THE Who are one of those groups that are not easily labeled. There exists no comfortable slot to put them in, no convenient section of an LP collection into which to slide their records. Somehow, the Who have managed to appeal, both musically and visually, to the Undergroundies while simultaneously retaining the huge following they started to build back in the days of High Numbers., Pop Art, broken Rickenbackers, smoke bombs and My Generation.
No easy task this. Many worthy outfits have attempted and failed that same dreadful gap (Humble Pie were created for this very purpose and look what didn't happen to them). The acclaim of the multitudes is normally the kiss of death as far as the Underground is concerned but somehow, the Who have pulled it off.
There are many reasons: their music, which is strange, wild and original; their image, which is strange and wild and…er, original, and their visual act, which is…well, we've all seen the Who at one time or another. There are also other less obvious reasons for the Who's successful schizophrenia. They have, for a start, managed to remain together for what must he something like a world record. "I've been playing with Pete Townshend since I was 12,' says John Entwistle. 'He was playing banjo then'— and that, more or less, sums it up,
After all, the Who have had their share of well-publicised personality differences. But there has never been a single personnel change, alteration or augmentation. Who, for example, could have replaced Townshend (who on his tod has always epitomized where the Who are at)? And Keith Moon, the most acrobatic batterer in the business? Ex-Mod king Daltrey and stone-faced Entwistle would both have been equally hard to replace – Roger because of his perfected stage technique (the Roy Rogers of the microphone) and John because of his role as the pokerfaced pivot. This is some heavy collective image, and any breakup might have ruined it. However, no split occurred, the Who are still together and still going strong.
But it took a long time. 'First we went over with Cream,' says Entwistle dispassionately. 'They made it big, and stayed over there. We came home. Then we went over again with Hendrix to do the Monterey Pop Festival. He made it big, and stayed. We came home again. We just kept plugging on till we made it in our own right.'
The Who plugged on, and along came Tommy, about which much has been said. The initial impact of the Townshend Opera was followed by Woodstock, about which even more has been said. But who can forget their magnificent set, with Daltrey doing a Geronimo, Townshend doing a Boilermakers' Union, Moon doing his nut and Entwistle, as ever, doing nothing at all – except to croak the occasional line like tuh help yuh son but you too young to vote – by way of contrast.
Tommy was the great High Number of the Who's existence – justifying everything they have ever performed in a single musical work. It was Tommy which really brought the Who within the narrow orbit of the Trendies, as well as prompting a fresh approach from the Media (who had previously concentrated only on the destructive aspects of the Who's act), and from the record-buying public at large. Tommy sold millions (the gold discs are hung in Entwistle's room opposite a suit of armour) and Ralph J. Gleason, San Francisco Chronicle and Rolling Stone columnist, was kind enough to say some nice things in his sincere – if slightly overdone – way. The Who had arrived.
Then there was a bit of a void. Tommy was starting to wear thin, and Music Papers did srticles with headlines like 'When are the Who going to drop Tommy?' It was not as easy as it looked, because parts of Tommy, like My Generation at an earlier stage, had become so closely associated with the Who's act that they were virtually impossible to drop. To this day, See Me Feel Me and Pinball Wizard survive, along with My Generation, in the Who's act.
The void was filled – temporarily at least – by a follow-up album Live at Leeds. This LP, encompassing a complete Who stage show (including the above numbers) was produced to keep the Who before the public eye while a new creation was evolved to replace Tommy. Live at Leeds was an excellent album, with a highly original packaging idea, and it sold very well indeed.
But it didn't replace Tommy. 'Pete's working on a new thing now,' says Entwistle. The New Thing turns out to be a film – shape and form as yet unknown. 'Rather than think up a film and write the music around it, we're writing the music and working a film around it afterwards.'
In the meantime, while the Who's composer gets a new thing together, what are the other members doing? 'Roger's into Pollution,' says Entwistle, looking amused. 'He's going on about buying a farm with ploughed fields and horses.' (Entwistle later explained that the members of the group see each other socially 'only about twice a year'). Keith Moon is engaged in looning – did he ever do anything else? – about Town, jamming, boozing and generally having himself one helluva time. Good on him. And John?
'I've got an album coming out,' says Entwistle, looking more enthusiastic. He named the numbers: What Are We Doing Here (title track), Heaven and Hell, My Size, Pick Me Up, What Kind of People Are They?, You're Mine, Number 29 and I Believe in Everything. The album was recorded with amazing speed at Trident – 'The drummer (Jerry Shirley) had to go back to the States and we only had five days to get down all the backing tracks down. We did it, starting at 12 and working through to six in the morning. Then there was another ten days or so in putting down the other tracks; add a week for mixing and we had an album in three weeks or so.' Also on What Are We Doing Here is a remarkably Townshend-esque guitarist called Cyrano, 'and all the rest is me'. The Rest includes bass, keyboards and various brass instruments (Entwistle is an experienced brassman).
John had previously only done one or two things on Who albums. Why the sudden burst of productivity? The answer has echoes of George Harrison's dilemma. 'I was getting a bit frustrated. I would write three or four numbers for each album, but only about two would get accepted. I needed an outlet.' John's previous best-known piece was Boris the Spider which, although amusing, was hardly deathless prose. The frustration was understandable, but John appears pleased with the new album, which is supposed to be released fairly soon. 'There are always things you'd like to change,' he says, 'but on the whole I'm quite pleased with it.' Seated between the Armour and one of the Gold Discs, we listened to I Believe in Everything, which is to be released as a single. It should do very well, assuming it gets the airplay.
One of the Who's great points has been their ability to withstand any attempt to understand them. They never fail to surprise: 'people think of us as "the Who: what are they going to do next"?', says Entwistle. And, in truth, it often seems as if they don't know themselves. A single is scheduled for release – when it can be chosen from a short list of three possibilities. The film we have already mentioned. The various independent activities of the group have also been discussed. Where do we go from here?
It all seems to depend on Townshend. The central charismatic figure of the Who holds all the keys to the group as a musical entity. At the moment, he's locked up in his Twickenham fortress, composing and writing. A film from the composer of Tommy will be worth seeing – and will be eagerly attended. Townshend has proved himself before – but will h come through a second time? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the waiting goes on.