Perspectives: The Who are Good – and Loud

On the exhilaration of sensory overload

The Who perform at Rai, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Getty
The Who perform at Rai, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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Sensory overload" was what Kesey called it. "Noise" is what people of my generation usually say. What they both mean, however, can be the same thing: i.e., a loud rock band.

The people who pejoratively use "noise" are anti and Kesey is pro. What he is saying is that there is another factor, something usually not taken into consideration in the very volume itself of the new music. It was a new thought to me when I first encountered it. I had been aware by empirical experience that certain kinds of loud music had the effect of making me extremely tired, weary and all but ill. On the other hand, another music, equally as loud, did not have this effect at all but instead could make me high. Stan Kenton, for instance, invariably was torture to listen to for more than an hour. Standing in front of his band at a dance (there were dances then, too) was more work than digging ditches. Standing in front of Count Basie's band, however, was not, even though it was just as loud as Kenton and on occasion perhaps louder.

The reason lies in the music. There is a kind of music in which volume really can enhance the total effect. The sensory overload brings you to a different place. I personally find it a good place, incidentally, and any time I can get there I'm happy to go.

This is all brought about by the fact that at the recent concert by the Who, I sat in the third row in front of one of the loudspeakers.

There was a sensory overload. No doubt about it. For two full days, I was aware of the after-effects. But the thing was, I enjoyed it! I was not exhausted. I was exhilarated. The Who were beautiful and it was one of the most exciting and pleasurable performances I had ever been present at. In addition, despite the pure volume of the sound, I was able to hear things I had not heard before (hear; not hallucinate). Roger Daltrey's voice at that concert seemed to me to be absolutely magnificent, flawless and the perfect instrument for what he was doing. I had never been a fan of his, particularly, prior to that, although I had loved the Who's records and their other concerts which I had been fortunate enough to hear. But this time, Daltrey's voice seemed to me to incorporate all of the freedom of the best blues singers, all of the new dimensions of blues and pop vocals and still remain a disciplined and controlled instrument which expressed precisely and exactly what its owner wished. It was, I felt after the concert, the perfect voice for rock. It did not imitate, it was its own sound and it utilized everything it could from all the other ways of singing that there are. I remember once when he made a particularly effective downward sweep, ending it with his voice stretching one tone over a variety of notes, thinking that what he was doing was pure gospel singing in the best tradition of Ernestine Washington or the Georgia Peach or even Mahalia Jackson. Yet it did not sound like gospel singing nor did it even sound like someone imitating gospel singing. It was very impressive, I must say.

The rest of the band, of course, is without peer. They play better than anyone, really, in their genre and to the peculiar combination of romanticism and angry, rebellious ruthless youth, Peter Townshend's stage movements, I discovered, add humor.

I had never thought of Pete as a humorist. Keith Moon's shenanigans have always been hilarious, but I did not pick up on the humor of Peter Townshend until I got close enough to watch him. It is all a delightful parody of early rock stage show cliches. It took me back 15 years to a show with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Bill Doggett. Why hadn't I noticed it before? I don't know. Maybe I was hung up looking at something else. But that's part of the Who's attraction. Every time I see them, I see more and more and more. And it is refreshing, too, in that while they take what they are doing seriously, they don't take themselves as seriously. That attitude could be emulated with aesthetic profit by a lot of other groups.

The virtues of the Who were re-emphasized, it happened, by the contrast to the group which opened the show for them. How Mylon ever got on that program I will never know. It either had to be a booking agency power play or some kind of scam. It couldn't be that the Who saw them and asked for them. Mylon was almost unbearable. There, the sensory overload began at a much lower volume and it took me, not into the lovely exhilarating place the Who provided, but into some terrible torture chamber of a sound box where everything turned wrong. The seats were too hard. The smoke was too thick. The lights hurt my eyes. Everything Mylon did from his opening attempt at ingratiating himself with the audience ("We come here in the shape you do") right on through his many "right ons" and similar expressions was a bummer. I have seldom seen a group on a major concert so appallingly presented both visually and aurally. And yet I had the feeling that the group was not without talent. It is just that someone, (Felix Pappalardi, perhaps?) had made them into a construct, a contrivance. God knows they weren't real. They were a nightmare.

So again, it is not just the sheer volume of the sound. There has to be something else. Some groups get it all the time. The Grateful Dead most consistently utilize volume as an asset. And the Dead are consistently able to make it work. The Airplane do it, but it hasn't always worked, and the Stones of course do it all the time. Like the Who.

But as Mylon showed, it's deceptive. Volume alone won't do the trick. There has to be some kind of intuitive magical other dimension to it and when that dimension is present, then the sensory overload is an asset, a remarkable, valuable and mystical thing.

It has something to do with the organization of the sound itself, I believe. Musicians have always known, for instance, that a low trumpet tone of a particular kind can carry a great deal farther than a loud blast on the same horn. Sometimes a special low note will cut right through a wall of sound. Earl Hines, the old-time jazz pianist, worked out a way to make his piano (unmiked) cut through the ensemble sound of a 16-piece big band with trombones, trumpets, and saxophones. Earl could hit one chord with his right hand and no matter how hard the band was you could hear him.

The laws of music are consistent and the invention of new instruments has not, of itself, changed them. Some things just may turn out not to be quite so transitory as some of us have thought. All I know is that the sensory overload can be a good thing when some bands do it and a drag when done by others. It implies a qualitative judgment, it seems to me.

This story is from the February 3rd, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 101: February 3, 1972