Even the Who at their worst were worth repeated listens
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I think I’d been driving in the wrong direction for 40 minutes at that point, and out of the car’s stereo, Roger Daltrey was screaming on having known no war while chords and drums crashed around him. It was at least the second time I’d heard him railing on this subject since I’d sat down in the car.
I was on a confusing, winding trip trying to cover a baseball game with It’s Hard, the Who’s 1982 album which was their last at the time, as a driving companion. It’s a strange record to have playing on repeat.
It’s Hard is a strange album, anyway. It was recorded immediately after Pete Townshend left rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, and the process moved along quickly to coincide with a massive tour that was scheduled as the band’s “farewell” jaunt. It wasn’t meant to be the last Who record, however; the preliminary plan was to settle into studio work for at least the remainder of the band’s Warner Bros. contract, which called for five albums in a seven-year span. Face Dances was first in 1981, and this was the next in the chain.
There was so much working against the band, and the results show it. There are some decisions that are strange at best — the weak pop of “Why Did I Fall for That,” the convoluted message of “A Man Is a Man” — and other songs that just don’t have the wallop they likely should have. Bassist John Entwistle contributed three songs, which are all okay, and a few other Townshend-penned songs are interesting, like “It’s Hard,” “Athena” and “I’ve Known No War,” but they don’t have the fire that the band typically displayed.
In those weird associations that are only built through repeated listens, the record usually sends me back to being 20 and 21 years old and driving around southern Massachusetts covering high school baseball, including this memorable trip where I turned a 45-minute drive to Hull into a two-hour trek that took me all around Quincy and Weymouth before I finally found the right way off one of the 27 rotaries I came across. Thanks to those awful Mapquest directions, the fact that I happened to bring the It’s Hard CD in the car gave me ample time to listened to it on a loop.
In spite of all the stress and obstacles and the band’s own catalog working against it, It’s Hard as an album almost works when left to its own devices. The song sequence works in its favor and they’re never as boring as they seem when listened to in isolation. And this was a moment of consolidation, if ever.
Helping the entire program are two tracks that manage to stand alongside even the Who’s lofty standards. “Eminence Front” is an acknowledged classic, and “Cry If You Want” is a real moment of anger where Roger Daltrey brings all the passion needed to help the song take off. It’s these two songs that help pick up the rest of the record, and can make even the moments that don’t work entirely still work enough to be an engaging listen.
In recording It’s Hard and on the so-named “farewell” tour that followed, the Who were caught between two worlds, measuring up to elder-statesmen peers like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks while also feeling in direct competition with the Clash and Public Image Ltd. Their music was mostly made in this self-conscious state of mind and they started dressing like the new romantics that graced MTV, especially Townshend — his hair was cut and combed into fins on the front of his forehead and his clothes would’ve looked ridiculous on Adam Ant.
That tour that took the band across North America had this identity crisis on display, with a giant stage that spelled out WHO anchoring football stadiums as the band, dressed in their new wave chique, pumped out two-hour shows that were more routine than they were professional or, rarely, impassioned.
The worst of all of this is captured for posterity on Who’s Last, the double-live document that came out nearly two years after the tour ended with virtually no input from the band. It’s flat and, funny enough, lifeless, cobbling together past hits and ignoring the band’s two Kenney Jones-era albums entirely. It’s not an entirely inaccurate representation of the Who at this point, but it’s unnecessarily slanted towards the lackluster.
But in between the boredom and burnout, there were moments worth preserving and evidence that the band still had value. “Cry If You Want” was undoubtedly one of the highlights of It’s Hard and one of only two songs (along with “Eminence Front”) to survive in the band’s setlist after 1982 came to a close. This version from Shea Stadium was one of their more fiery takes, where Townshend’s guitar matches Daltrey’s Gatling vocals in energy.
Through bad haircuts and bad clothes and bad venues, good music was still possible. That was a reflection of the musicians on stage and the talent and pride that, however buried, would still pop up on occasion.
Daltrey didn’t like It’s Hard. Townshend sees it as a flawed project. I’m not sure where Entwistle stood on it, honestly. It was recorded at a time the band probably shouldn’t have been recording and it’s certainly in the bottom percentile of the Who’s catalog. But it’s not without its charms. Even the Who at their lowest could survive being stuck on repeat through 30 mph roads on the South Shore.
Nov. 20, 2013
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com