Although he’s played a critical role in dozens of high-profile projects over the past 30 years, Frank Simes is hardly what one would consider a household name. Yet he also holds down a gig that any musician would consider a dream job. As the Who’s musical director, band leader, and participating player on The Who Hits 50! anniversary tour, he’s been charged with overseeing one of the most revered music catalogs in rock history.
Born in Tokyo to an American father and a Japanese mother, Simes was attracted to music early on. He formed his first band, Sunrise, at age 14 and later released a record on Japan’s RCA Records imprint. After moving to Los Angeles to further his musical studies, he started a group called the Whizz Kids. That band’s initial release, a song called “Sweet Honey,” was written by Simes himself and went on to receive considerable national airplay.
Simes made his first star connection in the early ‘80s, signing on to work with Martha Davis of the Motels. He then joined Don Henley, with whom he still tours, writes, and records. (The two co-wrote “Workin’ It” and “Goodbye to a River,” and they shared production credits on Henley’s albums Inside Job and Actual Miles, garnering them a Grammy nomination.) Other notable contributions followed: Mick Jagger’s Wandering Spirit, Rod Stewart’s As Time Gotwoes By: The Great American Songbook, Volume II, Art Garfunkel’s Some Enchanted Evening, and Roger Daltrey’s Moonlighting, among many others. Clearly, Simes is no slouch; his efforts have thus far earned him a total of twelve platinum albums.
It was the latter assignment that eventually won him the role of Daltrey’s musical director and the same job for the singer’s touring production of Tommy. That in turn led Simes to Pete Townshend, who charged him with creating the first touring production for early-‘70s epic Quadrophenia. And then he hit the road with Daltrey, Townshend, and the band as they took the project on an extensive worldwide trek. Now he’s back for The Who Hits 50!
For all of those reasons, we couldn’t think of anyone better-qualified to offer insight into the Who’s five decades of active duty. And it didn’t take any nudging whatsoever to get Simes to offer his picks for the band’s ten greatest moments.
10. 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief
Shaken by the fury and sheer destruction of Hurricane Sandy, the Who volunteered to participate in an all-star lineup that included Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Chris Martin, Michael Stipe, Kanye West, Eddie Vedder, and, for the first time in 18 years, the surviving members of Nirvana: Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and touring guitarist Pat Smear. But as Simes points out: “The Who proved themselves to be the most powerful, poignant, formidable, and relevant band at the concert.”
9. The Who Hits 50! Tour Band
At various intervals, intraband skirmishes, rock-star excess, and the premature deaths of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle threatened to permanently derail the Who. Yet here they are on back-to-back tours, sounding as formidable as ever. Simes deserves credit for helping make them sound so assured. “For the first time,” the musical director says, “every background vocal, horn, string, percussion, keyboard, and synth part that were on the original recordings are reproduced live.”
It was hard to imagine the Who could ever top Tommy. And though Quadrophenia may not have achieved that feat, there’s no doubt it ranks right up there among the Who’s most ambitious albums of all time. “It was the first rock opera to address teenage existential suffering, alienation, and despair,” Simes notes. “'Love Reign O'er Me' is arguably the best and most powerful rock song of the 20th Century.”
7. “Baba O'Riley” and “Won't Get Fooled Again”
They are two of the most anthemic songs in the Who catalog, and Simes also lauds them for technical achievement. “Pete Townshend invents the technique that allows him to play to an audio track. ‘Baba O'Riley’ became the new iconic song expressing teenage angst, and ‘Won't Get Fooled Again’ will forever rank as an iconic song that signifies opposition to the status quo.”
6. Who's Next
Comprising several of the songs originally intended for the discarded Lifehouse project, 1971’s landmark Who’s Next not only ranked as a musical milestone, it was also as one of the most remarkable albums ever recorded. Simes concurs. “Widely regarded as the Who's best album, it yielded many of the most memorable songs from their catalog.”
The Who were not thrilled by what they encountered that August evening in 1969. But after literally swatting radical youth leader Abbie Hoffman from the stage with his guitar, Townshend looked out on the muddy masses and led the band through a spectacular performance. “The Who mesmerized both the live audience and those viewing the documentary. In the process, they took a quantum leap in popularity while establishing a new standard of sophistication and originality in terms of songwriting with their performance of ‘See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You.’”
The performance also left an indelible mark on Simes himself. “Watching the Who play ‘See Me, Feel Me’ followed by ‘Listening to You’ drew me into a dream world,” he recalls. “Seeing Roger flailing his arms, bare-chested in his fringed, white chamois vest, swinging the mic over his head, and watching Pete Townshend exploding with energy, jumping up and down, doing his windmills, and then destroying his guitar at the end of ‘Summertime Blues’ had me mesmerized. The lyrics ‘gazing at you, I get the heat’ danced like magic in my head. I said to myself, ‘I want to be like that! I want to do that!’ What I really wanted to do was meld into the film and perform with them.” Happily for Simes, he got his chance.
Along with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Who’s Tommy forever changed what rock albums could achieve. “Tommy was the first rock opera,” Simes points out. “Full of humor, whimsy, and originality, it was an album that was masterfully conceived and recorded. It also contains the landmark song ‘Pinball Wizard.'”
Here again, the songs still resonate with Simes. “When it's time for my solo in ‘Listening to You’ towards the end of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ I'm so excited that I almost lose control of my guitar-playing. It’s a fantasy realized.”
3. Monterey Pop Festival
The precursor to Woodstock, it gave the West Coast its answer to the Newport Folk Festival. The Who, Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and the Byrds all took part and made the festival one of the key happenings in 1967’s so-called “Summer of Love.” Simes sees its significance. “It catapulted the Who into the youthful counterculture as well as the American mainstream.”
2. Live at Leeds
Widely considered one of the greatest live albums of all time, it is also an important historical document of Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon at their peak, following the success of Tommy. “Live at Leeds is arguably the Who's best recording of their live performance to date,” says Simes.
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1. “My Generation”
In effect, this was the anthem that started it all. One of the Who’s signature songs, it marked a major turning point in the band’s trajectory. As Simes says: “‘My Generation’ universally symbolizes defiance, angst, and rebellion for every generation of teenagers that’s come of age since 1965.”
The Who's Hits 50! North American Tour. 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 17, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000; aaarena.com. Tickets cost $36.50 to $136.50 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. All ages.