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The Who are not very deeply known in this country. At a time when flashy incoherent groups like Cream, and as yet unrealized ones like the Doors are raking it in, this is a strange blindness because the Who are artists of the noblest rank. All four of them--Peter Townshend, lead guitar, Roger Daltrey, singer, Keith Moon, drummer and John Entwistle, bass--have distinct powerful styles which are among the greatest that rock has so far produced. And their collective sound is wilfully original and bursting with the most exciting potential for the future.
The most common comment about the Who's music is that it is unclassifiable; attempting to do so does pose special problems because the group's members seem to have dredged up out of themselves a new vein in rock music--one that sounds like no other group for more than the odd fleeting moment. If you can imagine a music that sounds a little like the Beach Boys in their early 'I Get Around' stage but harder, or like The Stones' 'Jumping Jack Flash' but harder, you have the Who at their medium mellowest, i.e. doing 'Out in the Street,'
The hardness of their rock is definitely what first strikes one. In nearly all their numbers Moon is smashing at his drums keeping up a racing beat that is about 3 times the normal rock beat. He specially designed a set of drums for himself inscribed in black and orange psychedelic lettering with "Patent-Moon the Exploding Drummer" and he hits them with rapid strokes flicking his wrists from side to side--and these days when he throws his sticks at the drums he doesn't bother to catch them. Similarly, Townshend is different from other guitarists most obviously for his constantly fast fiddling. Whereas Jeff Beck, say likes to pull out individual notes and drool over them, Townshend moves quickly from string to string to knob to string.
Within a musical framework of this frenzied a pace there is no place for the eloquent bass guitarist building up elegant harmonies a la Paul McCartney, and John Entwistle knows and does better. A big solid unsmiling figure on stage dressed in black with a white ruffled vest ("I don't move around so I can wear fancy clothes") he is jovial and enourmously pleasant in the dressing room. "There's no other bass guitarist that's better than me because I don't play it like a bass guitar." And it's true, he doesn't. He plays it aggressively like a lead guitar, contributing positively always to the overall arrangement of each number. On 'Doctor, Doctor' he is amazing with his rumbling thriving chords. He is a visionary brooding bass in "Armenia, City in the Sky" forcing up against Townshend's electronic wizardry.
Daltrey too is an impressive asset to the group, marvelously tuned as he is to the Townshend-Moon beat. A really tough man, he sings with great overflowing zeal for the material and of course his controlled hysteria on stage--flailing arms, slinging mike, tossing haunches--is legendary.
Given this compulsive speeded tempo the Who relish in a wide variety of styles ("They have a nice sense of play' 'a photographer friend remarked) ranging from the chain gang 'Bald Headed Woman' to the baroque Swingles Singers Bach effect on 'Silas Stingy' chanting 'money money money money. . .' in rising and falling strains to harpsichord music.
At last Tuesday's concert in Boston the Who introduced a Mose Allison song, 'Young Man Blues' saying that it was one of the things they used to do when they were first formed in 1964 and it had led them to music they were now making. Daltrey mimicked his master's voice singing each line with the rest of the group quiet--for Moon, Townshend and Entwistle to erupt, between lines, into inspired instrumental dashes. Towards the end of the song Townshend took over and played lovely near-classic blues spiced as it was with the ever-present Who twist. It is at moments like these, watching a great guitarist making fresh and fruitful inroads into traditional numbers that one resents people like Buddy Guy who, at Newport, played very abstract music, making one feel faintly put on.
There is another element that Peter Townshend--who, it should by now be apparent, is a giant among giants with the Who--introduces in their music, that of electronic manipulation. All electric instruments come with a sizable Noise (as distinct from Music) potential. The challenge is to attempt to fuse Noise and Music so that they go together--such music it seems is known as Musique Concrete. Writing in the Aug. 10 issue of Rolling Stone, Edmund O. Ward calls Townshend "one of the foremost pioneers and practitioners of this art" and goes on to rave about the instrumental break in "Armenia, City in the Sky" as being "perfectly true to the harmonic structure of the song as well as perfectly integrated kinetically into it." However that may be one can only testify that the song is a poetic evocation of a soaring mood and the electronic mesh of sound contributes powerfully to the spirit of the song. Townshend has done other wonderful things with his electronic control--on 'Out in the Street' one of the Who's earliest recordings there is a flickering gash of feedback that jars the listener into total awareness, on 'Call Me Lightning' there is a brief sputter of amplified plucking and then the sound switches into the full-fledged majestic whine of electric lead guitar and you get what it means to integrate Noise and Music.
The Who's songs, mostly written by Townshend and Entwistle, are conceived with flagrant imagination and tautly, expressively written. Daltrey sings them with a blackish brackish voice in rhythmic patterns such that there is always a lilting melodious quality to them an effect which combines marvelously with the underlying relentless fast-paced beat. The lyrics are startlingly effective and form a muscular tense poetry. A recent song by a major West Coast group complaining about a faithless girl went something like "I was such a fool, I should have known better, She was untrue, wah wah wah etc." Here is the Who:
I know you deceive me Now here's a surprise
I know that you have 'Cause there's magic in my eyes
Well here's a poke at you
You're gonna choke on it too
Because all the while
I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles.
The relationship of the pauses to the rhythms and the meaning is brilliantly right.
Townshend's love songs are a breed by themselves--perpetually afraid of the transiency of love he is, therefore, as the man, aggressively pre-emptive.
I know when I've had enough
When I think your love is rough
Yeah you know the good's gone out of our love.
Now if its you I need I've got to pay a levy 'cause
Your love's too heavy on me
Its much much too much too much too heavy.
'Substitute' must surely be the Who's answer to 'Satisfaction', with its literate interesting funny lines set to an instantly catchy tune, remember
I'm a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young but I'm just backdated.
Substitute you for my mum
At least I'll get my washing done.
And the essential redeeming humanity of 'Happy Jack' the bum who 'wasn't tall but he was a man' who is free and carefree and with whom the Who clearly identify as who but a moron wouldn't,
The kids would all sing--he would sing in the wrong key
They couldn't stop Jack nor the water's lapping
And they couldn't prevent Jack from being happy.
Magnificent lines are almost casually dropped every so often and one of the great pleasures of listening to the Who is that, as with Dylan and only a few others, one can enjoy listening to the words themselves and not just to the music.
But the most elusive, most important and most refreshingly vital aspect of the Who is their conception of the 'rock-opera'.
The first thing to realize is that many of the Who's songs are complete stories with something well-identified happening in the course of the song. Putting a story to music does not automatically make an opera. Only if the music has been molded to the story in such a way as to clothe its meanings and its actions in sound does one have an opera. The key concept here is that of giving each musical sound a sense as well. The Who have written several exploratory operettas in which their deliberate purpose has been to attempt to convey meaning through abstract sound. This is a considerable undertaking and it can only be successfully realized by talents of the stature of the Who. The integration of their music with the magically imaginative lyrics they habitually write takes all of Townshend's electronic jamming skill and all of the versatility and experience of Entwistle Daltrey and Moon, but they do it.
This total effect, the fusion of music to meaning crops up in all of their past work. In 'Pictures of Lily' Townshend tells the story of a small boy, probably himself, who is given a picture by his father to 'help him sleep at night'. Gradually the boy falls in love with the picture and one day goes to his father to ask about the girl Lily only to be told that she has been dead for years. There are several visionary musical breakthroughs in the song. It is a medium fast song but in the middle the drums suddenly fold and Daltrey sings very tenderly, "Lily oh Lily pictures of Lily" with no accompaniment. It is clear that this break and pause represents the boy falling in love, and in the very next verse he proclaims his love. Just after the interlude and before the song swings into gear again, Townshend plays an ominous sinister grating wail on his guitar, a sound that apears for the first and only time on the record here. This is a presentiment of what we are to learn next which is that his love is doomed and so the falling in love was a disastrous mistake.
Then afterwards when the boy is told of the impossibility of the love there is a frightful guitar burst by Townshend again conveying, as intended, to me that bitter and desperate feeling of being crushed in boyhood. Obviously this is not to say the sound on the guitar would have automatically reminded one, if suddenly heard, of childhood grief but simply that one must ask, given an assigned context, did the music fit it or not, which is the universal challenge of opera, and its universal glory when it succeeds.
The song 'Call Me Lightning' goes
See that girl smiling so bright
Dum Dum Dum Dolay
I'm going to show you why they call me lightning.
The puzzling line is the middle one which is repeated over and over. The Who don't go in very much for this kind of crudity and there clearly ought to be an exlanation for it when it happens. A very close listening to the record reveals that the second last time the chorus says 'Dum Dum Dum Dolay' someone says in a nasal voice over the Dum Dums 'Please don't come too late.' What the Who were trying to do was to approximate a specific meaning-phrase by a seemingly meaningless sound. If all had gone well the hypnotic chants of Dum Dum Dolay should have created the feeling of expectation that the following line 'I'm gonna show you why they call me lightning' depends on. In this case it probably didn't work.
Nevertheless the effort to understand this aspect of the Who was not wasted. Such close attention to examples of this kind in their songs is not mere critical pedantry or an attitude of more-scrupulous-than-thou but dealing as it does with the core of the Who's enterprise it is as such worthy of extensive examination.
Daltrey talked of how the operas work, "We sometimes have different instruments for different people. For example we may use a flute to represent a mother and a reverberating chamber for the father." Townshend--"We are not rigid musicians. When we go to do an opera we have some idea of what the story will be but we don't restrict ourselves. We let our mood in the studio affect the way we play and therefore it affects the way the story line unfolds." Townshend has outlined a two hour rock opera and the group is eager to get back to England so they can start recording it. When asked about it they would all say only, "Its going to be very good." And judging from 'Rael' the one perfectly complete opera they have recorded so far one believes.
'Rael' is on the album titled 'The Who Sell Out' (a masterpiece of a record). The story of 'Rael' is one of Townshend's most resonant and complex--the archetype of a form that Bob Dylan seems to have taken up now in 'John Wesley'. The interest in the Who's production, however, lies as much in the realization through music of the action as in the actual elements of the story. The tale is of a rich man who arrives with his yacht on a distant evil island and decides to stay there for a year to see how he fares. He instructs the captain of the boat to come back in a year to the same spot and look for a signal from him. Should it be a yellow flag flying the message is that he cannot stand it any longer and must leave, if a red flag, "Brazen blown against the blue" he will stay on Rael and make it his home.
The captain and crew, however, are terrified of the place and leave in haste. Townshend and company recreate the journey home in exquisite detail, the swish of the sails, the churning of the sea past the boat, the receding fear and expectant joy as the motorboat takes them ashore, where they vow not to go back ever dismissing their master as 'crazy anyway'. The last verse of the song is a repetition of the instructions,
If a yellow flag is fluttering
Simply held against the morn
Then you'll know my courage is ended
And you'll send our boat ashore.
only this time it is played to chill the listener with the dread of a man waiting for saviors who will never come, to the backdrop of the crashing surf against the shore.
This mere outline is not enough and the song has to be listened to for the total experience, full of dark and slippery suggestion, to understand the Who's near-total mastery of this medium they have created for themselves.
The Who in performance. Entwistle grim and impassive. Moon, mouth open looking happily about. Townshend concentrates hard but is not afraid to jerk and shudder with his arms and legs when he feels the will of the music. Daltrey convulsing. Townshend splits his guitar with one axe blow. Moon when drunk, as tonight personally supervises the destruction of his drums. Why do they do it?
Q. Do you not worry that people may think you breaking instruments is just a gimmick? Daltrey replies, "No, I'm not worried if they think that. It is a gimmick." Townshend--"I get frustrated. I don't have as much talent as Clapton or Hendrix but I can conceive of things that I can't play that they could play but would never be able to think of. So I break my guitar." There is more to their destruction than even this. Sit through one of these acts and see.
Townshend is wonderful to talk to. A gentle man of long slim build he talks effortlessly and meaningfully. Q. How do you account for the fact that pop music is so fine and yet appeals to such a large audience. Townshend--" Well its because pop music can take many developments, lyricism, poetry, aggression, and it can be appreciated at many levels. Our music is pop music only in the sense of Pop Art."
Wonderfully accurate statement. The Who are Pop in Warhol's sense, they are Art in anyone's sense, and I've always thought Warhol and Pop Art were the greatest and so I must think the Who are the greatest mustn't I?
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