Rest assured I did not shell out this box set’s full value’s worth, or else this’d have been the most arrogant (actually, the most predictable, too) rip-off in my shopping career. Actually, this boxset made a lot more sense in 1994 than it does now; reissues of the Who’s entire catalog have rendered it almost useless nowadays. Back then, though, it was a smash hit among the critics and was often proclaimed as everything a good boxset should be. In my mind’s eye, however, the principle of a boxset intended both for neophytes and collectors is either a ridiculously stupid or a non-ridiculously money-grubbing idea, so I consider it as a rip-off even back then. Ah well – at least it’s got good collector’s value.
As you might expect, the four CDs here present you with a rather detailed retrospective of the Who’s past, even if “thirty years” is a bit of an exaggeration – hey, just because you guys reunited in 1989 to tour and in 1991 to record a song for an Elton John tribute album doesn’t mean you’ve been kicking the world’s ass all through the Eighties. However, as far as the tracklisting goes, I don’t have too many problems with it. Okay, so I have a big problem – I want more rarities and live versions – but as far as “stupid boxsets” go, this one is at least reasonably structured. It should be noted that even out of the well-known songs, many are remixed in a way that makes them sound completely different from what you get on regular CDs. Which actually helps – sometimes – because you can trace every note that is played, but sometimes doesn’t; check out ‘Rael’, for instance, where Townshend and co.’s extremely thin backing harmonies are brought so high up in the mix you can easily notice how limp and flawed they are, almost as if you were listening to a raw demo version of the song.
Actually, if you really are a Who completist, at the very least buying the boxset gets you rid of the necessity to buy any “greatest hits” compilation, as all of the Who’s classic singles that didn’t make it onto either the original studio records or the re-issues are here: ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘My Generation’, ‘I’m A Boy’, ‘Pictures Of Lily’, ‘The Seeker’, etc., etc., together with the lesser standards like ‘Let’s See Action’ and ‘The Relay’. Only ‘Substitute’, for some absolutely ridiculous reason, has been “substituted” for the live version from Live At Leeds – a pretty crappy decision if you ask me (not that the live version is bad, but how’re you supposed to be getting the studio one? Buying a compilation? Aaaargh!).
Even so, though, after sorting out all the “hits” and previously available album tracks, and after sorting out all the tracks that made it onto the latter day reissues, you can still come up with about one CD’s worth of material that’s hard to come by otherwise – songs that are only available on out-of-print rarities compilations and songs that, to my knowledge, really aren’t available anywhere else. Some of this stuff isn’t recommendable at all, yet still some is very recommendable – to the point that if you’re a fanatic, I can’t imagine seeing you without them. Let me now briefly introduce you to this rare material by browsing through the four discs.
THE FIRST DISC roughly covers the Who’s formative years and the early punkish/lightweight-artsyish years of 1965-66. As you might expect, it features a huge amount of hit singles plus some of the more important album tracks off the first two albums. Some of the rarities on here ended up as bonus tracks to A Quick One and Sell Out, but others did not. Among the earliest stuff you’ll find a not particularly inspired cover of Bo Diddley’s ‘Here ‘Tis’, as well as the B-side to ‘I’m The Face’, the Shadows-style ‘Zoot Suit’, which is kinda fun (I think it’s also available on the Quadrophenia movie soundtrack album). More impressive is the B-side to ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’, the band’s furious rendition of ‘Daddy Rolling Stone’ which – if you really need my opinion – is one of their very best renditions of a true classic R’n’B number. Granted, in the Who’s case that ain’t saying much, but it really beats the shit out of the feeble James Brownisms of their debut. Then there’s ‘Happy Jack Jingle’ (‘Happy Jack had some fun here on Radio 1!’); the band’s feeble, almost laughable, but still historically curious Stones tribute cover of ‘The Last Time’ (the other Stones-supporting song, ‘Under My Thumb’, can be found on the reissue of Odds & Sods) and the disc concludes with the rare B-side ‘Call Me Lightning’, actually one of the more “rocking” numbers done by the band in 1967. A bit slight already by The Who’s current live standards, but catchy and melodic. Oh, and the most bizarre thing on the disc is the “hybrid” version of ‘A Quick One’, which incorporates parts of the studio original into a live version recorded at the Stones’ Rock’n’Roll Circus – but it’s NOT the live version you can hear on Kids, apparently it’s a different take. Certainly gives you something to think about.
THE SECOND DISC, covering the “hippie glory years” of 1967-70, is somewhat less rarity-abundant, but there’s some real good stuff on here. Namely, there are studio versions of ‘Fortune Teller’ and ‘Heaven And Hell’, which are both heavier and crunchier than any other studio Who of the period; still don’t match the ferocious Leeds renditions, of course, but they DO kick ass nevertheless, and Pete’s soloing on ‘Heaven And Hell’ is as ecstatic as ever. There’s also ‘Dogs’, the unsuccessful 1968 single which might just be the most eccentric song The Who ever put on record (I feel a strong Keith Moon influence here, too!), with Roger singing in a heavy Cockney accent about how ‘there was nothing in my life better than beer! until you, little darling…’. A good song to play to those who don’t feel just how quintessentially British these guys are – obviously, it flopped for the same reasons as Village Green and Giles, Giles & Fripp’s one and only album: 1968 wasn’t exactly the best year for showcasing one’s “traditionally-oriented” side. There’s also a slightly extended (in comparison with the version on Kids) ‘Sparks’ rendition from Woodstock, preceded by the infamous ‘Abbie Hoffman incident’, when Pete booted Abbie offstage for talking political bullshit in the middle of the concert (too bad we don’t get to hear the actual KICK!), and for some reason retitled ‘Underture’ even if it’s not really ‘Underture’; and the Leeds rendition of ‘See Me Feel Me’, also a weird ‘hybrid’ because the opening is taken directly from the studio version, and probably heavily edited. Overall, though, about half of this second CD is now on The Who Sell Out, so it’s less interesting.
THE THIRD DISC covers the Who’s Next/Quadrophenia period and is the least useful of all cuz it’s mainly devoted to reproducing the radio standards off the former album. Out of these, only ‘Bargain’ is presented in an alternate version – a live rendition recorded at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium (and earlier available in a fuller form on the rarities album Who’s Missing). It’s a cool live number with a fake ending and all, but I wouldn’t say it annihilates the studio original or anything. And unless you count stuff like ‘Let’s See Action’ or ‘The Relay’, the only other two really rare numbers are: a live performance of the classic rocker ‘Bony Moronie’, taken from the band’s Lifehouse sessions at the Young Vic (it’s always fun to hear Pete go through a generic rock’n’roll riff, but I get the feeling the song is kinda “hurried”), and a weird, weird, weird re-recording of ‘The Real Me’ at the first rehearsal sessions with Kenney Jones (sic!). Weird, because it sounds like the original slowed down a couple of notches – I can almost feel Pete, John, and Kenney falling into a hypnotic trance as they play along! No, really, listen to that bass, it sounds like yawning. Ever heard a bass guitar yawn? John makes it yawn. All the more weird because Roger’s lionish roar might be even better than on the original. A very confused performance, well worth hearing if you wanna get yourself a good puzzling.
THE FOURTH DISC, chronologically covering the hugest span with tracks ranging from 1971 to 1991, fortunately picks up the “rarity-fullness” again. The kickass live version of ‘Naked Eye’ here is now officially available on the reissue of Who’s Next, and I might be mistaken, but the live 1976 version of ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ might have made it onto the reissue of Who By Numbers (I don’t have that one, so can’t really tell), but in any case, it features some of the most awesome moments in the history of John Entwistle’s flying fingers. But the Swansea live version of ‘My Wife’ is certainly unavailable elsewhere, and it showcases the Who at the top of their game just as that other version of the same song, available on Kids, showed them at the total bottom of it. Hah! Fans of Keith Moon will be happy to have this particular disc, too, because of those four snippets of Monty Pythonesque comedy (‘Life With The Moons’ etc.) shoved in between some of the songs on here. They’re certainly cute.
Finally, the post Keith Moon period is intentionally drastically underrepresented (no complaints here – they did take ‘You Better You Bet’ and ‘Eminence Front’, unarguably the cream of the period’s crop, and wisely left out everything else), but you’ll still be getting two good live covers: the band doing ‘Twist And Shout’ on the 1982 tour (very aggressive and almost inspired, I’d say, although John on lead vocals sounds like total shit – what’s up with the guys singing and a laryngitis epidemy throughout the whole tour?), and the band doing ‘I’m A Man’ on the 1989 tour, with a very respectable Daltrey part. And they round things up with that Elton John tribute, which actually almost beats out the original cuz you’d sure expect Roger Daltrey to be more natural in his “tough guy” image than Elton himself; besides, it’s fun to see the traditional “macho Roger main part/sentimental Pete middle eight” opposition recreated as Pete unexpectedly inserts the chorus to ‘Take Me To The Pilot’ smack dab in the middle.
And there you have it. Now you can actually decide for your own whether you wanna follow in my footsteps or you prefer to back out. One thing’s for certain – almost none of these rarities fall under the “total shit” category, so if you’re a ‘casual fan’ and just want a “one-time” cash spending on the Who, the boxset is a reasonable buy. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anybody who would like the boxset and not want to invest in the actual albums anyway. So think!
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.