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|A musical revelation: The Who changed everything
The Who were a step in my self-education of
classic rock. The Beatles and the Stones came
before, as did Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, I
believe. It was Zeppelin and Hammer of the
Gods, though, which made the deepest impact
then. And because of them, I spent a good three
years obsessed with guitar solos — long solos,
to be precise. Musicianship was more important
than anything, so Zeppelin sparked CD
purchases of folks like Eric Clapton, Santana,
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Black Sabbath, even Grand
Funk. The Who weren’t showy enough for me,
and Pete Townshend was a less-than-
spectacular guitarist, as far as I was concerned.
For the remainder of high school, I lived like it
was 1975, just not nearly as cool.
One of the most fulfilling musical adventures I ever had was discovering the Who. Though
they never became my favorite band — Pearl Jam was/is always in the way — they did rise
in and out of the No. 2 slot, and thinking about it now, they’ve shifted my personal taste
more than any other single band ever has. Sure, Pearl Jam led me to them, but it was Pete
and the gang that led me to stop listening to entire sections of my collection. I wonder if
that was their intention…
The first serious attention I gave them was very early in 1997; I had just signed on with a
music club in an effort to bolster a slim CD rack, and My Generation — The Very Best of
the Who was a featured selection. I didn’t order it just then, but my interest was piqued.
Based on a few decent reviews and recommendations, I picked it up. And I liked it — there
was plenty for a 15-year-old to like. Big guitars, cool singer, tough riffs, a crazy drummer; I
bought into it early, but I didn’t get it for a long time.
Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. 30-minute songs with drum and bass and guitar solos that say
NOTHING, except to strut a band’s talent for 18,000 faithful. I can’t do it now, simply because I don’t care for it.
15 seconds of pounding the hell out of the E chord is much more appealing. And “amazing” musicians can stick
it you-know-where — most of them don’t seem to have a clue.
Neil Young started this backlash against musical excess. Though his songs, particularly with Crazy Horse, are
as long or longer than anyone else’s, he’s not always thought of as a “great” guitarist, a la Jimmy Page or Tony
Iomi. Take “Down By The River,” which is nine minutes long and has a solo that includes the same note
repeated 38 times. I know a few people who think that’s easy to play — they’re wrong. There’s more passion and
love and hate and anger and pity and regret in that one note than any 7,000-note combo that Jimmy Page ever
conjured up from his black magic ghosts. And don’t get me started on that damn bow.
This new-found disdain for the overblown brought me back to the Who. It was winter or early spring of 2002
when I realized that the Who had everything I wanted from a band. Pete Townshend was (and still is) an
absolute animal with the guitar. Roger Daltrey had a mammoth voice and, unlike Robert Plant, still sounds great.
Keith Moon finally and rightfully passed John Bonham in my mind. And THE OX, John Entwistle, was a beast of a
bass player, with thundering, enormous lines flying off of his fingers. Over the period of seven months or so, I
picked up every one of their albums that I didn’t already have, which included the rest of their studio stuff, the Isle
of Wight set, The Kids Are Alright, etc. Through every new album, I discovered a new, fascinating chunk of the
In the middle of all this, Entwistle died. The Who were days away from starting a tour, and when it was decided
that the band would indeed go on, I scooped up tickets for their Sept. 27 show in Mansfield, Mass. That, at the
time, proved to be the single greatest concert I’d ever seen. I felt like I had been reborn and sent to some
fantastic paradise filled with rock distortion and windmill chords. The highlight of the night was “Amazing
Journey/Sparks,” still the coolest song I’ve ever seen live. The “Sparks” half of it absolutely kicked my ass, with
Pete machine-gunning the crowd, slamming his guitar with his fist, and making his amps beg for mercy, all
while Zak Starkey pounded his kit to death, pushing the song harder and harder. If nothing else, it was a shock
to the system like no other.
And guess what? There were solos! The difference this time was that these solos were only accompanying
great songs, not overwhelming them. It was a revelation, in that a band could solo from time to time and still say
something, it was just that those other bands weren’t saying anything. Solos don’t matter, songs do, and it’s the
reason that I’ll take the Who (and the Kinks, for that matter) over Zeppelin any day of the week.
Earlier today, I was listening to the second disc of the deluxe edition of Who’s Next, which includes the guts of a
concert at the Young Vic in 1971. It’s the band at their creative peak; they sound tight, albeit a little unsure of their
new material, but incredibly powerful. It might be the single best Who disc available. But it’s also significant, in
that it’s one of the last meaningful discoveries of the band I’ve made. I have so much Who music now, including
bootlegs and Townshend solo albums, that I can’t explore the band like I once could.
Though they’re still there to be enjoyed live and on record, a major part of that journey, actually hearing songs for
the first time, is over. Whether or not I have another experience like that is irrelevant; what matters is the
incredible musical memory that grew up with me.
And it proves that there’s always the potential to do greater things and learn more everyday. The next great
discovery could be just around the corner.