Inertia never suited The Who. They thrived on fast paced energy and produced their best work when their backs were against the wall. Three years between the release of The Who By Numbers and Who Are You was the longest gap ever between Who releases and in the meantime much had occurred, none of it beneficial to the group’s cohesion and impetus. Never the closest of colleagues outside of the recording studio and the stage, during these three years the four members of The Who had grown apart in so many ways that they no longer resembled anything remotely like the gang they’d once been. Pete’s spiritual and intellectual quests were ongoing but frustrating, and his musings were quite alien to Roger, the practical, workmanlike grafter who just wanted to get on with the job and not philosophise about it; John was simply a supremely skilled professional musician who wanted and needed to work regularly; Keith, his marriage now over, was wasting away in California, sick with alcoholism, lonely and desperate for something besides the disintegrating Who to fill an empty life.
Pete knew that the only way the group could survive was to steer them in new directions. The other three resisted the insecurity of change. Given half the chance, Pete would have broken up the group before Who Are You was recorded, but he felt a loyalty to his three colleagues, especially Keith, and soldiered on regardless. The result is a transitional album based largely around synthesizer patterns that could have pointed the way to the future were it not for Keith dying within a month of its release. In a stylistic shift that would become more apparent later, the arrangements of the songs – and the songs themselves – are more complex than ever before, and they tend to meander where once they would have been blunt and to the point. As would also become the pattern in future, John’s songs take greater prominence, and Roger sings an Entwistle song for the first time on record.
Moon’s accidental, but tragically predictable, death on
7, 1978 completely overshadowed the album’s release. Ironically, he
is photographed on the cover sitting on a chair with the words ‘Not To Be Taken
Away’ on its back; the other irony is that on one song, ‘Music Must Change’,
Keith didn’t play drums because he couldn’t handle its unusual tempo. “But I’m
the best Keith Moon style drummer in the world,” he is reported to have told Pete
when he couldn’t play it. Moon wasn’t firing on all cylinders throughout the
recording and it shows, but perhaps this is what Pete might have wanted. Moon,
more than any of his three colleagues, represented the thundering recklessness
of the old – and younger – style Who.
The album provided the post-Keith group with three new stage numbers, the title track, ‘Sister Disco’ and ‘Music Must Change’, but only ‘Who Are You’, one of the last great songs The Who recorded, has endured. It’s about the day in January 1977 when Pete attended a meeting to sort out The Who’s tangled financial affairs, and came away with a cheque for seven figures. Many would have been delighted at this outcome, but Pete was disgusted with himself. He was a musician, not a businessman. That night he got paralytic at The Speakeasy, the London rockbiz club, where he encountered two of The Sex Pistols who pronounced themselves Who fans. This only aggrieved Pete more, so he tore up the cheque and left the club pie-eyed, slumping into a doorway where he spent the night. At dawn, he was awoken by a policeman, who recognised Townshend and sent him on his way. Reaching home in Twickenham, his wife Karen was waiting for him. “Where have you been?!” she asked. “I’ve been to hell and back,” Pete groaned through his hangover. While this tale forms the lyrical basis for ‘Who Are You’, the musical core is the lengthy prologue, mid-section and close, in which the title is repeated in a looping synthesizer-propelled chant similar to the sound of middle-eastern Sufi dancers in a trancelike state. Although it ebbs and flows, and at one point Pete plays an acoustic refrain, it embodies all the energy of past Who classics and at over six minutes is far and away the most arresting track on the album. Even Keith manages to keep up the tempo on this one. Roger ad-libs “Who the fuck are you” and, when performed in concert, demonstrated his physical fitness by running on the spot during the instrumental break.
‘Who Are You’ aside, the album failed to open up new possibilities for a group that was stumbling after 14 remarkable years together. Although Keith’s death freed The Who from the grip of the past, the future, as the final two albums would demonstrate, turned out to be a barren land all the same, creatively at least. Who Are You reached number six in UK and two in US. A remixed and remastered version of Who Are You was released in 1996 and included five additional tracks, including two of Pete’s demos and alternative versions.