Call Me Lightning

The Who's decision to carry on after Keith Moon's death is one that has divided Who fans ever since. Some felt he was irreplaceable while others did not want the band to split. Their subsequent decline was inevitable. But were the 1979-82 years that bad? No they weren't. Most critics had written them off already though. But if you take a closer look, they still had what it took. It just wasn't meant to be.

Perhaps the most baffling choice was to include ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones as Moon's replacement. Jones was a solid drummer. But with other powerhouses available such as Ian Paice, Ginger Baker and Cozy Powell, he paled in comparison. The Who required a drummer who could keep up with their reckless style. Obviously no one was in Moon's class but these four had at least world class credentials with ties to Deep Purple, Cream and Rainbow. But Jones had tight links with the group, especially Pete Townshend, and he was invited to join. One can only wonder what a workhorse like Paice would have sounded like on stage with The Who.

Almost from the start it was apparent The Who had lost some momentum. On the excellent 1994 video ''Thirty Years of Maximum R 'n' B Live'' The Who are shown in their first practice sessions with Jones. Everything seems to be well. Townshend even calls Roger Daltrey 'Rog'. But during 'Who Are You' Jones does nothing but keep the beat, and the song meanders along, with no real guts. 'Rog' doesn't look too happy. He already knew. They would be put to the test when they hit the road on a belated tour to support 'Who Are You'. Any rock fan with real worth knows The Who are the greatest live group ever. They had a lot to live up to. But without Moon it was a case of 'don't get your hopes up.'

But the 1979 tour had its moments. Listening to various shows of the time they still had the ability to play with the old magic when they were in the right frame of mind. Moon's death was impossible to overcome however. Jones failed at crucial moments when Moon would excel. On the 1994 video the band is seen at The International Amphitheater In Chicago, December 1979. During 'Pinball Wizard' Townshend starts improvising at the end. He seems primed to jam. But, inexplicably, Jones winds up the song, not on the same wavelength as the others.

And on the traditionally fiery 'My Wife' the sound is terribly hollow, the lack of firepower from behind the drum kit leaving The Who exposed. Daltrey urges Jones to give it some, which he does briefly. But it fizzles out, causing veteran fans to cringe. But with Townshend and John Entwistle, there was still hope. At the same gig the band never sounded better than they did on 'Music Must Change' and a jam of How Can You Do It Alone.' This is the Who we all know. It is too much to take. The noises these guys make go beyond music itself. Townshend's guitar work on these colossal jams has to be heard. It is relentless, mentally draining in its intensity. It sounds like the end of the world. It was a reminder of how great the band was when they got it right. Just mere days earlier in Cincinnati, however, eleven fans had been trampled to death and the positive atmosphere was ended right there. Townshend started using hard drugs. He and Daltrey fought frequently.

So when the new studio recording, 'Face Dances,' was released in 1981 it was amidst much strife. Roundly criticized by the media at the time, 'Face Dances' never stood a chance. But people fail to recognize the context this album was made in. It was not 1971 anymore. Things had changed. The album had more in common with Billy Joel's 'Glass Houses' than the fierce hard rock of the previous decade. The music ranged from heavy, 'The Quiet One' to almost AOR in 'Don't Let Go The Coat'. Other quirky numbers like 'Did You Steal My Money' proved The Who would not be restricted in their styles. It remains one of their best albums. The 1981 tour was a disaster, however -- tensions between Daltrey and Townshend hitting an all time low.

But Townshend kicked drugs and patched things up with Rog, enabling The Who to record a further album 'It's Hard' in 1982. This is perhaps the most despised Who album of all. Most complaints are with Townshend's lack of heavy guitar. But looking back he was going through the motions, saving his best material for his solo records. But once again 'It's Hard' is a classic in its own right. 'It's Your Turn', 'Cooks County', 'Dangerous' and 'Cry If You Want' standing out as memorable anthems. It is very much a personal statement from Townshend, especially the title track, which is self explanatory. It was a band relating to their age group. The kids they had been playing to 20 years earlier.

The following tour was the band's 'last.' They were doing the right thing. Watching and listening to the 1982 tour, The Who is spent of all their former energy, resulting in lackluster performances. The huge crowds they attracted were only there because it was The Who. They could have cared less about the music. Daltrey seemed resigned. His vocals were flat and uninspired, as was his choice of clothes and haircut. Townshend looked like some guy who used to be in my class called Holmes and churned out weak, stale guitar licks. The rhythm section of Jones and Entwistle plundered on regardless. The live album recorded from the tour, 'Who's Last' was the most embarrassing of their career. It hurt to hear what had happened to their live sound, 'Twist And Shout' makes me want to cry. They were just another band.

It would be foolish to blame Jones for any of The Who's misfortunes. He had joined a band already in disarray and was sucked into it. Daltrey later complained about Jones' effort. Maybe he was justified, maybe not. Why he allowed Jones to join in the first place is a mystery.

The Who simply got tired as they got older. Their former fire was lost as they progressed into their late thirties. The Who were never ones to fake it. If things were on the verge of collapse, then you knew it. It was all to do with their live act. There you could tell if things were good or bad. And near the end the results were all too obvious. I will never blame The Who for their decline. It happens to the best. What's amazing is that 20 years later they are still here and at their best live. They needed these events to bring them back. The years of 1979-82 are nothing to be ashamed of. They are proud years. The face of a real rock 'n' roll band.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 28, 2001

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