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September 11, 2017

Book Notes - Sean Egan "The Who on the Who"

The Who on the Who

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sean Egan's book The Who on the Who collects unedited interviews with the band's members, and taken collectively reads as an oral history.

Mark Wilkerson wrote of the book:

"A collector's delight—this is a fascinating excursion through Who history guided by the distinctive voices of the band members themselves. This enthralling collection of both classic and rare interviews spanning five decades recounts the story of the Who in all its ferocious glory."

In his own words, here is Sean Egan's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Who on the Who:

"I Can't Explain"
"Anyway Anyhow Anywhere"
"My Generation"

Much of the content of The Who on the Who discusses LPs. This is understandable: as their 1969 work Tommy popularised the idea of the rock record as extended narrative, the Who are perceived as the quintessential album act.

Yet a fact that repeatedly bobs up in the text is that the Who were also a great singles band. In fact, before the advent of box-sets and bonus tracks, it was a longstanding grievance of American fans that the Who's British catalogue was studded with top-notch standalone 45s that had never been exported across the Atlantic. Moreover, a look at the Who's past throws up an arresting fact. They are the only artists in the history of post-Elvis popular music who can claim to have matched the Sex Pistols' opening triumvirate of singles – 'Anarchy in The UK', 'God Save The Queen' and 'Pretty Vacant' – for aesthetic power, spiritual confrontationalism and sonic adventurism.

Where other artists' first singles are often consigned to the status of juvenilia (e.g., the Beatles' 'Love Me Do', the Rolling Stones' 'Come On'), the Who are still opening concerts with theirs. 'I Can't Explain' (January 1965) is a stunning debut, a lament of inarticulacy in which almost everything – melody, guitar riff, sentiment – is appropriately staccato. The only thing fluid about the record is, strangely, the drumming: in a day and age where percussion was uniformly solid and rigid, Keith Moon's playing is beguilingly liquid.

Moon's innovatory drumming was not something necessarily picked up on by the purchasers who made 'I Can't Explain' a UK number eight. The groundbreaking on May 1965's 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere', however, was impossible to miss. The public had become familiar with the concept of guitar feedback via the fact of the Beatles whimsically shoving in a brief example at the start of their 1964 single 'I Feel Fine'. The Who's second single, however, did not use a polite, miniature version of the high, shrieking sound that results when an electric guitar set to a high volume is placed too close to its amplifier and causes the guitar’s sound to enter the guitar and get amplified again. Instead, it put it front and centre, with melody paradoxically being coaxed and teased from this technical fault. It sounded as confrontational and studiedly obnoxious as the record's libertarian lyric.

The Sex Pistols' records had an insurrectionary bent that those of neither the Who nor any other predecessor could boast. However, the freedom which enabled the Pistols to straddle the roles of enemies of society and successful recording act was ultimately made possible by the Who's generation, and indeed by the Who's 'My Generation'. The group's third single was as confrontational as any record could be in October 1965 without destroying an artist's career. Politesse and deferentialism were then so sown into society that neck-length hair on men was viewed by even fairly intelligent people as approaching depraved, while in their July 1965 court appearance for insulting behaviour and using obscene language, the Rolling Stones felt obliged to claim that they never swore. In the middle of this agonisingly proper atmosphere came a record that snarled "Hope I die before I get old!" and tauntingly came within a couple of syllables of telling the Who's 'elders and betters', "Why don't you all fuck off!" The music matched the power of the sentiment, from the rampaging rhythm track, to John Entwistle's belligerent, groundbreaking bass solo, to the atonal, feedback-punctuated frenzy that closes proceedings.

Notwithstanding the Who's glorious, elongated career, you could plausibly argue that it was all downhill from there, starting with the concessions on the My Generation album which followed in December. Despite the commercial success of that uncompromising opening trinity of releases ('Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' made number ten; 'My Generation' number two), the Who for some reason still felt obliged to prettify their sound: much of their debut LP is depressingly, inappropriately draped in jolly piano work.
Who's Next

In an epic 1972 interview spanning 55 pages of The Who on the Who, Pete Townshend says of the band's latest album, released in August the previous year, "Who’s Next was a stepping stone… As an album I was really quite disappointed in it … A week after it was out and in the charts I forgot about it and now the public’s forgetting about it and I think it’s a good thing." From this distance, these comments are laughable: Who's Next is now widely considered one of the dozen greatest albums ever made.

That Townshend needed some distance to appreciate Who's Next's qualities is understandable. The process of recording it was agony for the Who's guitarist, main songwriter and chief spokesman. Not only did it involve the disintegration of his friendship with Who co-manager Kit Lambert and the abandonment of a tie-in movie, but it also led to the traducing of an assiduously cultivated storyline much more intricate than that of Tommy. What was intended to be a double concept album called Lifehouse became a single set consisting of what producer Glyn Johns considered to be the best Lifehouse songs, sequenced with complete disregard for original narrative purpose. Miraculously, though, any issues about comprehensibility were rendered irrelevant by supreme listenability.

 Most kudos went to 'Won’t Get Fooled Again', an eight-and-a-half-minute barnstorming epic that provided a disillusioned bookend to the defiance of “My Generation” (“Nothing in the street looks any different to me”). Just as deserving of hosannas, though, was the equally profound but far less lengthy and noisy 'Love Ain't For Keeping', a beautiful acoustic number which proved three things about rock music. The first was that it could essay sex without being salacious. The second was that the medium could be used to explore domesticity. The third was that rock lyrics could be genuine poetry. How else are we to describe this:

Black ash from the foundry hangs like a hood
But the air is perfumed by the burning firewood
The seeds are bursting, the springs are seeping
Lay down my darling, love ain't for keeping

Wordsworth could not have done better. Couldn't play power chords, either.

"Tin Soldier"
"(I Know) I'm Losing You"

The Who on the Who contains an interview with Who members conducted by Charles M. Young for the July 1989 issue of Musician magazine. The interview was designed to promote the fact that the Who were on the road again – despite a 1982 jaunt billed as their farewell tour.

Following the premature death of the iconic, madcap Moon in 1978, the band had replaced him with ex-Small Faces/Faces drummer Kenney Jones. However, in '89, Simon Phillips had taken Jones' place, a fact related to no little disharmony within the Who, as revealed in the comments on Jones in Young's feature. Who vocalist Roger Daltrey bluntly states of Jones, "I just never thought he was the right drummer for the Who. From Day One. I thought it totally unbalanced the way John plays bass." Entwistle offers of the departed sticksman, "Roger would not have come back to the Who if Kenney were here. I guess I was his closest friend in the band, but the fact is, you can only take friendship so far." Townshend responded, "I think John and Roger are full of shit on that issue … the Who post-Keith was a different band ... if you reduce Kenney’s role to simply not responding to the spaces that Keith would have filled up, it’s a kind of nonsense argument ... I felt we should not try to replace Keith, not go down the same dynamic road."

Such public squabbling served to unjustly diminish Jones as a musician. Anyone reading these comments who was not familiar with his work might imagine Jones was a mediocrity, rather than a musician responsible for many peerless recorded drumming performances, including a brace that are among the greatest of all time. On the Small Faces' 1967 psychedelic-soul single 'Tin Soldier', he perfectly shadows the seesawing emotions of lead singer Steve Marriott as Marriott beseeches a woman to reciprocate his affections. When Marriott issues a final, desperate "I lo-ove you!", Jones' untidy, elongated clatter across his kit exquisitely seems to describe the singer's spent state. Jones proved himself equal to another great vocalist on '(I Know) I'm Losing You'. This larger-than-life 1971 Faces cover of the Motown classic appeared on Rod Stewart album Every Picture Tells a Story. That they allow him to take over for the final two minutes of the 5:20 running time is evidence of the esteem his Faces colleagues hold Jones in. Jones rises to the occasion with ferocious, double-time, extended patterns that Stewart only needs to punctuate with orgasmic whoops.

Sean Egan and The Who on the Who links:

the book's page at the publisher

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Bowie on Bowie

also at Largehearted Boy:

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