Thursday, April 06, 2006


How many bands in the last forty years can claim to be responsible for influencing at least five different musical genres and movements? Well, that is exactly what British band The Who had achieved when you consider the origins of "power pop", "hard rock", "punk", "new wave" and "Britpop". Throw in the "rock opera" and the feat is even more impressive.
With such seminal albums as "Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy" (an early singles collection); "The Who Sell Out", "Tommy", "Live At Leeds" and "Who's Next", The Who remained on the cutting edge of the pop-rock frontier as the sixties crossed over into the seventies.
The first batch of singles - "I Can't Explain", "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", "My Generation", "Substitute" - established The Who at the forefront of the burgeoning British Invasion and the mod movement of the mid-sixties.
The success of the band was based primarily on the unique synergy of its highly distinctive members. This fact was most evident in their "live" performances - Keith Moon's innovative albeit chaotic drumming; John Entwistle's thunderous and hyperactive bass lines; guitarist Pete Townshend's windmilling power chords and singer Roger Daltrey's thuggish presence and dynamic vocals.
Top this off with the artistic genius of Townshend's songwriting and the source of The Who's greatness becomes clear. Townshend continually pushed the band towards more ambitious territory, incorporating white noise, pop art and conceptual extended musical pieces into the group's style. Such was the dichotomy of the Who, especially when they were able to exploit brutally loud, macho music and explore textured song suites and vulnerable pop songs within the same context.
By the time of the singles "I'm A Boy" and "Pictures of Lily", Townshend had coined the term "power pop" to describe the vocally rich vibrant guitar pop The Who were then recording. But Townshend was still looking further. Townshend had begun to explore the possibilities of "rock opera". His first attempt was called "Quads." Set in the future, it concerned parents who requested four girls. When one turns out to be a boy, they insist on raising him as a girl. However, The Who's need for a new single caused this first rock opera to be compressed into one song - "I'm A Boy". When The Who's sophomore album came up short for material, Townshend wrote a mini-opera to close the album. "A Quick One While He's Away" is the story of a woman who is seduced by Ivor the Engine Driver after her "man" has been gone for "nigh on a year." The album was named "A Quick One" both for the mini-opera and the slight sexual innuendo.
Townshend would perfect his little experiments with "Tommy". Written during the period after The Who's third album - "The Who Sell Out", Townshend had become increasingly influenced by the teachings of Indian mystic Meher Baba. One such idea - those who can perceive earthly things are unable to perceive the world of God. From this Townshend devised a story of a boy who becomes deaf, dumb and blind and removed from earthly perceptions thereby allowing him to see God. When he is cured he becomes a messiah figure.
The Who worked on "Tommy" from the summer of 1968 through to the following spring. The album became a huge hit, earning positive reviews from mainstream publications as well as underground rock magazines. "Tommy" climbed into the American Top Ten as the group supported the album with an extensive tour, where they played the opera in its entirety, including dates at the London Coliseum and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. A new medium had been created and would ultimately lead to the collision of the classical and rock worlds and pave the way for the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"Tommy" had succeeded well beyond anyone's wildest dreams and Townshend wanted to go even further with its follow-up "Lifehouse" - a sci-fi rock opera with allusions to virtual reality (this was 1971!) and access to the latest electronic sounds. However, Townshend fell prey to his own ambitions and the project failed - with the salvaged recordings cobbled together to form the nucleus of "Who's Next" - ironically, The Who's finest hour. With its incorporation of synthesisers into the rock equation, The Who once more pushed the envelope with songs like "Baba O'Riley", "Bargain", "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Be Fooled Again".
By the late 1970s, The Who was a spent force (Moon had died in 1978) but the nascent British punk scene was obviously touched by its influence (despite the protestations of the Sex Pistols and the Clash). The legacy of The Who would manifest itself with each succeeding generation of guitar bands - from The Jam's blatant cribbing of Who riffs to Nirvana's instrument smashing stage act.

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