Who's Still Rocking After All These Years


This year the British Invasion band The Who racks up a half century of making rock’n’roll music, marked by its “The Who Hits 50” tour of America and greatest hits collection of the same name. Of course it’s rather ironic that the band who sang “I hope I die before I get old” would make it to 50 years.

Alas, two of its original members did not. Madcap powerhouse drummer Keith Moon died in 1978. Bassist John Entwistle passed away in 2002. Both succumbed largely as a result of their rock star excesses.

To a certain cadre of us in my teen years, The Who were our band. Although teenage alienation, confusion and rebellion were common themes in rock’n’roll since the 1950s, no other act addressed it so viscerally in songs like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation” and “Substitute,” and at the same time with smarts and panache. Their aggressive sound and destruction of their instruments also channeled youthful aggression while simultaneously reflecting the auto-destructive art movement.

That was The Who: both primal and intellectual, powerful and loud music that from the start also aspired to high art that would find fruition in the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophrenia. Guitarist Pete Townshend’s songwriting and musical ideas aspired from early on to express grand ideas and ambitions, and that dynamic tension was a source of their power, much like the friction within the group itself helped make their performances so urgent. As he came under the influence of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, yet another strain that may seem to have contradicted the primal elements in The Who’s music came into play. No other rock’n’roll band so exemplified the notion of yin/yang.

Hence it’s no surprise that a band so crackling with the teenage intensity that was the furnace at the core of the greatest rock music has found such potency in their maturity as they tour for what may be their last time. Yet at the same time – yin/yang again – also in some quarters unexpected. Its four original members were like four differing points on a compass (which the Quadrophrenia album was intended to express). Cynics have referred to them today as “The Two” or “The Who minus two,” as only Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey remain. But the duo were and remain the central figures in the group, much as both madcap drummer Keith Moon and almost lead bassist John Entwistle were all but essential to The Who’s sound.

I’ve seen more live rock music performances than I can count. I’m also one who eschews making declarations that anyone or anything in music is “the greatest,” mainly as I consider music and art to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Yet the show I saw early on in their “The Who Hits 50’ tour of the US (which runs through the end of this year) was the most magnificent concert I’ve ever seen.

It’s not simply a veteran band going through the paces in a professional rendition of their biggest hits. Instead, they indeed play the songs with an energy and even freshness that is thrilling. And they’ve been changing up the setlist so that every show is unique and different.

One reason why is that Townshend is determined to make the music still matter. Another is that drummer Zak Starkey keeps the dynamism of the rhythms as urgent as ever. And does happen to be all but born to do so as not only the son of Ringo Starr but also the godson of Moon, who was his early drum tutor.

I would urge anyone who truly loves rock music to see The Who if their tour comes anywhere near you. Even though The Rolling Stones will also be touring stadiums this summer, in 2015 there is only one World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band, and it happens to be The Who. And there’s no better occasion to revisit the many musical highlights of their long and storied career. Over the decades some have predicted or pondered about the demise of rock’n’roll. It is certainly far less prominent in the media and on pop radio than its ever been. But The Who in both how they play today and the amazing legacy they have created fulfill the lyrics of one of Townshend’s songs: “Rock is dead they say? Long live rock!”

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2015


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