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Musical Musings - 'An Evening With The Who'
“People try to put us d-down,
Just because we get around,
Things they do look awful c-c-cold,
I hope I die before I get old.”
~ ‘My Generation’
On a Saturday night, February 16th of 2013, my father, a friend of ours, and I saw The Who perform in Kentucky. As stated before, I don’t often have the time to go out and see concerts of any band out there due to time, inconvenience, and money issues, so if I make the decision to go out and see an artist or group perform live, be certain that it’s a relatively big event for me. Hell, even in this situation, I was somewhat ambivalent to see a group performing in Kentucky at the KFC YUM! Center (Personally, I think a state should probably be ashamed to a certain degree to have a major city landmark be named such a thing). In the end, however, I definitely had to see this show for the simple reason that the tour was of my current favorite album and favorite rock opera, Quadrophenia.
For starters, I’d like to say that I will eventually talk about The Who and Pete Townshend’s impressive work with concept albums and rock operas, though since the group has made some of the biggest concept albums in music history, I’d like to save a review for them later on for a big occasion. Since the concept albums are a huge part of The Who’s career though, I will definitely talk about my relationship with these works and, by extension, The Who themselves.
As I said in my Leonard Cohen review, a lot of my favorite music is filtered through my parents, naturally enough, especially my father. Every now and then, if I ever want to look for something I don’t have or give something new a try, one of the first things I’ll go to is my father’s collection of albums. Being a man who was born in England and grew up in the Sixties and Seventies of England, one can find at least one album from a famous English band or artist in there somewhere, from The Beatles to Sex Pistols to Pink Floyd to tons of punk and post-punk music. Strangely enough, though, one of the bands that is missing from this collection is The Who, whom I consider to be sort of forefathers to punk rock music. At first glance, this is certainly an odd statement to make and many naysayers will call me out with The Rolling Stones or some other earlier example, but I intend to explain this thought later on, so hear me out.
So when I can’t find a certain bit of music in my father’s collection, I’m left with finding that music on my own in some way or another, going on a sometimes arduous and unexpected journey to reach a hidden gem…
“Right behind you, I see the millions
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story.”
~ Listening To You
My first experience with The Who came out of Pink Floyd, oddly enough. Pink Floyd and The Who have always had this weird parallel relationship with me and music, and I certainly intend to talk about both with as much importance later on in this blog. Pink Floyd was another band I really got into on my own. My father has Piper At The Gates of Dawn, their debut album, but I never really bothered listening to it until I came across the infamous album The Wall. At the time, I was very much into weird, strange, and all-around bizarre films and, while perusing the internet, I came across the film of The Wall being mentioned numerous times and decided to give it a look. I was instantly hooked with the fascinating visuals, the emotionally powerful music, and the cold, bitter, cynical story of a man who secluded himself behind a metaphorical wall to cut himself off from the horrors of the world. The Wall was really the first album to get me into rock operas and concept albums, to the point where I now write a semi-weekly blog on them. Being a huge fan of storytelling, the idea just fascinated me: that a band or artist could tell a story or create a character or just simply talk about a certain subject matter on a whole album through a series of songs.
So with The Wall, I began searching for any other big rock operas to add to my collection. And whenever somebody mentions a rock opera, the most famous one that every single person will mention, the one that popularized Rock Opera, the one that started the trend, is Tommy by The Who. I think at the time, I had become enough of a fan of Pink Floyd to collect their other big named concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here and Animals. So I suppose I was already biased enough to liking Pink Floyd that I was initially wary about listening to ‘The Big One’, curious as to what I’d think of such a commonly praised and highly-regarded album (at least, I think this is the case. The fact that it was the ‘trend-setter’, so to speak, certainly accounts for something). But I finally went forth and bought Tommy and listened to it all through the night.
And my initial impression of Tommy was that…I didn’t quite get it. I certainly knew what the story was, I knew what was happening on the surface, I knew who the characters were and what they were singing about. But underneath the surface, I didn’t quite see it. Like the titular character, I was deaf, dumb, and blind to what exactly The Who were trying to say with Tommy. And while I can say I’ve got it figured out much better now than before, I can’t say that I’m totally there. The music mesmerized me, though. The horns were fantastically English, like the imperial stomp of a marching army. The drums booming and loud. The vocals sweet and soothing to listen to, like smooth and shiny silver. The lyric-writing, while a little iffy at times, certainly displayed a mastery of imagery and catchiness. For the longest time I couldn’t tell if I was looking too deep for an answer that was right in front of me or if I wasn’t even close to looking in deep enough. As time has passed, I think it’s a case of the former moreso than the latter…
While I didn’t listen to Tommy with as much idolization as I did to The Wall, as much as I’m ashamed to say so, there were certainly tracks that I liked and, to a degree, I even loved. ‘Go To The Mirror!’, ‘See Me, Feel Me’, and ‘Cousin Kevin’, to name a few – strangely enough, though, I never could get into ‘Pinball Wizard’ that much and, stranger still, I found myself really liking the despicable and ugly ‘Fiddle About’. Tommy obviously sparked an interest in me, though, so I took to learning more about The Who through Wikipedia and other such information sites. The group that I saw before me certainly didn’t grab my attention at first, but the constant mention of one of the members, Pete Townshend, definitely caught my interest, especially while I read more about Tommy’s intended meaning. As I got more and more into The Who, I remember getting a copy of their Documentary/Live Performance Collection, The Kids Are Alright. In that documentary, the personalities of The Who really sparked and shined and I had the opportunity to witness their musical prowess. I think the first time I saw John Entwistle play his bass solo from ‘My Generation’, my jaw dropped. Keith Moon’s legendary drumming was entertaining, but his other legendary factor was what truly captivated me: his boundless energy.
“Out here in the fields,
I fight for my meals.
I get my back into my living.
I don’t need to fight
To prove I’m right.
I don’t need to be forgiven.”
~ ‘Baba O’Riley’
From that DVD on, I made it a goal to try to get into The Who and see if I could be able to call myself a fan or not. Plus, listening to more of their work could definitely give me some insight into Tommy. Though I think I simultaneously made a wise choice and a poor choice. Rather than looking backwards and buying one of The Who’s older albums from Tommy, I decided to buy their second concept album, Who’s Next. As far as insight into Tommy went, this was a poor choice, as Who’s Next was the beginning of a wholly new sound and direction for the group at the time. That said, it was a rather smart move on my part, I feel, as I listened to what would definitely be one of my new favorite albums for a while. Right from the familiar opening notes of ‘Baba O’Riley’, those fast, techno-synth beats that bring to mind all kinds of imagery of computers, cell-phones, and modern technology, I gained a newfound appreciation for The Who. Part of what I’ve always admired about this group is the time period in which they released their songs. ‘Baba O’Riley’ was released with Who’s Next in 1971. When one thinks about the music of that time period of music, it’s beyond impressive to think that music of this kind was released so early in the Seventies.
But listening to Pete Townshend’s lyrics was also a big part of what really got me into The Who. While I can’t name off every single lyric by heart, I can say that I know the lyrics that most Who fans know well-enough. ‘Baba O’Riley’ is the most popular of course, but others from the smooth and hopeful ‘Getting In Tune’ to the epic, nine-minute long, futuristic, biting ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. Though my favorite was and still remains to this day ‘Behind Blue Eyes’. Pete Townshend was a guy who spoke alongside rebellious youths and sometimes spoke against them, if only to help them learn something from it. Because he himself was a rebellious youth who knew what it felt like to be a social outcast. Not to be considered hideous or evil, but to be considered a joke, a burden, a fool, a useless human being. He knew what kind of sorrow and what kind of rage that brings out in young people who understand the world they lived in as they grow older, who want to be considered different and be admired, who want to stand out from the crowd and still be accepted, who are smart enough to know that something is wrong in the world yet feel weak enough that they see themselves as little more than a cog in a massive, sprawling, shapeless machine. That, to me, is the mindset and the ideals behind punk rock. It’s what started punk rock in the Seventies, where every band was looking back and saying “We tried peace and love in the Sixties. And y’know what? It didn’t bloody work!”
“No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings
Like I do, and I blame you.
No one bites back as hard on their anger,
None of my pain and woe can show through.
But my dreams are not as empty
As my conscience seems to be.
I have hours, only lonely.
My love is vengeance that’s never free.”
~ ‘Behind Blue Eyes’
Still, as I got further and further into the work of The Who and with Who’s Next I could more easily figure out a message that Pete was trying to get across, the stories he tied together with these messages didn’t make an awful lot of sense to me. I’ll definitely talk about the confusing mess that was to be Lifehouse and what Pete Townshend intended to do with that later on to elaborate on my thoughts on his storytelling methods. So as I looked around, I came across the third Magnum Opus in The Who’s work, Quadrophenia. The album, while still one of their most popular works, I hadn’t heard much word about. I found lists of Rock Operas and concept albums that mentioned it in high-regard, but it was quickly pushed aside for Tommy. The album cover certainly fascinated me: a black-and-white image of a young man in a long, flowing coat on a scooter with The Who’s logo printed on the back of the coat. After finally reading the story of Quadrophenia, I finally bought it (almost exactly a year from now, I think) and listened to a little bit of it at a time. As I chatted with my friends who were certified Wholigans, I never heard them mention any other song off of Quadrophenia aside from the climactic ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’. As months passed by and I listened to Quadrophenia more and more, I pushed aside The Wall and found my new favorite album.
As this is probably the biggest one to talk about, I will save my thoughts up for a full review of Quadrophenia down the line. But as a ‘sneak-preview’ of sorts, I’ll summarize why I love this album so much. The entire story not only fascinated me, I could make sense of it. For just about every new interpretation that Pete Townshend adds to this story – sadly, he’s known to flip-flop on the exact meanings of his songs – I’ve understood every one of them and they’ve all just kept me fascinated with Quadrophenia for a longer period of time. Quadrophenia speaks to a very wide yet very specific audience: young men and teenage boys who feel socially outcast, ambitious boys entering adulthood for the first-time in their lives and trying to make sense of everything around them, trying to decide on what’s important in life and what to do with the rest of their lives, young men whose moods fluctuated like split-personalities, each feeling so passionate that you just can’t tell what you want anymore, and to a great deal, young men who wanted to have companionship, to have the sensation of happiness and higher-knowledge, to have every great thing in the world bestowed upon them.
“Only love can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky.
Only love can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high.”
~ ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’
After Quadrophenia, I definitely consider myself a major fan of The Who. I’ve not had the time nor the money to get all of the albums I’d like to get from them and, so far, I’ve acquired one of their earlier albums, Who Are You, and only a couple of live albums. Listening to their earlier pop-song days of ‘My Generation’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’ certainly helped give me a little more perspective on their songwriting as a whole. Each member of The Who, I think, had practically all the talent in the world with their respective roles. While Pete worked wonders on his guitar, with his famous wind-milling and instrument destruction, I think it’s his lyric-writing and composing that absolutely takes the cake. I have since bought his autobiography, Who I Am, and recommend that music-lovers and Who fans alike go out and buy it. Roger Daltrey, while I don’t find him a particularly fascinating character to study, had pretty impressive vocal gifts, inspired heavily by R&B, Blues, and Soul, his voice getting harsher as The Who progressed. I think the musical talent of Keith and John go without saying, but as a bass player myself, I cannot emphasize enough my admiration and respect for John Entwistle. May he rest in peace.
As for the concert itself, the viewing experience, while not horrible, was disturbed by a few things, little as they may be. Mishaps on the road, uncomfortably high seating, plenty of alcohol all around, and most of all, the fact that I was and am still recovering from a dreggy little cold I’ve had this entire past week. Also, I generally don’t mind the fact that people will do some sort of drugs during a concert, especially if it’s a band where it’s almost expected, though it did bother me this time when there were some announcements that Roger Daltrey, a man pushing seventy, was allergic to the stuff and it could affect his voice during the show. And, as a little nitpicky, nerdy little rant, this doesn’t send me on edge, but it does prick and poke at my nerves when people refer to ‘Baba O’Riley’ as ‘Teenage Wasteland’. A little thing, but for a guy like me who has OCD when it comes to this thing, it can get real annoying real fast.
That said, the show had plenty of positive aspects to it and, really, everything I mentioned before were only minor setbacks to an otherwise spectacular show. The ‘story’ aspect of Quadrophenia was sort of tossed aside for this showing and replaced with show that was more focused on the mood and atmosphere of the album, with many thanks to Roger Daltrey for that. The show was set up with screens and visual effects for each song that were amazing, attempting something like the live performance of The Wall. A great deal of footage of the Brighton beach area and of The Who in their early days is used to great effect. Even footage of John Entwistle’s legendary bass-playing is used outstandingly in the song ‘5:15’. The original tour, planned by Pete Townshend, was focused more tightly on the ‘story’ of Quadrophenia, wherein the segues would be comprised of an actor playing the main character of the album, Jimmy, giving a quick monologue pertaining to the story. Interesting as that sounds, I think the route they took with this tour was a far superior choice.
Townshend still remains a legend on guitar, of course, and has charismatic stage presence. His vocals have harshened a bit, as is expected, but personally, the gruffer and rougher the voice is, the better for me. For as much as I’ve heard people harp on Roger’s vocals as they are now, as he can’t quite reach those notes he used to, he still did a great job on his own with only one or two mishaps in the entire show that stick out to me. The replacements for the sadly deceased Keith Moon and John Entwistle are now, respectively, Zak Starkey (Ringo’s kid) and Pino Palladino. I can’t speak for how good they are on The Who’s more recent work since Entwistle died in 2002, but at the show, they were did just as good a job as Pete and Roger. It’s a bit sad to think that these two and, for that matter, anybody who has to fill in the shoes of Keith and John will just be known in the group as ‘those two guys that aren’t Keith and John’.
The songs they played at the end, given the same visual treatment as with Quadrophenia, included ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘Who Are You’, ‘Baba O’Riley’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’. It does sadden me sometimes to realize that a lot of artists that I love so much these days are mostly older groups who are well into their sixties and seventies by now. Anytime I go to see a concert by any such group, I savor every minute of it as it could be the last time and, really, the only time I’ll ever see them perform. So it does fill a special spot in my heart to hear these guys play such high-energy, hard-rock songs at such speed and with such strength, playing classics that the general public still knows and loves. For as much as people call it ‘Teenage Wasteland’ as opposed to ‘Baba O’Riley’, it gives me a bit of joy to think that there are people who, to this day, still talk about such an amazing song written decades ago.
Love, Reign O’er Me