Thursday, March 27, 2008

The 'Orrible 'Oo

In Jeff Stein's magnificent documentary on The Who, The Kids Are Alright, Roger Daltrey sighs about going back out on the road with "The 'Orrible 'Oo, the worst rock and roll band in the world." This week, VH1 announced that for the first time ever they would be devoting their annual "Rock Honors" show to one band, and that band is none other than Daltrey's worst band in the world, The Who.

For far too many people these days, The Who is the outfit that provides the opening theme ditties for a batch of "CSI" shows. Their legendary music now acts as stings for David Caruso punchlines. It's just one more reason to hate "CSI" in all of it's many geographic locales.

For those of us who care about such things, The Who is one of the true cornerstone rock and roll bands. Like all the great ones, the bandmembers embody a whole slew of contradictions; they are thunderously loud (for years, the band was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's loudest; Guinness discontinued the listing because they claim not to want to encourage ear damage; apparently they have no such compunction over beards of bees), yet capable of some of rock's most delicate melodies ("See Me, Feel Me" "Sunrise"); they are agressive and violent, once most famous for ending each performance with the ritual destruction of their instruments, yet capable of wisdom and artistic ambition with their rock operas and concept albums; and they can be hilariously funny ("My Wife" "Squeeze Box") and deadly serious ("However Much I Booze" "Won't Get Fooled Again"), often both within a span of seconds.

The Who was the first band of the era to express disillusionment with the failure of the Woodstock Nation, famously proclaiming it a "teenage wasteland." Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey and company were the centerpiece at Woodstock, playing a marathon set that included Tommy in its entirety and not stopping until the sun rose in the early morning hours (a moment captured rapturously in the Woodstock film). They also had a featured role in the other major rock festival of the era, Monterey, and its companion film, Monterey Pop.

With the untimely (but inevitable) death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978, The Who ceased being a vital rock and roll outlet. Townsend started saving his best work for his solo projects and Daltrey drifted into side jobs like acting. Bassist John Entwistle seemed content to retire to his country home, dutifully showing up for the occasional "final" tour. There were several of those.

Personally, my favorite period for The Who is their pre-Tommy days when they were relatively modest in ambition and scrabbling for hit singles, just like any other band. Admirable as chief songwriter Townsend's ambitions were, he was at his best crafting near-perfect, radio-ready power pop like "So Sad About Us" or "Pictures of Lily," an ode to self pleasure.

The great achievement of that early time is the long-player The Who Sell Out, a truly adventurous concept album and an uproarious joke all in one. The recording apes the style of 1960s British pirate radio, complete with idiotic jingles for guitar strings and baked beans. It also showcases Townsend's songcraft at its finest with transcendent numbers such as "Mary Ann with the Shaky Hand" (another tune about masturbation; Townsend knew his audience) and "I Can't Reach You." The 1995 expanded remastered edition of the album adds a dozen or so more tracks, including a brilliant ad for Coca-Cola that the company really should have utilized ("Drink coke after coke after coke after coke!" it commands).

The "Rock Honors" show will air July 17th. Until then, dig deep into The Who's humongous back catalog and don't be satisfied with the butchered snippets that announce yet another dull cop show.

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