Classic rock radio has distorted the histories of most of the bands it features by reducing their output to a handful of tracks played ad nauseam. The Who‘s catalog is rich enough to support scores of successful anthologies, official and bootleg, laced with unreleased material. Yet this box set had been preprogrammed by classic rock pundits as an easy call: singles, key album tracks and rarities, plus digitally remastered versions of the usual suspects from Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia.
Chris Charlesworth, the author and archivist who assembled Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, had other ideas. Charlesworth gambled on a daring formula in which The Who Sell Out is more fully represented than Tommy, and Quadrophenia has no more entries than Who Are You. Charlesworth’s calculated risk has resulted in a definitive overview of a band that during drummer Keith Moon’s tenure was always greater than either its sales or its critical stature. Maximum R&B changes the perception of the Who as the band that recorded Tommy to one of the Who as rock’s greatest live rock group.
Townshend states the package’s premise on Disc 1 when he explains the purpose of the Who’s second single, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” as “trying to achieve the sound that we get on the stage.” The song is a snapshot of the band’s live strengths – Moon’s frenzied power-drumming; John Entwistle’s treble-boosted artillery-fire bass patterns; Roger Daltrey’s full-throated screams; and Townshend’s revolutionary guitar technique, which combined electronic distortion and dynamics inspired by the Romantic symphony.
The Who’s kinetics drive the rest of this set with only a few pauses for breath. “My Generation” kicks the door in. Moon demonstrates his adeptness at surf music on “The Ox,” which also features the first recorded guitar smashing. “Substitute” is represented by the version from Live at Leeds. “A Quick One, While He’s Away” incorporates the live coda from a rendition played at the Rolling Stones‘ Rock & Roll Circus in 1968.
Interspersing the handful of Tommy tracks with live material shows how much more powerful the rock opera was in performance than on record. The version of “Underture” from the 1969 Woodstock festival includes some of Townshend’s most inspired guitar playing, while the previously unreleased version of “See Me, Feel Me” comes from the 1970 show that produced Live at Leeds. Two live tracks from early 1971, “Naked Eye” and a cover of “Bony Maronie,” offer a glimpse into the sessions for Lifehouse, an interactive concept that failed and was edited into Who’s Next. A spectacular live version of “Bargain” from 1971 and two additional live cuts from ’76, “Dreaming From the Waist” and “My Wife,” cap the case for Moon as rock’s most anarchic drummer.
Townshend’s songwriting shines throughout Maximum R&B, from the youthful anthems “I’m the Face,” “My Generation” and “The Kids Are Alright” to adult reflections on growing older like “Slip Kid” and “Who Are You.” Townshend elevates the rite of rock & roll passage into a spiritual quest for freedom, self-knowledge and eventually salvation. Townshend kept trying to find new ways for technology to take his songwriting to another level. By the time of Who’s Next, his experiments with synthesizers and sequencing rhythms provided him with a new compositional structure – one that came to its fullest expression on Quadrophenia.
This was not a positive direction for Moon, whose demand for freedom in the arrangements was stifled by playing along on headphones to the tapes. Sadly, his physical state was deteriorating as well. The Who were never the same after Moon’s death in 1978. Only five tracks after that, three of them covers, appear on Maximum R&B. On the two live numbers, “Twist and Shout” and “I’m a Man,” the band sounds shackled by the conventional rhythms.
Thirty Years of Maximum R&B dispels – hopefully once and for all – the cartoon notions of the Who propagated by 15 years of nothing but “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Pinball Wizard.” More importantly, this set makes the case for rock as, above all, a live medium. And when the Who played it, rock was never more live – or better.