HOLY POWER: Musical directness is the gift Pete Townshend was given to compensate him for being such a difficult bastard.
It’s been 24 years since the Who released a studio album. To put it another way, their last full-length, the 1982 stinker It’s Hard, is old enough to be this one’s father. And the Who are now two: with the death of bassist John Entwistle, coked to pieces in a Vegas hotel room in 2002, the strange marriage of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend severed its last tie to history and became pure dialectic — big chest versus big nose, the pint-sized blusterer against the looming boffin who writes all the tunes. Endless Wire (Universal Republic; in stores October 31) is their latest synthesis: 19 tracks, the last 10 of which form a full-length mini-opera — yes, that’s right — called Wire and Glass. And it is a true child of the Who-niverse, immediately recognizable and as thrillingly up-its-own-ass as anything they’ve ever done.
Let’s get historical for a minute, because in a way (in several ways) it all begins and ends with the Who: their career, in all its grandiosity and variety and fucked-upness, exhausted the possibilities of rock and roll. First of all, they broke the technical sound barrier. The rhythm section alone was pure lift-off, Entwistle’s whimsical, endless descant floating over the neurological stampede of Keith Moon’s drumming, the galloping tics and accents and double-bass flams and the steady gash of white noise from his cymbals. Then there was Townshend, as a guitarist neither particularly accomplished nor particularly inventive, but seeming to have in his hands and shoulders a surplus of human electricity, an emotional/melodic charge to which his much-abused guitars would respond in a kind of ecstasy. And if Daltrey’s main achievement was simply to hang in there, as the music exploded from irritable Mod pop into a stadium-busting roar — well, that was achievement enough.
After they’d burned through several rock-and-roll futures with the feedback storms and “Hope I die before I get old!” and the quickly standardized smashing of gear, their subsequent forced mutations changed everything. They ushered in the era of rock enormousness — power chords, screams of prowess, Marshall stacks — and rock conceit (the operas). And rock ripoff, too. The Who were always as cold as could be, cash-in merchants of the front rank: the first to take corporate sponsorship for their mega-tours back in the ’70s, and lately among the most eagerly shameless in the licensing of their music for advertising. (“Bargain,” Townshend’s beautiful, raw, spiritual 1971 love song to guru Meher Baba, was whored out a couple of years back for a Nissan ad.)
Selling out, all that jazz — it was easy in the end for the Who to burn their bridges with the counterculture, because they had never exactly been of it. Townshend was in a legendarily filthy mood all through Woodstock, and he booted yippie warrior Abbie Hoffman off the stage when it was time for the Who to play, later explaining that the festival “wasn’t what rock’s about, at least as far as I’m concerned.” So what was rock about? It was about holy power, divine entry, white-hot oneness, the single note that roots our being — the fixed set of preoccupations within which Pete Townshend has worked for the last 30 years, from the Lifehouse project of 1971 to the wacky metaphysical underpinning of Endless Wire.
Lifehouse, even after 30 years, evades description. A precariously envisioned blend of sci-fi and social engineering, it involved at one end a rented theater in London, a very long Who concert, and an audience wired into music-generating “experience suits.” At the other end it was a story about a man called Bobby who “puts on a six-month concert event” that inverts the repressive social order and concludes with a mass ascension into rock nirvana. Sort of The Matrix meets the Rapture. No one was understanding Townshend at this point, the doughtiest of his allies balked, and the project went belly-up, the musical flotsam from it being assembled into 1971’s Who’s Next.
WHO KNEW?: Townshend and Daltrey have now proven they can come treading out of the dim vales of rock-and-roll dotage with a more-than-effective album.
Endless Wire, and in particular the mini-opera Wire and Glass, reprises certain of Lifehouse’s themes: “Mirror Door” concerns (so the press release tells us) “a children’s play in Central Park that is webcast to the entire world for charity” and that eventually “turns everyone into music.” Wire and Glass has something to do with Townshend’s novella The Boy Who Heard Music, which is available on his blog. But don’t go there. Please. I did. “The sweeping sound of Abba’s ‘SOS’ soars across the ether in multi-coloured sheets. Junk. Sublime. And it works like sublime junk, it fills the gaping hole in my solar plexus. Is this my favourite song? Will it soothe my irritated, subverted spirit? Can I retarget and refocus my meditative energy? No.” The narrator is a man called Ray High, an old rock-and-roller who is “suffering from Alzheimer’s and also has drug flashbacks.” On Pete’s blog you can find in addition a participatory musical program called “The Method,” which seems to be a Webbed-up version of the old “experience suits.”