In writing about the Who, it's tempting to open with a description of the band's legendary prowess, both on record and on-stage, and then make a series of snide comments about the profound irony of witnessing the very public dotage of the band that once roared "Hope I die before I get old."
In the annals of rock history, there are few bands that rocked as hard as the Who. "My Generation" made other rock anthems sound like advertising jingles. Live at Leeds could peel the paint right off your 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS 396. The band's ferocious sonic attack certified it as the World's Loudest Band in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But even when Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon were at the top of their game, they were a backward-looking bunch, recalling their teenage angst with a mixture of defiance and wistfulness. Albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia were song cycles about troubled teens sung by men, but they worked because of Townshend's skill as a writer and the band's locomotive force. Since the death of Keith Moon in 1978, the band has produced only three albums of new music. The last, It's Hard, which die-hard Who fans refer to as It's Hard (To Listen To), was released in 1982. You'd think that a fifteen-year drought in the new-material department might discourage a rock band from touring. You'd be wrong.
Consider the facts. After the band's breakup in 1984 -- commemorated by the release of the live album Who's Last -- the Who reunited for the Live Aid festival in 1985 (minus Moon, of course, who's still dead, apparently unable to recover from his overdose.) In 1988 the trio got together again for a one-off on the British Music Awards, then hit the road in 1989 for a 25th anniversary tour. In 1994 Daltrey celebrated his 50th birthday, good enough reason for yet another final reunion. And then, last summer, Townshend brought the group out of retirement to perform Quadrophenia for the Prince's Trust charity show in Hyde Park. Apparently pleased with the results -- big crowds mean big money for big fading rock stars -- the Who launched a full-scale Quadrophenia tour this summer and will play this Saturday at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach.
In its time, Quadrophenia was a fascinating project -- a complex, introspective work by a band at the peak of its powers. But this is certain: We don't need to hear Quadrophenia live, any more than we need to see Civil War battles re-enacted. Mods versus Rockers happened once, for real, in 1964. It happened again in 1973, when Townshend dipped into his nostalgia bag. Then it happened again in 1979, with the film version, which justified its existence by drawing parallels between the late-Seventies punks and the mid-Sixties Mods. But to have it happen again and again and again is nothing short of torture.
Which is the very reason that recent rumors concerning a new Who project have proved so tantalizing. Indeed, among devoted fans the word on the street -- or in this case, on the Net -- is that the Quadrophenia tour is merely a warmup for a triumphant return that will include brand-new Who material. If you believe the gossip, Pete Townshend has written another full-length rock opera that will reinstate the band as a major creative force.
The rumors suggest the new project will be called Project Laterlifehouse -- a reference to Townshend's failed 1971 Lifehouse concept LP, which became Who's Next. Its alleged focus is on an aging rock star who has lost his creative powers, his physical vitality, and his popularity. Some fans are even claiming to know the titles of the new songs.
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, these rumors are greatly exaggerated.
It is true that Townshend last year compelled his mates to record a set of demo tracks in a secret location (since revealed to be Entwistle's country home in Dorset). It is also true that these tightly guarded demos contain material stronger than anything the Who or its members as solos have recorded since Townshend's 1980 album Empty Glass. The songs aren't exactly new, however. They are, in fact, Who classics reworked to suit the aging-rocker plot. "See Me, Feel Me," becomes "See Me, Feed Me." "I Can See for Miles" becomes "I Can See for Inches." "Magic Bus" becomes "Magic Truss."
Taken as a body of work, these wickedly self-mocking songs constitute a kind of exorcism for Townshend, who has apparently heard just about enough from critics and responded in true art-rock spirit.
"Magic Truss" is especially effective, a raucous revamp with hilariously cheeky lyrics ("I don't care how much it hurts/I won't wear the truss outside of my shirt"). In the oddly compelling "See Me, Feed Me," Daltrey delivers his vocals in a grating geriatric parody that will leave listeners grateful Townshend didn't push for another version of "Shakin' All Over."
The new material doesn't truly hit its stride until the final three songs. First, there's "Old Man Blues," a venomously ironic version of the Mose Allison chestnut "Young Man Blues," originally recorded on Live at Leeds. Then there's a shocking update of "Who Are You?" that seems to be an Alzheimer's satire of the 1978 hit. In a short spoken prologue, Daltrey and Townshend play two older men who are introduced to one another. The Townshend character then departs, and Daltrey is left to rage at his inability to remember his new acquaintance's name. The climactic cry "Who the fuck are you?" is no longer defiant but pitiful, and the surging energy of the song is replaced by a brittle cruelty.
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In the wake of this new "Who Are You?" comes the final track, "My Degeneration." Slowed to a quarter of the speed of the original "My Generation" and produced with a trip-hop sensibility that layers eerie atmospherics over sampled Keith Moon drums, this version is a masterpiece -- at once clever and terrifying. The lyrics of "My Degeneration" capture the hopelessness of aging just as the lyrics of "My Generation" captured the heedlessness of youth. And when Townshend takes over the song to sing the final verse ("People try to put us down/Just because we can't get around/Things they do look awful cold/Hope I die soon 'cause I got old"), it's genuinely affecting.
Because the Who's most popular songs still bring in big money from radio play and catalogue sales, it's likely that these new versions could be perceived as a way of tipping the classic-rock cash cow. As a result, they may never see the light of day.
Even without an official release, the notion of authorized parodies is a fascinating one, a strategy for at once deflating anthems that have become meaningless to their composers and reviving powerful melodies and sentiments. It's hard to listen to "My Degeneration" without wishing that the Who -- or the Stones, or Led Zeppelin, or the Eagles, or Bob Dylan -- had hit upon this self-cannibalizing method of rejuvenation much earlier.
The Who performs Saturday, August 16, at 8:00 p.m. at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury Way, West Palm Beach, 561-795-8883. Tickets are $20.75.