In a way, the Who has no one to blame for a slow and steady slide into overlooked rock-god status.
There were simply too many concert jaunts between its most recent releases of new material in 1982’s It’s Hard and 2006’s Endless Wire, cash-ins that forever connected the band with oldies tours. They lost a generation of fans, and became a conversation-piece antique along the way. Before that, weighty pretensions surrounding sprawling projects like Tommy, and replicating their success, had already slowed the Who. Then the group lost both drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle.
Yet there’s no denying, if you dig into the stacks, this band’s shuddering energy — equal parts speed, raw fury and rangy emotion. (Oh, and a little nudge-nudge humor here and there, too.) Sit back as your friends over at SomethingElseReviews.com start digging …
“I CAN’T EXPLAIN” (single, 1964): I grew up in the age of the Statement Record by the Who. Rock operas. Themes. Big ideas. So, the journey back to their earliest stuff was slow work. All of it seemed so, well, ungrandiose. Then I found this. This beautiful, beautiful mess.
The studio version of “I Can’t Explain” — call it the R&B-loving bastard child of the Kink’s “All Day and All of the Night” with the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” — is the Who being both of and not of the moment. So, there are hokey handclaps but also a nascent version of the patented Pete Townshend windmill, a skiffle-influenced riff but then a solo that must have came off like an angular message from outer space back then. And Keith Moon, just itching to go wild. There’s so much tension in the studio version, it just crackles with energy.
I dug deeper, listened harder. Tried to forget about pinball wizards, what was going on behind those blue eyes, teenage wasteland, all of it. And, finally, I uncovered 1970’s titanic concert momento Live at Leeds, with its meltdown reformulation of this track. All of that pent-up teenage angst is let go in a volcanic series of runs by Moon, even as Roger Daltrey is set free to run and howl. Then Pete, initially in tandem with John Entwistle’s monstrous bass, moves out into a torrent of guitar pyrotechnics — sounding like teeth broken in the midst of a bar brawl.
How had I initially dismissed all of this? I can’t explain, either. — Nick DeRiso
“SQUEEZE BOX” (THE WHO BY NUMBERS, 1975): When asked to write about the Who, I’m almost ashamed to admit that “Squeeze Box” was the first song that popped into my mind. I immediately set it aside. After all, we’re talking about The Who, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and the minor hit from 1975 is essentially a novelty record. There are songs that are so much deeper and more important in their catalog, and I needed to find one of them to write about. The more I thought about it, though, the more the chorus from this song kept running through my head. Finally, I succumbed.
The reason, I believe, is that “Squeeze Box” illustrates one of the things that I love about the Who. For all of the huge, awesome, epic rock songs they recorded, like “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” they also never lost that sense of fun and goofiness in their music. For every one of those big statement songs, there’s a sort of silly but fun piece like “Boris the Spider.” For all the heavy-handed artsy stuff, there’s an all-out garage rocker. “Squeeze Box” fits perfectly into that lineage.
Ostensibly about a woman who really enjoys playing her accordion, the lyrics — “she goes in and out/ and in and out/ and in an out/ and in and out/ She’s playing all night/ and the music’s all right/ Mama’s got a squeeze box/ daddy never sleeps at night” — certainly leave little opportunity for misinterpretation. Though I have seen a couple of pretty funny theories over the years from people trying to bring some kind of deeper meaning to it, since we all know the Who couldn’t just write a quick, fun little ditty.
Certainly sexual innuendo — if you can call this innuendo — was around before the Who. It’s been around probably since the first musician played the first note. It was definitely a well-established tool of rock ‘n’ roll long before this record was released in 1975. Chuck Berry was singing about playing with his ding-a-ling just a few years earlier, which makes the lyrics of this song look practically veiled by comparison. But there’s something a little different about “Squeeze Box” that sets it apart from the standard novelty song. The Who had the gravitas to take a silly song and make it hard to dismiss, even more than 35 years later. (When was the last time you cranked up “My Ding-a-Ling” and sang along?) Besides that, the song, like so many others from the Who, is just so damned catchy that it’s almost impossible to get it out of your head.
Though “Squeeze Box” is mostly acoustic and makes use of instruments like banjo and accordion that aren’t traditionally part of the rock world, the driving rhythm of it and the juvenile humor certainly served as an inspiration to many of the glitzy, sex-obsessed hard-rock bands that would take over the airwaves in the 1980s. (The most obvious example of those acts, Poison, even covered the song. It was the closest thing to a highlight on their 2002 album Hollyweird.) You may or may not want to thank the Who for helping influence that particular era of music, but it’s what I grew up listening to and holds some of my fondest memories from my youth, so, for the most part, I’m glad this song came along.
And did I mention there’s a banjo solo by Pete Townshend? You can’t go wrong with that, right? — Fred Phillips
“AMENIA CITY IN THE SKY” (The Who, 1967; Sugar, 1992): We’ll get to the Who in a moment, but right now I take a detour through my own past because that’s how I got to the Who myself. When you’re young, it’s easy to ignore the real greats because you just know whatever you love is the best. Your bands are it and, like you, indestructible. And then they self-destruct, leaving you wondering what just happened. So goes the short story of Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du trio Sugar — through whom I fell in love with “Armenia City In The Sky.” And it was easy to ignore the Who because it didn’t say “(Townshend)” as it generally would in the songwriting credits for a Who song, it said “(Keen)” (a friend of Pete Townshend’s who later went on to form Thunderclap Newman.) But I wouldn’t be able to ignore the Who for long.
What hooked me on the Sugar version was how immediate, how insistent “Armenia” was. Though it’s a live take, and a b-side from the Good Idea single also found on the later Besides collection, it shows off everything Sugar had to offer — loud, fiery, intense action, sloppy as it might at times be, but it simply refused to be denied. Little did I realize at the time that it shared so much spirit with the band that brought it to life.
And that’s where the Who comes in. I eventually worked out that it was a Who number from Sell Out, which grew to be a quick favorite itself, even if the two versions of the song are distinctly different. Where Sugar injected theirs with the members’ punk heritage, shouted vocals and amped-up sound, the Who’s reflects the late 60s’ psychedelic vibe with careening horns and echoing voices bouncing all around. Once heard, you’ll blame the song for permanently perverting the way you mentally pronounce “Armenia.” And in case you’re wondering, yes, you do need both bands’ versions. — Tom Johnson
“THE PUNK AND THE GODFATHER” (QUADROPHENIA, 1973): One night many years ago, I attended a going away party for a friend who was moving to California. At one point during the evening, we ended up putting Quadrophenia on the stereo. We listened to the entire album at obscene volumes. We said nothing … and just let the sound wash over us. It made me feel both exhilarated and sad. Big changes in life are like that.
I’ve ways been amazed by this particular Who album. Every time I listen to it, I think of how it must feel to produce just one thing this special. The song itself contains many elements that are vintage Who: Pete Townshend‘s slashing guitar chords, John Entwistle’s muscular bass, and Moon’s hyperactive drums. I don’t know what Roger Daltrey’s singing about but that’s not his fault, because every time I hear this song, I’m back in my friend’s living room, wishing he didn’t have to move away. — Mark Saleski
“EMINENCE FRONT” (IT’S HARD, 1982): It’s a (mostly) two-chord, plodding song, it doesn’t have Keith Moon’s blood-splattering fills, and Townshend takes the lead vocal over a clearly more superior singer in Daltrey. The sequenced, endlessly repeating figure on synthesizer recycles an old idea from “Baba O’Riley.” By It’s Hard, the Who was well past it’s peak. And yet on most days, this is my go-to Who tune.
Why? Because “Eminence Front” is a fucking fantastic groover.
Starting with the programmed synth, the band piles discreet layers on that foundation. Two guitars — yes, Daltrey plays one — add another rhythmic texture, and drummer Kenney Jones may not set off fireworks like Moon would have done, but his beat is booming and resolute. Let’s face it, though, it’s Entwistle who is at the center of this groove: His nimble, fleet fretwork shakes out every particle of soul out of those two chords. So sublime is that funky sequence he does during the chorus.
The Who is known for rockin’ it heavy, but people forget, they rooted themselves in part from rhythm and blues. And they brought the rhythm for “Eminence.” — S. Victor Aaron
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