I REMEMBER in agonizing detail a crush I had my second year of high school. After class, I would go home and release the pent-up frustration of unrequited love with my stereo. One track in particular spun over and over again on the turntable: "Bargain" by The Who. As the music blasted forth, I would listen to Roger Daltrey and pretend his golden throat was mine. In my dream, the brown-eyed girl would sit entranced while I half sang, half shouted Pete Townshend's lyrics: "I'd pay any price just to win you, Surrender my good life for bad, To find you, I'd suffer anything and be glad, I call that a bargain. The best I ever had." Then, charmed by my earnestness she would fall into my arms.
The dream, alas, was never more than just that--a dream. But The Who were always an impossible-to-ignore reality. In concert, Pete and the boys for years stood unsurpassed. Typically, the auditorium would go dark just as the first, hesitant synthesizer notes of "Baba O'Riley" rang out. Then power guitar chords and lights came simultaneously, and everyone would see Townshend bashing away frantically at his Gibson SG. Finally, Daltrey would swagger in from stage right, throwing his mike toward the audience in ever increasing arcs only to grab it at the very last possible second and sing from his guts: "Out here in the fields..."
On vinyl, The Who were consistently just as impressive. Master piece succeeded masterpiece, from the infamous Tommy to Who's Next. Townshend always had something relevant to say and managed to create impressive scores that were bolstered by the finest of rhythm sections: Keith Moon on drums and John Entwistle on bass.
But by the late '70s, it all began to sour. Never the most together of bands, The Who suffered through intense personality clashes and general boredom. Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle all worked on solo projects and talked occasionally of splitting. Who Are You (1978), though by no means a bad effort, lacked the cohesiveness and consistency of Townshend's earlier work. And when Moon died of a drug overdose, a few months after the album's release, all were sure The Who would call it quits.
And in practice, that is just what they did. The mediocre Face Dances did appear last year, but group members spent most of their time away from each other. Townshend took ardently to the bottle and the rockstar lifestyle, making the scene at posh London clubs and losing his once so acute perspective. All that was lacking was an official statement: "After twenty years, we have decided to pack it in."
Understandably then, the newest Who offering comes as a shock. It's Hard triumphantly reaffirms the power and relevance of Townshend's music, from the opening notes of "Athena" to the distorted, chaotic guitar chords that end "Cry if You Want." Not in a long while have The Who had so much to say and said it so impressively.
Townshend has a tortured, pessimistic view of the world. He paints, not unlike Bruce Springsteen, pictures of shattered dreams and lost illusions. And there are no easy answers. "People are suffering," growls Daltrey, "I'll sing it again."
When we aren't suffering, Townshend tells us, we are hiding, putting on an act both for others and for ourselves. It's hard, he says, to let loose and show emotion, and not to fear our true self. In "Eminence Front," he writes of the few times people do manage to get out from behind their self-eradicated screens:
The sun shines
And people forget
The spray files as the speedboat glides
And people forget they're hiding
Behind an eminence front--it's a put on
But Townshend is not content to tackle only the timeless problems of human relationships and suffering. He deals also with the here and now, with issues directly relevant to our generation. In "I've Known No War," Townshend decries the absurd prospect of nuclear annihilation with more than just a touch of irony:
I've known no war
And if I ever do
The glimpse will be short
Fireball in the sky
No front line battle cries
Can be heard as the button is pushed
By a soul that's been bought
I'll know do war
Lyrical eloquence is only half the story on It's Hard. The music itself assaults, shakes and ultimately hooks the listener. The Who still prominently feature power chord guitar riffs, but Townshend has begun to rely more heavily on subtle synthesizer bits for counter point. Stylistically, he runs the gamut here from hard rock to devastating funk and '60s rock n' roll.
Most important though, The Who are together as a group once more. Daltrey has rarely been of better voice. His rough, expressive style blends to perfection with Townshend's angelic harmonies. Entwistle-- who contributed three first rate rockers to this album--remains one of the most original bass players around. His trebly, ultra quick patterns are unmistakable. And most pleasant of all is the effort put forth by Kenny Jones, Moon's replacement. Jones manages to combine an abandoned drumming style reminiscent of Moon's with military precision. His rolls fill holes admirably and give the music a heavy, knockout punch sound.
MANY YEARS AGO, Townshend wrote what became an anthem of sorts for alienated youth called "My Generation." In that song, he delivered one of rock's most famous lyrics: "I hope I die before I get old." Every so often, Townshend seems to take a frightened look behind himself to make sure time isn't catching up. Quite possibly his self-destructive drinking binge that preceded this album was the manifestation of Townshend's belief he had finally had it. Some-how though, he managed to reach deep inside and fight back with a vengeance.
The back cover of It's Hard sports a child toying with something akin to "Space Invaders." The kid is trying to destroy figures that look remarkably like The Who. But Townshend and the rest are dodging admirably, as if to show their generation can still play the game. The Who are older. But they're not dead yet.