The Who are back with WHO
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
The Who are back with their first studio album in 13 years simply called WHO. It seems like a fitting title because this album they truly prove that they are undeniably The Who (even if it’s just down to Roger and Pete) that can still rock. Let’s make it clear that when you hear a Pete Townshend guitar chord you know it’s Pete Townshend, and no one else and as Roger sings with conviction “We still got our ball and chain.” Being one of the classic of classic rock bands there are many nods to the past. The familiar Baba O’ Riley type synth sounds swirl throughout the album like an old friend on certain tracks like Street Song.
So many of the lyrics seem resonant of what The Who are doing by releasing an album in 2019. Take the opening line on the feisty, grittiness of All This Music Must Fade “I don’t care / you’re really gonna hate this song / I don’t care / that said / we never really got along” it could mean a shout out to those punters who don’t think The Who still have it or maybe a tongue in cheek between Roger and Pete’s 50+ musical relationship. Either way this song is a great opening and ends with Townshend obstinately “who gives a f#@%.” Obviously not The Who.
Ever since 1980 The Who’s biggest problem was Townshend determining what was a Who song or Townshend solo song and sometimes that line got crossed with not the best final
results. These songs started off as a Townshend solo album until Roger heard them and thought they should be Who songs. Last year when Roger released his very decent solo album As Long As I Have You Townshend played on quite a few songs. Case in point is the roughness of Ball and Chain, which was originally released as Guantanamo by Townshend on his solo compilation, Truancy. Hearing it in The Who version you can clearly hear how it was meant to be sung by Roger and riffed in a more rock version by Pete. So it seems as if the confusion between solo and The Who projects has now got a much more clear defined line on this album, thus maybe that’s why it’s simply called WHO. They now know who they are.
For the band that sang “hope I die before I get old” now more than fifty years later they still fly that flag with I Don’t Want to get Wise and the lyrics “The crap that we did / brought us success / God bless / and those snotty young kids / were a stand-in success” or “We tried hard to stay young” with Townshend sharing the lead vocal repeating I Don’t Want to Get Wise.
Detour is like a companion to Magic Bus with a pounding drum beat. Yet another nod to the past is a mention of I Can’t Explain. An interesting fact is one of the band’s early names was The Detours. The song ends with that familiar synth swirl once again.
Probably the best lyric summing up what is going on with Pete and Roger as The Who is the lyric from Beads On a String, “Don’t you ever say never / because it don’t mean a thing / gonna get us together /like beads on a string”. That means a lot since these two recorded their own parts in separate studios and it still works.
Hero Ground Zero which the band played regularly on their summer tour opens with a string section. The chorus rocks with Pete’s windmill guitar strumming and Roger sounding confident. Interestingly this song is a straight tie-in to Pete Townshend’s new novel The Age of Anxiety. In the novel Hero Ground Zero is the name of a fictional rock band fronted by one of the main characters. It’s a strong point of the album.
The ballad I’ll Be Back starts off with a western twanged echoing harmonica that also makes a solo mid-song making it the most un-Who song here with Townshend on lead vocal where he proclaims he was “young with a guitar” Another song that is good, but almost seems un-who sounding is the Simon Townshend penned Break the News. It’s certainly got a modern Nashville sound production with acoustic strumming. Yes, it is still The Who because those synths are still peaking around the corner at the song’s end.
Rock in Rage starts off a bit mundane and builds to a clashing rocker with Roger even going falsetto as he grunts he’s Rockin in Rage. At 75 years old Roger Daltrey still delivers a gruff rock vocal with conviction and strength through the whole album that is quite impressive.
A latin flavoured piano twinkles on She Rocked My World with Roger and Pete sharing lead vocals on a so-so ballad.
In 1989 Pete had said of the large onstage band ensemble “it took 13 people to replace Keith Moon.” This album feels a bit like that with contributions from Pino Palladino, Zak Starkey, Benmont Tench, Joey Waronker, Matt Chamberlain, and Rachel Fuller, of course.
If you get the deluxe version you get three bonus tracks. Two of them are leftovers from the 60’s that were never fully realized or released. Nothing To Prove lands you directly in 1960s nostalgia Piccadilly Square in London. Danny and My Ponies is an acoustic string infused beautiful ballad from Pete.
Even the album cover is a great nod to the past designed by Peter Blake who designed The Who’s 1980 Face Dances album cover. This cover features 22 squares depicting The Who’s heroes like Chuck Berry and Muhammad Ali. Then there’s direct 60’s references such as Batman and Robin, Roger Daltrey himself and two pictures of pinball machines. The 70’s are representative of the 1979 Kids Are Alright promo poster of Pete about to smash a guitar. Peter Blake references himself with one square showing paint tube with Face Dances printed on it.
If you’re wondering if they still have it… they never lost it and WHO proves it, and as their current tour is named they are still Moving On!