This is by no means a great record, but despite the doubt, guilt, worry and self-laceration in almost every song, it's a strangely confident one. Again and again, the persona is that of the cripple, the victim of disaster, but Who Are You is not the work of cripples, no matter how many breakdowns and bottles the Who have left on their fourteen-year-old trail.
Certainly, the album kicks in slowly. The tunes lack a natural, kinetic groove (John Entwistle's "905" and Pete Townshend's "Who Are You" are exceptions). The drive we expect... Read More
from the Who is replaced by chunky, sometimes clunky orchestration: strings, horns, synthesizer music. This gives one the feeling that the Who aren't moving, that they aren't gearing up for a great rock & roll shoot-out with the competition, heading off for better times, claiming the futurerather, they're face to face with limbo, and trying to think their way out of it. They make the limbo real, but their resistance to it is just as convincing.
At least four songsall Pete Townshend'sbegin with the premise that the band's (and its audience's) future can't be taken for granted: with doors slamming all around, Townshend feels his weakness, his obsolescence. "New Song," the first cut, rams home the guilt of having taken a free ride: "I write the same old song, with a few new lines/And everybody wants to cheer me." "Music Must Change" might be announcing the need for a New Wave, but it's quite consciously two years out of date, and, what's more, the music itself sounds old and stiffthere's not a single musical concession to punk, reggae or even hard-nosed rock. In "Guitar and Pen," Townshend clings to his vocation as the man who has something to say, something worth the time others will take to listen, but very intentionally, he protests too much, and subverts his own affirmation.
And then there is "Who Are You," a far stronger single than "Squeeze Box," the hit from 1975's The Who by Numbers, and a song that, stretched out over more than six minutes on the LP version, is far more moving than "Won't Get Fooled Again," the band's certified Seventies masterpiece. The dynamics are much more subtle this timeand all the smugness is gone.
"Who Are You" was spun out of the night that Townshend, already drunk after hours of financial haggling, half-recognized two members of the Sex Pistols in a bar: that is, he thought either Steve Jones or Paul Cook was Johnny Rotten. Corrected, he felt even more confused: Why can't I see straight? Cook and Jones, supposedly arrogant young punks working out their rock & roll Oedipal complex, were thrilled to meet Townshend and horrified at what he had to tell them: the Who were finished, used up, wasted. The incident left Townshend passed out in a Soho street, which is where the song begins. Townshend (in the voice of Roger Daltrey) wakes up with one enormous question: Who are you? It's addressed to Cook and J