Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: 'The Who Hits 50!'

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only long-time Who fan who was initially perplexed, eventually exasperated, that the most over-compiled band in Rock & Roll was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with yet another compilation. I was exasperated because The Who’s discography in the U.K. and U.S. is in such a bad state. John Astley and Andy Macpherson’s radical remixes were an interesting experiment in the nineties, but they’ve been the only versions of The Who’s albums in the West for way, way too long. In 2011, Astley remastered those albums, leaving the original mixes intact, for Universal Japan. Finally, The Who’s back catalogue was in shipshape with excellent sound, cool bonus tracks, and respect to the albums we old-timers grew up hearing. A domestic release of these expensive Japanese imports was what I wanted for the fiftieth anniversary, not another greatest hits.

Then my exasperation turned to curiosity when I found out what was on The Who Hits 50! Sure “Be Lucky”, Townshend and Daltrey’s first studio collaboration in eight years, intrigued me (it’s really good, by the way, though I could have done without the brief use of auto-tune, which is the most nauseating pop trend of the past ten years). However, I was more interested in the first domestic remasters of “The Last Time”, “Relay”, and “Dogs” in twenty years. I was curious to hear which mixes were going to be used: the original ones or the nineties ones. And when I found out that Hits 50! was to include the long mix of “Magic Bus” never issued on CD in the states, I decided to get over my exasperation and give The Who Hits 50! a listen.

Let’s get the big questions out of the way first: these are almost all original mixes. “Postcard” has John’s bass line you heard on Odds & Sods in 1974. “Trick of the Light” does not have an over-extended fade. The vocals are misaligned on the first chorus of “Eminence Front” just as they were in 1982. Old timers, this is, indeed, The Who you grew up with. The one notable remix is that long version of “Magic Bus” that first appeared on the vinyl version of Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy in 1971 that has only made it to CD on a couple of releases outside the U.S. The mix on Hits 50! is true mono with full percussion intro, not the fake stereo one with clipped intro from the old Meaty, Beaty LP. This mix first appeared on the 2011 edition of The Singles released in Japan only. The mastering here is better than that version, which was a bit muddy. The same can be said of “Dogs”. Both songs never sounded better than they did on The Who Hits 50! The rest of it sounds great too.

You may still be wondering why a new compilation is necessary. Why did the compilers once again trot out the absurdly edited single versions of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You”. I won’t try to convince you another compilation is necessary, because it isn’t even though The Who Hits 50! is still essential for things like “Magic Bus”, “Dogs”, and “Relay” you can’t get in such high quality on another U.S. CD. I do think it may have a purpose though.

My theory is that The Who Hits 50! isn’t really intended to be “the best sampler” of The Who’s music, as Howie Edelson writes in his liner notes. If this were the case, we’d get all 8:33 of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and all 6:22 of “Who Are You”. We wouldn’t be burdened with three tracks from It’s Hard while A Quick One and Sell Out are short-changed with one measly track each. Odds & Sods would be represented by a better song than “Postcard”: “Naked Eye”, “Long Live Rock”, “Pure and Easy”, or “Glow Girl”, for example. My theory is that The Who Hits 50! is actually an improved and expanded version of that Japanese edition of The Singles. Everything on it is here with the notable exceptions of “Long Live Rock” and the mono single mix of “I Can See for Miles”; the stereo album one is included instead. “Postcard” might be here because it was released as a single. There are three tracks from It’s Hard, because the album produced three singles (though as is the case with a lot of these songs that weren’t on Japan’s The Singles, the album mix of “Eminence Front” is used instead of the single edit). Essential tracks “Baba O’Riley”, “Boris the Spider”, and “Bargain” (a great track that is now considered essential because it was used in a stupid SUV commercial) are the only songs never released on 45 in the U.S. or U.K. If this is the rationale behind this new compilation, am I out of line in thinking / hoping that we in the U.S. and U.K. may soon receive domestic releases of all those great editions of The Who’s back catalogue Japanese Wholigans have been enjoying without paying hefty import prices for the past three years? If The Who Hits 50! is just the start of a revamped release campaign, maybe I’m not out of line and maybe the next few years will make us U.S. and U.K. Who fans a bunch of Happy Jacks. (Thanks to regular Psychobabble reader Bill C. for inspiring this review).

Get The Who Hits 50! On here:

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