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The Who - Who Are You CD (album) cover


The Who



3.32 | 208 ratings

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3 stars A three year vacation in the career of a band can be an eternity, especially when the members are still in the prime of their lives. After releasing the too-often-overlooked gem that is "The Who by Numbers" in 1975, the four members of the group spent more time apart than ever before and the lack of unity and camaraderie is evident in the recordings for "Who Are You." While Roger Daltrey was the poster boy for curly hair, health and fitness; frequent imbibers Pete Townshend and John Entwistle were still on very intimate terms with the bottle. But neither of them was floundering in the graveyard ditch that Keith Moon had dug for himself and even the threat of being fired by his concerned mates only temporarily curbed his all-consuming addictions. More than anything else, it is Keith's impaired drumming that is the albatross around the neck of this album and prevents it from soaring. And that's a rotten shame.

The poignant lyrics on the previous LP reflected the sober introspections that my generation (who grew up with The Who) were probing ourselves with in the mid-70s as the fact that we were no longer innocent flower children was finally starting to sink in. On this album the words vent the frustration stemming from the realization that most of that well-intentioned self-analysis went for naught and, if anything, our neuroses were more abundant and crippling than ever. For better or for worse, however, they accurately reflected our collective state of mind and if you notice that there's no question mark at the end of the album's moniker it's not an oversight. The Who were, indeed, us.

Much like they did on "The Who by Numbers," the group often encases their sarcasm behind cheerful, upbeat auras and the opener, "New Song," serves as a great example. The bright, crisp intro is inviting but it doesn't take more than a couple of measures to discover that Moon's fills are devoid of the fiery enthusiasm that characterized his famous take-no-prisoners approach. Funk had become a mainstay in music by then and John effortlessly incorporates that style into his bass playing but that only exacerbates the problem arising from the drum kit. Keith was struggling to keep a straight beat, much less play like Billy Cobham. Yet the tune is far from unlistenable. On the contrary, the synthesizer work Pete does on the expansive bridge section is very cool and Roger delivers Townshend's caustic lyrics about being in a creative rut in fine voice. "My head is spinning as I scrawl with my pen/'cause I've been pouring Vodka in my soul/nothing really changes, my friend/new lamps for old, new lamps for old.," he snarls.

Entwistle's compositions have always been hit and miss but "Had Enough" is one of his better efforts and the tasteful contributions of Rod Argent on keyboards doesn't hurt, either. Ted Astley's string arrangement gives the song great depth and John draws heavily on several trademark Who-isms throughout. As if playing the devil's advocate to Pete's frequent "peace and love" forays into the realm of spiritual enlightenment, Entwistle (in this case speaking through Daltrey's golden throat) spews out pure bile with lines like "I've had enough of being nice/I've had enough of right and wrong/I've had enough of trying to love my brother." and "Life is for the living/takers never giving/fooling no one but ourselves/good is dying." So much for positive thinking, you might say, but there was quite a bit of that bitter cynicism circulating in that age and John was just expressing what many of us were repressing. The next cut, "905," is yet another from The Ox and I love the sprightly, pulsating synthesizer pattern and the thin, Farfisa-ish organ tone that he incorporates on the interludes. It's a fairly straightforward sci-fi ditty about a bleak future in which humans have been reduced to being no more than imagination-starved automatons conceived in test tubes. "Everything I know is what I need to know/and everything I do's been done before/every sentence in my head, someone else has said/at each end of my life is an open door." he intones.

Up to this point there hasn't been a lot of prog to absorb but the excellent "Sister Disco," (despite its scary title) changes that trend. It incorporates a unique but distinctive synthesized string effect that reportedly took Pete many long hours to program, some energetic bass lines from John and a dynamic bridge section that steers the number in a totally unexpected and somewhat operatic direction. Townshend's words don't endorse that inane, monotonous phenomenon that forever stained the 70s at all. Rather, he celebrates its inevitable death. "Goodbye, Sister Disco/my dancin's left you behind/goodbye, now you're solo/black plastic, deaf, dumb and blind." and later Roger reiterates that spiteful farewell, adding "I go where the music fits my soul/and I will never let go..." Pete tacks on a short but delightful acoustic guitar movement as if he's dancing on disco's lifeless grave.

The progressive "Music Must Change" follows and Keith's inability to lay down a usable drum track for it may have been a blessing in disguise because the absence of his usual rumblings allows the tune's intricacies to be appreciated. Don't be misled by the smoky blues/jazz atmosphere they start with because the song is highly involved and guides you through a plethora of emotions. Daltrey is simply amazing on this cut as he goes from one extreme to the other, reminding us that music will constantly evolve whether we want it to or not. "But the high has to rise from the low/like volcanoes explode through the snow/the mosquito's sting brings a dream/but the poisons derange/the music must change." he testifies. What doesn't always change, though, is Entwistle's rock & roll writing style and "Trick of the Light" holds no surprises as it lopes along. It's about a fellow so insecure that he feels compelled to solicit praise for his lovemaking skills from a professional lady of the night. "Was I alright?/did I take you to the height of ecstasy?..." he asks. In the end the hooker only "shakes her head and sighs." Bummer.

The best tune by far is the stately "Guitar and Pen." Pete delves into rock opera territory once again to create this ode to songwriting and the creative process and I can't say enough about his delicate guitar work and the vocal gymnastics that Roger handles with ease. In addition Rod Argent turns in a stellar piano solo and I adore the grandeur and necessary pomp of the sophisticated arrangement. It's ideal for lyrics like these: "When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up/when you're kicking the fence and still nothing will budge/when the words are immobile until you sit down/never feel they're worth keeping, they're not easily found/then you know in some strange, unexplainable way/you must really have something jumping, thumping/fighting, hiding away, but important to say." "Love is Coming Down" is next and the group incorporates another big dose of Astley's lush strings to give this power ballad a broad, dramatic backdrop. Here Pete laments his inability to alter his destructive behavior as he watches himself "going down" in the grasp of his demons over and over, wasting every chance he gets to put his life in order. "I hope I don't sound as immature as I feel," Daltrey sings, "but when I get wise I'll give you a call, my friend." Sadly, the number could have been so much more if not for Moon's distracting dearth of concentration.

The album's closer and namesake is so familiar to most everyone on the planet that it's easy to overlook just what a landmark of prog rock it really is. The brutally honest, self-criticizing words and the way the synthesizer compliments all the various instruments and elements that populate this 6:16 epic is genius. (It's not surprising to find that Rod Argent had a hand in this one, too.) While Townshend opens wide his tortured soul and reveals the degrading details of his fall to rock bottom, he also invites anyone without sin to cast the first stone with a defiant "who the f**k are you?" while marveling incredulously at our blind idolization of him. "I spit out like a sewer hole/yet I still receive your kiss/how can I measure up to anyone now/after such a love as this?..." The words to this tune have haunted me since the day I first heard them and they still pack a punch. They encapsulate the mood of the late 70s perfectly. What a magnificent song.

The bonus tracks on the reissued CD contain a rather proggy, all-Pete demo called "No Road Romance" that is definitely worth checking out but the rough version of "Empty Glass" is difficult to sit through. The alternate takes of "Guitar and Pen," "Love is Coming Down" and "Who Are You" will only appeal to true Who aficionados and collectors.

Tragically, Keith Moon died of an overdose within a month of this album's release and the band was never the same. I'm very glad we have a whole catalogue of terrific songs in which his unique talents will live on forever. I don't doubt that Moon did the best he could on "Who Are You" but the truth of the matter is that he detracted from its impact rather than enhanced it. It's still a bold collection of tunes but not nearly as consistent as the five studio albums that preceded it. A worthy addition to any proto- prog library but not impressive enough to consider essential. 3.2 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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