The Who Bettered, The Who's Best

Reissuing 30 Years of Maximum R&B

The music business is a peculiar one. Most employers at least throw a nice party for you upon retirement, maybe hand over a gold-plated Bulova for all the years of use and abuse you've endured in the service of lining their pockets. In rock & roll, however, there is no ceremony upon termination of a career. With luck, maybe you get a greatest hits package, an article in Goldmine -- perhaps even the dubious "privilege" of being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It's enough to make any "sane" musician think back on the soul-destroying tours, the bloodflow-constricting trousers, the endless parade of interchangeable hotel rooms and requests for "Louie Louie" and wonder: Was it all fucking worth it?

As MCA Records Reissues Coordinator Andy MacKaie puts it (and as have many others before him), "They call this the `record business' for a reason." Since to most record companies "Art" is the name of the geezer who makes corned beef sandwiches down at the corner deli, it takes only a few brain cells to figure out why so many seminal back catalogs have fallen into savage disrepair: "Oh, T.Rex/The Yardbirds/whoever used to sell for us? Who cares now, beyond a few record collector nuts?" Which is why whenever you catch a record company actually doing right by an artist, as is the case with MCA's recent exhaustive rehaul of the Who's back catalog, you have to wonder if that was Satan you just saw purchasing parkas down at J.C. Penney.

Were you to compare, say, the recent issue of The Who By Numbers with its mid-Eighties, budget-line CD counterpart, the contest is non-existent.
According to MacKaie, the Who reissue program is a direct result of the success of Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, the comprehensive, though occasionally incomprehensible, 4-CD box set the company issued two years ago. "After we got done with the box," MacKaie explains, "the executive vice president of the company turned to me after a meeting and asked, `What would you do with this catalog if you had your druthers?' I started telling him, and he said, `Put it on paper.' I basically came up with the essential idea of what's happening, turned it over to him, he sent it over to the Who, the Who called me up and said, `Let's do this.' Polydor U.K. was brought into it, because they handle the Who's releases outside the U.S. and Canada, and we're off and flying."

The way they're flying is impressive: going back to the actual session masters, carefully remixing and remastering them, adding heaps of relevant bonus tracks, then wrapping the results in gorgeous packages featuring extensive liner notes and track information. The results speak for themselves. Were you to compare, say, the recent issue of The Who By Numbers with its mid-Eighties, budget-line CD counterpart, the contest would be non-existent. The 1985 edition features sound that's noticeably flatter than the original vinyl from 1975 (until recently, it's been common industry practice to press reissues from non-original sound sources) and ugly packaging, which diminishes the power of John Entwhistle's connect-the-dots portrait of the Who.

The new package replicates the original manila hue of the '75 By Numbers sleeve, right down to the numbering system which rode the rump of its initial vinyl pressings, then enlivens it with period photos (including an amusing shot inlaid within the CD tray of Keith Moon admiring the original of Entwhistle's caricature), and John Swenson's thoughtful account of the group's (or should I say Pete Townshend's) mid-life creative crisis which lead to the album's tone. To even play a few seconds of the '85 and '96 versions of any given track is a bit like playing an Edison cylinder next to a CD.

"When CDs first came," says McKaie, "all record companies rushed to CD and didn't understand the nature of it. So you got some CDs that were maybe less than high caliber. Then everybody took a deep breath and turned around and said, `Oh! If we do it right... hmm!' If you build it, they will come, y'know?

"Part of it is also that the nature of making CDs has changed. Not only do we understand it better, but the systems themselves have changed and improved. The nature of the tape when you first started making CDs was mastered on something called 1610. Around the turn of the Nineties, 1610 tape was changed to 1630, and that was a 20% increase in sound immediately. Use the same tape, use the same EQ -- not even do any kind of work on it -- whatever the methodology was prior to the emergence of 1630, and you'd still get a 20% better sound automatically. That right there helped, and all the different analog-to-digital conversion systems have gotten better, more efficient, and we've gotten more efficient and more understanding of the nature of CDs."

A remastered back catalog - better than any gold watch
In addition, MacKaie now estimates that 95% of the Who's catalog has finally been remixed. This, however, is not a case where "remixing" means reinventing the radial tire. The material has only been redone to emphasize what was already there, with a mind paid to the tone of the original mixes and masters. The results of such discreet, unobtrusive remixing/remastering has been to inject new life into the Who's original work -- make it more three-dimensional. Especially on the vintage mid-Sixties material, you get a sonic portrait of the savage young Who set up in your living room, jacked up on pills, flying Rickenbacker and Premiere drum shrapnel imbedding themselves in your forearm as the lads go into autodestruct mode. The entire process was overseen by Jon Astley, co-producer of Who Are You and brother-in-law to Pete Townshend, and each remix is approved by Townshend himself.

In certain cases, though, there is some dramatic-yet-welcome reinvention, particularly on the new version of the landmark 1967 album, The Who Sell Out. An affectionate tip of the hat to the teenage radio of the day, complete with mock commercials and station IDs, the newly overhauled Sell Out is fleshed out with a wealth of additional material recorded for the album yet unused due to space considerations. In certain cases, as with brilliant tracks like "Jaguar" and "Early Morning Cold Taxi," you wonder why they didn't make the cut, left instead to languish in record company vaults until the release of the box set. The new version feels like a more fully realized record than its original incarnation did, a completely different animal.

The earlier A Quick One benefits from the inclusion of many singles tracks of the day, such as the band's gorgeous B-side rendition of the Everly Brothers' "Man With the Money," plus wonderful obscurities like a hysterical rethink of "My Generation" in which the guitar-smash classic gets a more crackin' snare sound before strangely mutating into Elgar's "Land Of Hope and Glory."

The Who in the Sixties; Odds and Sods
Live at Leeds always rankled for the way that it only presented highlights of the band's live set of the day. In its new form, you get the entire concert (save for the Tommy section of the show, reduced [thankfully] to a single song snippet; the entire Tommy portion of the show is supposedly due for later release), 77 minutes of the most brutal hard rock committed to tape. Then, there's that dubious hump in the center of the Who's career, Tommy, whose master tapes were burned by the group's eccentric and flamboyant manager-cum-producer Kit Lambert once it was first cut to vinyl. Whether you view it as a boon or a bane, the 1996 Tommy, faithfully remixed to its initial specs from the original IBC Studio eight-track session tapes, presents the album the way it sounded upon release, albeit more defined. Ditto for Quadrophenia.

Not everyone is pleased, though. Certain Who archivists/obsessives, irritated by some odd choices made by MCA in the creation of the box set (such as the bizarre version of "A Quick One" which edits the studio recording into a live take from The Rolling Stones' Rock `n' Roll Circus), have complained that while the reissues are an improvement, they aren't what they could be. A common complaint is that the new Live at Leeds should have included all the Tommy material, much as on Columbia's new Live at The Isle of Wight disc, or even a recently surfaced two-disc Italian Leeds bootleg of apparently master-perfect fidelity. Another gripe is the inclusion of a rare stereo rendition of "Run Run Run" on an otherwise all-mono A Quick One, when the song's mono version is a noisier, more aggressive, feedback-laden take. Some Luddites even complain that both A Quick One and Sell Out should only be heard in mono, and that better choices could have been made in the way of bonus cuts.

No one will argue, however, against the series being a dramatic improvement, nor that Who albums have never sounded more lifelike. Only Rykodisc in their treatments of the catalogs of artists such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and the Undertones have either rivaled or equalled the Who CDs. The series may also be serving as a blueprint for future archival releases: Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, who has also long served as the band's archivist and had a large hand in the creation of their recent Sex, America, Cheap Trick box set, spoke recently of plans afoot to sonically upgrade and augment Cheap Trick's back catalog on a similar level. Whether intentional or not, it wouldn't be the first time that band has borrowed a move or two from the Who.

As it stands, all but the Who's death-gasp, post-Keith Moon studio works, and Odds and Sods have been redone. Oh, but there's more: the Who's 1965 debut, My Generation, material which has suffered across the length and breadth of Who reissues and retrospectives due to the master tapes being the property of legendary producer Shel Talmy. Long in dispute with the group for what he sees as their having broken contract with him (please read Dave Marsh's Before I Get Old for historical details), Talmy has apparently settled his differences with MCA, according to MacKaie. Once Polydor and the Who manage to shake hands with Talmy again, work will begin from Talmy's original three-and four-track session tapes, and My Generation will see release in true stereo for the first time ever, bolstered with additions like the Who's early B-side classic "Circles (Instant Party)."

The Who Sell Out's back insert
It's fitting that My Generation will likely end the Who reissue program, one which has done right by a band whose catalog has been abused to the point where Who greatest hits packages outnumber their actual releases. This series should serve as an example to record companies as the proper way to anthologize recording acts, perhaps leading to damage control on the catalogs of anyone from the Yardbirds to even the Rolling Stones (who may rival the Who on that "greatest hits vs. actual albums" score). Maybe now, especially, new generations can discover what was important about this supposed "Maximum R&B" bar band, which had as much business covering James Brown and Motown as did Bobby Vinton.

You see, the Who was the nastiest, most aggressive rock & roll band to date, prototypically punk in their violence and swagger, and one that made bombast and power essential via their pioneering overamplification and the extrovert, play-everything-but-the-beat drum genius of Keith Moon. Oddly, they additionally had in Pete Townshend one of rock's first truly visionary songwriters, able to couch the teenage news in terms both poetic and surly. The band grew ambitious, establishing the concept album and rock opera, dubious achievements at that.

Maybe their later story could serve as an object lesson, as you see Townshend's ambitions outstripping either his or the band's ability or even the group's faith in his concepts. To hear the final pair of Keith Moon-era albums is depressing, as a wounded Townshend realizes he didn't die before he got old, and his heart drifts into other areas. Moon's parallel deterioration is equally audible, and Who Are You is so bloated, blunted, and pompous in tone that Moon's accidental death in 1978 seems merciful.

Townshend can no longer speak of the Who in first person with words dipped in cynicism. Thankfully, the brute force and vitality of the band's best work runs roughshod over such grumpiness. That power never gets old, and it has never sounded better than it does now.

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