The Who: Who Are You
n the late '70s the Who were on their way down. Moon was too fat and sloppy to drum like he used to, and Townshend was mired in a songwriting slump. By the time Who Are You came out in 1978, it had been five years since the group had released a decent studio album. With Townshend and Entwistle in the bottle and Moon continuing to fall apart despite attempts not to (he would die just after the album's release), it doesn't seem likely that anything good could have come out then, but both Who Are You and Townshend's following solo album Empty Glass provide some fine moments.
It's a bit of a cliche in Who circles to say that the two albums could have been combined to make one great album, but it's a cliche for a reason. Townshend was working on the demos for EG at the same time he was writing the majority of Who Are You's tracks (see the bootleg Music Must Change). Little of quality went unreleased at this time, but it was split between two albums and several years. The reasons for his saving some of his best songs remain unclear, but those decisions are as much to blame for the Who's decline as the more-cited excuse of Kenney Jones's uninspired drumming. If we merge some of those tracks, we'd have the group's most vulnerable album without any sacrifice of power.
And since I get to play God, I'm going to make Moonie lose 30 pounds, throw out his electric drum kit, and set him on fire again.
01. Empty Glass (from Empty Glass)
First thing we have to do is to get rid of "New Song." I know there's irony there and it's supposed to be a statement about what's to come, but it's a dumb one. Much more interesting and effecting, the alternate-picking and "Why was I born today?" cry set up the tone of spiritual and personal confusion (and hidden hope) that fills this new version.
02. Sister Disco (album track)
After the plea of the opening track, we bounce back with a song of bravado. Putting the track here, instead of after "905" brings out the narrator's uncertainty. His claim to be "strong and secure" might be an honest statement, or a calculated thought to himself. Since his "feet are a prayer" we know there's still a quest in place, and the repeated rejection of disco tells us that there's a specific musical route to get to where "the music fits [his] soul" and offers hope.
03. Trick of the Light (album track)
But all journeys have their pitfalls, and now we stumble into prostitution and self-doubt. Entwistle's lead bass playing here (that's not a guitar) blows away the acoustic veneer of confidence that closed "Sister Disco," but the musical power is undercut by the narrator's concert about whether or not he was good enough for his whore. At once cynical and naive, it's also the perfect number to lead us into
04. Guitar and Pen (alternate mix)
The Olympic '78 mix from the re-mastered version of Who Are You has much more power than the original. With the guitar brought forward, we get the necessary assertion that makes us realize that Townshend's lyrics are partly wide-eyed rock-can-save-the-world attitude, but also a depressive's sneer.
05. Had Enough (album track)
The second Entwistle composition on our version of the album, "Had Enough" is sung by a man trying to convince himself to say, "Fuck it" to humanity and emotion. It's blunt and straightforward on the surface, and with less melodrama than earlier, thematically similar pieces by both Entwistle and Townshend. It's the subtle hints that the singer doesn't believe what he's saying that lets us accept the next song.
06. A Little Is Enough (from Empty Glass)
Townshend at his most romantic. He's going to brave rough seas and hurricanes to get a tiny bit of love, and that minute amount bit is enough to sustain him. Townshend's explained the song's basis in the infinite nature of love. A bit much? Maybe, but not when seen as a drowning man's rope (he fell off the boat). Musically the synth opening provides enough transition from "Had Enough" and the outro leads into…
07. Gonna Get You (from Empty Glass)
The Who's world in 1978 was anything, but stable, and album dedicated to tranquility isn't going to get me through daily stress. "Gonna Get You" is a frightening character study: a sometimes psychotic, sometimes violent, sometimes vulnerable seduction song/possessiveness pronouncement. The light tone and open heart of the previous song are gone.
08. Let My Love Open the Door (from Empty Glass)
It's easy to overlook this little pop number, but it's such a perfect little pop number (and it gets rid of the dismal "Love Is Coming Down"). Moreover, consider that God's actually the singer. The divine request to take the offered redemption is answered by someone who "spit[s] out like a sewer hole" and is just about to demand: "Who the fuck are you?"
09. Who Are You (album track)
The full-length version of this track stands alongside anything in the Who's catalogue, proving they still had it in them. The instrumental break is simply phenomenal and those closing chords demand windmilling. Townshend's used a contemporary sound in a good way (for arguably the last time in the Who), and Daltrey's aggressive vocals make this spiritual search both a plea and a challenge. It's impossible to follow, so it remains the album's closer.