"My Generation" to the contrary, the Who got old before it died. The funny thing is, it wasn't old age that killed the band, but growing up. The Who, after all, was quintessentially adolescent in its perspective; from "My Generation" through "Baba O'Riley" to the epic "Quadrophenia," the band's greatest material was centered on the trials of teen life. Nobody stays young forever, and as the group's songwriter, Pete Townshend, turned his attention to more adult issues, the Who became an increasingly awkward voice, especially as the band's back catalogue came to define it more clearly than new material ever could.
Rather than play Peter Pan for successive generations of young rockers, the Who dissolved in 1983, leaving its members to deal with adulthood on their own. So far, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Kenney Jones have avoided the issue entirely, but as current albums by both Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey clearly show, those two have made significant progress in dealing with adult life.
Townshend's "White City: A Novel" (Atco 7 90473), in fact, contains some of his best writing in a dozen years. Part of that simply is the result of focus after the metaphorical mysticism of "Empty Glass" and "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes." It's quite a relief finally to be able to follow what Townshend is singing about.
Mostly, "White City: A Novel" succeeds because it finds Townshend wrestling with a set of adult problems every bit as absorbing as the adolescent crises he wrote about with the Who. The central topic, oddly enough, is still the same: alienation. The difference, though, is significant, for where the typical teen-age Who protagonist sought to find himself in the distance between friends and family, the unnamed hero of "White City" struggles for inner unity amid the shards of his marriage and neighborhood.
"White City" is no more a novel than "Tommy" was an opera, but it does have the unifying story line. Granted, the plot is easier to follow in the short story on the back of the album (or through the Richard Lowenstein video) than through the music itself. But Townshend compensates for that by filling the songs with a strong sense of character.
"Come to Mama," for example, sums up the mutual antagonism of a failed marriage so vividly, it's hard to believe Townshend turned the trick in a mere 16 lines.
At its best, which is quite often, "White City" recalls the greatness that flickered beneath the Who's "Quadrophenia." Townshend, in fact, seems to make that connection itself in "Face the Face," a song that puns on the mod term for the hippest, best dressed member of any group while arguing for the need to own up to the truth about who we are.
Serious subjects, to be sure, yet Townshend never sounds sanctimonious here. "Face the Face," for all its pontification, is giddily infectious with a driving back beat and punchy horn arrangement that makes sitting still while listening all but impossible. Similarly, "Secondhand Love" uses a moody piano hook to make Townshend's jealous wrath more appealing than it deserves to be.
Some of the compositional touches are typical Townshend: the anthemic chorus to "Give Blood"; the rich, major chord harmony vocals in "Brilliant Blues"; the eighth-note pulse under the almost conversational vocal line to "Crashing by Design" -- but the overall sound on the album is distinctive, owing little either to the Who or to Townshend's previous solo projects. "White City: A Novel" is impressive proof that rock is more than mere kid stuff.
To say that Roger Daltrey's new recording, "Under a Raging Moon" (Atlantic 7 81296), doesn't measure up to Townshend's latest is no insult; few albums could. In fact, Daltrey's album does quite a lot to resolve the singer's post-Who identity crisis. Trouble is, Daltrey's gift is for interpretation, not composition. And that leaves him at the mercy of outside songwriters, not always a comfortable position.
Townshend's "After the Fire" opens the album with a tough, unsentimental confession that suits Daltrey's singing to a T. But "Don't Talk to Strangers," though blessed with some impassioned singing by Daltrey, doesn't overcome its banal melody and lyrics. Then there's Bryan Adams' "Let Me Down Easy," which is so cliche'-bound that the singer's efforts are largely for naught. Nonetheless, Daltrey, who performed last night at Constitution Hall, does a yeoman's job with his singing, punching through a thick hard-rock arrangement with easy confidence.
The title tune sums up the albums' strength and weaknesses. A tribute to the late Keith Moon, the Who's longtime drummer, it borrows heavily from "Won't Get Fooled Again," an allusion that lends the song context. But no matter how well Daltrey sings, he can never better the memories he evokes. Granted, Moon himself would doubtless have reveled in such extravagant bad taste, but you expect better from Daltrey.