July 29, 2013 by NowhereButPop
It’s been said that baseball Superstar Mickey Mantle had but one regret of his playing career that included multiple world championships, MVPs, all-star appearances, and the highly coveted triple crown award. That regret, is that for all his accomplishments, Mantle didn’t bat .300 for his career. His career batting average was .297, just barely missing the cusp. Even though Mantle is regarding as one of the greatest players of all time, this one shortcoming clearly bothered him, it was his “thing”, that one goal that was tantalizingly just out of reach. For such an illustrious career, that was the one goal that got away.
The Who are very much in a similar predicament as Mickey Mantle was in that even though they are one of the greatest and most beloved rock bands, there was still that one goal that was torturously just out of reach. After all the critical acclaim and musical achievements, Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter of the Who, desperately wanted a #1 hit album. To this day the Who have never had an album top the charts. To him, a #1 record was the final thing missing in an impressive resume, much the same way that .297 sticks out like a sore thumb on Mantle’s stat sheet.
Who Are You, released in 1978 was the band’s last ditch effort to reach that vaunted #1 spot on the Billboard top 200. Sadly enough, it would also be the band’s last album with drummer Keith Moon, who died shortly after the release of the album. With Who Are You, gone are the sprawling albums and dramatic rock operas, gone are the introspective and metaphorical lyrics, gone is the proto-punk guitar sound that made the Who the favored band of rebellious teens. Instead what we get an album rife with synthesizers, lazy drumming, and a misallocated sense of purpose. Who Are You is the sound of a rock band at the tail end of their creative peak trying desperately hard to make a pop album. The biggest problem with this though, is that it’s the Who making this album. The best way I can put this is that the Who wouldn’t have been the Who if they ever went to number #1. In essence Who Are You becomes an album that sounds like a band trying to not be themselves. However, they don’t really commit to this entirely, and by 1978 the band was on its last legs so what would have been an experimental album, soon became a lazy, but conscientiously sincere attempt to go to #1.
Everything you need to know about the album is summed up in the very first track “New Song” which basically ridicules and mocks the fans for their desire to hear the same old song, as well as directs criticism at the band for not being at their creative zenith anymore. Part of the song is Townshend criticizing himself for writing about the same things, while the other half of the criticism is directed towards the fans for being content and satisfied with the same old songs. Covered by an uninspiring drum beat, heavy synths, and electric feel, “New Song” set the tone for the rest of the album.
Following the opening track comes “Had Enough”, John Entwistle’s first contribution to the album. This song while being written for a rock opera eerily similar to the failed Lifehouse, has the typical cynical and dark Entwistle lyrics. However, it’s been imbued with a weak willed attempt to make it pop-friendly. “Had Enough” is essentially a cross between “I’ve Had Enough” from Quadrophenia and “New Song”. It represents the worst that this album has to offer: a half-assed attempt to sound original despite being unable to fully let go of the past.
The first standout cut on the album comes three songs in with “905” a haunting and depressing tale of someone grown in a test tube bred to perform a certain task for all his life. A track like this, one based in sci-fi, actually benefits from the heavy use of electronics and synths. If it reminds the listen of Brave New World by Aldus Huxley, it’s probably by design. And even though this is a fictitious song, when hearing the lyrics “Everything I do’s been done before…every idea in my head, someone else has said” I can’t help but feel sorrow and sympathy for this unnamed being colloquially known as 905.
The next two tracks “Sister Disco” and “Music Must Change” offer blatantly scathing observations towards disco, and the music scene in general. “Sister Disco” celebrates the passing of the disco trend with a repeating and dull synth riff and lyrics like “Goodbye sister disco and to your clubs and your tramps”. Likewise, “Music Must Change” compares the dying music that ushered in bands like the Who with the natural cycle of life and death, destruction and creation, a poison and its antidote. While the lyrics could easily fit on Who’s Next or even The Who by Numbers, the Achilles heel of this song, and perhaps the album, is the lack of Moon’s powerful and kinetic drumming. On “Music Must Change” a song in 6/8 time signature, Moon is more of a percussionist than a drummer, due to his inability to keep time.
One of only two real rockers on the album “Trick of the Light” is meant to be the accessibly and typical rock song that the mainstream could understand. A dingy and rough song about a one night stand with a hooker, it’s the kind of song that the Stones and Led Zeppelin were able to build careers on, and so the Who tried to emulate this formula. And in all honesty…it works. The guitar is a little more prevalent, the drums are a bit harder, and the song is heavier than preceding tracks. “Trick of the Light” is most certainly something that no one would have expected from the Who, a band that wrote songs about musical liberation, philosophical quandaries, and stoic lifestyles, but it works because of that, it’s a breath of fresh air, without sacrificing that patented Who cynicism and sarcasm.
The next two tracks “Guitar and Pen”, and “Love is Coming Down” can be summed up as trite and useless respectively. The former is literally a song about writing a song…which we already heard on “New Song” You don’t need both songs on the album because they are so similar. The latter is absolute rubbish that doesn’t fit in with the album at all. Realistically it would have fit better on Townshend’s solo album Empty Glass. Imagine a lazy, sluggish and vapid version of “Love Reign O’er Me” crossed with 80s Who and that’s pretty much “Love is Coming Down”. As a song it is utterly useless.
Finally comes “Who Are You”, the title track and the best song on this album. Even though the guitar is overpowered by the bass and the main synth riff, it still possess a hard edge that best exemplifies what the band was trying to do on this album, namely mix their brand of rock with a more accessible pop sound. On tracks like “Who Are You” and “Trick of the Light” it works wonders, unfortunately it falters or flat out fails on the other tracks. “Who Are You” is a very catchy track that embodies the potential that this album had. This is because it’s one of the only few times that these four musicians actually sound like a band on the album as opposed to a loose configuration of four disparate egos.
The greatness of songs like “Who Are You”, “Trick of the Light”, and “905” not only provide the saving grace of Who Are You, but also underscore just how off base and tired the rest of the songs on the album are. There’s a steep drop off in quality on this album. On the one had you have the three aforementioned tracks that had the potential to receive mainstream radio play, but still fit into the Who canon of music. On the other hand there are songs that the listener will feel like they have to labor through just to get to the album highlights. The Who pulled out all stops to get that elusive #1 hit record, but like Mickey Mantle their goal, the last remaining feat was blocked. For Mantle it was .003 that separated him from the sought after .300 career average, for the Who it was the Grease Soundtrack that occupied the #1 spot. For the Who, who sacrificed the last shred of creativity, chemistry, and even sanity for this record, coming in at #2 turned out to be cold comfort at best.