When Pete Townshend describes The Who’s new album as “same old stuff” (as he did in an interview with Reuters) one isn’t certain whether it’s wishful thinking or an attempt at public self-deprecation from the notoriously bossy artist.
Just a Fantasy
Unwrapping the CD, I indulged in a brief fantasy. Maybe, just maybe, this would sound like the Who of old, the Tommy Who, the Who when Keith Moon and John Entwistle were still alive. I know. It’s like thinking that if Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr recorded an album today, it would sound just like the Beatles. Like I said, it was just a passing fantasy.
In reality, Endless Wire might easily have been released as a Pete Townshend solo album, featuring Roger Daltrey on some of the vocals. This is Townshend’s album in every respect. He wrote all of the songs. The tracks were recorded at his home studio. He mixed the tracks. He dictated whether and when the album would be released. He plays nearly every instrument at one time or another, and does lead vocals on several songs. In “Won’t Get Fooled Again” way back in 1971, Townshend wrote the lines, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Some things never change.
None of this is meant to take away from the fact that Townshend was and is a true musical visionary. He not only keeps up with but continues to be several steps ahead of the latest sound technologies. That he is a perfectionist, deeply involved in every aspect of the album, can be cited as one of the chief reasons for the Who’s success and longevity.
A-List Players, But ...
Nor is this meant to take away from those now backing Townshend and Daltrey: Zak Starkey (son of the aforementioned Ringo) on drums, Pino Palladino on bass, Rabbit Bundrick on keys, Simon Townshend on guitar and backing vocals. To a man, they are top flight musicians, with a keen understanding and appreciation of The Who way of making music. But the key word here is backing. Moon and Entwistle were as much “out in front” as Daltrey and Townshend. Their personalities and musicianship were as prominent as Townshend’s spinning guitar and Daltrey’s roaring vocals.
Townshend’s lyrics have always tended to be topical, and Endless Wire has plenty of “ripped from the headlines” themes. One of the songs was inspired by the terrorist takeover and massacre at a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004. Three of the songs were inspired by Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ. One is an ode to Mike Post, composer of the theme songs of many of the most popular TV shows of the past three decades.
The album’s first nine tracks – those that are not part of the mini-opera Wire & Glass that comprises the remainder of the album – tend to be lyrically darker and musically less energetic than The Who of old. In the one whimsical exception, God Speaks, Of Marty Robbins, God wakes up after a long sleep and undertakes Creation, Townshend writes in his song notes, “in order to be able to hear some music.”
Signs of Old Times
It is Wire and Glass that feels and sounds most like The Who we grew up with. The rhythms, the melodies, the “hooks” have a good measure of that driving energy that was the band’s trademark in the salad days. "We Got a Hit" has the kind of memorable melody and lyrics that cause you to find yourself performing them when you’re alone on an elevator. The finale, "Tea & Theater" is oddly touching – the Towser version of Paul Simon's "Old Friends/Bookends" theme.
As reviewer Alun Williams noted after seeing The Who in concert during their 2006 U.S. tour, Daltrey’s voice is still remarkably strong for his age, and Townshend can still “windmill” that guitar as well as he always did. As long as your expectations are realistic, Endless Wire could easily become one of the more frequently listened to albums in your collection.