Recently, Pete Townshend made headlines for thanking God in a “Rolling Stone” interview that his late bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle are gone. Of course, fans of Townshend's band, The Who, squawked loudly, and Townshend was forced to write an ol' Facebook mea culpa. He explained that he had done a poor job of explaining just how difficult it was to work with Moon (nickname: “The Loon”) and Entwistle (nickname: “The Ox”), at times, and that he valued their contributions to Who history, and that the band's latest record — “WHO,” their first record since 2006's “Endless Wire” — suffered as a result of their absence.
It's not the first time Townshend has courted controversy, and he'll probably continue that pattern until he joins his bandmates in rock 'n' roll hell. But it seemed like a profoundly dumb thing to say, even if he didn't really mean it, because everyone knows Moon (who died in 1978) and Entwistle (who passed in 2002) were one of rock's greatest rhythm sections. Moon's hyperactive, fill-crazy style was bizarre, to be sure, but coupled with Entwistle's distorted-chainsaw bass, Townshend's clanging guitar work, and Roger Daltrey's majestic-urchin vocals, it was magic. And everyone knows that, after Moon's death, The Who was never the same.
The band's only released four albums in the last 40 years, two of which came in 1981 and 1982. Sure, they've done a million tours and kept active, but their story was largely written and wrapped decades ago, at least in the eyes of music history. So, this late in the game, after the obits have already been written in preparation for the inevitable final career move (croaking always reliably gets the sales numbers up), what's even the point? Why try to make another post-Moon, post-Entwistle record?
These questions, smartly, are addressed on “WHO,” which is quite surprisingly a fairly strong effort, one that is invigorating more often than it is boring. By the end of its runtime, “WHO” crawls panting across the finish line, but it's pretty astounding that it gets there at all, given that the guys who once sang “Hope I die before I get old” are now in their mid-70s. (Or, at least, two of them are. The other ones died before they got old.)
Opener “All This Music Must Fade” is a treat. “I don't care,” sings Daltrey. “I know you're gonna hate this song.” It's a great line — true, funny, challenging — and it shows that the prickly Townshend is loaded for bear. The song itself talks about how simple and un-hip it is, and then it resigns itself to the fact that it will eventually disappear and be lost to time. Yet the musical backing is classic Who, full of life. Zak Starkey (Ringo's kid) continues to do a respectable job filling Moon's shoes (as he has for years), Daltrey sells Townshend's sarcasm, Townshend himself gets a couple funny voices in, and the tune even references “The Kids Are Alright” without getting too wink-wink about it.
For a second, it appears that maybe Townshend has prepared another heady rock opera, maybe about the aging process and the eventual obliteration of all art given a long enough timeline, but “WHO” never quite goes there, which is a shame. For every “I Don't Wanna Get Wise” — a song that seems like a perfect bookend to “My Generation” — there's a stodgy lite-rock ballad like “I'll Be Back.” For every “Quadrophenia”-like plea for the unification of humanity (“Beads On One String”), there's the bad jazz of “She Rocked My World.” It's up; it's down.
Still, for all its faults, “WHO” has moments that hearken back to the band's classic era. “Rockin' In Rage” (which features the beastly Carla Azar on the kit) could've been on “The Who by Numbers.” Just the fact that we're sitting here in 2019 and there's a new Who album that is pretty good is kind of miraculous, when you think about it. All the classic rockers will soon be reclaimed by the universe, so it's quite a treat to get to hear them making their racket one more time, and pretty well, at that. All this music must fade, yes — but not today. Long live The Who.
Tony Bennett reviews albums for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artist: The Who
Produced by: D. Sardy
Personnel: Pete Townshend (guitar, vocals, keyboards), Roger Daltrey (vocals), numerous guests in various capacities