New from the Who
By Alun Thomas
In 1989 I clearly remember reading the words 'The Who have agreed to start work on a new album'. Seventeen years ago. Little did I or everybody else know that this wouldn't be a new studio venture, but an excruciatingly awful live album, 'Join Together' which highlighted their 1989 reunion tour complete with fifty other musicians who dominated the stage, making the whole spectacle look as little like what was rest of The Who as possible. With John Entwistle gone The Who have gone on, and somehow look and sound like The old Who more than they did when Entwistle was alive, with Kenney Jones on drums. And with the long awaited new studio album finally here, 'Endless Wire', some twenty four years after the last effort 'It's Hard', The Who seem more renewed than ever, proving age is just a number. The talent and legacy is forever.
The Who have earned the right to do as they please, given their forty plus years of service to rock, and having practically invented the form in many ways, the long wait between albums is justified, considering the vast amount of events that have transpired in those years, all of which I've documented here over the last seven years. With the band down to Daltrey and Townshend the decision to record a new album is courageous, and the fears of it not sounding like The Who have been allayed, because Townshend, as always, is the main songwriter. With his pen in place it will always sound like The Who, regardless of who is backing he and Daltrey. The liner notes reveal Townshend played much of the album on his own, drums, bass, guitar, very much a solo project with minimal use of outside musicians, longtime Who drummer Zak Starkey unable to perform due to other commitments.
'Endless Wire' is an amazing triumph. Highlighted by a complicated mini opera, 'Wire And Glass', Townshends latest such venture following many, this ten track piece is backed by nine regular songs which open the album. The mini opera itself is hardly worth explaining, but it's based on a novella Townshend wrote years ago called 'The Boy Who Heard Music', which also has links to the failed 'Lifehouse' concept that formed 1971's 'Who's Next'. Of the nine unrelated songs many are slower acoustic tracks that recall similar moments of seminal 70's albums like 'Quadrophenia' and The Who By Numbers'. 'A Man In A Purple Dress' is given life by Daltrey, the 62 year old sounding like he did some thirty years back, set to a reflective acoustic backdrop. 'Mike Post Theme' is a rousing Who hard rock anthem, very earthy, stripped down without reliance on keyboards. 'Fragments' and 'Black Widow Eyes' also retain the charm of vintage Who, especially the latter's harmonies. Nobody makes rock like this in this day and age.
The mini opera is where a large part of the albums appeal lies. Even at this stage of his career Townshend takes chances and gambles with ideas and creations men half his age would not contemplate. His ear for a melody and reflective lyrics concerning aging and where he is at any point of his life are always compelling, because he's speaking to those of his age bracket, he always has. The ten track opera is comprised of short tracks, many of which are The Who at their hard rock best, namely the instant classics 'Sound Round', 'We Got a Hit', 'Pick Up The Peace' and 'Mirror Door'. Full of meaty Townshend power chords and Daltrey screams, they are interspersed with slower tracks like 'Unholy Trinity', 'Trilby's Piano', 'They Made My Dream Come True' and the emotional 'Tea And Theatre', the album closer, complete with drum machine, strange to hear on a Who album, but not in the current circumstances.
Townshend’s fallen flat before with some failed concepts ('The Iron Man', 'Psychoderelict') but here has succeeded handily, because as a whole this is a collection of songs, which taken at face value are just that, songs. They are in keeping with the bands best work of the 60s and 70's, if not easily grouped with them. It's perhaps a confusing album for the casual observer, but Townshend's writing is anything but ordinary, and lifelong fans will be smitten with this remarkable set of music. It should be savoured. It won't last forever and neither will geniuses like Townshend. The Who have always been the real item, and 'Endless Wire' is just that itself. A band who still have something to say.