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.