Sunday, August 18, 2013

Answering the Musical Question, 'Who Are You?'

The school year was about to begin when The Who released their album "Who Are You" in 1978, and that is what I think of first when I think of that album.

It was the musical backdrop for the new school year. Whenever one switched on the radio, it wouldn't be long before the title track came on.

For those who liked The Who, it was a decidedly mixed time. It was a transitional time, and perhaps that was necessary because the Who sound that energized listeners in the '60s and '70s was fading and being replaced by synthesizers and strings.

That was quite a different sound from the rebellious, trash–your–guitar–onstage sound The Who cultivated in the early years. It was a shift that simply could not be accomplished overnight.

And I've never been convinced that it was an improvement.

I think it was becoming obvious by 1978 that The Who was experiencing a kind of burnout. After all, it must be hard to maintain that level of energetic rage that seemed to permeate the group's early stuff.

They could still play their music very well; it was the quality of the material that wasn't what it had been. In that sense, I suppose, the title of the album was appropriate for a band that seemed to be losing its musical identity.
More significant, though, was drummer Keith Moon's death nearly three weeks after the album's release.

Moon had been taking a prescription sedative to help him with his alcohol withdrawal, and, although he had a history of prescription sedative abuse, he was instructed to take one whenever he felt a craving for alcohol — but he was to take no more than three pills a day.

That was simply impossible for Moon. On the day of his death, he consumed nearly three dozen of the sedatives and apparently died in his sleep.

The following year, tragedy struck the surviving Who members when, at a concert in Cincinnati in December, nearly a dozen concertgoers were killed and more than two dozen were injured after, mistaking the group's sound check for the start of the concert, thousands of people began pushing toward the still–locked gates leading into the stadium.

At the time, I remember hearing talk that The Who was jinxed, and the jinx began with the release of "Who Are You."

I guess all that was going on with The Who at that time gave a special poignancy to the song "Music Must Change," which, frankly, I regard as one of Pete Townshend's best, albeit unacknowledged, compositions.

And I never bought that jinx talk, either. But there was no doubt that The Who's music would have to change after Moon's death. After all, Moon was the second–greatest drummer of all time, according to Rolling Stone.

To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed with "Who Are You" apart from a few songs. The title track was good, and "Sister Disco" was OK, but otherwise I just wasn't enthusiastic about the album.

I preferred "Who's Next" or "The Who by Numbers," the latter being an example of Townshend's soaring songwriting. Ironic, I suppose, given that some diehard Who fans have called that album "Pete Townshend's suicide note."

Obviously, it was no such thing. "The Who by Numbers" came out nearly 40 years ago when Townshend was about 30. He is 68 now.

Even if that label is meant metaphorically, Townshend continued to compose for many years. His compositions may not have been as good as they were in the early years, but his creativity didn't die.

Writing about "Who Are You" for AllMusic, Richie Unterberger observed that "it was the last reasonably interesting Who record."

I'm inclined to agree.