The Who

'Who Are You' at 40

Thursday 19th July 2018

In 1978 The Who released their eighth album, 'Who Are You', in what was to become an eventful year for Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle and Moon. Having set out the manifesto for their generation 13 years previously, and with their mid-thirties approaching fast, it's fair to say that The Who were venturing into a new phase of their lifecycle as a band. Punk had well and truly broken the previous year, and 'Who Are You' was the first album of new Who material to emerge since 1975's 'The Who By Numbers', when the musical landscape had been a different place. 

The album's title track had been making live appearances since 1976, albeit performed in a style more associated with the classic Who sound, than that which appeared on the LP. As if to set the record in context, Townshend claimed that the song was inspired by a night he spent in London with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. After what must have been a big night out, a policeman roused Townshend from a shop doorway - agreeing to let him go on his way if he could confirm his identity.

Recording began in October 1977, while the world watched on TV as Bill Grundy famously met Pete Townshend's new mates, the Sex Pistols. Unlike its preceding albums, the recording of the 1978 record incorporated more synthesiser into its arrangements than The Who's previous works. Though much of the synthesiser and piano parts on the album were played by Entwistle and Townshend, the band had also enlisted accomplished session keyboardist John Bundrick. In what would be the first injury setback to hit the recording sessions, Brundrick fell out of his taxi while being dropped off at the studio, breaking his wrist and rendering him unable to play. As a result, the equally accomplished Rod Argent, founder member of The Zombies, was drafted in to take up the position.

Argent's contributions are present on the recorded version of 'Who Are You', which would the be the album's first single, backed with the Entwistle penned 'Had Enough' which also featured Argent on synthesiser. The song also featured an elaborate string arrangement added by producer Glyn Johns and composer Ted Astley, the latter responsible for TV theme tunes including The Saint and Dangerman. Daltrey disliked the strings so much that he allegedly knocked the producer unconscious with a headbutt adding to the sessions' health and safety woes. The sessions were stopped again in December for the first of Daltrey's throat surgeries and then Townshend cutting his hand on a broken window pane. 

Another notable use of elaborate synthesiser on 'Who Are You' is 'Sister Disco' for which Pete Townshend fastidiously programmed an ARP 2600 synthesiser. While the song's lyrics are quite ambiguous regarding Townshend's feelings toward the disco craze, it does illustrate that he was still questioning The Who's place in a changing musical world.

While the line "Goodbye Sister Disco, With your flashing trash lamps, Goodbye Sister Disco, And to your clubs and your tramps" seems dismissive of disco's transient nature, the following "Goodbye, now you're solo, Black plastic; deaf, dumb and blind" seems to refer to the iconic lyric from 'Pinball Wizard', perhaps suggesting that The Who's own glory days are behind them.

'Music Must Change' seems to lyrically acknowledge the other big musical forces felt around that period, or at least at the youth unrest that fuelled much of the punk movement."It's confirmed in the eyes of the kids, emphasized with their fists". The song becomes more introspective "But is this song so different?, Am I doing it all again?, It may have been done before, But then music's an open door".

The minimal percussion on 'Music Must Change' brings another factor of Who Are You's recording into focus. Though it is one of the most successful arrangements on the album, the original intention was for it to have a drum track, but due to Keith Moon's struggles and the resulting health issues, he couldn't perform the song. 

Keith Moon's position on the album cover, straddling the chair marked NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY might have prompted conspiracy theories similar to those surrounding Beatles' covers and Paul McCartney's identity. The realities were sadly much more obvious and documented in Moon's case. Moon's alcoholism and drug excess, despite his best efforts to save himself, had begun to show physically and drastically, including a heavily swollen stomach which remained hidden behind the chair back at the suggestion of the photographer. Keith Moon died in September, less than a month after the release of 'Who Are You'. If the album's songs had conjectured that The Who were facing a time of change, then Moon's death confirmed the change to be definite and irreversible.

The second single to be taken from the album was 'Trick Of The Light' backed with the song '905'. The single failed to chart, while the album had reached number 2 in the UK chart, held off the top spot by the 'Grease' soundtrack.

Kenney Jones of Small Faces fame took Moon's place in the band for the tour that followed, and the two albums that came after 'Who Are You', before The Who eventually bowed out in 1982.

The film adaptation of Quadrophenia in 1979 ensured that The Who (in their original line up) would not be forgotten for generations to come. It transpires that some of the songs on 'Who Are You' were originally conceived by Townshend as parts of a third rock opera album. While many wish that the third opera had become a reality, it was perhaps better that Townshend adjusted his intent by the time it came to put them to tape. Punk's assault on the established world of adult orientated male rock bands, bloated double albums, and extravagant productions might have made such a project appear like an outdated concept, and make The Who appear part of that establishment instead of the innovators, disruptors, and troublemakers people wanted them to be.

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