those thrilling moments of overwhelming unity.

They played very loud, with lots of treble and echo.  Entwistle’s bass was not prominently heard, giving the band the old, hard, astringent sound.  Townshend filled the Music Hall with the sound of at least two guitars, and his perfect lead-rhythm style corroborated it.  Wearing army boots and a jumpsuit cut off above the ankles, Townshend did his famous windmills, and danced in his very angular, substantial, rhythmic, masculine way.  He was terribly graceful, but it was more the grace of the clown than the ballet dancer.  Daltrey, as before, swung his microphone like a lasso, and did his version of the pony, circa ’61.

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