Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Who's a Mess

Considering that The Who have been slowly getting the deluxe treatment ever since Live at Leeds was issued as a double-disc edition a decade ago and a new Who comp creaks out of the vaults on a near-weekly basis, you’d think their back catalog would be in tip-top shape. It ain’t.

The Who discography is currently a great, big mess marred by too many poorly mastered, poorly mixed, and barely available recordings. Generally, the deluxe editions have been quite good, but they have failed to fill in numerous gaps, and in one instance –the deluxe edition of My Generation released in 2002—have left a poorly realized stereo remix as the only edition currently in print. Now, I’m no mono purist. I’m a child of the stereo age, and mono recordings tend to sound colorless and compressed to my ears. But the stereo remix of My Generation hobbles two key cuts by depriving “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” of essential guitar parts. The mono versions are included on the bonus disc, but not hearing them in their original context is jarring. It makes My Generation— one of the great debut albums— less great. The decision to go stereo rather than mono has also negatively affected the versions of “Circles (Instant Party)” (missing John’s French horn part), “Under My Thumb” (missing Pete’s corrosive lead guitar), and “Dogs Part II” (John’s bass is basically nonexistent) currently available.

Mixing issues have been a rampant problem in the Who catalog since the mid-‘90s when Jon Astley and Andy MacPherson oversaw remixes that left “Put the Money Down” with an overlong fade, “Postcard” with an inferior bass-line, “Music Must Change” with inferior guitar solos, and “The Dirty Jobs” devoid of its cool seagull squeals. Hopefully these errors will be corrected if and when Quadrophenia, Odds and Sods, and Who Are You get the deluxe treatment they desperately need.

Most troubling is the plethora of songs that have failed to achieve bonus-track status on this multitude of expanded and deluxe editions. In some cases, these songs only exist on out-of-print discs released during the first wave of Who CDs in the mid-‘80s. One track has never been available outside of vinyl at all!

1. Circles (1966)

This is the less powerful but better realized rerecording of “Circles” originally released on the Ready, Steady, Who E.P. Perhaps The Who’s ongoing legal problems with producer Shel Talmy was the reason this number was not included with its E.P.-mates on the 1995 expansion of A Quick One. Whatever the reason, this excellent version of one of Townshend’s best early songs—a track that was almost released as a Who single in ’66, but instead flopped when Les Fleur de Leys recorded it—needs a second lease.

Most recently released on: Two’s Missing in 1987

Could have been included on: The 2002 deluxe edition of My Generation

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of A Quick One

2. I’m a Boy (1966)

Already a big hit single in the summer of ’66, The Who cut an even better, extended version in the fall for possible inclusion on an LP tentatively titled Jigsaw Puzzle. When that record was scrapped to make room for Pete’s first full-fledged mini-opera on A Quick One, this superior version of “I’m a Boy”— with its more intense instrumental break, more deliberate playing, and extra verse (“Help me wash up, Jane-Marie…”)— was included on the definitive Who compilation, Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy (1971). 31 years later, it was released on a bonus E.P. included with certain versions of the Ultimate Collection compilation. But wait! What happened to the song’s opening bars? That 2002 version is a sloppy, in medias res edit. Perhaps the original tape was damaged, necessitating the truncating. Who knows? We were given no explanation, just offered a shoddy butchering of a wonderful recording. Criminal.

Most recently released on: The poorly mastered Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy CD from 1990

Could have been included on: The expanded edition of A Quick One from 1995

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of A Quick One

3. The Magic Bus (1968)

Here’s another extended re-recording originally released on Meaty, Beaty. Yet this more thoughtfully paced, better sang version of one of The Who’s best-loved goofs is completely missing in action. It wasn’t even included on the Meaty, Beaty CD from 1990. Again, a damaged tape might be the culprit. Perhaps it was lost altogether. Even if this is the case, mastering technology has surely progressed to the point where a good-quality rip can be made from a clean vinyl copy of Meaty, Beaty. Hell, I’ll lend you mine!

Most recently released on: The original, 1971 vinyl version of Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy

Could have been included on: Any of a number of compilations

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

One of John’s great, horror-themed B-sides has received truly horrific treatment on CD. Two distinct mixes of the song exist: the UK mix, which features a longer fade and some ghoulish giggling, appeared on the B-side of “Magic Bus”; the cleaner US mix sat on the back of “Call Me Lightning”. Neither is currently in-print on CD.

Most recently released on: The appallingly mastered Magic Bus: The Who On Tour CD from the mid ‘80s

Could have been included on: The expanded edition of Odds and Sods from 1998

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

5. Here For More (1970)

Not what you’d call the most essential recording, but the B-side of “The Seeker” is still historically valuable in that it is one of just three Who songs solely credited to Roger Daltrey. A pleasant enough country/rock number with a riff Townshend later recycled to better effect on “In Hand or a Face”, “Here For More” is no longer here for more.

Most recently released on: The 1985 compilation Who’s Missing

Could have been included on: The deluxe edition of Who’s Next from 2003

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

6. When I Was a Boy (1971)

One of John Entwistle’s most beautiful songs, “When I Was a Boy” is a fascinating predecessor to all of Pete’s ‘70s soul-searching. Even in its vinyl incarnation as the flipside of “Let’s See Action”, “When I Was a Boy” sounded flat and lacked dynamics. This one could really use a rebuffing to bring out John’s plaintive vocal and forlorn French horn. Alas it hasn’t been touched in over 25 years.

Most recently released on: Who’s Missing

Could have been included on: The deluxe edition of Who’s Next

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

7. Wasp Man (1972)

Another B-side by a non-Townshend hooligan gets short shrift. Is “Wasp Man” a great song? Umm, no. Is it a hilarious example of Keith Moon’s bizarre sense of humor that allows him to make buzzing noises over the “Here For More”/”In a Hand or a Face” guitar riff for three minutes? Yes, indeedy. Originally released as the flipside of “The Relay”, Moon’s weird theme song for an imaginary superhero (err, I guess they’re all imaginary) could use some rescuing.

Most recently released on: Two’s Missing

Could have been included on: The expanded edition of Odds and Sods

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Quadrophenia

In addition to these most glaring omissions are the various songs that have not been refurbished since the so-so masters included on 1994’s Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. These tracks include “The Last Time”, “Fortune Teller”, “Dogs”, “Heaven and Hell”, and “Bony Maronie”. Some interesting live recordings—the full-length version of “Bargain” from Who’s Missing, a mediocre jam called “Goin’ Down” and a terrific version of “My Wife” from Two’s Missing—are also in limbo.

So, how about it, Faceless Corporation that Controls The Who’s Back Catalog? There’s money to be made here. You like money. Make some by selling us fresh, powerful (and not unnecessarily loud) remasters of these long lost Who treasures. Get cracking!
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