Summertime Blues, 2020 style. A barren, incendiary spell upon writing incendiary things. Back to a familiar topic. For me, they never go away, The Who, despite their own barren and then incendiary spells. Nor should they go away, whether they are taking us back in time, as in the recent release (recent? Maybe two years ago) of Live at the Fillmore 68’ album, featuring a half hour version of “My Generation”, or else releasing a brand new collection of songs via a new album, eponymously titled for the first time in their storied, fifty-plus year career. For most of the last year, the former release had gripped my attention, backward as I am (like atavistic, practically) in my tastes and still pining for the inchoate noise about which I wrote in my last book, The Psychology of Tommy (buy it. You’ll learn stuff, damnit!). See, back in the day, as in when I first became aware of The Who in, like, the mid-eighties, and when they weren’t even a band anymore because they’d supposedly retired after a “farewell” tour of 1982, I read an essay about them in a book entitled The History of Rock & Roll, which was a collection of essays by rock critics, assembled by Rolling Stone magazine. Even then, this book was a guilty pleasure. At the time, I was supposed to be reading either engineering or architecture (before psychology, my incipient vocational choices) books, or else novelists like…actually, I can’t even remember who was de rigeur in 1986, other than Stephen King, maybe.
Anyway, I latched onto an essay by a rock critic named Dave Marsh that was about The Who—who had earlier written a biography about The Who entitled Before I Get Old, though I didn’t know about that at the time. BTW: great book. Read it in college, when I was supposed to be reading books about psychology. Back to the essay: in it, Marsh characterized the essence of the legendary Who, about whom I had thin knowledge in the 80s, and that which I did know was either confusing or pejorative. For example, as I wrote in my book, one of the first things I’d ever heard about them was a curt dismissal from my Beatles’ loving older sister: “Oh them, they just make noise”, she’d once scoffed. That was in the seventies when I only heard pop or rock groups on television (conservative radio in Britain, I think), and The Who weren’t on television in this period; nor did they have many hit, radio-friendly singles in those years. I later heard one of their songs, “You Better You Bet” via television—specifically MTV—only it confused me because the song was tuneful and light, not noisy and brash as I was expecting and vaguely longing for. Much later I bought The Who’s greatest hits collection, a modest single album that introduced songs like “My Generation” and “Substitute”, which I’d not heard before, while recalling for me songs like “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—songs I actually had heard before, if only in fragments.
But what about this noise business? In reading Marsh, I was intrigued to read the following: “Their sound was anarchy, chaos, pure noise—a definition of one kind of Sixties rock. No room for ballads. The Who’s half-life in that era’s volatile world of pop should have been about the length of one of their singles. Instead, they somehow outlasted every other band of their generation” (Marsh, 1980, p. 285, in…f-it, look it up if you’re interested). Well, that’s one helluva claim, I thought. Written in 1980, the author may have been jumping the gun, especially as he was referring specifically to bands lasting with original membership in-tact (lots of groups breaking up or firing people in the 70s, I guess). But it was the “noise” comment that gripped me most. It gripped me because—for whatever reason—noise was what I wanted in that era. I still want dissonance. At the time, however, I was half-mystified, half hooked by the description: I might have conjured blaring white noise and thought it a Who song, even. But listening to Who’s Greatest, I wasn’t hearing that. Again, I was hearing good songs—great songs, unusual songs—but hardly “pure noise”.
Later, I found the noise in live albums, notably Live at Leeds from 1970, but still not the cacophony I’d once imagined when reading that Marsh essay. Meanwhile, other Who virtues took my attention away from this, uh, quiet (private, I guess) obsession: intelligent lyrics and driving, eloquent sounds, wrapped in a rich, near-Pythonesque or not-quite Spinal Tappy sense of humor. The four-headed monster/personality that was Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon recalled the sides of a self that I wished to emulate. They were playful, sensual; even primal. Pete’s way of being seemed the most cerebral, if not always the most accessible: from him I got the music, got excitement at his feet. By this time, when I was eighteen, roughly, he was an industry giant, a kind of rock & roll/spiritual muse, treating the music as a medium of spirit, and commenting upon his and later generations’ concerns, sometimes with an oblique if caustic turn of phrase. I still liked and sought the noise, but over time the juxtaposition of chaos and sound, coherent thought became, for me, the essence of not only The Who, but of what rock and roll or even art in general should be. Hyperbole? Maybe, but that manic ethos carried my fandom over the decades. Even as I hit fifty in 2018, I was still a lover of their music, the lyrics—the noise—even though it was all repetition compulsion by that point. It was the same stuff, over and over again, as I was still listening to the same songs, the same sounds, yet still listening for something not yet heard.
The Live at Fillmore 68’ album is a revelation, especially its climactic track, a half-hour, whirling dervish version of “My Generation” that realizes all that The Who were onstage in the late sixties, and certainly what Marsh had written about them in 1980. Had he been at that concert, I wondered. Finally! I thought: the music that captures that special elixir that he’d written about. The track begins ordinarily enough, with the familiar words about death before aging sung by Daltrey as he’s sung them thousands of times. Then, after the last spiraling chorus, the song takes off on a journey that soars and ebbs, rising to crescendos, resting in false endings, then plunging into a doom-laden cacophony. This, the listener is meant to think, is rock and roll from the end of time, performed on the eve of apocalypse. At certain moments, it seems like the song will never end; that rock and roll will truly not die. And there will be nothing wrong with that, the right-thinking listener will decide. There are no new words in this improv from the closet. Not that I need them. I no longer expect new lyrics from Pete Townshend. Glad to have this almost literal blast from the past, this secret garden, this gift from the crypt, I’ve been happy to let the mythopoeic noise wash over me. Satisfied, or perhaps satiated at last, I have felt ready to watch The Who retire.
Hold on. Who am I to decide that? Who am I to write a blog, never mind a book, about The Who, without their permission? Turns out The Who are not ready to retire. They haven’t stopped playing. They haven’t even stopped making albums, hence last year’s plainly entitled effort, The Who. Well, aren’t they full of surprises, not to mention good songs still? Didn’t like the new album at first—felt oddly resistant to it, as if I’d felt lied to again, teased into thinking they’d retired, like they had done like a half-dozen times since the 80s. My truculence was specific on some tracks: thought the first song was like an outtake from Who Are You, the group’s 1978 album (Moon’s last) that featured several rather self-conscious not-quite anthems about…I don’t know…something about how The Who write songs that others copy, or that they copy from others, reflecting a turnstile of influence and fame—your turn, my turn, passing the baton of greatness—something like that. Anyway, I’ve warmed to that song since. I’ve also thought the rest of the album wonderful: smart, tough, passionate, enjoyable. Several songs are even catchy. My favorite track is “Ball and Chain”, a political song that alludes to Guantanamo Bay, fascistic judges, the downtrodden, nameless poor. Its recurrent motif, Waiting for the big cigar, might sit nicely alongside Townshend’s most iconic one-liners, the refrains that audiences will sing out loud, whether Pete and Rog still hit the right notes or not.
And yet, I have a criticism. Nay, a complaint. I know. Who am I? And no, it’s not that there isn’t sufficient “noise” upon this relatively poppy, possibly last album by The Who. Actually, it’s about the words, plus my tendency to co-opt things I love and treat them as my own, modify them. Finally, this complaint is about history, as in the need to circle back and integrate history, plus reiterate a perennial Who theme that I will not tease in this next thought: that all music and art comes from something before. See, there’s something missing in that one song—that terrific song, “Ball and Chain”. And that something missing is a blast from the past, or at least a reference to the past, to one of The Who’s most famous songs for the ages. It’s in a motif from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Who’s perennial set-closer and still their most overtly political song. Think of that one line again, whose final refrain goes, Still waiting for the big cigar, from “Ball and Chain”. An opportunity was missed here, I think. Imagine an alteration, a drop-in edit that might go, Still praying with the same guitar, to follow that previous line. Think about it. An idea for an ad-lib during a post-Covid tour, maybe?