Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#4)


We're getting really close to the top now. Today, check out #4 after the jump.

Forget stage shows and lighting and props and lasers and fog machines and theatrics and grandiosity—if I had to name the “greatest show on Earth” in terms of a rock band, my vote would probably have to go to the Who. Not a runaway vote, mind you, and some days of the week I’d slap myself for not picking someone like Zeppelin or Floyd, but come on…the f-cking Who! Just that who1mess of personalities alone is worth a furor. You got Roger Daltrey, the chest-thumping wailer stomping around and spinning his mic like it was a lasso. There’s Pete Townshend leaping into the air and off of speakers and equipment, swinging his arm in that windmill move of his that would break the fingers of 99% of the guitarists around just to attempt, smashing instruments and blowing minds. Behind the kit was Keith Moon, the madman jerking, jiving and spilling out over the drums like, well, like he was Keith Moon. And then there was quiet, understated John Entwistle, the “workhorse” pro reigning everyone in around him. Talk about a combustible mix.

Most combustible mixes in rock music are more like Guns N’ Roses or the Police or Sex Pistols—you gotta appreciate ‘em while the classic lineup is in place ‘cause it probably won’t last long. But the Who made it almost twenty years before calling it a day, and then reunited more than a decade later for more tours (and even an original album). And no matter all of the tension building up over all those years, the squabbles didn’t seem to be petty or based on disrespect—all four held each other in high esteem—and the give-and-take aspect was not only beneficial to the spark that ignited such an enormously successful rock show but even the basis of the songwriting, from the raucous mod rock of their premier days and into increasingly complex and sophisticated fare as the years passed. There are very few bands that have ever had a lineup as top-to-bottom potent as those four.

who2And Roger Daltrey almost wasn’t in the mix. The rest of the band (especially Townshend) was displeased with his singing style in the early days when they were known as the Detours. Daltrey was too imitative of American R&B performers, and lacked the brashness needed to be a frontman for a group that not only was bringing mod rock into the limelight but was also making it really heavy and aggressive. Townshend and Daltrey would get into heated arguments before and after performances at London’s Marquee Club where they were building a small but dedicated following. The physicality of Townshend’s guitar playing wasn’t being battled by a blustery frontman; it’s almost impossible to believe today that Daltrey was ever considered “too timid”—honestly, can you imagine anyone thinking the man who unleashes that scream at the climax of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is “timid”?! But when Townshend’s songwriting began to really affect the raw angst, anger and sexual tension of the English youth culture, Daltrey was able to convey this anxiety through a more powerful, full-blooded reading. Within a few short years, he became one of rock’s most electrifying frontmen with a voice that could topple a Marshall Stack.

Keith Moon wasn’t there during those early days, but his audition ended up with him accidentally smashing the drumkit—they really had no choice then but to hire him on the spot. Moon was an instigator like that. During their early gigs, Townshend broke off the head of his guitar by mistake and hearing the crowd’s reaction compelled him to destroy it even further. And when people came back or showed up hearing about this instrument-bashing guitarist, Townshend didn’t do it, so Moon destroyed his kit to appease the crowd. But in a more critical way, although Townshend’s riffs are legendary and Daltrey’s voice a force of nature, it was the rhythm section that really drove the band, especially in those early days. In a role reversal of the tradition of drums keeping time, who3Entwistle was that rock keeping it steady while Moon would unleash these complex, animalistic beats that combined speed and power with relentless energy. His cascading rolls and explosive cymbal crashes have so rarely been rivaled by any other drummer to ever play.

But Moon’s manic performance didn’t upstage stationary Entwistle—his bass was so loud and pulverizing that it was a direct influence on Pete Townshend building a stack of Marshall cabinets so he could hear his guitar over the trebly boom (a setup that is replicated by almost all heavy rock bands today). He was nicknamed “The Ox” because of that muscle and fortitude and also “Thunderfingers” because of his fast, powerful plucking, and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones said that he was “the quietest man in private but the loudest man on stage.” His work on “My Generation” was a radical move at its time; the bass in rock n’ roll to that point had largely served the rhythm section and was “secondary” to the guitar riffs and vocals, but suddenly here comes this ballsy bass solo, kicking open the doors for rock bassists everywhere. Another lead of his, the intro section of “Pinball Wizard,” is even widely assumed to be a guitar part. But Entwistle was more than just an amazing bassist—being the only classically trained member of the Who, he also played a variety of other instruments (trumpets, mellophone, Jew’s harp, bugle, etc.) and coordinated ambitious arrangements with chief songwriter Townshend (and did writing of his own on most of their albums).

And then there’s Townshend, often underrated as a guitar god because he’s so admired as a songwriter. It’s difficult to fathom how he was able to piece together an epic rock opera like Tommy; it’s even harder to figure out how he designed the even more ambitious and even more sophisticated (and dare I say, even greater) Quadrophenia. Brian Wilson couldn’t save his scrapped Smile project for anything beyond scattered wonders mingling with curios, but Townshend also spiraled into depression when trying to complete his Lifehouse project and still managed to pull out the nine songs that comprised Who’s Next, one of rock’s indisputable heavyweight champs. That who4album wound up laying the tracks for so-called arena rock as much as any of the early-70s heavy metal gods, and with the “beggar” guitarist bringing the synthesizer to the frontlines, a bonafide, blazing riff machine of sizzling intensity, he also practically gave birth to synth-rock and pop.

And as that underrated guitar god, it wasn’t enough that he had these incredible leads and versatile displays and jarring power. In the mid-60s, no one was doing what the Who were doing with the guitar parts. Every rock band had at least one rhythm guitarist and at least one lead guitarist, end of story. But Daltrey’s past as a sheet metal worker took its toll on his hands, and he was unable to play the guitar with consistent energy and precision. So Townshend devised a way to play both lead and rhythm at the same time, paving the way for a choice buffet of amazing power trios and four-pieces with a frontman who could concentrate just on full-bodied singing. And, of course, there’s his pioneering work with feedback; it’s been argued if he was the absolute first, but his was the stuff that made the rock world take notice. Plenty of other artists in his immediate wake, from Jimi Hendrix to Jeff Beck, were more technically intricate, but the Who’s music in those early days was too blunt to be burdened with such detail, so Townshend was just jamming chords together and bashing his guitar into speakers for a wild, physical effect.

Groups so indebted to raw, primal emotion, raucous volume, and proto-punk attitude rarely get the attention and admiration from high culture and elitist analysts, especially at a time when the world was still reeling from this “pop music thing” and saying that the Beatles was just an unfortunate fad. But the Who wasn’t content to just remain one of the Godfathers of Punk, smashing instruments, blaring feedback, and detonating bass drums with explosives. Townshend’s scope and sophistication grew by leaps and bounds as the 60s carried on. He was already experimenting with epic “mini-operas” in 1966 on A Quick One and another one for The Who Sell Out, a most unusual concept album (even at a time when “concept albums” were still very unusual in the pop community) featuring hysterical fake commercials and jingles. After employing the unusual sound of claves and unconventional channel recording for the single “Magic Bus,” Townshend worked on who6completing his epic Tommy, one of the boldest, most inventive and ambitious undertakings any rock band had ever attempted. By 1970, a mere five years after being billed as one of the loudest and most dangerous rock bands on the planet, the Who were playing at the Met, the first time a rock group had ever performed there.

The gambit of Tommy was more than being merely conceptual and musical—after the Top 10 hit “I Can See for Miles” (ludicrously, the only Top 10 single the group would ever have in the States), the Who’s sales over the last two years had been well below expectations, and they feared that they’d be dropped from the label and forced to “get real day jobs.” But Tommy blew away both critics and audiences, resulting in spectacular live shows and the impetus to press on with more rock operatics. The aborted sessions that resulted in Who’s Next sealed them as one of the greatest acts of the 1970s and although Quadrophenia didn’t sell as enormously as their last two originals, it was still a towering masterpiece by any and all standards (and in Townshend’s mind, is the “best album [he’ll] ever write”).

Their run during that decade seemed unstoppable. The band members engaged in public fighting and Townshend gave plenty of brutally honest interviews where he would often make remarks both complimentary and disparaging about his fellow musicians in and out of the Who, but it only seemed to solidify their dynamic—it was a charge of angry but respectful competition that miraculously became a brand of chemistry so rarely seen. That chemistry was tragically interrupted in 1978 when, just three weeks after the release of Who Are You, Keith Moon died of a prescription drug overdose (taken to fight his withdrawal from alcohol). The band replaced him with Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces/Faces, but the synergy was never the same, and after two more largely mediocre albums, the group called it a day in 1982. But the itch to keep performing led to who5several reunion shows over the next decade-and-a-half, full performances of Quadrophenia, and eventually full-blown tours. Then on the day before beginning a US tour in 2002, Entwistle suffered a cocaine-induced heart attack and died. Daltrey and Townshend soldiered on and even released the band’s first studio album in twenty-four years, 2006’s Endless Wire, compiled out of fragmented ideas coalesced into full tracks and another mini-opera—songwriters never stop writing.

But despite all of Townshend’s songwriting innovations and studio ambitions, the Who always remained at the forefront of the touring circuit, with dozens of rock show legends and rumors circulating that made them a hugely popular draw. After garnering attention for the rowdy antics during their mod phase, the Who appeared on Smothers Brothers’ show when Moon bribed a stagehand to load up his drum with more explosives than planned—the blast caught everyone else off guard, and contributed to Townshend’s tinnitus that’s causing rapid hearing loss today. In 1973, Moon took several horse tranquilizers before taking the stage (when his logic was questioned over whether he could handle it, Moon reportedly snapped back, “Of course I can. I’m Keith f-cking Moon!”)…and passed out mid-show. That led to the priceless appeal from Townshend asking if there was a drummer in the crowd who could fill in, giving one lucky fan (Scot Halpin) a story that his kids and grandkids will hear a thousand times. Their sets at Monterey Pop and Woodstock are renowned to this day, and the complete edition of Live at Leeds is perhaps the best live rock album ever released. In the mid-70s, they set records for both the largest indoor concert and the loudest show of all-time. Their performance for the New York City Fire Department after 9/11 had the sort of electricity and moving strength that made nearly all of their twenty-something contemporaries seem like they were just wasting their time. And then there was the 1979 tragedy in my hometown of Cincinnati when moronic brass decided to employ festival seating, leading to a crushing who7stampede of people trying to jam through only a few open doors when a sound check was mistaken for the show starting, resulting in the deaths of eleven people. The Who was deeply devastated by the event and announced at their next show in Buffalo that they had “lost a lot of family last night and this show’s for them.”

What really makes the Who special, what puts them over the top, what gives them that capability and perhaps that reality as being that previously alluded “greatest show on Earth” is how much freedom, potential and escape there is in their music. The Who is rebellion in a way that most artists could never hope to strive for. They have no limits because their songs expose the absence of such limits. To borrow from James Taylor/Carole King, when you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand, the Who gives it to you. They were loud, they were forceful, they were strong, but even more than that, they had a persuasive intangible in the way they told their songs. Those rock operas of theirs were truly bleak but they exploded with optimistic energy when the listener needed it the most. Daltrey is shouting, “Long live rock!” and it becomes much more than just a mindless catchphrase for teenagers smoking dope in the high school parking lot. “Hope I die before I get old,” could have been trite and dispiriting in someone else’s hands, but it’s a universal motto now. What’s the point of “being old” when there’s a world still left to explore and conquer? With the Who, the possibilities are endless and you really start to believe that the same potential can be applied to anything in your own life.

I Can’t Explain
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
My Generation
The Kids Are Alright
I’m a Boy
Our Love Was
I Can See for Miles
The Seeker
Join Together
The Real Me
Love, Reign O’er Me
Slip Kid
Blue Red and Grey
Who Are You
You Better You Bet
Eminence Front
…and the albums Tommy and Who’s Next

Also endorsed: Faces, the Sonics, the Pretty Things

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


New Reviews