Music Must Change: The Who’s “Who Are You”

With all of the attention that has been given to The Who’s Quadrophenia album in the last year or so, it is obvious that modern Who fans need to latch on to some other cultish classic of their career to wave in the faces of the Unenlightened. My suggestion is that the ever-underestimated Who Are You should be the next Who album that fans and music magazines alike rediscover.

The Who Are You album was cursed by what many consider among the greatest losses of rock and roll: released August 18th, 1978, it preceded the death of drummer Keith Moon on September 7th from the lethal combination of a sedative overdose and alcohol by mere weeks. While most conceded that Moon had not been in top form for years, that did not change the fact that with his death at age 32, the band had lost an icon, an immense talent, and a well-known public face. In addition, guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle were somewhat distracted during the recording of the album, both working on solo material of their own.

Although the album had achieved charts positions of #2 and #6 (in the U.S. and U.K. respectively), it was immediately overshadowed by the band’s new headline, and unfortunately, it appears to have largely faded from public memory with the exception of its title track. In their career, The Who have played fewer than half of Who Are You‘s tracklist live.

However, if you are able to get past the album’s sometimes uncharacteristic synth-heavy sound and the enormous amount of drama that surrounded the album’s creation, you will discover an overlooked gem of the band’s career and of late 1970s music in general. The Who’s musicianship, as usual is exceptional, and even though it is clear that Moon was struggling, the perfect alchemy between the band remains intact on this, The Who’s final LP in their classic lineup. This album reunites the group with producer Glyn Johns, who previously worked with them on their 1971 classic Who’s Next. 

However, the casual Who fan should be warned that these are not the same sounds s/he heard before– while Who Are You is undoubtedly different than the the band’s previous albums, Townshend’s brutally honest, bleak views of his society heading full-throttle into our modern era (and Entwistle’s, as he never had as large a songwriting presence on a Who album as he did on this one) come through in some of the most powerful songs of his career.Even just comparing the incisive but somewhat lighthearted “905” with the melancholy desperation of “Love Is Coming Down,” which concerns an individual trying over and over again to commit suicide, we see an incredible range of emotion.  And that is not to say that Townshend’s characteristic bitterness is not still present in the lyrics of the album as well– it is, in abundance.

The Who in May 1978

Just as many of us today speculate about what possible direction modern music could be heading, Townshend speculates too on the direction of music from the late 1970s. From the crisp, synth-driven “Sister Disco” (which half-mourns disco, and half-celebrates its demise) to the strange lyrics and turns of “Music Must Change,” many of Townshend’s lyrics on Who Are You surpass simply accounting his anger at the changing times, and head into a more subtler realm that also encompasses his bewilderment as to where society is going, and what will be rendered obsolete in its next metamorphosis. Townshend’s own fear of becoming obsolete and forgotten is tangible on most of the album’s tracks, and Daltrey’s vocals, at perhaps their strongest and most expressive, not only carry out, but heighten his desperation.

Interestingly, by the time Who Are You was released, Daltrey’s role in the band had changed significantly from what it had been early on. Until 1974’s Who By Numbers album, Pete Townshend was mainly concerned with writing specifically Who songs, but after it and the release of his first solo album (ironically titled Who Came First), he was more concerned with writing Pete Townshend songs. By 1978, Daltrey was not interpreting the same kind of material Townshend had written before– instead, he was doing something much more complex. Some even maintain that Townshend was no longer truly writing for Daltrey, and although that might be true, Daltrey’s interpretations are no less powerful– perhaps, they are even more so.

When The Who recorded Who Are You, the massive supply of songs that Townshend had originally written for the band’s ill-fated Lifehouse project was not yet exhausted. Thus, some songs, including “Music Must Change” and leadoff track “New Song” were remnants of the intended magnum opus that Townshend himself called “a disaster,” doomed to fail because supposedly, no one else could understand it. Dealing with dystopian themes, it is impossible to say whether Townshend knew how much of what he was talking about in Lifehouse (whatever he was talking about in Lifehouse) would still be on the table forty years later.

Keith Moon
1946-1978

To say that Who Are You is still relevant is an understatement, for it is not only still relevant, but it perhaps more relevant than it has ever been. It is an unmistakably modern album, and while it is admittedly bleak, it is also heroic in its utter frustration, honesty, and intensity.

In 2012, we are once again wondering where we are going, and what will remain once we get there. The optimists among us believe we are on the precipice of a new creative revolution while the more cynical of us consider popular music as a whole to be irrevocably damaged, but no matter what the future may bring, many agree that music today is suffering a serious creative slump. Like thousands before us, we are all asking what could possibly be next– and when it will finally surface.

Who Are You may very well be among the least examined and analyzed of The Who’s albums, but as of now, it has shown to be among the most prophetic. Whether or not the dystopia we live in is literal, there is no question that Who Are You manages to capture the forced isolation of modern society as few albums ever have before. A fascinating mass of contradiction, the album manages to balance both the meditative and the visceral, the aggressive and the introverted, the meticulous and the wild, the synthetic and the powerfully organic.  Who Are You deserves another listen from our jaded 21st century ears, and in fact, it would do us a lot of good as well– as emotional and incisive an album as has ever been recorded, we could very well learn something, not only about the 1970s, and not only about The Who, but about our present day predicament, and how the desolation of today could lead to the artwork of tomorrow.

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Nick Mason Interview

In September 2011, I was privileged enough to interview Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason when he came to LA’s Grammy Museum to discuss the coming reissue of Dark Side of the Moon and its accompanying box set. However, I was more interested in his opinions on new and old music, and the presence of technology in popular music through time. This interview was originally published on a site called Get Lit LA that I was affiliated with at the time. 

Lily Armstrong: So, I wanted to start by talking a little bit about drumming. I’ve heard people like Paul McCartney say they thought that, really, what made their music truly exceptional was its drumming. And I was especially curious about emotion in drumming. How are really good drummers able to convey emotion through that instrument?

NM: Um.  Good question.  First of all, I think a lot of the good drumming is about being an ensemble player.  It’s not about just how many gymnastics you can do with your playing.  It’s to do with how you work with the music.  And although time-keeping is meant to be the ultimate, you know, role of the drummer, in many ways it’s slightly … off time-keeping.  There’s quite an interesting belief that there’s a big difference, almost a school of drumming that is the American school and an English school. And the theory behind the English school is that they play — or we play — fractionally, not behind the beat but on the back of the beat.  Will it influence the music and give it a very specific feel?  It’s about the feel that is delivered not only by the actual part that’s played but the actual tempo. That is, the subtleties of pulling the music back slightly and adding to the dynamic of it. And I think that’s probably what Paul was sort of talking about.  You know the most dangerous [member] in a band is someone who just doesn’t know how to shut up.

LA: I can see that being true, I mean, there is a very clear division between drummers like Ginger Baker and Keith Moon and other more restrained drummers who, you know, try to keep time more uniformly, you could say.  

NM: But then, you know, I have some real favorites apart from Ginger, who was such an influence on me. Also Mitch Mitchell’s, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer. I think he’s fantastic and the curious thing with him is there’s almost no one else who’s ever sort of emulated him.  And he had this thing, which was such a sort of partly loose thing, an almost jazzy style of playing that really worked well with Jimi’s music.

LA: Also, I wanted to bring in technology and music, because Pink Floyd did so much with breaking ground in the technology that went into recording, and to this day those breakthroughs are hugely influential. I recently read this story about the band Wilco’s latest single, which is called “I Might,” in which there’s a lyric that ends with the word “brother.” Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy said that when he was in studio, he was trying to emulate the word “brother” in The Stooges’ song “TV Eye,” the way Iggy sings it. And apparently he couldn’t get it right, so he decided to sample him in behind him, and he claimed that “the lyric needed more than I could give it, and fortunately this is the 21st century, so these things can happen.” Do you think that’s an honest use of the kind of technology you pioneered?

NM: Yeah, I mean, I think that there are no rules.  I think [the] only rules that come into play are where perhaps you use enough of someone’s music that you’re actually using their music, if you see what I mean…  But if you just took a particular drum sound or something or just took a beat off of someone’s record, I just see that as being legitimate creativity.  Um I would not be happy with myself sitting here going, “No, that’s wrong, that’s allowed, that’s not allowed.”  I think you do whatever you can to get whatever it is you want.

LA: Back in the 60’s and 70’s, was that the mentality that you guys really went into it with?

NM: The issue of sampling of course is very much a sort of later period thing. No one had even thought about sampling.  I do remember the closest that we came to [sampling] was the Melotron.  And I remember the Musicians’ Union was up in arms at the prospect of orchestras losing their livelihood because of the Melotron, which is complete nonsense, of course, because the Melotron is the most extraordinary instrument. But you’d never think that’s an orchestra, you’d think that’s a Melotron. So, yeah, I think in those sorts of terms it’s very hard to look at how things were then, you know. So much of it was people messing around in the studios. Sometimes people think we were sort of very busy with Loogs and really elaborate instruments.  Most of it was things like, you know, when you listen to George Martin talking about phasing. Basically, it was two tape recorders running with someone putting their elbow on it to slow it up very slightly to get that effect. And there was quite a lot of that sort of trial-and-error experimentation, I think.

LA: Do you think that in some ways, bands today are somehow disadvantaged by having that technology immediately at their disposal?

NM: It’s not really a disadvantage. I mean it’s great, obviously, to be able to choose exactly what sounds you want to be able to play with, and all the rest of it, but the biggest problem is: it takes time.  You know, the great thing about few tracks, very few tracks — the original four track recordings and so on — was however hard you tried, you really finished things quickly. Because you had to make decisions. You couldn’t leave it ‘til the mix to decide, ah, how loud the bass should be, because you had the bass on with the drums and [you had to] get it right the first time. All the Beatles’ recordings and certainly our first recordings were incredibly quick because … we could leave those decisions and decide later on whether we wanted the high hat in or out or whatever.

LA: Actually, I was wondering about the amount of time it takes to record an album, and how it’s changed.  A lot of bands now wait four years between albums. And for so long, Pink Floyd was just turning out albums so relatively quickly, compared to that kind of a distance.

NM: Yeah, I’m not sure. I’ve never seen us as being particularly prolific.  I mean, you’re right. I suppose, looking back on it, compared to the four year lay-off or whatever, we quite often did an album a year.  In terms of studio time, I think we only took two or three weeks to do Obscured by Clouds, which was a movie album. But, the fact is, the world is always changing and albums now are less important than live music. Whereas, in the ‘70s, the album was everything. You know, the touring was done to promote the album.

LA: So are you saying that recently, the live performance has become more important than the album or studio recordings?

NM: Well, the fact of the matter is, as a business, music has changed so dramatically that actually live performance is the area where you make money; and the records are slipping all the time. You can’t get away from that so you’ve got an enormous change in attitude where people go off and tour now and it’s generally a year, or a year plus. Our early tours were about three weeks, and that was it.

LA: You kept the US tours pretty short, in general.

NM: Yeah, I don’t know why we did that. When I look back now, I think, ‘That was idiotic.’ Because the great thing about long tours is that you get better at it and you actually really hone the music and get it right and you can develop it.

LA: Yeah, I remember you saying in your book that “Eclipse,” specifically, really improved by being performed live.

NM: Yeah, that’s one of the things about this new release next week, what’s called the “Immersion” version of Dark Side — it’s exactly that. There are recordings from where the ideas were being tried out on the road. And the silly thing is that everyone got sort of hung-up on the business of people bootlegging and so everyone stopped touring and just rehearsed in the studios which is not nearly as efficient because if you’ve played live, you keep working on it. The trouble in the studio, I think, is you wait until you’ve got it right, and then you consider that as the finished article; whereas if you’re playing live, you see whether the audience likes it. You can see whether, in fact, it sits properly in the rest of the music, and that’s what I think comes over a little bit with the Dark Side pieces. They’re quite different than how they ended up on the album — hopefully, they’re better on the album — but you can see the thinking was, “Well, this isn’t quite right like that, and it needs to be changed,” or “It doesn’t work.”

LA: Yeah, I actually was just listening to Dark Side a little while ago, and I was thinking about how the time signature changes on it — like we were talking about earlier. As a musician myself, I really notice differences in time change. How it really creates a mood throughout it, and takes the listener up and down with it.

NM: I think that’s absolutely what we were trying to do, was put a dynamic into the record. At the time, I won’t say it was radical, because it wasn’t. In a way, Sergeant Pepper did that initially, but it was this idea that you don’t have to have everything played at 200 miles an hour, flat-out and loud, and all the rest of it, but you make it go exactly that — up and down in tempo and in volume, really. That makes it more interesting.

LA: Definitely. And then, back to performance, bands like Pink Floyd, and The Who and David Bowie were considered very theatrical for the time, and were doing really radical things onstage compared to what had come before. And even today, the sort of rock show as opposed to the rock concert has become really, really prevalent. What do you think it is about rock n’ roll, and about that sort of music that gravitates to the “big production?”

NM: Well, I think [the main thing] that has driven the bigger production values is that people have started playing bigger and bigger places. You know, when you look back, Shea Stadium was a real wakeup call — it didn’t work. It was an iconic moment in time, but still, working in a proper performance which the audience could hear — it was nowhere! You know, the biggest thing has been the move from theatres to arenas and in some cases into stadiums. In many ways, not many people, I think, make the stadium work for them. I don’t think we ever did, really. I think the arena show we got right, but the stadium show—it was always… never quite reaching, really, as far as it should. I think The Stones really mastered the stadium show, but that just became a bigger and bigger industry, and you think, in the ‘50s, let’s say, or the ‘60s, the rock show was in a theatre, and it would have seven or eight acts on the bill. It was unthinkable that Chuck Berry would do two and a half hours or whatever. He’d come and do twenty minutes and when that’s done, they’d go on and so on. It’s that move from that way. I think that the industry has changed, and the way music is performed has changed, and that’s driven this whole business of production. And it is amazing. Yes, okay, we did a lot of hopefully really good things, but now even a really good boy band will be there with fireworks, and films, and video, and unbelievably good shows.

LA: And how do you think that can affect the music in the show? I know that a lot of acts today cannot perform live, and perform to pre-recorded tracks because the dance is so elaborate, and the show is so big.

NM: The answer at the end of the day is “Do their fans like it?” It’s almost impossible to do the singing and the dancing — that’s some heavy breathing. I think on principle, I am conservative in the sense that I’m not entirely happy with the idea that other people are just using backing tracks. Occasionally, yes, sometimes it’s a good idea. I mean, we’ve done it on odd occasions in order to sync the film properly. And generally, I’d try to design the show so that if the film goes out of sync, it doesn’t matter.

LA: Yeah, I remember in your book, you were talking about how you tried to have a sort of cushion for those sorts of transitions. I actually wanted to share with you a quote from Roger Daltrey from Rolling Stone in 1975 — please don’t ask me why I have a Rolling Stone from 1975. But, he said, “Our audience wouldn’t put up with it if The Who went onstage like Pink Floyd with an incredible light show and stood there like four dead people that sounded great.” I didn’t really know what to think of that one.

NM: That’s a fair comment. You know, that’s part of the reason we put all that stuff up there — because none of us did do duck-walking, or moon-walking, or anything like that. It’s a fair comment…  I’ve never heard that quote from Roger before, but I once said that — well, someone once said that, “It’s becoming so mechanical,” and I said, “We did try to use computers instead of us going on stage but they used to move around too much.”

LA: My next question was going to be about what, I guess you can say, is the increasing acceptability of rock-and-roll. Now you find rock-and-roll songs in commercials, you find increased legitimacy from organizations designed to promote it, and such. And how do you think that’s affected musical output?

NM: I think it’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with. I think the music has been devalued a bit, and I think that if you’re walking around the supermarket now — funnily enough, I was in Trader Joe’s, and it was Led Zeppelin. You know, while people are wandering around trying to choose their granola, there’s Jimmy giving it everything. It used to be muzak. Now, everyone hated muzak, but on the other hand, at least we all knew where we stood: muzak was in the shop, Led Zeppelin was onstage. I don’t feel comfortable with it just being anywhere all the time. I mean, it’s partly because we all have so many other ways of entertaining ourselves. You know, when Led Zeppelin were at their peak, no one had a computer game. And movies — well, we had movies, but they didn’t quite feel as important as they do now. So, I really can’t remember what exactly the thrust of the question was, but—remind me?

LA: It was just sort of “how do you think the increased acceptability has affected the musical output?

NM: I don’t really think it’s affected music. I think most musicians still work. Actually, there are many, many more good musicians around now because kids are learning to play so much better from day one. I mean, my boys took guitar lessons — electric guitar lessons — in school, and drums lessons. If I’d gone to my music master and said “Please sir, I’d like to play the drums,” I think he’d have fainted. d “Could I have some more, sir?” “What?!”

LA: Do you think that there’s a difference between how it’s affected newer acts and older acts?

NM: Well, a lot of older acts have suddenly realized that they can still work. They’ve come back out of the woodwork which I think it terrific. Most musicians work to please themselves. Because you can’t second-guess what the public are going to like anyway. There are a few people who can do that, produce pop songs, but it’s a very unusual ability.  Most people please themselves first and then the public discover them.  But, you know, Jimmy Paige doesn’t sit down and go, “I wonder if the public would like this,” or Keith Moon go, “I wonder if they’d like it if I kicked my drum kit over.” It comes from somewhere else. They’re not really affected by those sort of outside influences. It’s something you’re driven to do of your own volition.

LA: Do you think that drive is what really separates rock and roll from a lot of other types of music?

NM: No, I don’t. I think that theme runs through. I think that people are passionate about music at every sort of level even.  Even country and western, something I know absolutely zero about, but I think the people who are good at it are very good and have the passion. And I think that’s true with creative arts generally; that actors, the same; painters, the same; you have to have this sort of — I mean, the interesting thing with rock music is that you have a slightly different dynamic with so many bands who are successful because they’ve got more than one of those people in the band. Those people quite often spark off of each other and against each other at the same time, but that to me seems to be the sort of unusual element about rock music and why it seems to be, maybe, a little bit sparkier.

LA: Just about that sheer size of the genre now — there are just so, so many people who are trying to do it and who do do it and in so many different genres that it seems like are popping up every single day.

NM: I think that makes life a bit more difficult. I mean, I think what was easier about the music business thirty years ago is that it was a very channeled system to be successful. It was very channeled.  You needed three cards to get in the game; you needed an agent, a manager and a record deal.  And now, you’re really having to try to sort out a career without necessarily having a record deal, or without having the manager aspect of it. That makes it tougher because, you know it’s hard, it’s much more difficult to get your target audience to listen to you because there are so many radio stations now. In England there used to be one important radio station, that was it. And so once you were played on there — you were sort of rolling.  Whereas now, how many radio stations are there in London? There’s one for every artist, more or less.

LA: We’ve been talking about the last forty or so years of music — What do you see happening in the next forty?

NM: I think it’s very hard to second-guess forty years of music but in the next few years, I think there’ll be changes in the way we download and buy music.  I think it’s a fairly chaotic system at the moment with pirating and downloading and Spotify and, you know, all the different versions and the different levels of quality available and I think that could quite possibly settle down and we’ll find ways of monetizing music so that people can make a living.  Not a fortune necessarily, but more people can make a living out of music.  I think we need the Chinese to produce a great band and some great players and some great thoughts and then suddenly they’ll get the whole business of copyright protection.  I mean it won’t happen until it affects them directly.

LA: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a great honor.