“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the night.”
Dylan Thomas wrote those words in 1947 as a plea to his dying father, but it seems to me that he could have been writing them as a plea to what remains of The Who in 2019. The past few weeks have seen Pete Townshend tell, or at least imply to, a Rolling Stone writer that he was glad Keith Moon and John Entwistle had died, then do an about turn and say he didn’t mean it really, only that their absence makes life easier in The Who, on and off stage. Roger Daltrey, probably unaware of what his long-time partner had said, put in his own fourpenneth by having a go at Townshend for being unwilling to vary the set they nowadays play on stage, so nothing much has changed in all the years they’ve been sparring with each other.
The reason for this latest outbreak of warfare was a round of interviews designed to promote the release of this new album, and old hands like Townshend and Daltrey know that the best way to grab headlines is to be controversial. The record, the first new product from The Who since 2006’s Endless Wire, is imaginatively titled WHO, though I’d have added a question mark myself. Who are The Who now? They’re certainly not the group that thrilled me to my bones at the end of the sixties and continued doing so until their drummer quit the world in 1978. Thereafter they’ve entertained me, which is a different thing from thrilling me but not something to complain about.
And they’re still entertaining me in all sorts of ways, not necessarily with their music. ‘Man In A Purple Dress’ aside, I didn’t much like Endless Wire, I adored Live At The Fillmore 1968, passed on watching them this year with their orchestra, felt short-changed by Daltrey’s autobiography but found Pete’s novel The Age Of Anxiety pleasingly gripping. And this morning I read on the internet that The Who will be appearing at the Las Vegas Colosseum for two years following Elton John’s equally lengthy season at the venue that ends next May. What on earth would Keith Moon have made of that, I wonder?
Now we have WHO, which has been received warmly by critics on both music magazines and national newspapers, but so was Endless Wire which didn’t help it sell. Nowadays new albums by acts like The Who stand a strong chance of becoming victims of Legends Can’t Sell New Music syndrome, a common strain that sees rock heroes from the past, from Paul McCartney on downwards, selling tickets by the fistful for shows that feature music from half a century ago, which fans love, but passing over more recent work in the knowledge that this fosters people talking amongst themselves or going to the bathroom.
Perhaps that’s why WHO radiates a strong sense of nostalgia even before the CD hits the deck. The word Detour features prominently on the cover, there’s that famous picture/poster/t-shirt of Townshend about to smash a guitar with the words ‘This Guitar Has Seconds To Live’ alongside, there’s a target, Union Jack and Honda Juno scooter, and a photograph of Goldhawk Road tube station taken long ago, all designed pop art-style by Peter Blake in best Mod tradition.
When the CD did hit the deck and I pressed play I was half expecting an early Kinks riff restyled by Townshend in the manner of ‘Explain’ or ‘Anyway’ but instead we hear Daltrey, his voice much deeper and more growly now, telling us that he doesn’t care if we like this song, sung over a choppy guitar. Ever the optimist, I suspect he had a few words with his lyricist before deciding to sing it. This opener, ‘All This Music Must Fade’, sounds to these ears like a superior re-write of ‘Music Must Change’ from Who Are You, without the tricky time signature, and therefore far more accessible. As a statement of intent, it’s safe ground, a lively rocker with a catchy chorus that resolves into the fade with Townshend – not Daltrey – intoning the words ‘who gives a fuck?’ It’s a sentiment that surely reflects his sporadically dismissive attitude towards The Who that Daltrey doesn’t share, and there are hints of it elsewhere on the record, along with oblique references to the group’s history and earlier, well-known songs. A promising start.
Like ‘Baba O’Riley’, ‘Ball And Chain’ is prefaced by a lengthy instrumental passage, a piano loop joined by electric guitar, before it settles into a 12-bar in the style of what used to be called heavy, or hard, rock, a bit hulking, about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on Cuba where America imprisoned ‘enemy combatants’ from 2002 onwards. Honourable of sentiment, there’s nothing new here but the down-to-earth feel bodes well, not just for the album’s point of view but its reliance on rock over research. File under ‘reliable’.
If the songs on Who By Numbers exposed Townshend’s fears about The Who’s relevance as they entered their second decade, ‘I Don’t Want To Get Wise’ sees their principal composer looking back on it all as one big regression from the moment they stopped being ‘snotty young kids’ and viewed rock’n’roll as a good career move. The song features one of those tempo-shift middle-eight refrains – see ‘Don’t cry…’ in ‘Baba’…, ‘I sit looking round..’ in ‘Bargain’ and ‘I have to be careful…’ in ‘Punk Meets Godfather’ – that I always loved in Who songs, albeit this time sung by Daltrey rather than Townshend, before it tumbles back into the groove. “We tried hard to stay young,” Daltrey sings towards the end. File under ‘excellent’.
And on ‘Detour’, with its variation on a Bo Diddley beat, he doesn’t sound old at all. Short by the standards of the record as a whole, this chugs along at a lively pace, referencing ‘Explain’ during another stand-back refrain. Unlike Endless Wire, no lyrics are included in the package, so identifying what Daltrey is singing about is a bit hit and miss. If there’s an autobiographical element to this, the lyrics seems to imply that The Who went off course, on a ‘detour’ I guess, but here they’re back of course, with a bass line from Pino Paladino that is certainly reminiscent of John Entwistle at his twangy best and Zak Starkey channelling Moon on the floor toms. The closing 30 seconds sound like some bit of recording tape discarded from the Who’s Next sessions, or maybe ‘Join Together’. File under ‘best yet’.
The pace relaxes for ‘Beads On One String’, a bit of a lighter-waving power ballad that sounds like a plea for harmony in our acrimonious world, with beads on a string as an analogy for how we’re all (strung) together in this, before roaring off again on ‘Hero Ground Zero’, the much-trumpeted song named after the area of New York where the Twin Towers once stood. Daltrey roars against the passing of time in a song that would not have been out of place on Quadrophenia, with its tumbling drums and orchestral backdrop. File under ‘pretty damn good’.
‘Street Song’, inspired the Grenfell Tower disaster, is a rallying cry for the victims of injustice, lyrically if not melodically reminiscent of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, leaving no doubt on who’s side Townshend pins his colours. It all grinds to an abrupt, deliberately messy halt before a peculiarly nostalgic French banks-of-the-Seine-style harmonica heralds ‘I’ll Be Back’, the only song on which Townshend sings lead. With the kind of heartfelt vocals that he utilises in his more tender moments, it’s the nearest thing on the album to a ballad, with lush orchestration and words that again dwell on what happens when we reach pensionable age and the possibility of reincarnation. “I’ll be back, I’ll reborn, and I know I’ll always want to be your friend,” he concludes, sincerely. File under ‘pleasantly satisfying’.
In a change from scheduled programming, ‘Break The News’ is a Simon Townshend song, sung in folksy style by Daltrey against acoustic guitar picking by Andrew Synowiec, a highly decorated session guitarist from Los Angeles. The least-Who sounding track on the album, it rolls along like a dose of Mumford & Son, certainly inoffensive but hardly something that the group who recorded ‘My Generation’ would have countenanced back when Kit Lambert was doing his best to produce them. File under ‘superfluous but safe’.
The penultimate track, ‘Rockin’ In Rage’, opens with a whiff of the arpeggios from ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and bits of Quadrophenia, before settling into another Who-style rave up wherein Daltrey faces down the tide, “Rockin’ in rage well past my prime”. File under ‘conventional but satisfactory’, and settle down comfortably for the closer, a jazzy little shuffler called ‘She Rocked My World’, which I’ll file under ‘experimental but enjoyable’. A mid-tempo song driven largely by acoustic chords from Gordon Giltrap, all about a girl who left the protagonist hot but unfulfilled, is not what I’d have expected as a closing statement, and in the scheme of things I’d have expected this to be sung by Townshend rather than Daltrey, who was rarely unfulfilled in this department. Neither was I expecting such a low key conclusion.
The edition of WHO that I bought on Amazon contained three extra tracks, all sung by Townshend. ‘This Gun Will Misfire’ is a melodramatic, big production, drama-ridden rocker, about unrest in world affairs (I think); on ‘Nothing To Prove’ he somehow sounds like he was 21 again, making demos for A Quick One, but it’s marred by orchestral support that sounds like a James Bond soundtrack; and ‘Danny And The Ponies’ is a solo gem with intricately picked acoustic, quite lovely in fact.
In an interview preceding the release of WHO Townshend described the new music on the record as “dark ballads, heavy rock stuff, experimental electronica, sampled stuff and clichéd Who-ish tunes that begin with a guitar that goes yanga-dang.” He’s not wrong, summing up in 20 words what took me around 1,700, but whatever else WHO – unexpected as it is – proves that even with only half a band left now, they’re not going gentle into the night. And it certainly doesn’t deserve to suffer from the dreaded Legends Can’t Sell New Music syndrome.