Who Are You
Released: August 1978
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 30
Certified Platinum: 9/20/78
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 groover (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 "Music Must Change" might be announcing the need for a New Wave, but it's quite consciously two years out of date, and, what's more, the music itself sounds old and stiff -- there's not a single musical concession to punk, reggae or even hard-nosed rock.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. Townsend (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 not 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.
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 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.
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 han 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 hae 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.
* This piece was set in type before Keith Moon died on September 7th. The reviewer stands by its optimism, and by its ironies.
- Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone, 10-19-78.
We might as well face up to it: any Who album that contains three John Entwhistle songs, none of which are funny, is in trouble right from the start. Who Are You baffles me. If there was ever a time when the Who could have been expected to come roaring back with the kind of raw energy and sly wit that has been seeping out of their music since the dawn of the Seventies, it is right now, when the New Wavers are breathing heavily down their necks.
Not that they have anything to prove, mind you. Paul Weller of the Jam said it best recently when he remarked that all the punk bands that claim never to have listened to the Who are simply not telling the truth. And I certainly don't mean to imply that the relatively reflective tone of both Quadrophenia and The Who by Numbers is an indication of creeping senility. In fact, both those albums have more than their share of real rock magic; you just have to listen a little harder to catch it.
No, it's just that Townshend's duet album with Ronnie Lane earlier this year was so bloody marvelous, and the interviews Pete has given lately (especially the two-parter in Trouser Press) suggested that he was as in touch as ever with the fans, the state of rock, and how what has been going on around him affects his own elder-statesman position. So while it was obvious that the new album would be, as usual, a meditation on the Who's relationship with rock, the very last thing I would have expected was that the product itself would be so... well, for want of a better word, Winwoody (as in "Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired").
To be blunt about it, Who Are You is the very first Who album that I have ever found to be dismissible. Indeed, it's the only one I've ever had to push myself to listen to more than a couple of times. It's tuneless, for starters, and the very least I expect Pete to knock out a good melody or two, even now when he appears to have turned over an unprecedented amount of the songwriting responsibility to Entwhistle. Of course, there's nothing dishonorable about losing one's muse temporarily; every creative person hits a dry stretch now and then. But somehow I can't help feeling that there is some more fundamental problem behind the lapses of Who Are You.
Perhaps the title should be taken literally, as a question of identity. Perhaps Pete really is out of touch, not in the sense of not reading the papers or keeping up with the younger bands, but of being caught in a Yeatsian funk: the center cannot hold, and mere punk is loosed upon the world. In the album's one moderately compelling song he wails that "music must change," and he clearly means it; but what's never resolved is whether he means it the way the punk bands do -- Death to the Dinosaurs -- or the way the Sixties progressives believed that every new record had to be some kind of adventurous staking out of new musical turf (the pipe dream that rock was limitless).
Maybe Pete's frustrations are not with growing old, after all, but with rock itself. Chasing the Lost Chord will into disillusionment, he seems as let down by rock as Jimmy, the hero of Quadrophenia, was let down by being a Mod. And if the central focus of one's life begins to dissolve, the resulting depression could easily explain producing a album as basically empty as this one. How else can you account for "New Song," the first track, in which we are explicitly told that it is just the same old stuff, but now dished out without a shred of conviction?
I should mention, I suppose, at least in passing, that as an ensemble the Who still plays immensely better than just about anybody else and that the integration of Entwhistle's one-man horn section with Pete's synthesizer work is, in the abstract, quite breathtaking. But the surface sheen of the material here cannot disguise the fact that there is next to nothing below that surface, and because of that the Who now seems to me like a band without a future. Believe me, I don't like having to say that, but until I figure out whether Who Are You has some deliberately world-weary melancholy undercurrent that I haven't connected with yet, that's the inescapable conclusion.
* The above was written before news came that the Who's Keith Moon, the most gifted and original rock drummer of the last twenty years, had died. Since replacing him would be like replacing one of the Marx Brothers -- all but impossible -- his death would seem to signal the end of the group as well. Anyone who doesn't own all their earlier albums is the poorer for it; Who Are You notwithstanding, they were the greatest rock band ever.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 11/78.
"Music must change," sings The Who in the song of the same name, and yet it is ironic that while the mainstream of rock is moving toward a harder sound, The Who, considered the quintessential hard rock band, has chosen to sweeten its mix with strings and synthesizers in this, the band's first LP in over three years. Nevertheless the LP is unmistakably The Who. As so often in the past, this LP reflects Peter Townshend's preoccupation with the state of current pop culture and his and the band's place in it. Side One is the softer side with the band rocking a bit more on the flip side. Despite the strings and synthesizers, the arrangements are always spare and to the point, with flashes of old power and moments of instrumental brilliance belying any thought the band may be past its peak. The title song is a pop masterpiece. Best cuts: "Who Are You," "Guitar And Pen," "Sister Disco," "Love Is Coming Down."
- Billboard, 1978.
Every time I concentrate on some new detail in Daltrey's singing or Townshend's lyrics or Entwistle's bass parts -- though not in Moon's drumming, and I still don't relate to the synthesizer. But I never learn anything new, and this is not my idea of fun rock and roll. It ought to be one or the other, if not both. B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The final worthwhile album by the band, a somewhat arch collection of pretentious rock anthems and failed concepts surrounding a powerful title track whose video clip marked Keith Moon's final public appearance with the band. * * *
- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Who Are You, recorded just before Moon's death, is the original band's last gasp. * * *
- Steve Knopper, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
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