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Things to remember the century by
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THINGS TO REMEMBER THE CENTURY BY: 'Who Are You'
Copyright © 1999 Nando Media
Copyright © 1999 Nando Times
By DAVID COHEN
(April 15, 1999 1:14 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) - "I woke up
in a Soho doorway./A policeman knew my name./He said, "You can go
sleep at home tonight/if you can get up and walk away." Those are the
opening lines of "Who Are You," the title track of a 1978 album by
The Who. That recording wasn't one of the band's most highly touted,
but it remains one of their most memorable.
The Who was one of the best of the British invasion bands that
crossed the Atlantic in the mid-1960s. Their arrival was not as
heralded as that of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but they quickly
established themselves with "My Generation," a defiant 1965 song that
hit the spot with the restless youth of the English-speaking world.
The band offered rugged, straightforward rock 'n' roll featuring
Roger Daltrey's muscular vocals, Pete Townshend's windmill guitar
playing and a powerhouse Jekyll-and-Hyde rhythm section of bassist
John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon.
After "My Generation," they had a generation by the ear; now they had
to figure out what to say to it next. In 1969, they released "Tommy"
and the stakes changed. "Tommy" was a rock "opera," one of the first
so characterized. It was referred to as such because it was unified
thematically, with a central character who appeared throughout the
two albums. Critics focused on the form of the album instead of the
content, and soon The Who were regarded in some quarters as
innovators with artistic (or pretentious) aspirations.
What was lost was what they were singing about. Principal songwriter
Pete Townshend (1945- ) was almost obsessively introspective; ever
since "My Generation," he had been largely concerned with how the
band interacted with its audience. "My great pride has always been
that I'm writing for a group of people that commissioned me back in
1963," he said at one point. "I'm still trying to find a way of
saying what they want to say."
So "Tommy," which on the surface was about a deaf, dumb and blind boy
who becomes a pinball champion, actually was a veiled history of the
band and its interaction with its audience. Two years later, soured
by Woodstock and its aftermath, "Who's Next" offered songs about
their disillusionment. 1973's "Quadrophenia," a significantly
better "opera" than "Tommy," looked further inward, with four
distinct personalities (loner, rebel, conformist, romantic) fighting
for control of Jimmy, the protagonist.
By the time of 1978's "Who Are You," Townshend and his bandmates were
in a serious intellectual funk. A good chunk of this album was
devoted to pondering the contemporary music scene and their
contributions to it. Four songs dealt entirely with music - one
savaged disco while another took note of the energy of punk.
Townshend and company were in a rut, feeling dehumanized, inadequate
and insignificant. "My music must change," Daltrey sang repeatedly on
one track, detailing the quest for a new and more meaningful sound.
On another, disillusionment took the form of: "Every idea in my head,
someone else has said."
The introspection went beyond music. "Trick of the Light," an
Entwistle composition, had the protagonist seeking affirmation from a
prostitute. All the concerns about self-worth came together on the
title track, a maelstrom written by Townshend and driven by Moon and
Entwistle in which our protagonist wondered who he has become. "Who
Are You" asked "Who Are We?" and the answers they came up were not
pretty. The Who appeared to still put faith in music, but they seemed
to have strong doubts about the meaning of their music.
"Who Are You" was something of a last hurrah for the band. Moon, one
of the wildest of rock's wild characters, died of a drug overdose in
September 1978, soon after the album's release. A year later, 11
concertgoers were trampled to death outside one of their shows in
Cincinnati. The Who soldiered on, and the three survivors each
recorded solo material, but the band lost its edge. Unable to
just "get up and walk away," they relinquished a lot of good will by
repackaging their material and staging reunion tours. By the 1990s,
they had come full circle, with a Broadway adaptation of "Tommy"
overshadowing just about everything they had done in the previous
Still, in the years between "Tommy" the album and "Tommy" the play,
Townshend and company released three great albums: "Who's
Next," "Quadrophenia" and "Who Are You." On these records, they were
trying to answer the question: Who are we and what gives us the right
to speak on behalf of our generation? They never did get their
answer, but they accomplished a lot by asking.
WHO ARE YOU, a 1978 album. Key figures: Pete Townshend, Roger
Daltrey, Keith Moon, John Entwistle, Glyn Johns & Jon Astley
(producers). Available from MCA.
''Things to Remember the Century By'' is a series about
underappreciated films, literature and music that appears 2 to 4
times per week in the entertainment section of The Nando Times. It is
written by David Cohen, managing editor of The Nando Times, and other
members of the Nando staff. Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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