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Oldies But Goldies: The Who’s Magic Number Was 45


Of all the great bands of the sixties the Who are the worst but only up to a point. The Who were the worst album band but a great singles band. Born the High Numbers and part of the mod scene where they covered R&B hits by the O’Jays and took lotsa speed their first couple albums were pretty forgettable but once Pete Townsend settled into being what he should always have been -a wiz at the three minute rock song, they flew.

With the exception of the sainted Keith Moon, Peter Townshend and the Who failed to fulfill their duties on one album after the next, whether it was Sell Out or Tommy, A Quick One or By Numbers, they couldn’t fulfill it over an album. Tommy hasn’t come within a million miles of sustaining it, everything that is any good is small pop songs, “Sally Simpson” or “Pinball Wizard” -all the big stuff, all the “see me, feel me” stuff is crappy. Watching the Who at Woodstock they are a terrible bore and their cover of “Summertime Blues” is rubbish: the definition of bloated.

But go back further than Tommy and you get a run of awesome singles: “I Can’t Explain,” “The Kids Are Alright”, “Happy Jack”, “I Can See For Miles”, “Pictures Of Lily”, “My Generation”, “The Seekers”, “The Seeker”, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” “Pinball Wizard”, “A Legal Matter”, “Boris the Spider (by Entlewistle who I interviewed for Creem back in the day and caught with a young girl in his hotel room), “Magic Bus” “Substitute and “I’m A Boy”. In other words, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. And If you add Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and the singles “Who are You” and “Squeeze Box” you have everything you need by the Who

Look at all those singles, of all the things that are impressive, and nearly everything is impressive, what is most impressive is the subject, from bad marriages to generation breakdowns to schizophrenia to cross dressing to pornographic pictures, Townsend wasn’t scared of subject. What tripped him up was ambition, he forgot he was a mod at heart and constantly over reached. Entire albums, even at their height, paled in comparison to the Beatles, Stones, Kinks. Though loved more than the Kinks, with the exception of Quadrophenia and Who’s Next, the Who never came close to the realm of a Something Else. It was all bullshit like Sell Out which, sure, had some real good singles, but also had those ridiculous ads.

Tommy is considered the Who’s masterpiece but Tommy is an awful album. Not only is the subject matter ridiculous and nauseating, stuff like “Amazing Journey” is so awful, so rivetingly asinine, it is unlistenable today. The instrumentals, the musical motifs, the Meher Baba guru stuff. How could a man who made his living from being a speed freak, Vesta riding, mod king become such a wanker?

Quadrophenia, Townsend’s rock opera look back at his mod years, is vastly superior. There isn’t a thing on Tommy the equal of “5:15” and the subject matter, a mod kid kills himself after the best weekend of his life erupts into a battle between the mods and the rockers, Is a near perfect subject matter. I saw Townsend play these songs at the Supper Club as he tried to shake off the rust before the Who toured behind it, and he was sublime. Sublime.

But that was the exception not the rule, Townsend is the great single artist as album bore and the Who were a stadium band built for night clubs.

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