By Douglas Wolk
The Who's next advertising deal really ought to be with Hamburger Helper--they've stretched a career that produced ten studio albums into at least a dozen other compilations, live sets, and retrospectives. At this point, if they're going to release yet another disc of recycled material, there'd better be a good reason for it. As it happens, their new BBC Sessions--culled from the band's ten or so performances on "the Beeb" between 1965 and 1973--is fascinating, not for its documentation of a superior band in peak form (for most of it, they're neither) but for its insight into the peculiar and irreparable flaws that made the Who a great rock band.
In the beginning, the Who were a kick-ass R & B cover band. The first segment of BBC Sessions, from spring 1965, features covers of some of their favorite American soul singles: the Olympics' "Good Lovin'" (better known from the Young Rascals' later version), Eddie Holland's "Leaving Here," and the disc's only significant addition to the Who's recorded repertoire, James Brown's "Just You and Me, Darling." A top 20 R & B hit for Brown, it's an uncomplicated tune with lots of opportunities for a singer to emote. Roger Daltrey cops the original phrasing wholesale, even if he can't pull off the Godfather's larynx-shredding tone. But the band drops a few verses, cranks up the tempo, grafts on a couple piquant guitar solos, and backhand snaps it into orbit. As tough as they sound, though, in the early sessions the only real sign of the rock stars to come is "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," with Pete Townshend wiggling every switch and knob on his guitar for a freak-out solo in the middle.
The hardest R & B of the period was usually the most compositionally basic, and the first big hurdle the Who faced was that Daltrey, a great blue-eyed-soul shouter, was shakier on less direct material. The tender melodies and high-diction polysyllables that Townshend was starting to write sounded awkward in his mouth. (And "The Good's Gone" is barely even in his range.) The middle path they chose for their early '66 session was Motown, whose version of soul was rough enough for Daltrey but tricky enough for the band to have some fun. A cover of "Dancing in the Street" is strangely tentative, despite Keith Moon's constant cymbal splashing and a fuzzy guitar solo, but the way it downplays Daltrey's voice in favor of heady harmonies and psychedelic effects sounds like a dry run for the pop-psych of 1967's The Who Sell Out. Even Townshend's own "La La La Lies" is very Motown--the rhythm is pure "Heat Wave," and John Entwistle gets to do his impression of Motown house bassist James Jamerson.
By the end of the year, though, Townshend's writing was growing dangerously precious, starting with "I'm a Boy," where he does half the singing himself. Quirky little stories about quirky little characters, like "Happy Jack" and "Pictures of Lily," threaten to get twee in a hurry, and the only reason they don't is, in two words, Keith Moon. Always a flamboyant drummer, he was never more willing to call attention to his playing than when he was patching a threadbare spot in a song. The bridge of "Happy Jack" is a jumble of dopey lyrics crammed with ungainly consonants ("The kids couldn't hurt Jack / They tried and tried and tried / They dropped things on his back / And lied and lied and lied and lied and lied"), so Moon goes wild all over it, nearly drowning it out with toms and cymbals. He could juice up almost anything, and Townshend knew enough to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, the songs from the band's cutesy period admit very little variation from their recorded arrangements; the renditions on BBC Sessions don't add much perspective.
On four superb tracks from their return to the BBC in April 1970, the Who finally seem comfortable enough to be inventive. As Townshend's high-concept dreams fell into place with Tommy, they grew tighter as an ensemble and loosened up as individual musicians. In particular Entwistle's bass playing evolved from intermittently flashy rhythm keeping to dazzling, free-floating counterpoint, and Jamerson became an influence rather than a model. Compare the two takes of "Substitute," from '66 and '70. The first one is clippped and tense, the product of amped-up mods who were still a little unsure how to translate the sentiment and style of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" to the rock idiom. The later, shorter version is the product of the Greatest Rock Band in the World. Townshend and Entwistle throw a dozen rhythmic and harmonic variations at each other in every line, Daltrey puts more bite into the lyrics, and though Moon is firing on all cylinders as usual, he keeps his ears open to what the others are doing instead of simply mowing them down.
Even as they hit their peak, the fault lines were widening. Townshend was starting to think about his "Lifehouse" project, which has intermittently preoccupied him for the last 30 years (he's just released a six-CD set of related material on his own Eel Pie imprint), and his lyrics, though more spiritual and philosophical, were as gangly as ever (i.e., rhyming "Beatles" with "either"). On BBC Sessions Daltrey proves once more that he doesn't get it, belting out "The Seeker," a post-Tommy tune about spiritual yearning, like it's "Land of 1,000 Dances." Yet he also nails that high note at the end of "I've been searching low and high" like it's no big deal, and Townshend, given the option to double track (which previous BBC sessions hadn't allowed), packs the recording with tart acoustic flourishes. Their real-time interactions on a cover of "Shakin' All Over," a power workout taped a couple months before the Live at Leeds marathon version, beat their studio fussiness flat out, yet the closing selections on BBC Sessions are bizarre renditions of the electronically constipated "Relay" and the leaden anthem "Long Live Rock," both sung over prerecorded tracks.
The final BBC session foreshadows the prolonged demise of the Who, when their own importance became a crippling burden, when Moon died and left Townshend without a secret weapon, and finally when their live show dwindled to the endless, depressing spectacle of three deafened veterans joylessly hauling out their old trophies again and again. Later on they had a reputation to uphold and to coast on--they'd learned that they could get away with anything. But in the years when it was still worth their time to play on the radio, it was the way they overcompensated for their weaknesses that made them great.