My introduction to The Who came from that compilation, Who’s Better, Who’s Best. My brother arrived home from one set of university holidays with that and when he brought a new CD into the house he would always give me the sample treatment. He would invite me into his room to hear the album and he’d start at track one, maybe playing up to one minute, and then he would skip forward to the next song. I would make signs to show that I was enjoying it and he would skip forward again to the next song. Sometimes I would shrug or stare blankly ahead so a song would get less than a minute. I remember pricking my ears up to Magic Bus because I had seen a clip of Keith Moon playing the claves on a generic history-of-rock documentary and that and Pinball Wizard were my main frames of reference.
After enjoying Who’s Better, Who’s Best – and making my own C-90 cassette copy of it, which meant that I had the album across both sides with some songs on twice to fill in the 20 minutes of blank tape – I watched the movie version of Tommy. A friend from school loaned me a VHS copy that his older brother had recorded from late-night TV. I watched it twice in the one weekend. Then I rented it a few weeks later and watched it. I tried to set up two VCRs and copy it but unfortunately, me being a novice, my finished product featured no audio. I gave up copying videotapes after that first aborted attempt.
I never owned the Tommy film on VHS or DVD – but I really liked it, ridiculous though it is. It came to define the rock-opera for me and I even bought the Broadway recording of it on CD when it became a slick musical show. (I probably listened to it twice in its entirety before dumping it.)
The Who were put to the side, apart from Tommy and that best-of, when I was growing up. I was far more interested in Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. But the story of Deep Purple has never particularly interested me. They’re just a band (of bogans) who had a few fights and featured a few different people. Led Zeppelin’s story fascinates me still, as does the music. And The Who? Well, the deluxe editions of The Who Sings My Generation, Who’s Next and Tommy all from around a decade ago managed to get me enthused in the band’s music. And they really are/were a fascinating band. Sure, they’re still going, but they should really change their name now to The Two.
The Who was an interesting musical line-up: a three-piece rock-band with a singer. Three instruments going for it – and a front man who has to compete with not just a guitarist who wrote almost all of the material but a lead bass player and a lead drummer as well!
Roger Daltry is a great rock singer, but would he have stood a chance in any other band? And then, the quandary that has been the majority of his professional career is the fact that he rarely seemed to stand a chance in The Who. But was also just fucking fantastic. There’s a lovely resentment going on between him and Pete too. I think that’s the real fuel in and of this band. Roger resents Pete for being so fucking talented. Pete hates Roger because he’s pretty. That’s the tension, the anger, the energy. That’s the fuel right there.
If Pete Townshend is underrated as a lead guitarist (and I’m not entirely sure that he is) then he is certainly appreciated as a self-taught ideas musician. And his rhythm playing is genius, pioneering the underpinning acoustic strum. And of course there’s his guitar style, from the windmilling power chords to the smashing of his instrument. He was also, like Ray Davies, a very English writer working in an American form. And even when he got a bit outlandish and concept-y you had to, at the least, admire the pluck. (If you’ll pardon the pun).
John Entwistle’s monster bass work might have been The Who’s ultimate statement; taking a background rhythmic instrument and making it feel like a lead component. A very compositional player, Entwistle’s bass playing is a lot like John Bonham’s drumming in that you get the feeling they were working out and very much writing their parts while they were making them up on the spot. Definitive in rehearsal stage.
Keith Moon would have survived in the band as just the court jester. Possibly. But of course he brought to the table a style of playing that was its own thing entirely. I love his looseness and energy as a player; the fills always feel spontaneous – even after the 147th listen. That is no mean feat with a primal and often rudimentary instrument like drums.
The journey of The Who certainly was amazing, moving through R’n’B and blues covers to mod-rock to blues-pop, to rock, to rock-operas. And on and on, with some cycles and circles repeating.
To me, The Who define the idea of a rock band, four people bringing separate ideas to the table, all with their own distinct personality; the band therefore is always on the verge of exploding. Total combustibility but managing to fall back in line with each other and around each other for long enough to create and perform and challenge and delight.