Posts Tagged ‘the who’

Video Review: The Who — Live at Shea Stadium 1982

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

In the eyes of most pop music historians, The Who circa 1982 gets a pretty bad rap. With the hindsight of history, it’s not that difficult to understand why. Drummer Keith Moon had died in 1979, just before the release of Who Are You. The group enlisted former Small Faces drummer (and authentic “mod”) Kenney Jones to fill the drum throne, a move that enraged a certain subset of Who fans. And the pair of post-Moon Who albums – 1981′s Face Dances and It’s Hard from the following year – didn’t rate among anyone’s choice for best albums of the group’s career. And with a bit more hindsight, the marketing of the 1982 tour can look like a case of misleading advertising: as the live document of that tour, the largely uninspired 2LP set was called Who’s Last, the group was more or less expected to hang it up and go their separate ways after the tour. They didn’t, instead reuniting multiple times and eventually (2006) releasing new studio material.

Some bigger problems for the group were internal: Pete Townshend was mired in drug and alcohol abuse, and racked with self-doubt and confusion about his artistic direction; Roger Daltrey never could get on with Jones.

It was amidst this backdrop that The Who mounted a massive tour, documented now a third of a century later, on Live at Shea Stadium. Those who know the group’s history and/or those who have sat through Who’s Last would likely expect this video (on DVD and Blu-ray) to be a dull and lifeless affair, a document of a group past their prime and with little left to say.

And they’d be wrong. The band are shown here in fine form. Daltrey is athletic, and his voice is powerful yet controlled. Bassist John Entwistle is rock solid, with respect to both his stage movements (nearly imperceptible) and his bass playing (sterling and thunderous). Townshend looks more than a bit silly in his trendy clothes and haircut; he looks to all the world like the middle-aged guy who’s trying more than a bit too hard to fit in with the younger crowd. (And by all available accounts, that’s almost exactly what was happening with him at the time.) Jones is doing more than an acceptable job; rather than attempting to ape Moon’s drumming style – a feat largely impossible anyhow – he plays the drums forcefully, but in a manner consistent with his work up to that point. Remember that this was a man who had played on quite a few studio albums and performed countless live dates before joining The Who; it’s not as if Daltrey and his band mates wouldn’t have known what they were getting with Jones. (Keyboardist Tim Gorman is kept in half-light nearly offstage.)

For those who didn’t witness the ’82 tour firsthand (I attended a date on the brief 1980 tour), the Who’s Last album has until now been the more-or-less official record of that period for those who cared enough to listen. And it presented a lopsided picture of those tour dates. As was (and probably remains) standard practice, the concert tapes were edited to remove songs that had been released not long earlier as studio tracks. So Who’s Last came off like an oldies revue, a perception reinforced by the encore number, an Entwistle-led “Twist and Shout.” The world didn’t need another version of that song in 1982.

But Live at Shea Stadium – documenting the second of two nights at the New York City landmark, with some bonus tracks culled from the previous night – presents a more complete picture of The Who live onstage. And they’re better, more fiery that one might have remembered. They blast through a set list that includes the de rigueur chestnuts (“Substitute,” “Baba O’Reilly,” “Pinball Wizard,” and you can probably name the rest), but they also pepper the set with selections from Who Are You (including the underrated “Sister Disco”), Face Dances (unfortunately only Entwistle’s “The Quiet One” but not the vastly superior “Another Tricky Day”), and the then-new It’s Hard (most notably the late-period classic “Cry If You Want”). On all of these, not only does the band turn in an excellent performance, but they seem actually to be enjoying being onstage together.

Much of early 1980s videotape has a curious visual quality that makes it feel dated and sterile. The video here – described on the package as “upscaled standard definition original material” – looks quite good, and the multiple-camera production is typically professional for its vintage. The sound is excellent, especially in high-definition stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio.

So while this 1982 concert video doesn’t represent The Who at their pinnacle – one could argue endlessly on that score – neither does it show them at their nadir (for that, I would refer you to the 3LP set Join Together, a document of their overblown and uninspired 1989 concert tour). Thanks to this new video, the group’s 1982 tour can now been seen as an important – if not strictly essential – chapter in The Who’s story. Live at Shea Stadium 1982 is well worth viewing for fans.

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Album Review: Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia

Friday, August 21st, 2015

On one hand, the existence of this album makes perfect sense. Among many Who fans (myself most assuredly included), Quadrophenia ranks among the most celebrated work from Pete Townshend and/or The Who. While Tommy was arguably more groundbreaking – often (and incorrectly) cited as the first “rock opera” – Quadrophenia remains a more musically and lyrically satisfying work. While it’s true that Quadrophenia‘s story line remains more than a bit murky, it’s far more straightforward and linear than that of Tommy (or, to be sure, the never-finished Lifehouse project).

And as an expression of Townshend’s understanding – both emotionally and intellectually – of the Mod phenomenon (what Pete Meaden described as “clean living under difficult circumstances,” or something like that), Quadrophenia represents one of the composer’s most fully-realized and deeply textured works.

When The Who attempted to mount a tour in support of Quadrophenia, it didn’t really work. Between songs, Roger Daltrey(!) would attempt to explain the songs and story line, and while his intentions were good, the narration destroyed some of the flow. One can easily imagine an early 70s concert crowd responding with something along the lines of “shut up and rock!” The Quadrophenia tour-as-such was quietly abandoned in favor of a hit-laden set that featured a few Quadrophenia tracks.

But Townshend was demonstrably not finished with Quadrophenia. Though having moved on (into what we might call the post-Who era) to working on a stage version of Tommy, as well as the vastly underrated solo rock opera Psychoderelict, Townshend still wanted to put across the Quadrophenia material in its original, complete form.

The late 70s film went some way toward realizing that goal; it’s a far more nuanced movie than the overblown Tommy could have ever hoped to be, and the film version made some linear sense out of the muddled, slightly obscure story line.

But that wasn’t enough. In the early years of the new century, a reactivated Who toured the Quadrophenia material, enlisting guest vocalists to flesh out the characters. With the advantage of being able to draw upon modern sound technology, the group was able to put Quadrophenia across onstage in a way impossible a few decades earlier. They did it again on their 2012-2013 tour as well.

But even that wasn’t enough, which brings us ’round to what’s billed as Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia. Proper operatic-type vocalists (and then some) are backed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Oriana Choir in a new version of the extended work. Townshend’s significant other, Rachel Fuller, took on the daunting task of adapting Townshend’s material into the classical idiom.

How much one enjoys this new reading of Quadrophenia will depend to a great degree upon what it is that one liked/likes about the original 1973 double album. If John Entwistle‘s powerful bass work and the propulsive, barely-reined-in drumming of Keith Moon were among the highlights for you, then Classic Quadrophenia might feel like a letdown. As thrillingly bombastic as the orchestra can be, there’s simply no way to channel the power of the original Who’s rhythm section using classical/orchestral instrumentation.

And if Townshend’s slashing guitar and glistening, lyrical piano were big parts of what you enjoyed in Quadrophenia, you still might be disappointed in this new reading. Townshend is present on guitar here and there, and in voice. But not unlike his role in the (now greatly maligned) 25th Anniversary tour, Townshend’s presence is not a central component of Classic Quadrophenia. He’s more akin to a celebrity guest in his own work.

And finally, if Roger Daltrey’s expressive vocals were what caused you to appreciate Quadrophenia, then you’ll miss the vocals greatly on this new set. Taking the lead vocal here is Alfie Boe, a tenor most closely associated with musical theatre (Les Misérables, La bohème). Boe’s vocal performance doesn’t stray too far notes-wise from Daltrey’s version, but Boe definitely adds a “showy” and operatic shade to his reading that would be completely out of place on a rock recording.

And in fact, as rendered on Classic Quadrophenia, the material isn’t really rock at all. The orchestral trapping don’t seem at all out of place, and in many ways one suspects that this version might be closer to what Townshend originally had in mind for the material; it may well have been that since in 1973 The Who was his primary musical vehicle, that’s the route he took.

A few other vocalists of note appear on the album. Billy Idol had been involved in some of those early 21st-century performances of Quadrophenia, and few could argue that he’s the wrong choice to assist on “Bell Boy,” picking up the baton once held (shakily) by Keith Moon and then more assuredly by Sting.

And the star of Franc Roddam‘s film version of Quadrophenia, Phil Daniels, is now all grown up (56 in fact!) and lends his vocals to “Helpless Dancer” and a few other tracks. His presence establishes some conceptual continuity between this and those earlier versions of Quadrophenia, even though he’s not playing the “Jimmy” role in this new version.

To those weaned on a steady diet of rock’n'roll, Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia might – upon first listen — seem mannered and a bit stiff. But if one can open one’s mind to hearing the material presented in a classical-cum-stage idiom, there are many joys to be found.

Note: the album is available digitally, on CD, and on vinyl. This review is based upon the vinyl-format release.

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Book Review: Feedback: The Who and Their Generation

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

I’ve mused before on these virtual pages about the uncomfortable – and arguably even tenuous – relationship between scholarship and rock music. Somehow the pairing just doesn’t seem natural, even though a significant portion of rock is intelligent, and (I imagine) some scholarly works are at least in part informed by a rock’n'roll sensibility. But in general, the two go together like…oh, pick your own metaphor; I haven’t had my coffee yet. Oil and water? That’ll do for now.

Still, I remain open and receptive to endeavors in that area. And that openness – wise or misguided; you decide – led me recently to Casey Harison‘s Feedback: The Who and Their Generation. This book seeks to place The Who into the author’s context of something he calls “Atlantic history.” For the purposes of his study, Harison constructs a cultural and geographical entity he calls the Atlantic; this region includes the United States (and presumably Canada, though it doesn’t figure into the narrative) and Western Europe (with a decided emphasis on England).

With that basic scene/premise set and accepted, Harison endeavors to place The Who into the context of social, historical, and even political trends throughout the second half of the 20th century. Fair enough, you might say. But he doesn’t stop there: the author widens his historical lens to place that narrative into the context of the last, oh, five hundred years.

What that means in practical terms is that readers find a discussion of Renaissance minstrelsy alongside a look at Pete Townshend‘s guitar playing. Harison draws some very interesting connections – and, you may be glad to learn – avoids making grand, sweeping hyperbolic assertions about The Who’s place in it all. But somehow the whole enterprise feels a bit overcooked, a bit of, dare I say, a stretch.

Based on his knowledge, his writing skill, and his ability to elucidate a point, I have enough respect for the author to believe that the genesis of this book was more than a case of Harison saying to himself one day, “Hey, I’m a history professor with a special interest in Atlantic history. And I also dig The Who. Now there’s a book idea!”

And to his credit, Harison devotes a good portion of the book’s 175 (or so) pages to a survey and analysis of what he calls the “crosscurrents of influence” between the USA and Europe. There’s plenty of interest within that topic, for both the scholarly-inclined and the general rock-fan reader (as well as the six or seven people who fall into both categories, ha), and Harison does not disappoint. He really does know his stuff. I’ll wager that Who fans reading this will learn some fascinating things about the history of the Western world, and that Feedback: The Who and Their Generation will spark new interest in The Who among sheltered academic types. And what’s not to like about those outcomes?

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Album Review: Various — Pete Townshend’s Jukebox

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

UK-based Chrome Dreams has released a number of these Jukebox titles over the last few years, including titles exploring the influences upon Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and even The Grateful Dead. And while some of these artists have endeavored to do something similar themselves (McCartney’s 1999 Run Devil Run comes to mind), the concept is a sturdy and often illuminating one.

At its simplest, Pete Townshend’s Jukebox is a 28-song single CD survey of the songs that informed the musical sensibility of The Who‘s primary composer and lyricist. Townshend himself – a rather chatty interview subject in his day – made explicit mention of many of the artists and songs now brought together on this set. And in fact The Who covered several of these tunes: Sonny Boy Williamson‘s “Eyesight to the Blind” was the sole cover on Tommy (1969). And even back in the earlier 60s when The Who played Murray the K‘s NYC showcases, Townshend championed Mose Allison as an influence (his “Blues” is included here).

Some of the selections are pretty obvious, having influenced most all of Townshend’s contemporaries in one way or another. But listening to Link Wray‘s “Rumble” in this context, it’s clear that Townshend spent many hours letting the distorted jangle of Wray’s guitar seep into his psyche. And The Who always made their soul roots explicit, so having a James Brown tune (“I Don’t Mind”) here is little surprise.

The bluesmen included here would enjoy a belated and mightily-deserved renaissance/re-evaluation in Townshend’s 1960s Britain: Howlin’ Wolf (“Spoonful”) and John Lee Hooker (“Dimples”) are thus represented here as well. But while the jazz influences upon Townshend might be less obvious, works from Cannonball Adderley, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker fit smoothly into this collection.

Such a collection wouldn’t be complete – or even taken seriously – if it didn’t included some of Townshend’s rock’n'roll heroes; this set does, spotlighting Johnny Kidd & the Pirates (Shakin’ All Over” and “I Can Tell”) and Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues,” of course). But despite the inclusion of Otis Blackwell‘s “Daddy Rolling Stone” and Bo Diddley‘s “Road Runner,” Pete Townshend’s Jukebox isn’t merely a here’s-the-originals-of Who-covers set. The featuring of Ray Charles (the kinetic jump blues of “Mess Around”) and Booker T & the MGs helps remind listeners what was finding its way into Townshend’s ears while he was writing “Anyhow, Anyway, Anywhere” and “My Generation,” for example.

If there’s one shortcoming of this set, it’s the lack of any country-and-western tracks; Townshend cited Jim Reeves as an influence, and Chet Atkins-styled licks abound on early Who albums.

Derek Barker’s liner note essay draws upon quotes form the man himself to illustrate the connection each song has to Pete Townshend. And its context taken away, one can merely enjoy this CD as an eclectic collection of various (mostly but not exclusively American) music from the 1950s and 60s.

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Album Review: Various Artists – Who Are You

Monday, January 14th, 2013

I’m cool with the concept of tribute albums. Hell, I play in a cover band, so I get it. Paying respect to a group or artist is a worthy goal, if perhaps not the world’s most creative endeavor. But for it to be more than an exercise in futility, there needs to be something of value there for the listener.

On paper, Who Are You: An All Star Tribute to The Who would seem to have that: the list of artists here includes some highly-respected and/or outside-the-box personalities. John Wetton, Todd Rundgren, Terry Reid, John Wesley (of Porcupine Tree‘s touring lineup), Rick Wakeman and several others. What makes Who Are You a bit strange is that it doesn’t leave these artists simply to come up with imaginative covers; no, instead it pairs them, seemingly at random. So we have on one cut Joe Lynn Turner (Rainbow) with Mountain‘s Leslie West, and on another – get this – Peter Noone (Herman’s Hermits) with Peter Banks (Genesis) and Ginger Baker (Cream). Is that, you may well ask, as bizarre as it reads on paper? Actually, no: their version of “Magic Bus” is pretty cool, if failing to add anything to our understanding of the original.

And there’s the rub: few if any of these songs go anywhere new. Some are slavish, near note-for-note recreations of the Who versions, yet they generally lack the slashing power of the originals. But then few can compare to The Who. A couple of the tunes are true standouts: “I Can See For Miles,” a collaboration between Mark Lindsay (Paul Revere & the Raiders) and Wayne Kramer(MC5) is pretty damn exciting. But Nektar‘s cover of “Baba O’Riley (with violinist Jerry Goodman) seems completely unnecessary. The punk summit reading of “My Generation” (The VibratorsKnox, Dave Davies of The Kinks and Rat Scabies of The Damned) strikes just the right tone. But then Iggy Pop‘s “I Can’t Explain” is musically too reverent (blame/thank ubiquitous behind-the-scenster Billy Sherwood and Jürgen Engler for that), and vocally it feels phoned-in. Which it may well be.

In all, Who Are You: An All Star Tribute to The Who is a mixed bag. There are no outright disasters (though Pat Travers‘ comically overwrought “Behind Blue Eyes” comes close), but – while enjoyable and worth a spin – it’s not likely to earn a place as one of your favorite discs. In the end, when it comes to The Who, the best advice is to – if you’ll pardon the obvious wordplay – Accept No Substitute.

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Concert Preview: The Who

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

I’m very excited to be going to see The Who in concert in Greenville SC, just down the hill from our mountains tonight. It will be the third time I’ve seen the group onstage.

The first time was in 1980. Not that final “farewell” tour, but a short mini-tour that took the band to a handful of sports arena dates. Not very long after the Cincinnati Riverfront Coliseum tragedy, the summer 1980 show in Atlanta holds some particularly vivid memories for me. My buddy Lex and I ventured downtown to camp out for advance tickets when they went on sale several weeks before the concert date (electronic ticketing was in its infancy in those days, so “first come,first served” truly was the order of the day; read about that era and much more in the excellent Ticket Masters: my review is here). After spending the night on the sidewalks outside the then newish Omni, home to Atlanta Hawks and Flames pro teams (it’s long gone now; Atlanta builds and destroys with impunity) alongside a bunch of fairly scary types (we were innocent, suburban sixteen year olds), we ended up buying our tickets from a scalper who had a better spot in line. We paid about $20 each for our 14th-row seats.

When the day of the show arrived, we got an adult (his Dad or mine, I can’t recall) to drive us to the nearby shopping mall, where we caught a city bus downtown. Our inexperience with urban navigation meant that we were caught flat-footed to discover the bus that ran after business hours followed an abbreviated route and thus didn’t take us right to the Omni. Deposited instead onto Peachtree Street, we warily hailed a cab. This was the first (and for many years, last) time either of us rode in a taxi, and we were shocked and a little frightened when the cabbie immediately offered to sell us drugs. We politely declined his kind sales pitch, and after enduring the four-block(!) ride, ran away from the cab as fast as we could.

As we approached the Omni, I casually asked Lex, “You’ve got your ticket, right?” He stopped dead in his tracks: He had left it at home! Me, I’m neurotic about such things, and not only had my ticket, but had verified that I did a good three or four times since leaving home. I sternly advised him that I would not be accompanying him on his round trip back to the suburbs to retrieve his ticket. He did in fact make it back in time for the show, but I vaguely recall that he did miss some of the opening set by Willie Nile.

The show itself was great. This tour was of the Kenney Jones era, so I am not one of those lucky people who can claim to have seen the mighty Keith Moon onstage, but the four-piece lineup (augmented by a three-piece horn section and, I’m pretty sure, longtime keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick) tore through the group’s catalog. It was certainly the loudest concert I had attended up to that point, and few of the countless concerts that I’ve seen since were nearly as loud.

The next time I saw the Who was some nine years later. Newly married but as-yet childless, I saw the show with my (then-)wife at what was then called the Lakewood Amphitheatre. (It’s changed names and sponsorship countless times. If it still even exists, these days it’s probably the Krispy Kreme Lakewood Theatre or the Depends Undergarments Arena or something like that.). The group for this tour was a greatly-expanded lineup that found Pete Townshend on (shudder!) acoustic guitar, alongside countless faceless players. They put on a decent show, but the bloodless renditions felt more like a Who tribute group fronted by Roger Daltrey. The show was also built around Tommy, my least-favorite album in the group’s entire catalog. (For me, “least favorite” Who still beats a lot of things, though.) The tour was documented by release of the only truly dreadful Who album ever, the 3LP Join Together.

And that was it until now. Busy raising a family, I missed subsequent opportunities to see and hear The Who, including their mid 90s mounting of a Quadrophenia tour. I considered that one, but was wary due to its billing as featuring all-star guest vocalists. “Meh,” I thought.

Tonight looks to be different. Though The Who have only released one album of truly new material since 1982′s It’s Hard (an album that has a few great moments – like the blistering guitar coda of “Cry If You Want” – scattered among its general mediocrity), and their 21st century return Endless Wire leaned a bit too far in a singer/songwriterly direction for my tastes, that 2006 album did include a bonus live disc called Live in Lyon. And the power of that performance suggested that there was plenty of life left in the old warhorses still.

Of course John Entwistle‘s gone now, but Pino Palladino‘s bass work fits into the Who style in a way that the still-excellent Kenney Jones’ drumming never did. And Zak StarkeyRingo‘s son, taught to play by Uncle Keith himself – is a fiercely powerful, expressive and aggressive drummer.

The band also includes Pete’s brother Simon Townshend plus three – three! – keyboardists. But when the plan is to recreate Quadrophenia (one of my favorite Who works) onstage, those banks of keyboards are potentially a very, very good thing. I’ll be sharing the experience with my adult kids this time around, and that will make the experience even better.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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