Music News

Deja Who?

To date, there have been one official Who Farewell Tour in 1982, a Live Aid reunion in 1985 and a 25th-anniversary reunion in 1989 that basically was a rerun of the first farewell tour.

Just as it takes the elderly longer to get out of bed in the morning, it takes the Who three times the going rate to reunite.

For the latest American trek, the Who has pulled Pete Townshend's second rock opera, Quadrophenia, out of the mothballs. Barring the 1979 film adaptation, this constitutes the only time the Who has revived this moody mod meisterwork since the troublesome 1973 tour in which it was introduced and performed in its entirety.

Quadrophenia proved to be a watershed moment in the Who's celebrated history. Prior to its release, the Who was the epitome of the mods--progressive, dynamic, innovative and bloody violent when pissed. But with Quadrophenia, the group suddenly shifted perspective. Now it was trying to explain mods, which is like reading a Nintendo manual for its inherent entertainment value instead of just playing the game. From that moment on, the Who began defining itself almost exclusively by its adolescent past.

The pre-Quad Who was revolutionary, introducing audiences to the joys of autodestruction and raising rock 'n' roll to the level of violent aggression it still enjoys today. At the same time, Peter Townshend was busily translating abstract pop art ideals into concrete pop music and, perhaps regrettably, creating the rock-opera genre for lesser talents to plunder and poop all over themselves with for decades.

After Quad, the Who began to be eaten alive by its own history. Check out the Who section of any CD store. There are only ten regularly issued Who studio albums, but nearly a dozen live sets, outtake collections and repackage jobs all blurring into one another--Who's Greatest, Who's Better, Who's Best, Who's Missing, Who's Left, Who Doesn't Have All These Songs Yet?. "Pinball Wizard" is one of the great rock singles of all time, but it doesn't get appreciably better if you own nine copies.

No other group in rock, with the exception of the Beach Boys, has spent as much time looking back. Premature stagnation has been the price of such nostalgia. If ideas man Townshend was the Who's Brian Wilson, then Roger Daltrey was its Mike Love, the man who put the brakes on every proposed new direction. At the height of the Beach Boys' avant-garde period, Mike Love pushed Wilson not to disturb the BB hits formula. Similarly, Daltrey, by stubbornly conforming to what people expected of the Who, fashioned the greatest rock band into what it should never have become--a tradition, an institution, a car crash you could set your watch to.

Earlier, the Daltrey-Townshend face-off, perversely, had resulted in the Who's most potent and lasting music. Daltrey's conservatism and numbing lack of forward vision, then, had helped make the band the toughest foursome around and endeared it to the mods. Even after Townshend hit his writing potential by penning the Who's first smash, "Can't Explain," dareless Daltrey motioned that the next single should be a James Brown cover so as not to alienate the group's mod maximum-R&B fan base.

Daltrey was the undisputed leader of the Who in those days, and anyone who thought otherwise was reminded into unconsciousness with a swift jab in the mouth. It usually fell upon Townshend to feast on just such a knuckle sandwich. "If Roger hit you, it fucking hurt," Pete has admitted on numerous occasions.

Unlike Beatle-emulating groups that boasted unified fronts, the members of the Who hated one another passionately and squealed to the music weeklies about each other's lack of talent. Live shows heightened the tension--the sense persisted that Daltrey, Townshend or the equally volatile Keith Moon might not wait until the end of the set to settle their differences. Sometimes they didn't.

Spite was the glue that had held the Who together. Daltrey infuriated the Who's resident Jan and Dean freak Keith Moon by barring surf music from the band's live set. What better way was there for Moon to get even than by playing "Wipe Out" over every R&B tune Daltrey forced on the band? How else could John Entwistle get even with Daltrey's bossy strong-arm tactics than to get the loudest, most gigantic Marshall bass cabinet he could find, leaving Daltrey little choice but to scream like a banshee just to be heard?

Townshend fashioned the sweetest revenge by becoming the group's chief songwriter. His creations forced the macho, swaggering Daltrey to adopt a gallery of unflattering personae, from a lad forced by his mum to cross-dress ("I'm a Boy") to a chronic masturbator ("Pictures of Lily") to a stutterer ("My Generation") and, of course, he deaf, dumb and blind pinball nerd, Tommy. For that album, even bassist John Entwistle contributed tunes that got Tommy/Daltrey molested by a perverted Uncle Ernie and bullied by a sadistic Cousin Kevin. Touche!

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic