Classic Rock Review

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The Who: 30 Years Of Maximum R ‘n’ B DVD (1994)

From Mojo

Apart from the Barron Knights at Bertram Mills Circus, the first group I ever saw live was The Who: It could have been Spooky Tooth, but The Who got there by a month, playing a small hall in Worthing as a warm-up date for the 1969 Plumpton Festival.

Out they walked, plugged in, and BAM! straight into ‘I Can’t Explain’: that was the last time I could hear anything for the next couple of days. I know they must have done stuff from Tommy, but all that registers now is that first physical impact: pure punk rock ecstasy.

The Who didn’t collectively do what they hoped to do in their most infamous song: They survived to become terminally unfashionable. According to Richard Barnes in his book Maximum R&B, Pete Townshend wanted to break up the group in 1975; according to Townshend himself, Keith Moon’s death in 1978 “undermine(d) the whole idea”. Any Who fan can point to some appalling lapse of taste; mine would have to be their performance of ‘Substitute’ at the 1988 BPI Awards. Did they have to? Cumulative embarrassments like these have had a retrospective effect, tainting a great back catalogue.

Well, this set does the business. There’s no way round it: The Who are an English pop archetype. Watching new punk band These Animal Men the other night, in between fits of giggles, I realised that their moves – all those rent boy pouts and psychotic stares, ‘what me guy’ expressions and, yes, scissor kicks – were in a line that went back through The Purple Hearts and The Jam and the Sex Pistols and David Bowie, right back to The Who. Oh yes, and don’t talk to me about Blur: just revel in ‘Dogs’, the 1968 single that, according to the authorised version, is dreadful but which summarises Parklife into three glorious minutes.

Seventy-nine tracks, arranged chronologically over four CDs, tell a good story. We all know that The Who first achieved full greatness by making industrial strength noise out of what went on inside a Mod’s head, but their High Numbers tunes about what these ‘sawdust Caesars’ wore on the out-side sound absolutely fabulous – especially ‘I’m The Face’: not many songs have entitled a magazine. A quick outtake, ‘Leaving Here’ concisely makes the point that the group were wise to ditch R&B covers, and then we’re off into nearly two hours of nasty teenage pimply noisy pop music, oh yessss.

It’s hard to recapture the extraordinary impact that The Who made in 1965 and 1966. First the name, a pop-art abstraction to place next to Them or The Byrds – later backed up with all kinds of rhetoric about ‘auto-destruction’ that, if Townshend stole, he stole first hand from Gustav Metzger, who’d lectured at Ealing Art School. In retrospect, of course, The Who and their managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp formed a classic pop mix ranging across class, sexuality and attitude; the mingling that should occur in the rest of society but so rarely does.

Then there was the noise: Kinks-like, sneering pop tunes pushed on to the next level of irritation by aggressive vocals, crunching bass, slashing guitar chords, total in-your-face feedback and, last but not least, drums as lead instrument. And then they started to go camp; the signs were there on ‘Substitute’, their greatest moment, with its incestuous phrases, high heels and false ending. Then there was their song about a transvestite child, ‘I’m A Boy’: a drum explosion, a major perv-fest, Number 2. Top that with ‘Pictures Of Lily’, a Top 5 hit about wanking, and you’ve got the songs that define my early, Ealing adolescence.

Then they went psychedelic, and did it brilliantly. No ‘Relax’ here but plenty of The Who Sell Out: a tweaked ‘Armenia City In The Sky’, the acoustic ‘Sunrise’, the mystical ‘Rael’ with a bizarre new coda, ‘Maryanne With The Shaky Hand’, the stinging ‘I Can See For Miles’. Cool outtakes from this period include ‘Early Morning Cold Taxi’ and ‘Girl’s Eyes’. Then it was 1968: everybody was making LPs but The Who kept knocking out singles that didn’t sell: ‘Dogs’ and ‘Magic Bus’, ‘Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’. Again, a couple of great outtakes: ‘Little Billy’ and ‘Melancholia’.

This is where many people will start to fall off, but not me: I was that teenage consumer, rushing out to buy Tommy the week it was released. I loved it then and love it now: for a record often cited as a benchmark of pretentiousness, Tommy still seems unassuming and surprisingly coherent, nor do I see what’s wrong with writing a sequence of songs about leaving adolescence and spiritual growth. If you’ve stuck it this far, then you’ll stick through Who’s Next and all the singles from 1970 to 1972, particularly ‘The Seeker’ – a major rediscovery with its irresistible riff.

Tommy was a massive success, especially in the US, and The Who went Rock. I can date the moment when the problems began: it was when Roger Daltrey started fancying himself as a great vocalist. He was wonderful on all the early stuff but nobody felt the need to comment about it. The Who were now treated with high-seriousness and, as tends to happen, began to get self-conscious and heavy. Live At Leeds, over-amply represented here, is a major black spot, as is the awful ‘Join Together’, the least of the series of singles meant to organise a dissipating youth community.

Quadrophenia, on the other hand, remains an honourable and fascinating attempt by a major writer on the subject to come to terms with his own adolescence – which got its own reward when it fed back into popular culture in 1979, with the release of the film and the Mod Revival. It’s here that the set should have ended, with ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’, but no, there were three more studio LPs: The Who By Numbers, Face Dances and It’s Hard – all collected on CD4 which, apart from a fine 1971 live version of ‘Naked Eye’, is very hard to listen to.

Maximum R&B is a great tribute to the group who defined the paradox of English pop – foppish violence – and then went on to grapple, more consistently than anyone else, with the tensions of growing up as musicians in an industry defined by adolescence. It is weakened, however, by two contemporary shibboleths: the apparent need to follow the story up to the present day (let’s vote on it: wouldn’t you prefer Ready Steady Who to It’s Hard?) and the habit of sticking in anachronistic live versions to spice up the storyline. For a major Who retrospective not to include the original ‘Substitute’ is perverse beyond the call of duty.

May 15, 2010 - Posted by | The Who Thirty Years Of Maximum R 'n' B | ,

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