Through the '70s, the music of the Who was vastly overrated. The Who's last masterwork was released in 1967, "The Who Sell Out," and over the past 10 years, the band hasn't eclipsed the hard edge of its debut, "The Who Sing My Generation," purportedly cut in a single day. Ironically, this album was a major inspiration to the English punk revolt of 1977 at a time when the Who seemed to be grappling with the problem of growing old.
Relating to the youngsters while aging gracefully is the main theme that has carried the Who from its popular epiphany, "Who's Next," up to its current work. "Face Dances" (Warner Bros. HS 3516). It's an idea with little mileage -- better the elderly rock artists should act despondent and grizzly like Keith Richards or assume the characteristics of a whale a la Brian Wilson. In contrast, though, Pete Townshend has consistently set himself up as a mature spokesman, and it becomes rather tiresome. Perhaps this is a problem inherent in all long-term rock bands -- running out of ideas, and thus, becoming too self-referential.
The new album's initial cut (and the hit single), "You Better You Bet," harks back to the synthesized structure of "Baba O'Riley" (whose intro, appropriately enough, is often used as the theme for local news programs). The song is so personalized it almost becomes trivial.
Another clumsy tune, "Cache Cache," sounds as though it might have been a reject from one of Townshend's many projected rock operas.
Nevertheless, despite the abundance of effects for effect's sake (the voices alternating between speakers on "Did You Steal My Money," the elaborately artistic LP jacket used as a decoy), "Face Dances" -- like any Who record -- has its share of soaring moments. There's Townshend's gossamer guitar work on "Don't Let Go the Coat" and the bold thunderclap of Entwistle's "The Quiet One" (on which Keith Moon's replacement, drummer Kenny Jones, lets it be known that he's no slouch). And then there's the calm level-headedness of "Daily Records," an expression of an artist's need for serenity and of the futility of keeping pace with the world (Inspired verse: "I just don't know how to wear my hair no more/No sooner cut it than they cut it even more").
The chief failed opus of the album is "How Can You Do It Alone." The song is a quest for the return of romantic coupling; hardly what it pretends to be (a scratching argument against masturbation and the so-called new celibacy), it does ask some disturbing question. The song succeeds only on a kind of seedy level, shifting tempos too frequently.
Yet the album does contain a masterful opus, "Another Tricky Day." In the tradition of the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," it's a warmhearted surrender to reality. If we no longer belive rock 'n' roll can change the world, at least here is a viable option: "You can dance while your knowledge is growing." The song's refrain, too, is lovely and empathic -- "This is no social crisis/this is you having fun (No crisis)/ Getting burned by the sun (This is true)." Indeed, the song presupposes a splendid truth all its own: rock 'n' roll as the highest form of truth. The subtlety of "you'll get through" muttered in passing as the fadeout is alone worth the price of admission.
Perhaps the Who's most amazing achievement of the '70s was its indirect influence on a band of likeable young lads called the Jam. Led by Paul Weller, the Jam is a British trio, spawned during the late '70s punk uproar, with a big identity problem -- it desparetly wants to be the Who. This obsession has been its pursuit on four extremely creative ventures -- "In the City," "This Is the Modern World," "All Mod Cons" and "Setting Sons." In a sense, over the past three years, the Jam has taken more risks than the Who has over the past decade; in another sense, however, it has taken fewer. By aspiring to become the Who, it has established an absurd limitation.
Once again, the Jam's current release, "Sound Affects" (Polydor PD 1-6315), is the next best thing to a bad Who album. The band has usually been quite conservative when it comes to stretching out, but this time around it has allowed other influences to sneak into its sound. For example, "Start!" is built upon a riff straight from George Harrison's "Taximan," and "But I'm Different Now" sounds like a cross between the Beatles' "Dr. Robert" and "I Feel Fine." Hence, there's a good chance that the Jam's sixth album may aim for the ebb and flow of "Beatles VI" Roll over, Townshend, and tell Ringo the news.