Playing the Indian Card

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Who

Next to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, The Who is commonly cited as the third great contender for “World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Individually, John Entwhistle commonly shows up high on lists of greatest bassist of all time, Keith Moon on lists of greatest drummer of all time, and Pete Townsend on lists of greatest guitarists.

Keith Moon, bidding for attention.

I strongly disagree. I think The Who does not belong in the same league as the Beatles or the Stones. They do not even belong in the same dimension of reality. They are not a great rock band; they are a cartoon band. They were all flash and little substance, and their example has been responsible for most of the worst things that have happened to rock since.

This is Spinal Tap.

Let's take the players one by one: Keith Moon is a flashy and a loud player. But the job of a drummer is primarily to keep time, and Moon never did that well. The first temptation for any drummer is to play too loud; it is easy for a drummer to drown out the other instruments. Moon never got past this rookie pretension.

John Entwhistle

John Entwhistle's fault is about the same. He can play very fast; but that is not the job of a bass player. The bassist is, with the drummer, the rhythm section. His first job is to lay down a consistent line, a setting for the melody to play against. Entwhistle never does this. Nor is his own line ever melodic. Playing fast is by itself not good music; it is just showing off.

Together, Moon and Entwhistle deplete The Who of one half of what makes rock and roll: they are all rock, and no roll. In this, The Who started rock in general down the wrong path--a path the Rolling Stones, at least, but few others, managed to avoid. And without a proper rhythm section, what do The Who have left? Just one instrument.

Pete Townsend strums a chord.

That's Pete Townsend. He can play a good lead guitar when he needs to, but who else makes such a big deal out of simply strumming a chord? Still flash over substance.

Roger Daltrey? A technically adequate singer, but no more. There is nothing distinctive about his voice. He simply sings clearly and on key. At least he knows, and does, his job. 

Roger Daltrey
Taken together, as well as singly, as befits a cartoon band like the Monkees, the Archies, or Kiss, The Who is all gimmicks, all the time. They are always playing to the cheap seats. Even the name is a gimmick. They were the first to smash their instruments onstage—not necessarily a cheap gimmick, but a shameless one. They hold the Guinness record for the loudest rock concert of all time—the most obvious gimmick of all, and sadly too easy to imitate. Add stuttering vocals, bass solos, playing with feedback, Townsend swinging his arm like a windmill, Daltrey swinging the mike around. It's all about looking like a good rock band, as opposed to doing the work of being a good rock band. None of this is about the music. Even if they were actually good, they so blatantly insult the intelligence of their audiences that anyone at all thoughtful should be too embarrassed to say they liked them. How can you get past this?

At their best, they have produced a few great songs—but fewer than a lot of less-well-known bands you could name: "My Generation," "We Don't Get Fooled Again," and "Squeezebox." Against this, there is the painful pretension of Townsend's “rock operas,” and his claiming to be influenced by Purcell. That's just musical social climbing. This is beneath any true rocker. There are songs in which something as puerile as a pinball competition is presented as heroic.

Gimme shelter.

The Who's star on the Walk of Fame

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