The Who are among the few rock giants without a CD box set to their credit. Now they are finally going to get theirs. On May 20, MCA plans to release the four-disc Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. As long overdue as this retrospective is, the Who might never have had their own box set if it weren't for a little help from their friends.
Polydor, the band's label in England, had tried to compile a Who box as far back as 1990, but when the label submitted its plan to Pete Townshend for approval, the former Who guitarist snubbed it as "horrible" and "useless." "He wanted someone who cared to work on the project," remembers Townshend's brother-in-law and longtime recording associate, Jon Astley. After Chris Charlesworth, a former Melody Maker writer who struck up a lasting friendship with the band in the '70s, sent Townshend a letter lamenting the dearth of Who boxes, the deal was done. Charlesworth and Astley would be co-producers, with the former focusing on song selection and the latter on remixing and remastering. The result is one of the most thoroughly listenable box sets available.
"I think we've come up with a very good selection that keeps everybody happy," says former Who vocalist Roger Daltrey, adding that he wishes there were more obscure and remixed tracks in the box. "I would love to hear a remix of Quadrophenia, which I feel was never mixed properly."
Though it's baited with a few rarities, Thirty Years of Maximum R&B is meant to function as a retrospective of the band's best work and as a replacement for the 20 or so greatest-hits albums still floating around. The collection's 79 songs are arranged chronologically, beginning 30 years ago with the Who's first single, "I'm the Face" (recorded when they were known as the High Numbers) and ending with their 1991 cover version of Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" from the Two Rooms tribute album. In between, there are such classics as "My Generation" and "Won't Get Fooled Again"; live versions of "See Me, Feel Me" and Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man"; and brief outtakes, including the late Who drummer Keith Moon's comedy sketches on the BBC and the sound of Townshend whacking activist Abbie Hoffman with an electric guitar at Woodstock.
The photo-filled, 72-page booklet that accompanies Maximum R&B begins with an essay by Townshend entitled "Who Cares." In this diatribe, he proves himself to be the band's harshest critic, griping "about the good, old Who and their good, old oldies" and concluding, "I don't like the Who much" – though in the next breath he admits he likes this collection.
"In his own admittance, he's a compulsive liar," says Daltrey in reference to Townshend. "He changes his mind an awful lot. It's not important what he says. It's like Peter and the Wolf." Daltrey took the experience of compiling a box set more positively and has embarked on a project of his own: a video retrospective of previously unreleased live Who performances.
Daltrey says he'd like to see a Who reunion to promote the box but doesn't think Townshend will agree. Astley, who's working on an 80-minute CD version of the Who's originally abridged Live at Leeds album and a compilation of Townshend's solo hits, reveals, however, that Townshend has been "threatening" to stage a benefit reunion in the spring to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his least favorite band.
This story is from the March 24th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.