2. Tommy (1969)
Giving Tommy another close listen is a revelation, subtle moments coming to the fore: John Enwistle's bass popping on the denouement of "Amazing Journey" and into "Sparks," Moon's rolling rhythms on "The Acid Queen," and the way Townshend's guitar fires off on "Pinball Wizard." And, hey: Why hasn't "Christmas" become a wintertime standard?
The first rock opera, Tommy entered the musical fray in what most might be the most important year in the history of rock 'n' roll: 1969. Recorded in six months and mixed in two, it was epic out the gate: A story of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wunderkind nearly paralyzed by his father's murder of his mother's lover. And, after wading through the 75 minute concept album -- full of repeated themes, a Sophoclean narrative, and thrashing rock -- it was readily apparent a revolution was afoot.
Tommy's "problem" might have, at first, appeared to be its translation. How could a rock band make an epic partially inspired by Meher Baba work live? Released in May, the Who only had to wait until August to put the doubts to rest on biggest of stages: Woodstock. Rifling through a late-night/early-morning set, the Who played much of Tommy. The self-hatred on "Go to the Mirror!" and then the funk of "Smash the Mirror" echoed out. Picking up the leitmotif from the former, "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "Listening to You / See Me, Feel Me" were two of the most obstinate and emotional songs performed at the festival. Nothing could've been more epic.
On “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey famously proclaims, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was 1965: Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics just as he was turning 20. Forty-eight years later, neither the singer nor the guitarist-composer has fulfilled that prophecy. Only one member of the Who did: Keith Moon, drummer and merrymaker extraordinaire, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 32. (John “the Ox” Entwistle took his thunderfinger bass licks to his grave in 2002 at the still relatively young age of 57.) Still, it’s a line worth considering in 2013. The Who is still around, and just what does that mean?
Although the Who stands as an outfit with only one-half of its original members, Townshend and Daltrey are getting away with it … and then some. Five years ago the two were knighted USA-style at the Kennedy Center and, in 2010, the Who played a raucous and underrated Super Bowl halftime show: the next level these days, it seems, after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And the band’s performance at “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” was expansive and one of the highlights of the night. Like another stand-out, Billy Joel, the group pillaged through seven songs; the Who’s set included a rendition of “Bell Boy” with Keith Moon lending his vocals via monitor. And the group is currently knee-deep in the second leg of an American tour, “Quadrophenia and More,” that takes them to Europe this summer. It could be its last ever.
So, why keep going? It seems as though they have some unfinished business. Townshend — long a troubled figure with a blazing media spotlight upon him — released a tell-all memoir last year, Who I Am. And, then there’s the issue of history: The Who has always been considered “one of” the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely “the best.” When boarding the Magic Bus, the Who has always been seated at the back while the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin fill out first-class. Townshend and Daltrey, approaching 70, are out to prove something.
And even looking outside of its recent accolades and achievements, the Who has cause for renewed consideration. This is a group that contributed to the framework of how rock ’n’ roll musicians behave: They break instruments and have bad attitudes. They brand themselves: Who wouldn’t readily identify that Union Jack target logo with the group? They make money: T-shirts on the current tour are fetching $40 a pop. They come up with signature moves (Townshend’s jumping windmill guitar stroke) and they bare their chests (Daltrey). They fight with each other like brothers, they have sex with the Western Hemisphere, and they write songs about it all. And, then, one-by-one: They die.
The band’s recordings are the heart of the matter, though, and go a long way toward reopening the case on the brilliant band. The Who has recorded 11 studio albums that have, in turn, given rise to a myriad of greatest hits collections, rare outtake compilations, and some of the best live music ever committed to tape (including the granddaddy of them all, 1970′s Live At Leeds.) Here, though, we consider those 11 LPs as a portfolio in its own right. As the Who criss-crosses the country, it’s readily apparent that, to paraphrase Townshend, the song will soon be over. And it’s these primary documents on which the Who’s legacy will be judged.
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