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Who plays the Who?

It's interesting to read the diametrically opposed views on the merits of
performances of The Who's music by other performers.  I think it's a
consequence of one of the unique attributes of the rock genre: that works of
music and performances by specific artists tend to be in one-to-one
correspondence.  Let me contrast this with classical and jazz music, where
there is generally not this correspondence.

Consider classical music.  Usually, a composer is not affiliated with any
particular performance group.  A given composition will be played by many
different ensembles.  But the performers are always playing a very detailed
score, so different performances have more in common than they have
differences.  You can find dozens of different recordings of Beethoven's 5th
symphony, and only the most sophisticated listeners will have strong
preferences.  Consequently, most people will make statements about what
composers or compositions they like: "I like Beethoven's fifth; I like most
stuff by Beethoven and Mozart".  You won't hear too many people say: "I like
anything played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; I don't care for anything
played by the New York Philharmonic".    In classical music,
the composition has ascendency over the performer, and people's preferences
revolve around compositions and composers.

Now consider jazz.  Here you also have works of music ("standards") which are
played by many different ensembles.  There are probably hundreds of recordings
of Satin Doll, Take the "A" Train, etc.  But in jazz, the score is only the
barest outline of the music, and most of what is played comes from the minds
of the performers.  So different performances of the same song can sound
totally different -- so much that you might not even recognize that they're
the same piece!  (You get some help thanks to the ritual of beginning and
ending a song with a relatively "straight" playing of the verse.)  In this
respect, jazz is the reverse of classical music.  People usually make
statements about what performers they like: "I like John Coltrane; I like
the Jazz Messengers".  You won't hear too many people say: "I like Johnny
Mercer songs (no matter who plays them)".  

In rock-n-roll (and most pop music), the situation is a lot different.  The
majority of rock songs are composed by a member of a performing group, for
performance by that group.  So in the minds of most listeners, the work of
music and the performance by the group are inextricably linked.  This is
succinctly expressed when we say, "songs by The Who", as opposed to "songs by
Townshend and Entwistle as performed by The Who".  It's also evident in the
description of an alternative performance as a "remake" or a "cover", terms
which are never used to describe performances of classical or jazz music.

Given the close identification of composer with performer, there's much less
consensus on how to react when somebody other than the original artist
performs a rock song (thus separating the *composition* aspect from the
*performance* aspect).  Thus there are three views.  One is the "purist" view,
which says: "it's a song by The Who (not a Townshend song performed by the
Who) -- therefore, a performance by anybody else is not legitimate".  The
second view is the "classical" view: "somebody else can perform it, but it
must be faithful to the composer's original intent as expressed by The Who's
performance -- so if it sounds a lot like the Who, it's OK".  The third view
is the "jazz" view: "the composition is a framework, and there are many
possible interpretations.  As long as a performance has intrinsic artistic
merit, it's OK (or, as a jazz musician might say, it's got to have soul!).

[Let us disregard a fourth view, obtained by replacing "cash flow" for "soul"
in the previous sentence, even though it may be the dominant view of those in
the industry.]

All three of these views have been passionately expressed by various
correspondents on this list (and alt.music.who).  My own personal view, I
guess, is the "jazz" view.  But I have a great deal of sympathy for the
"classical" and "purist" views, because I am generally deeply skeptical of the
chances that a rock cover will have anywhere near as much intrinsic artistic
merit as the original.  I think that's because quite a bit of the artistry in
rock is carried by the performance and context, as opposed to the purely
musical elements -- the things that Susan Whiting / Craig O'Neill wrote about.

That being said, I think the Broadway Tommy (with its ironic title, "The Who's
Tommy"!) is amazing, because I think it *does* have artistic merit.  I think
it says a lot about Townshend that his work translated successfully to this
medium, and also a lot about Des McAnuff that he could figure out how to do it
(one only has to see Ken Russell's Tommy or hear the truly abomidable LSO
Tommy to know that this is not a no-brainer!).  Moreover, it had merit in the
eyes of many people for whom theatre, not The Who, is their passion -- as
evidenced by all the Tonys it won.  Of course, if you're passionate about The
Who, but indifferent to theatre, you're not going to like the Broadway version
as much as the The Who's, even if the Broadway version is the best musical
ever made.

[Parenthetical note: the Broadway musical succeeds as a medium for Tommy
partly because Broadway musicals and rock have been converging for a while.
This is evident in Broadway's increased reliance on special effects and
electric orchestrations, and in the large commercial rock concert's move
toward more special effects and fully choreographed staging.  I think this is
to the detriment of both.  I suppose that's why I'll take the 1970 Who album
over the original cast album, any day!]

Well, this turned out long.  Sorry for the tedium.


p.s.  There've been a couple more posts by Shel Talmy on alt.music.who.  I'll
forward them here if there's interest...