This is by no means a great record, but despite the doubt, guilt, worry and self-laceration in almost every song, it’s a strangely confident one. Again and again, the persona is that of the cripple, the victim of disaster, but Who Are You is not the work of cripples, no matter how many breakdowns and bottles the Who have left on their fourteen-year-old trail.
Certainly, the album kicks in slowly. The tunes lack a natural, kinetic groove (John Entwistle’s “905” and Pete Townshend‘s “Who Are You” are exceptions). The drive we expect from the Who is replaced by chunky, sometimes clunky orchestration: strings, horns, synthesizer music. This gives one the feeling that the Who aren’t moving, that they aren’t gearing up for a great rock & roll shoot-out with the competition, heading off for better times, claiming the future — rather, they’re face to face with limbo, and trying to think their way out of it. They make the limbo real, but their resistance to it is just as convincing.
At least four songs — all Pete Townshend’s — begin with the premise that the band’s (and its audience’s) future can’t be taken for granted: with doors slamming all around, Townshend feels his weakness, his obsolescence. “New Song,” the first cut, rams home the guilt of having taken a free ride: “I write the same old song, with a few new lines/And everybody wants to cheer me.” “Music Must Change” might be announcing the need for a New Wave, but it’s quite consciously two years out of date, and, what’s more, the music itself sounds old and stiff — there’s not a single musical concession to punk, reggae or even hard-nosed rock. In “Guitar and Pen,” Townshend clings to his vocation as the man who has something to say, something worth the time others will take to listen, but very intentionally, he protests too much, and subverts his own affirmation.
And then there is “Who Are You,” a far stronger single than “Squeeze Box,” the hit from 1975’s The Who by Numbers, and a song that, stretched out over more than six minutes on the LP version, is far more moving than “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the band’s certified Seventies masterpiece. The dynamics are much more subtle this time — and all the smugness is gone.
“Who Are You” was spun out of the night that Townshend, already drunk after hours of financial haggling, half-recognized two members of the Sex Pistols in a bar: that is, he thought either Steve Jones or Paul Cook was Johnny Rotten. Corrected, he felt even more confused: Why can’t I see straight? Cook and Jones, supposedly arrogant young punks working out their rock & roll Oedipal complex, were thrilled to meet Townshend and horrified at what he had to tell them: the Who were finished, used up, wasted. The incident left Townshend passed out in a Soho street, which is where the song begins. Townshend (in the voice of Roger Daltrey) wakes up with one enormous question: Who are you? It’s addressed to Cook and Jones (Who are these upstarts, who would never have played a note had not Townshend picked up a guitar more than a decade back?); to the cop who, recognizing Townshend, sends him home without a bust (Who are the fans?); to himself (What does it mean to be a rocker? What kind of wreck has the life made him?); and, finally, to anyone who’s listening. “Whooooooo/Are you?” hums the chorus. “I really want to know!” Daltrey shouts back, echoing Donovan’s “What Goes On,” but while Donovan communicated hippie certainty that all things would come, Daltrey is desperate, sure of nothing.
Attention, reads a sticker on the album cover: “‘Who Are You’ (Side 2, Track 4) contains lyrics that may offend.” We can thank the Supreme Court — which in its ultimate wisdom recently granted the FCC the power to censor radio — for that one, but what might these offensive lyrics be? There’s a lot of emotion in this song — is that now illegal? I had to listen over and over before I caught what the sticker was referring to: Daltrey’s most expressive singing on the LP — a blasted, tired, buried wail of “Who the fuck are you!” just before the record ends. Nobody answers: the doo-wop chorus simply goes on taunting. The neat double meaning of the album title — the Who are you — does not outlast the title song.
The other numbers on the LP, those that don’t posit rock as a metaphor for life, connect directly with those that do: they too are about fear, emptiness, failure. John Entwistle’s “905” is surely the finest cut here, a return to the form of “Boris the Spider,” “Whiskey Man” and “My Wife.” The timeliness of the song is uncanny: it’s about a test-tube baby. The music, led on by an eerie, climbing riff, sets a science-fiction mood — a mood that’s all the more unsettling since the story is no longer quite science fiction. Entwistle’s vocal is perfect: lost, damned, accepting. “In suspended animation,” he says quietly, “My childhood passed me by/If I speak without emotion/Then you know the reason why.” His hardest lines, “Every sentence in my head/Someone else has said,” bounce off Townshend’s admission in “New Song” that he has nothing to say that he hasn’t said before: cloning may be the promise of the future, but the Who are afraid they can enter the future (i.e., this year) only by cloning themselves.
The boozy stumblebum of “Who Are You” turns up again in Entwistle’s “Trick of the Light”: this time it’s sex that has pulled the rug out from under the singer, as he begs the prostitute he’s hired for the night to reassure him about his performance in bed. In “Had Enough,” the singer tries to get mad — “I’ve had enough of being nice,” he chants at the beginning; “Here comes the end of the world,” he yells as the tune ends — but he can’t do it. The song limps, the singer fades. If this is anger, if this is the end of the world, no one has anything to be afraid of.
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Who Are You is an LP the Who have been working toward all through the Seventies. The fears of aging, irrelevancy and the dissolution of one’s self, one’s band or one’s audience that peeked out of Who’s Next and The Who by Numbers have finally surfaced whole. The album cover emphasizes the story. Keith Moon, unstable, unreliable, sits in a chair. marked “Not to Be Taken Away.” Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend look very old. Townshend, in fact, looks much older than he is: in this picture, he could pass for fifty. And yet there is nothing pathetic about the record he and his band have made. Time seems to be a challenge that’s left them invigorated, eager to get on with their lives — which is to say, eager to get on with rock & roll. Townshend’s wit, his intelligence, is still running wild, in the many interviews that have appeared recently as well as on this LP. Entwistle’s work is his best in years. Daltrey’s voice has hardened — there are whole realms of feeling no longer accessible to him — but he’s learning how to use that hardness to convey troubles the earlier songs couldn’t reach. Only Moon truly seems to have lost most of what he had: his last great moment came on “Behind Blue Eyes,” and since then he has done little more than keep the beat.
It will be a real disappointment if another three years pass before the next Who album: this one seems to have left them ready for the new music they claim they can’t make — a claim that’s obviated by what is new and, more importantly, compelling on Who Are You. I said this was, despite its claims to oblivion, a confident record: what makes it so is the Who’s refusal to settle for mere “survival,” for automatic applause and meaningless pro forma hits. Pete Townshend recognizes the fact that, after a decade which seemed happy with its own dead end, bands like the Clash have broken through limits he had half-accepted. In this case, the child really is father to the man, and that means the chance to start all over again is at Townshend’s finger tips.