And so we come to the era and the album that many regard as the apotheosis of The Who, and also the time when I got to know them. Confidence was certainly running high at Who Central at the beginning of the Seventies. Pete was writing songs of a quality and consistency he would never top. The band was playing on stage with breath-taking panache and, despite the penance they still paid (and would always pay) to Shel Talmy, there was no longer the financial pressure to tour with the regularity of times past. With the balance sheet finally in the black, all of them now had big houses and posh cars and young families. Roger was a classical rock God, replete with bare chest and golden curls, Pete a deeply enlightened rock sage, perhaps the most sought-after interviewee the genre had thrown up after Dylan and Lennon, and John was the archetype bassist, superbly proficient, much respected in the trade. Their drummer was, well, Moon the Loon, the prototype carefree rock star whose hobby was driving cars into swimming pools. They were individuals and they were a band, for a while the most popular and respected group in Britain.
To follow Tommy Pete created something called Lifehouse. Intended as a multi-media project, in the end it boiled down to Who’s Next, the album that most Who fans – including me – regard as their finest sustained work. The next six songs on Disc 3 of the box set – ’Baba O’Riley’, ‘Bargain’, ‘Pure And Easy’, ‘The Song Is Over’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – were all written for Lifehouse and all of them bar ‘Pure And Easy’ appeared on Who’s Next. Quite why a song of the stature of ‘Pure And Easy’ was left off Who’s Next has always escaped me, but this complaint aside, Who’s Next has always been the album I would choose for my desert island disc, and for this reason we included a hitherto officially unreleased version of ‘Pure And Easy’ among the bonus tracks on the re-issued edition.
On stage The Who had blazed a trail with their state-of-the-art amplification but as home stereos became more sophisticated in the early seventies their records somehow lacked the clarity of their rivals. To remedy this, for the Who’s Next sessions they bypassed Kit Lambert in favour of the technically more accomplished Glyn Johns, who produced nine tracks of such sparkling clarity that The Who sounded like a new band. Who’s Next also introduced another important innovation into The Who’s music: the synthesiser, most notably on ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, the songs that open and close the original album. Pete didn’t use his synthesiser simply as a keyboard that could make funny noises, but as a rotating musical loop that underpinned the melody and added a sharp bite to the rhythm track. His synthesiser style on Who’s Next, in fact, was probably the first appearance on a rock record of the repetitive electronic sequencing that became so predominant on nineties pop and dance music.
As if these innovations weren’t enough, John turned in his best ever Who song ‘My Wife’, a commanding live version of which appears on Disc 4, and Roger, energised by the experience of singing Tommy night after night, had never sung so well. ‘Baba O’Riley’ might even have been a better opening track for Disc 3 than ‘Shakin’ All Over’, so effective is its lengthy spiralling synthesiser intro. (They knew how to make an entrance.) And then we’re into the most satisfying Who block chords yet as piano, bass, drums and finally guitar set up Roger’s wonderful opening line... ‘Out here in the streets’. To my mind, the choice part of ‘Baba O’Riley’ (and ‘Bargain’ which follows) is how Roger’s fearless, angry roar contrasts with Pete’s more melodic, less abrasive vocal lines. The Who were unusually well endowed in the vocal department with two such contrasting vocalists, as well as John whose range extended from the ‘cello, cello, cello’ falsetto climax of ‘A Quick One’ to the deep bass of ‘Boris The Spider’ and the vote-hungry Congressman in ‘Summertime Blues’.
And so we move into the live version of ‘Bargain’, recorded in San Francisco in December 1971, which just about gets my vote as the best reflection of The Who at their finest on this whole box set; hence my reason for the title of this long appreciation of The Who. It’s a great song, though not their very best, but this is a truly stupendous performance, fluent, confident, full of highs, a perfect example of a band at the peak of their ability, reckless yet somehow still in control, flowing with their music, relishing their skills. During the opening chords Pete gleefully shouts something off mike that I can’t quite make out, but it sounds like a call to arms and this just enhances the anticipation. Roger leaps in over Pete’s rumbling guitar and, again, there’s the emotional contrast between Roger and Pete’s vocals. I especially love the way Pete’s keening vocal refrain is counterbalanced by John’s lovely bass melody and how Pete yells ‘pick me up’ at the top of his voice after his final line. Keith and John take up the challenge in a thrilling bass and drum rumble that launches Pete into a magnificent solo. In some ways it’s possible to mistake ‘Bargain’ for a love song, but when you get your head around the idea that it really is a hymn (presumably to Meher Baba, Pete’s spiritual guru), then it becomes all the more impressive. Then there’s that extended coda, one of The Who’s on-stage trademarks, in which you think the song is over until Pete launches into a series of fragile chords before finding his way into another riff, taking the others if not by surprise then at least by the lead as he pounds on, carried along by the momentum, confident that the band are on such good form at this moment that it would be a crime to stop just because the song is at an end. Wonderful. Just for the record, I should note that this ‘Bargain’ was made available before, cruelly buried on MCA’s Who’s Missing album in 1985.
‘Pure And Easy’, which follows, is another of my favourite Who songs. Written for Lifehouse and played live only a handful of times in the summer of 1971, it is Pete’s reflection on the age-old myth of the Lost Chord, the loss of which symbolises mankind’s decaying relationship with the universe. A song of regret, almost a tearful lament, albeit fashioned over Who-style torrents, this was probably left off Who’s Next because the band weren’t 100% satisfied with this version which originally appeared in 1974 on Odds And Sods. Neither, for that matter, were they satisfied with the shorter, slightly faster version, which they recorded with Kit Lambert in New York before Glyn Johns took over and which appears on the reissued Who’s Next, and which I now prefer. Unfortunately I was never present at a show when ‘Pure And Easy’ was performed live, but I am reliably informed that on August 2, 1971 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center at Saratoga Springs in New York, 30,000 fans witnessed the definitive performance of the song. My friend John Swenson subsequently reported: “That night ‘Pure And Easy’ emerged as one of the keys to the magic Townshend had been reaching for, uniting audience and performers in the search for that one perfect note.” Oh for a board-tape from that night!
Such was Pete’s fondness for ‘Pure And Easy’ that it appeared in demo form on his first solo album and its chorus became the coda to ‘Song Is Over’, which is why we chose to sequence the two songs together on Disc 3. There has been much speculation about Pete’s intentions as far as the sequencing of Lifehouse material is concerned and no-one knows for sure how it would have panned out, but logic dictates that ‘Song Is Over’ must follow ‘Pure And Easy’ back-to-back as it does here. ‘Song Is Over’, the complex, luscious, highly-produced ballad at the heart of Who’s Next, was never played live, doubtless because of the crucial piano and synthesiser lines that weave their way in and out of the verses. Like ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘Bargain’, the contrast between Roger and Pete’s voices brings out the beauty of the words, while the almost subliminal top-of-the-scale synthesiser line that traces the melody with an undulating counterpoint is just captivating, especially on cans.
The final two Who’s Next songs on Disc 3, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ are probably the best known Who songs of the era, enduring FM staples that even the most casual Who fan knows by heart. ‘Blue Eyes’ is also Pete Townshend’s best known ballad, in which the gorgeously melodic verses, ringing arpeggios and velvet harmonies lead into the ferocious, angry central passage. ‘Blue Eyes’, like so much of Who’s Next, was a triumph for Roger whose singing developed more textures with each new Who album. Many consider ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ to be his best moment ever, such is the power of his scream after the long synthesiser solo. Once written, ‘Fooled Again’ became The Who’s standard show closer, a monster of a song, both in length and intent. Based around a clattering synthesiser riff that locks the group into a tight, rhythmic performance, it features Pete’s block chords firmly in place, John swooping up and down his bass, Roger singing his heart out and Keith an almighty presence, albeit slightly more disciplined than usual in view of the song’s inflexible structure. Roger’s vocal scream before the final verse is one of the most volatile vocal eruptions ever recorded. I have yet to encounter a definitive live version of ‘Fooled Again’.
Four of the next five songs on Disc 3 were probably also intended for Lifehouse, ‘Join Together’ expressing a central Lifehouse theme, unity between band and audience. ‘The Seeker’ is the closest The Who ever got to heavy metal, not that the lyrics offer any of the escapism generally associated with this tired genre. ‘Let’s See Action’ and ‘Relay’ were also non-album singles from this era, while I stuck ‘Bonie Maronie’ on the album, despite Pete’s wishes to the contrary, simply because of Roger’s vocal performance which, as ever on material of this vintage, is just outstanding. John’s bass holds a rather shaky Who together here.
Disc 3 closes with four tracks from Quadrophenia, ‘The Real Me’, ‘5.15’, ‘Bell Boy’ and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’. Many fans thought this wasn’t a big enough representation of The Who’s 1973 album but we were faced with a dilemma because the songs from Quadrophenia sound vastly different to the rest of The Who’s catalogue. Like Tommy, this album was intended as a unified whole so to cut it up was hard, far more so than Tommy because Quadrophenia sustained a synthesiser-heavy style throughout, and the all or nothing option just wasn’t viable. So we chose a take of ‘The Real Me’ from a Who rehearsal, the first with Kenney Jones on drums as it happened, and used the single version of ‘5.15’ which is probably the best known track on the album and certainly its fiercest rocker. The other two Quad tracks came straight from the album. ‘Bell Boy’ I chose because it became Keith’s vocal spotlight and brought out his personality wonderfully, and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ because it offered a splendid climax to Disc 3. I was disappointed that we didn’t have room for ‘The Punk Meets The Godfather’ which, on reflection and having listened again and again to the newly-issued remastered Quadrophenia, is probably the best song on the whole album. As a live vehicle for The Who, Quadrophenia suffered because the band was obliged to rely too heavily on backing tapes of synthesiser parts, and there was no suitable live Quadrophenia material available to offer as an alternative to these tracks. In the event, of course, The Who abandoned Quadrophenia within a year of its release after performing it in its entirety just 33 times. By contrast, Tommy was performed just over 160 times in 1969 and 1970.