16.4.14

A BARGAIN - THE BEST YOU EVER HAD, Part 8

This is the final part of the piece I wrote for Crawdaddy! about compiling 30 Years Of Maximum R&B. Because it also deals with the ongoing Who re-issue series it was necessary to amend it to a much greater extent than parts 1-7. 

Disc 4, inevitably perhaps, was the most difficult to sequence insofar as whichever way you look at it there isn’t the depth of classic Who material to choose from after 1973. So we abandoned the strict chronology of Discs 1-3, and as well as the obvious tracks threw in some unexpected live material and recordings of Keith as raconteur. We kicked off with a flyer, ‘Long Live Rock’, and after Keith’s first monologue inserted a live take of ‘Naked Eye’ from one of the closed concerts at London’s Young Vic Theatre in early 1971. ‘Naked Eye’ was always a live Who highlight, one of those songs that developed from jamming on stage, with Pete adding words later, and here Pete and Roger share the vocals on some of Pete’s most powerful lyrical imagery ever. Between oblique references to drugs and guns is a deep sense of frustration and failure, of not knowing where next to turn, yet at the same time realising that to stand still is suicidal, matters uppermost in Pete’s mind as he sought to justify his continued role in The Who and The Who’s continued role at the cutting edge of rock. Meanwhile the band strains at the leash, while a strange nagging riff holds the song together. Like ‘Pure And Easy’, ‘Naked Eye’ is an essential Who song that, although often played on stage, never appeared on record until Odds And Sods, The Who’s 1974 collection of largely unreleased material. ‘Long Live Rock’ was also released for the first time on Odds & Sods, as was ‘Pure And Easy’ and other good Lifehouse outtakes. Few bands would have been prepared to let material of this quality sit on the shelf indefinitely, as The Who might have done had John not killed time between albums compiling this unusual retrospective.
         The Who’s next album, The Who By Numbers in 1975, was largely informed by Pete’s concern over growing old in the band that once sang about hoping to die first. At this point in their career The Who on record and The Who live became two different entities. Only two of the By Numbers songs, ‘Squeeze Box’ and ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ were played with any regularity in a live set that from 1975 onwards became a celebratory and vigorously performed parade of former glories, though two others ‘Slip Kid’ and ‘However Much I Booze’ were tried on stage and soon discarded. ‘Dreaming From The Waist’, which follows the studio ‘Slip Kid’ on Disc 4, is far and away the best performance of any By Numbers song we are ever likely to encounter; a difficult song – Pete once told me he hated it because the chords were so tricky – with complex vocal harmonies, and included here as a showcase for John’s amazing bass solo in the closing minute. Also from Who By Numbers are ‘Blue Red And Grey’, virtually a Pete solo (John scored the silver band arrangement), as poignant as anything anywhere in the entire Who catalogue, and the slightly silly ‘Squeeze Box’ for which Pete dusted off his banjo. Even sillier are Keith’s monologues.
         Next up on Disc 4 are four tracks from Who Are You, including the spiralling title track which is based on a true story, though Pete still isn’t sure whether he woke up in a doorway or a skip. The difficult circumstances under which Who Are You was recorded are recounted in the extraordinarily forthright sleeve notes by Matt Resnicoff on the remastered edition of Keith’s last Who album, and I would commend them to anyone seeking an understanding of the problems faced by The Who at this stage of their career. (When Pete first read them he grew misty eyed, or so he told me.) Finally, there’s a few post-Keith entries of which the two previously unreleased live tracks, ‘Twist And Shout' and 'I'm A Man', show just how much the band had changed without a white tornado behind them. I included Pete’s dialogue about the 1969 Fillmore fire incident (again from a bootleg) as it’s part of Who folklore and closed Disc 4 with The Who’s take on Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ on which Roger sang the verses and Pete inserted lines from Elton’s ‘Border Song’, his voice contrasting with his partner as on so many of his own songs. Incidentally, Jon Astley, our co-producer on the box, played drums on this track. And that was that though to be honest I still had nagging doubts about not including the studio ‘Substitute’ and thought about sticking it on the end, just for the hell of it, but was persuaded against it by others.
         While the music was being remastered I found myself liaising with Richard Evans on the design of the packaging and the accompanying booklet. I decided that since The Who’s career followed different trajectories in the UK and US we needed two essays, and commissioned Keith Altham, who has written about them in the UK music press since ‘Explain’ was released and subsequently become their PR, to do a UK piece, and Dave Marsh, who wrote about them extensively in Creem and Rolling Stone and is the author of the biography Before I Get Old, to write about The Who in the US. Pete agreed to write a foreword for the booklet, and pretty forthright it turned out to be. I put together a chronology and asked my Who collector pal Ed Hanel to compile the discography. Richard and I had some rather fanciful ideas about the cover, at one point looking for a photograph of an exploding block of flats, but in the end settled on a stage shot by Neal Preston after our first choice, by Annie Leibowitz, proved unaffordable – she wanted $15,000! A bit of jiggery-pokery was necessary to get it right: “Neal’s shot had Pete, Roger and Keith in it but no John,” remembers Richard. “Around this time, Bill Curbishley had lunch with John and told him about the box set and how good it was looking and that the lid had a live shot on it. John said ‘Hmm, I suppose I'm on the fucking spine again.’ Bill phoned me and said ‘Quick, can you strip a shot of John into the picture?’”
         And that’s it, as close a definitive Who career retrospective as we could assemble and most reviewers agreed, though it’s impossible to please everyone all the time as the letters I received from fans demonstrated.

Which just about brings me to the end of my rant on why The Who were the greatest British rock band ever to climb on stage and plug-in, but there’s a second reason for calling this essay A Bargain and it’s this...
         After the box set came out, it occurred to Jon Astley and I that we’d remastered and, where necessary, remixed about a third of The Who’s total catalogue of around 200 songs, and it would be more than worthwhile to give the same treatment to the remaining two-thirds. In so doing we would renovate their entire back-catalogue on CD which, quite frankly, was a mess (low-fi, no track information, inadequate packaging, very short for the CD era). And so we did, with up to 10 bonus tracks on each and a different configuration for Odds & Sods which became a double CD that scooped up all the leftovers. Full colour 24-page booklets with sleeve notes by knowledgeable writers (including Pete on Who’s Next) and comprehensive track details were included on all those CDs featuring Keith Moon, and we also issued a new Best Of featuring remastered tracks. Designed like the box by Richard, all these re-issues contained contemporaneous photographs and illustrations, all intended to draw attention to the rich imagery that underscores The Who’s long career. The only album we were unable to renovate in this way was the first, My Generation (in the US The Who Sings My Generation), because Shel Talmy, ever a thorn in the band’s side, still wouldn’t let us use the original master tapes in his possession.*
         The bonus tracks offered a mixture of previously unreleased outtakes and live recordings, hard to get B-sides and what we thought were interesting bits and pieces, like the extra commercials from the Sell Out sessions and a ‘My Generation’ that degenerates into The Who’s anarchic bash at Elgar’s ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, conducted by Kit Lambert. Among other highlights were the acoustic ‘Happy Jack’ on A Quick One (featuring Pete on cello), all the extra Leeds tracks, ‘Pure And Easy’ and the alternate ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ from Who’s Next, the live ‘Blue Eyes’ on Who By Numbers and all the extras on Who Are You. These tracks, of course, come from a similar well as those that The Beatles offered on their Anthology series. The big difference, though, is that The Who gave away the contents of their tape-files while The Beatles charged full price. A bargain…

The Who have never been easy to pin down. Interviewing Roger Daltrey for the sleeves notes for a ‘Best Of’ solo album not long after the box was released, he told me: “Listen... can you ever fathom The Who out? No-one can predict what’s going to happen with The Who. I can’t and I’m the bloody singer!” The Who were still out there, of course, at that time touring their Quadrophenia stage show with a crew of extra musicians. Perceived wisdom had always suggested that Roger and John would be happy to tour indefinitely but Pete’s restless psyche made him unwilling to crank out golden oldies for a living. On top of that there was his precarious health after a lifetime of self-destructive appetites, his hearing problems and the fact that as the writer of all the band’s hits he’s rich enough to spend the rest of his life sailing the seas off Cornwall, his preferred method of relaxation. Nevertheless, the word from Who Central seemed to be that Pete thoroughly enjoyed touring Quadrophenia and if he and the others could come up with another idea for a stage show that went beyond cranking out the hits, then maybe he’d be up for it.
         When I saw the Quadrophenia show at Earls Court in December 1996 Pete played acoustic guitar – brilliantly too – for most of the show. Not until the very end did he strap on a Fender Stratocaster and slash down hard and loud across ringing open strings, raising his right arm in the air and looking rather pleased with himself. At that precise moment everyone in that crowd, all 18,000 of us, stood up and cheered, not because he’d played anything particularly outstanding, just because it was so fucking great to see and hear Pete Townshend, the thinking man’s guitar hero, raise that right arm of his in the air, bring it down hard and make a thundering great din on an electric guitar once again. The best you ever had...

(Some parts of this essay, the odd sentence here and there and the occasional idea, may have previously appeared in letters from me to Who fans over the years or appeared in my little book The Complete Guide To The Music Of The Who [Omnibus, 1994]. Thanks again to John Atkins, Ed Hanel and Richard Evans.)




* As far as the ownership of the tapes is concerned, Talmy and The Who have settled their differences since I wrote this essay and in 2002 My Generation was re-issued as a DeLuxe Edition 2-CD package. Since then Live At Leeds, Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia have also been repackaged as DeLuxe Editions while Tommy, Leeds and Quadrophenia have also appeared as Super DeLuxe Editions with multiple discs and ephemera.

11 comments:

  1. Chris - thank you for this; its been great to re-live the box which, I have to say, I haven't played in its entirety for possibly 5 years given that the subsequent re-masters have knocked out all but a handful of the studio items included. What - I guess - is now occupying our minds as collectors and fans is the simple question of what is left in the vaults? The Odds And Sods re-master was great to have but the mastering and attention to detail in the notes left a great deal to be desired; surely, now, there's opportunity to set this straight and offer up a collector's feast in terms of an Odds And Sods Deluxe which empties the treasure trove of anything that has yet to escape. Were there items that didn't get released on the re-ssue program that had been prepared but deemed surplus to requirements? Benn Kempster

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  2. Benn - I'm not sure I'm the right person to answer this question as my relationship with The Who isn't what it was, largely through neglect on my part. The simple answer is - I don't know. Material that has been released since the box and first wave of upgraded CDs was not available to us at the time for reasons unexplained, possibly because someone somewhere realised that a 'drip drip' strategy would spin things out for longer and create more product in the long term. Also, at the time there wasn't a precedent for the kind of Super Deluxe packages that there is now, nor the appetite for these packages that has been created by dwindling CD sales (due to downloading) and the consequent need to devise more attractive items to sell. BTW, I deeply regret the errors that crept into the upgraded Odds & Sods sleeve notes and realise now I should have liaised more closely with other 'experts' to get them right. In my defense, all I can say is that it happened at the very end of a very long reissue exercise... like the Norwegian Blue I must have been tired and shagged out after a long squawk. CC

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  3. Hi Chris. Thank you for this insight into the making of the box set. I must say that disc 4 has always been my favorite, as it is just pure Who mayhem from beginning to end, more of a collage than a chronology (come to think of it, it resembles TKAA in that respect).

    Also, I'd like to thank you for the remasters project. The booklets and bonus tracks were and still are a gateway to extended Who heaven to me.

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  4. Indeed -- on the whole, the upgrade of the Who catalog in the '90s was positively stellar. The 1995 Leeds is still my go-to choice, even after it was reissued twice. \

    As a plug, here's my take on the handful of missing tracks yet to be mopped:

    http://everybodysdummy.blogspot.com/2010/10/who-22-whats-left.html

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  5. Thanks for that Wardo. Great blog, plenty of interesting stuff.

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  6. Thanks for a fascinating read, and thanks for all your work in assembling this retrospective. It convinced me to buy it to augment my Who collection. It's actually made me look forward to my work commutes because that's where I've been listening to it. :)

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  7. Chris,

    Thanks very much for this fantastic insight into "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B." I am one of those "younger" Who fans that you mentioned earlier - born in the late 70's, I never saw the Who live until 2000. (I do have to pat myself on the back for buying a copy of "Lifehouse Chronicles" before the show that night!)

    I first heard The Who on classic rock radio, which led to "My Generation - The Very Best of The Who", which led shortly thereafter to the box set. I've thoroughly enjoyed it for years, and I've been listening through again as I've been reading these articles. Now I'm finishing up rounding out my Who collection with "It's Hard" and "A Quick One." All their music has brought me great joy, and part of that is due to the dedicated and talented folks such as yourself who take the time to do things right. Thanks very much for all your hard work on the box set, the reissues, and this blog. I can't wait to dive in and read all your other articles. Thanks again!

    (P.S.: Sorry to nitpick, but the first line of "Baba O'Reily" is "out here in the fields" not "streets". I wouldn't mention it except I imagine, based on your writing, that you're a stickler for getting things right!)

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  8. You're right. A bit careless of me!

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  9. Do you think that relationship is beyond a fresh approach given what has gone and what could be? My vision on my site www.thewhointhestudio.com would be for the band to do a once and for all re-issue of every studio variation of every track recorded with a final scouring of the vaults for as yet unreleased material - complete My Wife, complete Join Together, non-BBC Shakin' All Over, band Blue Red & Grey etc - in celebration of the 50th Anniversary. Ensuring that mastering is tasteful (not overly loud, EQ'd and uniform) across the whole set. Benn Kempster

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  10. Been a silent reader of the posts, but can't thank you enough. Interesting, exhilarating, insightful and lucid. Great, great reads.

    Ken K.

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