The Who weren't always a nostalgia act or merely makers of pleasant Broadway fodder. Their tough, early tracks are a key punk resource, so it hardly matters that they were forever doomed to third place behind the Beatles and the Stones in the British-pop sweepstakes. At best, the Who's raw power and intelligence offered essential messages to any era.
Latecomers to the '60s British Invasion, the Who were mod sympathizers stealing Kinks riffs and American-pop formulas before they found their own mix of brute force and melody. Each player was essential: guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend with his windmill riffing and knack for shaping his increasingly complex song narratives into blissful pop; Roger Daltrey and his thundering vocals; Keith Moon with his frenetic drum attack; and master bassman John Entwistle, steadfastly holding it all together. How fast those memories fade after this last decade of endless farewell tours and beer endorsements.
Just in time to rescue a worthy reputation come these newly expanded, remastered and remixed versions of the Who's transitional albums, A Quick One, The Who Sell Out and Live at Leeds. Each has been digitally cleaned up, with several previously unreleased tracks added to the original albums (look for a rave-up of TV's Batman theme on A Quick One). Gone are the old "crackling noises" disclaimed on the original copies of Leeds. Other Who milestones (Quadrophenia, Who Are You, etc.) are due from MCA in the coming months, but these three are the important documents. They chart the Who's growth from a charming singles act into a quartet of innovators.
There is a rare genuineness to the upbeat pop of 1966's A Quick One (originally titled Happy Jack for its United States release when the British title was deemed too suggestive for American kids). Silly aural experiments like Moon's self-explanatory "Cobwebs and Strange" often dissolve into a shapeless mess but remain wonderful relics of an adventurous era. And balancing every misfire is an absolutely perfect, poignant pop tune like Townshend's "So Sad About Us." Things were already changing by the time The Who Sell Out was released a year later. And not simply because this was the Who's first full concept album but because it re-created the feel of a U.K. radio station, complete with joke commercials. More important is the sound, with the band finally capturing a full, wizened tone that's distinctly its own. Songs like "I Can See for Miles" are played out on a massive scale, with Daltrey's ever-broadening range at center stage.
By the time the Who arrived for their concert at Leeds University, on Feb. 14, 1970, they had evolved into a fiery, complex unit. Ambitious? The band's most recent project was the rock opera Tommy. At Leeds, the Who's response to heightened expectations was an epic performance tossed off almost casually. The new Live at Leeds LP captures most of that concert and at nearly twice the length of the original release. "My Generation" is extended into a nearly 15-minute heavy blues jam with Tommy bits weaved in.
Depressingly, by the Who's 25th anniversary tour, flat journeyman arena rock had replaced the passion. In 1989, the Who expressed less with 12 players than they had in Leeds with four. Bring back the crackling noises!