Sunday, July 25, 2010

January 18, 2010: 21 Underrated Songs by The Who You Need to Hear Now!

A couple of months ago I tossed together a list of 21 Underrated Songs by The Rolling Stones in reaction to the limited number of their 400-or-so songs that have really worked their way into the popular conscious. Perhaps The Who are even more deserving of such a list. For a band that is widely acknowledged as one of Rock & Roll’s definitive acts, The Who have a “greatest hits” roster essentially represented by, maybe, ten songs, which isn’t too surprising considering that, at least in the U.S., they were never really a singles band. In their UK homeland, they were arguably the greatest singles band, yet non-hardcore fans on both sides of the Atlantic still only seem to know “My Generation”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Magic Bus”, “Who Are You”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and a miniscule handful of other well-worn tracks. This is unfortunate considering the consistent excellence of Pete Townshend and John Entwistle’s songs… not to mention the band’s magnificent playing: was there ever a better guitarist than Townshend, a better drummer than Moon, a better bassist than Entwistle? Not to my ears.

So I’ve chosen 21 of my favorite Who songs that never ended up on one of their half-a-zillion greatest hits compilations that boringly trot out the same dozen or so warhorses over and over and over again (in fact, Geffen just released yet another of these albums called, unimaginatively enough, Greatest Hits, when an almost identical collection titled Then and Now: 1964-2004 was released only five years ago and remains readily available). As was the case with my list of underrated Rolling Stones songs, I’ve opted out of including covers, which is less of an issue since The Who got their start after original compositions came into vogue. Still, their renditions of Bo Diddley’s “Here ‘Tis”, Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rolling Stone”, The Everly Brothers’ “Man with the Money”, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”, Mose Alison’s “Young Man Blues”, and even The Stones’ “Under My Thumb” are well-worth checking out. Instead we’ll be focusing on the mod blowouts, macabre massacres, heavy rockers, and introspective ballads that came directly from the pens of Messrs. Townshend and Entwistle.

1. “The Good’s Gone” (from the album My Generation) 1965

My Generation is the only album that really captures the crunch and fury of the early Who, when their reputation was linked to acts of on-stage hooliganism rather than highfalutin concepts like pop art and rock operas. The title track of their debut is doubtlessly the definitive track of The Who’s proto-punk era, but no number captures the band’s brooding menace better than “The Good’s Gone”. Daltrey fills the low-register with his callous sneers; Townshend creates a pitch-black rainbow arch over it with his insistent riff.


2. “It’s Not True” (from the album My Generation) 1965

Pete Townshend never got slapped with that “generational spokesman” tag that so irked Dylan, yet no other writer so fully captured what it meant to be a teenager. While most songwriters of the era summed up the teen experience as an endless weekend of dancing, record-spinning, and chick chasing, Pete Townshend explored the self-pity, us-against-then unity, growing pains, awkward sexuality, and juvenile humor that constitutes the real teenage experience. Questions of adolescent identity were of particular interest to him, informing such Who classics as
“Substitute”, “Disguises”, and “I’m a Boy”. Townshend’s first such song was “It’s Not True”, a defiant plea to set the record straight from a kid who’s been accused of everything from being secretly married to committing patricide. The fervent forward momentum brings to mind an over-enthused teen tripping over his own feet. The unbelievably catchy chorus brings to mind Mod bliss.


3. “Whiskey Man” (from the album A Quick One) 1966

When the time came for The Who to deliver a follow-up to their milestone debut album, Townshend was short on songs and the rest of the band were short on cash. To remedy both issues, The Who’s management team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terrence) suggested that Entwistle, Moon, and Daltrey each compose two songs to fill out their upcoming record and their bank accounts. Roger Daltrey only managed to complete one song, the sweet Buddy Holly tribute “See My Way”, while Keith Moon delivered a weird surf-pop parody called “I Need You” and a weirder instrumental psycho-polka called “Cobwebs and Strange”. These three tracks were interesting enough, but none displayed the skill and sheer originality of Entwistle’s two contributions, which spotlighted his infamous macabre sense of humor. “Boris the Spider” may have been the one to achieve classic status, but I personally prefer “Whiskey Man”, a spooky ode to imaginary drinking buddies and mental institutions. The track posed a unique problem for Entwistle, who had trouble pronouncing the letter R, initially causing the refrain of “Whiskey Man’s my friend” to sound a bit garbled. The inventive bassist overcame his speech impediment by singing “flend” on one track then overdubbing “fwend” on a second. Somehow, the combination of the two mispronunciations do, indeed, sound like “friend”.


4. “So Sad About Us” (from the album A Quick One) 1966

The most glorious traditional pop song Townshend composed for A Quick One actually betrays a bit of thievery, as he pilfered its main guitar lick from The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”. Nevertheless, “So Sad About Us” is a forceful— and very “Who-like”— elegy to a failed relationship. Moon propels the rhythm in ways The Byrds couldn’t even imagine, let alone execute, as Daltrey and Entwistle sing the mournful melody in close unison and Townshend tortures his twelve-string Rickenbacker. Although it never became the hit it had the potential to become, “So Sad About Us” has long been a favorite among musicians, inspiring worthy covers by The Merseys, Powder, The Jam, Primal Scream, and The Breeders.


5. “A Quick One, While He’s Away” (from the album A Quick One) 1966

Part II of Lambert and Stamp’s scheme to get The Who to deliver enough material for a new album would have greater repercussions than either management or the band could have conceived in 1966. Kit Lambert suggested that Pete Townshend string together several of his unfinished compositions to create a single piece that would fill up half of Side B. Townshend was initially skeptical, insisting, “Rock songs are two minutes fifty by tradition!” A little cajoling from Lambert awakened Townshend’s latent pretentiousness, and he set to work on formulating the piece he would later refer to as his first “mini opera” and “Tommy’s parents”. Indeed, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is of historic importance because it is Rock’s first extended narrative (boy goes rambling, girl commits infidelity with lecherous engine driver in boy’s absence, boy returns home and all is forgiven) and plants the Rock-Opera seeds that would grow into Tommy, thereby solidifying The Who’s career in commercial (and, arguably, artistic) terms. That’s all well and good, but the real appeal of “A Quick One” is its delightful melodiousness, its school-boy dirty humor, and the transcendent rounds of “You are forgiven!” that provide its orgasmic climax. On stage, The Who would push “A Quick One” into a harder rocking direction, giving them a live tour de force they’d never parallel, but I still prefer the studio version, which is more like a power-pop epic and retains verses and instrumental passages lost during live renditions. The studio version also allows Entwistle to sing the role of Ivor the Engine Driver without any obnoxious interruptions from Daltrey. Bonus points for that, too.


6. “Jaguar” (outtake from the album The Who Sell Out) 1967

Like “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, “Jaguar” sparked a groundbreaking concept, yet it would be years before non-bootleg-buying fans would get a chance to hear this bone-shaking nugget. Townshend wrote “Jaguar” as a vocal vehicle for the surf-obsessed Keith Moon, nicking the refrain directly from a sports-car advert (“Grace… Space… Pace…”). Boom: a marriage made in the board room… advertising meets Rock & Roll. With a lot of help from Entwistle, Townshend fashioned The Who Sell Out, the ultimate Pop Art concept record, a mock pirate radio broadcast brimming with phony advertisements and cheesy station identifications. Much to Moon’s disappointment, Townshend decided to ditch “Jaguar” while finalizing the track line-up in favor of the sophisticated, jazzy, acoustic set-piece “Sunrise”. Why both songs couldn’t have been included on the record is an utter mystery, but this wrong was set right when the deleted one was included on The Who Sell Out as a bonus track in 1995. Curiously, “Jaguar”—with its crass sloganeering, explosive energy, and vivid textures—is more representative of the Sell Out concept than any track actually included on the album.


7. “Odorono” (from the album The Who Sell Out) 1967

With “Jaguar” relegated to the out-box, “Odorono” was the only full-length commercial composed by Townshend on The Who Sell Out, and its beauty is all the more incredible considering that it’s a song about deodorant. The song unfolds as one of Townshend’s funniest, most suspenseful dramas: a pretty ingénue has just retired to the dressing room following her triumphant stage debut. The man of her dreams, a certain Mr. Davidson, comes calling to praise her performance, but—alas!—he flees after catching a whiff of her B.O. If only she’d used Odorono. Only revealing itself to be an ode to antiperspirant with its final line, “Odorono” is a terrific practical joke on the listener, but it’s also a truly lovely piece of music with The Who’s lush harmonies soaring over Townshend’s elliptical guitar riff. Advertisements like this might keep more people from hitting the mute button during station breaks.


8. “Tattoo” (from the album The Who Sell Out) 1967

“Tattoo” is another delightful combination of silly humor, traditional storytelling, and ethereal elegance, as well as a return to the teen concerns of My Generation. Two brothers decide to commemorate their impending manhood by getting tattoos, each triggering disastrous results when Mom and Dad get a load of them. Possibly the most perfect song Pete Townshend ever composed, “Tattoo” is a tragicomic portrait of adolescence, an inspired example of otherworldly production (the descending guitar riff channeled through a revolving Leslie speaker is a beautiful touch), and a monument to Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle’s superb three-part harmonies. Daltrey provides one of his most sensitive lead vocals, proving he could do a lot more than bluster. As the only song from The Who Sell Out that would regularly feature in live Who performances throughout the band’s career, “Tattoo” possesses a magic that clearly was not lost on the men who created it.


9. “Rael (Part 1 and 2)” (from the album The Who Sell Out) 1967

Townshend takes the Wagnerian aspirations of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” to their illogical extremes and ends up with one of the most enigmatic story-songs in The Who’s catalogue. Initially, he intended “Rael” to be a full-blown opera about a post-apocalyptic conflict between Israel and Red China with protégé Arthur Brown (who’d have a huge international hit with “Fire”) in the lead role. When management reminded him that The Who were in greater need of a new hit single than another unwieldy concept, Townshend edited “Rael” mercilessly, boiling away the plot until he was left with an indecipherable but breathtaking six-minute piece (still too long for a single in 1967, hence its inclusion on The Who Sell Out). Although “Rael (Parts 1 and 2)” does not provide the satisfying storytelling of “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, it is a far more unified piece of songwriting, its multiple sections flowing into one another fluidly, its harmonies tighter and denser, its musicianship flawless. Townshend did not drop the rock-opera issue with “Rael”, and even recycled some of its instrumental passages on The Who’s next album, but nothing on Tommy bested “Rael” in terms of musical complexity or operatic grandeur.


10. “Glow Girl” (from the album Odds and Sods) 1968

Here’s another example of Pete Townshend’s unflagging resourcefulness. Just as he recycled the pile-driver riff in the midsection of “Rael” on the Tommy tracks “Sparks” and “Underture”, he reused the “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker” line (following a little gender switch, of course) on his breakthrough rock opera. No one would realize this until “Glow Girl” finally surfaced on the 1974 outtakes comp Odds and Sods six years after having missed its calling as The Who’s first single of 1968. Had “Glow Girl” been released on 45, it certainly would have been one of the weirdest songs on the radio that year. Inspired by one-to-many in-flight close calls while on tour, “Glow Girl” is an abstract account of all the things that go through a woman’s head as her plane plummets to earth. Spastic blasts of impressionistic guitar noise indicate the inevitable crash, but then…a happy ending! She is reincarnated as the Walkers' glowing baby girl. Experimental but highly tuneful, chaotic yet oozing with placid harmonies, tragic yet joyous, “Glow Girl” was just too good and too complex for the hit parade.


11. “Little Billy” (from the album Odds and Sods) 1968

The Who Sell Out concept leapt from fiction to fact when the American Cancer Society approached The Who about creating an advert for their cause in early ’68 (despite the fact that members of the band were regular smokers). Townshend cooked up a fable as delectably tragicomic and tuneful as any on The Who’s latest record, but the song’s length prevented it from serving its original purpose. The band briefly considered releasing “Little Billy” as a single, and it quite likely would have been included on a proposed album for ’68 tentatively titled Who’s for Tennis, but official release would be delayed until the 1974 issuing of Odds and Sods.

LitBill - Funny blooper videos are here _____________________________________________________________________________

12. “Dogs” (single) 1968

Critics often suggest that Townshend’s writing took a detour down bizarro alley between The Who Sell Out and Tommy, but such gripes neither take into account how bizarre those two albums are nor give The Who’s 1968 work enough credit. Perhaps their song that has drawn the most flack is “Dogs”, a fabulously eccentric tribute to the dog races at White City. Had the Small Faces put out “Dogs” it might be remembered as a classic on the level of “Lazy Sunday” or “The Universal”, but because The Who were considered a more “serious” group (didn’t anyone listen to the hilarious Sell out or basically every other quirky record they’d released over the past two years?!?), “Dogs” was dismissed as a trifle. In fact, it is one of the most musically complex songs Townshend had composed up until this point, shifting from the odd tribal percussiveness of the verses to the ale-soaked Cockney sing-a-long of the choruses to John and Pete’s uproarious spoken dialogues. Forty years following its release, “Dogs” sounds fresher and far less pretentious than a good deal of The Who’s subsequent output, and it marks the band’s last hoorah as Britain’s greatest singles act of the ‘60s.


13. “Sensation” (from the album Tommy) 1969

For all of its fame and the decisive role it played in establishing The Who among the top Rock acts, Tommy has not held up as well as several of the band’s other records. Saddled with a sketchy history that includes a terrible feature film, a ridiculous all-star orchestral album, and an overblown Broadway show, Tommy is nearly as much of an albatross as it was a boon. Still, performing the album in its entirety on stage whipped The Who into Rock & Roll’s greatest live-act, and the recording included several excellent compositions that hold up wonderfully when divorced from that silly plot about a pinball-obsessed deaf, dumb, and blind boy. Written a while before Townshend went to work on his rock opera in earnest, “Sensation” is the most gorgeous and least plot-heavy track on Tommy. It would have fit nicely alongside similarly heavenly, Townshend-sung love songs like “I Can’t Reach You”, “Our Love Was”, and “Sunrise” on The Who Sell Out.


14. “Naked Eye” (from the album Odds and Sods) 1970

“Naked Eye” evolved from a guitar lick Townshend enjoyed messing around with on the Tommy tour, which can be heard in the lengthy “My Generation” jam on the Live at Leeds album. Townshend was never happy with the studio version of “Naked Eye”, which is why it didn’t get officially released until Odds and Sods, but it’s hard to suss what his problem was after listening to this spine-shivering recording. Each band member is on top-form: Moon and Entwistle thunder away with as much nimble rage as they’d ever deliver in concert, Townshend’s yearning guitar lines are spare but evocative, his vocal dialogue with Daltrey is dramatic and intricately phrased, and the electric piano fills shimmer. Couple this knock-out performance with a perception-challenging lyric that exposes a newfound maturity in Townshend’s writing, and you have a pivotal track that charts the terrain The Who would travel throughout the ‘70s.


15. “I Don’t Even Know Myself” (single) 1971

Having passed through their hard Mod and trippy pop-art phases, and still exploring their rock opera phase, The Who greeted the ‘70s as a decidedly different band. Innovations in stage-equipment technology and two years of touring behind Tommy honed the group into a louder, heavier, more confident conglomeration. Discovering Eastern mysticism and overindulging in booze, Townshend blended his concerns with universal issues like teenage rebellion with intense, sometimes inscrutable, introspection. Aside from the occasional songwriting contribution from John Entwistle, much of the lighthearted humor of old was gone. “I Don’t Know Myself”, the B-side of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, marked this new direction dramatically. While Townshend couched self-scrutinizing songs like this, “Behind Blue Eyes”, and “The Song Is Over” in yet another highfalutin concept—a doomed new rock opera called Lifehouse—no amount of protest on his part can disguise the personal nature of these songs. His schizo ornery-bastard-cum-spiritual-seeker persona is revealed in the refrain. Meanwhile the band pounds out a riveting stew of heavy rock and cowboy country.


16. “The Song Is Over” (from the album Who’s Next) 1971

Townshend’s double-L.P./stage/cinema project Lifehouse spawned a glut of incredible songs and much head-scratching from the rest of the band. No one could quite understand what it was all about in ’71, but when Townshend finally got around to lucidly explaining the story in the liner-notes of a 2000 box-set devoted to the project, it turned out to be a freakily prescient sci-fi epic that foretold virtual reality, the Internet, and the environmental crisis that threatens life as we know it today. Townshend’s inability to adequately explain Lifehouse and a disastrous attempt to stage a free-floating concert of the material at the Young Vic theater in April 1971 put the project on permanent hiatus. Salvaging eight Lifehouse songs and a fabulous new Entwistle number called “My Wife”, the band put together Who’s Next, an album that must have felt like a devastating compromise to Townshend at the time but is one of the band’s best-loved records. Although “Baba O’Riley” is the only song on Who’s Next that makes little sense separated from the Lifehouse concept, several of the other songs are still key components in that project, particularly “The Song Is Over”, which would have been that album’s grand finale. On Who’s Next, it serves as a centerpiece. Townshend’s doleful voice delivers a message of sad resignation over a haunting piano figure that ensures the new heavy Who can still serve up nervy, gut-wrenching beauty.


17. “I’m One” (from the album Quadrophenia) 1973

Quadrophenia provides further evidence that Pete Townshend was now using the rock opera format to disguise his increasing introspection. By placing his own concerns and obsessions into the mouth of a young Mod named Jimmy, he temporarily deflected questions about his substance abuse and fragmenting personality. “I’m One” is a self-directed plea for unity between body and spirit, which was of particular concern to Townshend as he struggled to get control of his anger and alcoholism and follow the path laid our by guru Maher Baba, who coined the axiom “don’t worry be happy”. Townshend was anything but happy in 1973, and his melancholia comes through via his plaintive vocals and autumnal acoustic-picking on “I’m One”. His anger barrels through with intermittent, irate blasts of electricity.


18. “The Dirty Jobs” (from the album Quadrophenia) 1973

The synthesizers that nearly overwhelm Quadrophenia completely contradict a storyline set in 1964 Mod culture when no one even knew what a synthesizer was yet. Nor were young people going on about their karma, as Jimmy does in “The Dirty Jobs”, a song that couldn’t sound less like Mod anthems such as “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”. Nevertheless, “The Dirty Jobs” is an aching, powerful pop song that finds Jimmy lamenting his new job as a trash collector and butting heads with his conservative co-workers. Synthesizers are present but less prominent here than they are throughout much of the rest of the album, allowing Entwistle’s lyrical bass fills and Townshend’s slashing violin to shine through.


19. “We Close Tonight” (outtake from the album Quadrophenia) 1973

As Townshend’s only song to be sung by Entwistle and Moon, “We Close Tonight” is a genuine oddity. When it was cut from Quadrophenia and replaced with “Bell Boy”, the album became the only Who L.P. aside from My Generation without a lead vocal by Entwistle (“We Close Tonight” later appeared as a bonus track on the 1998 reissue of Odds and Sods). While I certainly wouldn’t suggest that “Bell Boy” was not a worthy replacement and more integral to the rock opera’s plot, “We Close Tonight” is still a dynamic track. Entwistle’s chromatic bass runs are dizzying, and the touch of desperation he throws into his vocal performance makes it one of his most emotionally affecting. In keeping with his persona, Moon’s is more clownish, but it’s also his most refined, as the drummer was not known to be a great singer. Note the reference to the “Birdman”, a nickname Pete earned for his onstage poses during the band’s early days.

Pete does “The Birdman”


20. “However Much I Booze” (from the album The Who By Numbers) 1975

On The Who By Numbers, Townshend finally dropped all pretenses toward funneling his personal problems through fictional characters. 1975 found him ravaged by alcoholism, coming to verbal and physical blows with Daltrey, and sharing the stage with a drummer whose own booze-triggered physical deterioration could no longer be ignored. In fact, Keith Moon burst into tears when he first heard the songs Townshend composed for The Who’s seventh L.P., no doubt recognizing shades of himself in the harrowing tales. The Who By Numbers has often been described as Pete Townshend’s suicide note; even the frothy single “Squeeze Box” comes off more as his cynical excuse for a hit (which it was) than a sincere expression of poppy joy when heard in the album's context. The darkest chord is struck in “However Much I Booze”, in which Townshend explores his alcoholism with such unflinching brutality that Daltrey refused to sing it. Musically, it’s also one of the most striking pieces on The Who By Numbers, sporting some of Entwistle’s most astonishing bass-work and a nimble guitar riff that sounds incongruously breezy over such a despondent lyric.


21. “Success Story” (from the album The Who By Numbers) 1975

In response to all of Pete Townshend’s soul-searching on The Who By Numbers, John Entwistle wrote “Success Story”, a pithy, funny history lesson that follows The Who from the days when they could only dream of buying houses for their mums to the present when the grind of touring and recording (“Take 276, you know this used to be fun”) has worn away their enthusiasm for Rock stardom. Ironically, the song features the most enthusiastically merry performance on the album, with Entwistle whipping out Chuck Berry riffs on his eight-string bass, reviving his “Boris the Spider” voice to play the band’s “fairy manager”, and harmonizing with Townshend like a mischievous choirboy. Considering that they would only record one more album before Keith Moon’s death (the underrated but weary Who Are You), the original Who line-up would never sound this fresh and ferocious again.

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