HELLO! In this installment of “Hand Picked” we’re going to do a little bit of the ol’ “Cross-Promotion.” Over on her “Off The Charts” column this issue, Anne E. will be discussing some of the deeper cuts from The Who’s canon, so, I thought that I would do MY business to one of my faves from them, “Who Are You?” A classic Townshend song and story.
The Who By Numbers had been released in 1975. It moved some units, but didn’t REALLY feature a stand-out “Smash Hit” amongst the tracks. Once released, the band, as always, hit the road and toured the world promoting it, something that they had done numerous times, and would continue to do until present day. Upon their return, however, it was back into the studio and time to record ANOTHER album. If you haven’t already, I urge you to pick-up and read Townshend’s autobiography Who I Am. It’s a brilliant tome that illustrates perfectly the amount of pressure that he experienced as the Principal Songwriter in the band. The Who By Numbers had been written during a particular rough bout of Writer’s Block. And, now, here he was again. Back into the breach, lads!
The sessions for Who Are You? were fraught with problems. Two different studios were used. Firstly Ramport, and then RAK, and then back to Ramport. The producer, Glyn Johns, had to abandon the recording before it was finished in-order to go and start a Joan Armatrading album, leaving Jon Astley to try and get it across the finish line. Keith Moon was virtually incapable of playing due to his diminished health from the drugs and alcohol that had become a routine part of his life. He would pass away a mere 3 weeks after the album’s release—an event that leant a weird poetry to the cover photo that featured him sitting on a chair with “Not To Be Taken Away” stenciled on the back of it. Roger Daltrey, already concerned about his recovery from throat surgery, knocked Glyn Johns unconscious during an argument over a rough mix of one of the tracks. John Entwistle confessed to being un-inspired by most of the material and disappointed in the condition, and performance, of his close friend Moon, who was also disgusted at his own state. And, hanging over the entire proceedings, was the band’s concern and insecurity, over the emergence of Punk Rock, and the feeling that they were now a dinosaur act that was rapidly becoming irrelevant.
But, a record was needed. Got to feed The Machine.
After a particularly arduous, 13 hour, royalty meeting with Allan Klein, hence the “11 hours in a Tin Pan, God there’s got to be a better way!” lyric, Townshend headed to the nearest “local” to seek some respite and something to drown his sorrows. It was whilst at said “local” that he ran into Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols and was pleasantly surprised to find that they credited him, and The Who, for being the percursor, and honorary Fathers, of the Punk Movement. They trio proceeded to REALLY celebrate the meeting and Townshend got so hammered that he, literally, passed out in a Soho doorway only to be roused from his stupor by a policeman asking the question that would go on to be the title of the song in question. They DO say, “Write what you know”, after all.
Drums – Keith “Moonie” Moon
Bass – John “The Ox” Entwistle
Keys – Rod Argent (of The Zombies and Argent)
Guitars – Pete Townshend
Vocals – Roger Daltrey
As I mentioned earlier, Moon was in a terrible condition for the making of this album. “Who Are You?” was the only track that didn’t require him completely re-tracking the drums in the last two weeks of the recording. It’s quintessential Moon: his entrance is marked by the some of the grooviest 16th beat hats ever recorded and then SMASH! he’s in and the pocket explodes. Firework tom-fills, cymbals crying out for mercy, and the sloppy precision of his playing as the song vacillates from extreme to extreme under the direction of the skeletal guitar layer from Townshend. It’s EPIC. It’s Moon. There’s never been another. The kick-drum pulse of this track holds the entire thing together. He’s as good as there ever was and his death is one of the real tragedies of Rock.
Pete always said that we only heard the stories, but that they were all his FRIENDS that died in this period. Something to think about. So much loss.
One of the greatest “Engine Rooms” of all time is that of Mooney & Entwistle. This track is a beautiful example of the two of them driving the track onwards and DAMN THE TORPEDOES! Entwistle drops into the song with a descending, off-kilter, series of notes that are COMPLETELY unrelated to anything else that is occurring in the song at that time, one of his signature tricks. As Moon grooves the hats, Entwistle provides a pulse that wraps around the keyboard arpeggio and lays down the pocket that all of the other instruments will be built on. Quite a foundation. His choice to let the piano and guitars handle “The One” in the verse and him coming in on “The Push” of the “And” inside the bar-structure is another ridiculous choice that highlights him NAILING the down-beat into the chorus and allowing it to EXPLODE on arrival! Listen to the attached audio to hear what I am talking about. It’s SO simple, but it’s also everything. Simple. Complex. Simple. The bloke was a Master. RIP Ox. The subtleties of his choices alongside the barrage of the guitars and drums is what set him aside from all others. A Badass. He took what Macca had pioneered and increased its weight considerably. Go on YouTube and watch footage of him playing live. “Stoic” is the perfect word, except from the wrists down. It’s like two little octopuses are hanging out of his cuffs.
[Christian breaks down “Who Are You?” here, track-by-track—enjoy!—Ed.]
Pete Townshend pulled off quite a trick when he convinced the World that The Who were a HUGE guitar band but based so many of their hits on a keyboard pattern or arpeggio. “Who Are You?” is a great example. The synth goes for almost the entire song and its “pulse” is the sound that all of the others bounce-off of. Townshend was a genius when it came to this. The original keyboard player, John Bundrick, broke his arm falling out of a cab on the way to the studio, so Zombies’ keyboardist Rod Argent was drafted in to pick up the slack and he provides a beautiful piano line to this track. The “Middle 8” is a complete left-turn that belies the robust, Rock’n’Roll, heft of the rest of the arrangement. Brilliant.
There’s not much that needs to be said about Townsehnd’s guitar playing. He’s an Icon. A Legend. The story of the instrument in culture is not the same without him. This track is a PERFECT example of why. There’s never been ANYONE who has been able to say more with less. His choices on this song are flawless. He flips from sinewy arpeggio to jagged power-chords and back again with the grace of coked-up ballerina. The acoustic shuffle in the bridge brings the entire song into this post-Americana, finger-picked, country location, that contradicts its SoHo doorway origins. This is followed-up by one his simplest leads ever that mimics the notes Argent is playing on the piano off in the middle-distance. There’s SO much drama…but also Grace. It’s a Master Class in precision, feel, and perfect choices. It also shouldn’t be lost on the listener that as the song begins to climax there’s a strange, sort-of, police siren aspect to the part Townshend rides out on. He has always had the ability, that I think is unique to him in Rock Music, to tell a STORY with his instrument. Many have come close, Hendrix is another example, and one of the reasons, I would guess, for their “Mutual Appreciation Society”, but it isn’t the SAME as Townshend’s version. His “voices” are different. Clearer. More focused. I LOVE his playing on this song. It’s ALL of him in one track. The Blues. Rock. Avant-garde. Jazzy flourishes. And the sound of a Punk hammering at the walls with his Weapon Of Choice! What kind of song IS IT!?
Daltrey confesses now that he took the plaintive, poetic, lyrics that Townshend had written and injected them with the sneer, and hint of violence, that we hear, because of his fear of the band being swept away by the youth-driven wave that was Punk in mid-Seventies London. Who were The Who NOW?! What did they mean at this point? Anything? Were they the victims, or the victor? And how?! It’s telling that Daltrey was the one who ad-lib’d the “Who the F*CK are you?!?” lyric. Townshend hadn’t written it that way. There’s even a sense that Roger is asking the Punks “Who the f*ck are YOU?!” Pete has always been the “sensitive” one of the two of them, Roger the scrappy, “Street Fighting Man”, and he is more than up for the task of screaming at the walls that have now begun to surround the band as it moves into its second decade together. It’s also telling that they chose to take The Clash on the road with them when they hit the States to tour. A friend of mine got to see the show at the Hollywood Bowl with the Clash opening. He said that it was one of the greatest live shows he’s ever seen and that BOTH bands held their own. Daltrey and the lads stood in the wings and watched every performance. What an AMAZING image THAT is. The mantle not “passed”, but, rather, shared. Roger had a particular fondness for Strummer all the way until his death in the 2000’s.
The Who’s career is unparalleled in music. There isn’t another band who has survived the tragedies, convolutions, and soap operas, of 50+ years in the business and remained as iconic as The Who have with only two remaining members. Their years without Moon are multiples of their years with him. They were never an “easy” band, either to be in, or to be a fan of. Pete is a complicated soul. A searcher. A thinker. And he’s struggled because of it. Roger is, by his own admission, a “simpler man”, and it’s also unique to The Who that the principal songwriter has spent most of his time in the band being heard through the voice of another. Complicated indeed, As complicated as the music. But, also, deceptively simple.
Check out Who Are You? Nobody makes records like this anymore. And only The Who made records like it at all. That’s why they are The Who! Still.
Have a great couple of weeks. See you at the next one.