Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Who

  • Live at Leeds [Decca, 1970] B
  • Who's Next [Decca, 1971] A
  • Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy [Decca, 1971] A-
  • Quadrophenia [MCA, 1973] A-
  • Odds and Sods [MCA, 1974] B
  • The Who by Numbers [MCA, 1975] B+
  • Who Are You [MCA, 1978] B+
  • The Kids Are Alright [MCA, 1979] B
  • Face Dances [Warner Bros., 1981] B+
  • It's Hard [Warner Bros., 1982] C
  • The Who Sell Out [MCA, 1995] A+
  • Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 [Columbia/Legacy, 1996] C+
  • Endless Wire [Universal/Republic, 2006] C

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Live at Leeds [Decca, 1970]
This band has never even tried to simulate stage power in the studio except on its raw debut, which makes side one, with its first-ever recordings of two key live covers and the first version of the classic "Substitute" available here on LP, doubly valuable. But side two extrapolates the uncool-at-any-length "Magic Bus" and the bish-bash climax of "My Generation," which has to be seen to be believed. I much prefer the raw debut. B

Who's Next [Decca, 1971]
With its acoustic guitars and drumless bits, this triumph of hard rock is no more a pure hard rock album than Tommy. It's got more juice than Live at Leeds. And--are you listening, John Fogerty?--it uses the synthesizer to vary the power trio format, not to art things up. Given Peter Townshend's sharpness and compassion, even his out-front political disengagement--"I don't need to fight"--seems positive. The real theme, I think, is "getting in tune to the straight and narrow," and comes naturally to someone who's devoted a whole LP to the strictures of hit radio. Another sign of growth: the love songs. A

Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy [Decca, 1971]
In England, this is a greatest hits album. In the U.S., where some of these songs have never been released and most have never made the charts, it's a mishmash revelation. The programming defies comprehension--why not try to get the mod anthems on one side and the loonies on the other, or go for chronology? But I'd love it if only for "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," which in 1965 redefined the punk machismo of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "The Wanderer" against pioneering break-'em-up feedback that has rarely been surpassed. Also welcome are the original "Substitute," the self-explanatory "I Can't Explain," and songs about masturbation, dressing up like a girl, and other spiritual quests. A-

Quadrophenia [MCA, 1973]
Unlike Tommy, this one really is a kind of opera--first you get to know the music, then you sit down with the libretto and concentrate for eighty minutes. Even with the synopsis (as brilliant a piece of writing as Townshend's ever done) and lyrics, its account of a young Mod's "double schizophrenia" can be pretty confusing, partly because confusion is his subject. The music is cluttered with horns and unnecessarily shrill, so that--despite its considerable melodic (and motivic, as they say) pizzazz--you don't play it for fun. But if Townshend's great virtue is compassion, this is his triumph--Everykid as heroic fuckup, smart enough to have a good idea of what's being done to him and so sensitive he gets pushed right out to the edge anyway. A-

Odds and Sods [MCA, 1974]
Although Peter Townshend's genius (well, for once that's what it is) glimmers through on every one of these leftovers, all that glimmers is not gold, which is why most of them have been in the can for between three and seven years. The great exception is "Little Billy," a cheerful, cruel smoking-is-dangerous-to-your-health song that the American Cancer Society chickened out on; it'd make a great public service ad on The Who Sell Out. There are also two pretty fair rock life songs--and "Long Live Rock," a strained variation on that overworked theme. And to balance off the two pretty good devotional songs there's "Faith in Something Bigger," which could serve as Nashville filler. B

The Who by Numbers [MCA, 1975]
This record is more depressing than my dispassionate grade would indicate, not just because from the Who we expect better--do we, really?--but because its runaway fatalism invites dispassion. Peter Townshend has more to say about star-doubt than David Crosby or even John Lennon--he's not only honest but exceptionally inquisitive, and he's got a knack for condensing complex ideas. But despite their aperçus songs like "However Much I Booze" and "Dreaming From the Waist" circle around so obsessively that they end up going nowhere; I don't expect answers from the seeker, but I do expect him to enjoy the questions. No surprise that the two songs that break out of the bind are "Blue Red and Gray" (which means satori) and "Slip Kid" (about one more imagined teenager). B+

Who Are You [MCA, 1978]
Every time I concentrate I get off on some new detail in Daltrey's singing or Townshend's lyrics or Entwistle's bass parts--though not in Moon's drumming, and I still don't relate to the synthesizer. But I never learn anything new, and this is not my idea of fun rock and roll. It ought to be one or the other, if not both. B+

The Kids Are Alright [MCA, 1979]
I prefer the originals, but this isn't a bad sampler. All of the songs are good, many are classics, and the relative roughness of performance has its attractions even if the relative roughness of sound doesn't (most of them are from live dates never intended for vinyl). One thing I'd like to know, though--if he's so "vital," how come twelve of the fifteen Townshend compositions are from the '60s? B

Face Dances [Warner Bros., 1981]
If nothing else, Keith Moon's death seems to have delivered Pete Townshend of his obsession with the band he created--and with his own mortality. His new sex songs are stylish and passionate, the strongest he's written for the Who in a decade. Problem is, his pretty-boy mouthpiece sounds like he's forcing the passion. Which reminds me that sex always has to do with mortality--and that mortality catches up with pretty boys faster than with the rest of us. B+

It's Hard [Warner Bros., 1982]
Tommy's operatic pretensions were so transparent that for years it seemed safe to guess that Townshend's musical ideas would never catch up with his lyrics. And it fact they didn't--both became more prolix at about the same rate. This isn't so grotesque as All the Blind Chinamen Have Western Eyes, but between the synths and the book-club poetry it's the nearest thing to classic awful English art-rock since Genesis discovered funk. Best tune: "Eminence Front," on which Townshend discovers funk. Just in time. Bye. C

The Who Sell Out [MCA, 1995]
Back when they were as underground Stateside as Jefferson Airplane or the Mystery Trend, their charm was that they didn't take their pretensions seriously. This illusion was perpetuated beguilingly on their only great album, an exultant tribute to top 40 consumerism in which sleek, glorious singles yield gracefully to dumb, catchy ads--all paced as if the world's smartest AM jock has been stricken with laryngitis and forced to juggle 45s and carts until help arrives. There are no bad songs here, ads included--my three favorites, "I Can See for Miles" included, are "Tattoo," "Armenia City in the Sky," and "Heinz Baked Beans," none of which most AORheads ever heard. Plus 10 bonus cuts that are good for something. A+

Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 [Columbia/Legacy, 1996]
Commemorating a signal moment in rock history--the day Sony got a piece of the Who. C+

Endless Wire [Universal/Republic, 2006]
The album is unlistenable for a simple reason: Roger Daltrey. Now 62, he's incapable in body as well as mind of negotiating the first new Who material since 1982's dreadful It's Hard. Gesturing futilely toward high notes as he tries to remember his acting lessons, he croaks, growls, shouts, emotes and otherwise bollockses songs he's sure are profound. When the leader spells him seven tracks in, the sharp uptick in modesty and lyricism comes as a relief until the "Wake up and hear the music" jag at the end. But it's the leader who decided prog was a peachy idea, the leader who designates yet another song cycle a "mini-opera," the leader who gives the orders around here. So the album is also unlistenable for a complicated reason: Pete Townshend. C

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: The relatively stylish and passionate sex songs Peter Townshend wrote for 1981's Face Dances sounded forced from the aging pretty boy who mouthed them, and between the synths and the chorales and the writing in parts and the book-club poetry, 1982's It's Hard was the nearest thing to classic awful English art-rock since Genesis discovered funk. After that they broke up, thank God, but for me it was ruined--I could barely listen to the outtakes and arcana they continued to feed their fans, some of which I'd hoarded on tapes and U.K. pressings for decades, and their CD-market best-of made me sad. After that they staged a reunion.

See Also