Who Are You

The Who

MCA, 1978


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


As I write this review it’s 110 degrees in Sacramento, with high humidity.  Just stepping outside and standing in the shade for 60 seconds leaves you drenched.  The atmosphere is so thick and oppressive it makes the slightest effort feel like swimming in molasses.

Which all seems very much on point while listening to The Who’s eighth studio release, 1978’s Who Are You.  The band at this point in its career is a decade past its heady guitar-smashing heyday, a quartet of wealthy rock stars whose entire musical legacy is now under attack from punk and disco.  And the sweat, strain and general discomfort shows in their every move.

There’s no grand concept to Who Are You, a la earlier landmark albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia.  If there’s a running theme, it’s one of disconcerting self-consciousness, songwriter/guitarist Pete Townshend realizing the band badly needs to find new musical territory to explore before it falls into irrelevance.  You hear it said again and again in “New Song,” “Music Must Change” and “Guitar And Pen,” but there’s no solution, just a restatement of the problem: “I write the same old song with a few new lines / And everybody wants to cheer it.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“New Song” at least features some of Townshend’s trademark sharp, punchy guitar lines, but Keith Moon’s work behind the drum kit is uncharacteristically subdued and the track is marred by cheesy synthesizer accents.  The same basic flaw crops up repeatedly through the rest of the album -- the guitars are generally strong, but dated synth tones and overdone strings undercut otherwise entertaining tunes like “Sister Disco” and bassist John Entwhistle’s “Had Enough.” 

Feeding the sense of artistic dry-mouth on Townshend’s part, Entwhistle contributes not just his usual one or two but three tunes on this nine-track album, pounding out a strong rock number in “Trick Of The Light,” and even taking lead vocals on the rather proggy “905,” a song that actually hints at unexplored musical directions for the band.  Townshend does fight back, though, with the energetic, tempo-shifting plea for inspiration, “Music Must Change” (“Deep in the back of my mind is an unrealized sound…”).  While the synth tones are a bit gawky and Daltrey’s vocals a bit overwrought, the song itself is a powerful statement of perseverance.  And “Love Is Coming Down,” with its rather Tommy-esque sense of space and melodrama, has its moments.

It’s both ironic and appropriate that the strongest tune here is the closing title track, Townshend’s epic tale of personal dissolution.  With his guitar taking its rightful place at the forefront, he writes of a falling-down-drunk encounter with the London police that landed him “11 hours in a tin can” down at the station.  Not a pretty sight, but all four members bring their “A” game to this track, and the guitar-synth interplay actually works beautifully, elevating what is in other places a sometimes tired-sounding album.

The fact that Who Are You was the band’s last hurrah as the original foursome -- Moon would pass away later the same year -- leaves us to speculate about what might have been.  If The Who had survived intact, would they have been able to regroup artistically and make better follow-up albums than the tepid Face Dances and It’s Hard?  Moon may not have been a driving creative force in the band, but his hyperactive drumming and larger-than-life personality often functioned as the gas tank for this famously explosive unit.  Without him, they would never be the same again.

Rating: B-

User Rating: B-



© 2006 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA, and is used for informational purposes only.