The Who: Hits 50!

Fifty years of hits and misses

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After 50 years in show business, The Who look back at their career via the medium of multi-disc box set, probably relieved that at least some of them managed to outlive the "hope I die before I get old" millstone. But what does it all mean?

It’s Grrr! for mods Following the lead of The Rolling Stones, The ‘Oo mark their half century with an extensive chronological compilation of 40-plus singles. Like the Stones’ comp, it’s heavily weighted towards their golden age (The Who have, after all, released only three post-70s albums), outlasts the average Peter Jackson movie and is a ceaseless delight from start to finish. Once you’ve got past Zoot Suit, the comic prologue from back when The Who were beat-era fashion victims The High Numbers, the jolt into the visceral end of 60s pop hits like a Pacific Rim Jaeger. Townshend’s riffs, taut as tripwire, slash through I Can’t Explain, Substitute and I’m A Boy, Moon’s drums hammer out brave new rock’n’roll tattoos and Roger Daltrey grows from stuttering man-child to roaring he-lion between My Generation and I Can See For Miles.

The real roots of metal are here It was from Moon’s welly and Townshend’s thunder, as much as MC5 and the filthiest antique blues, that Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin took their cues, and as The Who’s 60s pop era morphs into the rock operas – complete or truncated - of Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, you can hear the meat, heft and pummelling force of hard rock being forged and perfected. Pinball Wizard, their high-voltage take on Summertime Blues and their masterpiece Won’t Get Fooled Again were songs of youth rebellion with a very adult machismo, and somewhere in the mix a new generation of tassle-loving biker freaks was united. Punk, and Moon’s death, took the wind out of them You can only remain the voice of youth so far into your thirties, and by the punk era The Who’s output was beginning to sound bloated and ripe for annihilation. What they lost in being stripped of Moon’s powerful ballast in 1978 they replaced with a synth-pop modernism for 1981’s You Better You Bet, but other post-70s material suffered by trying to blend into their plastic pop environs. So Don’t Let Go The Coat sounded like an impression of Bryan Ferry fronting Talking Heads, while the lovelorn calypso Athena (about Townshend falling in love with actress Theresa Russell) and Eminence Front (about the cocaine façade of the wealthy) stank of the expensive quasi-funk production polish that made the old guard - from Genesis to Chris Rea to Billy Joel - sound virtually interchangeable in the 80s.

The new track is Doom And Gloom for mods Like the Stones’ new track, the gospel pomp rock of Be Lucky, the one new song here, wittily harks back to The Who’s best moments as it turns a withering eye on the current state of rock’n’roll. “If you wanna sell you gotta kiss and tell/And you gotta do a cover of Highway To Hell”, Daltrey bawls, going on to make comedy references to Daft Punk in a robot voice and advising hopeful musicians to “dress it up in laptop shit”. Even as they approach their 278th farewell tour, the wit and wallop still thrives…

Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle.