On Second Thought: The Who – Endless Wire (2006)

You can argue as much as you want whether this was the Who, or — as Roger Daltrey was fond of putting it — Who2, or as some jokingly said, “The Two,” or should have been a Pete Townshend album, or should have simply been called Townshend/Daltrey, but the fact remains the same: Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey recorded and put new music out together again after 24 years of not doing so.

Of course, it was not your old Who. Not the Who of Who’s Next or Tommy or really even Quadrophenia. Was anyone really even expecting that? What Endless Wire presented was the “mature” Who that emerged during and after Quadrophenia, the one that really began its life with The Who By Numbers and, for all intents and purposes, ended with It’s Hard. A kinder, gentler Who, maybe, a bit more thoughtful and pensive rather than wound up and destructive.

With any mention of the Who comes cries that the band died when drummer Keith Moon died in 1978, but the reality is that the Who people loved was already long gone. It’s easiest to tell by the evidence left in the wake of Moon’s passing — Who Are You, the final album with Moon, is a far cry from the rancorous band that tore up stages earlier in the same decade. But the band hadn’t been that crazy, riotous institution it had been, at least musically, for at least a couple of albums. Moon’s death, while a tragic blow, was not the end of the Who’s wild days many want to think it was. The Who had already been winding down for a few years.

Of course, with powerhouse bassist John Entwistle passing as well, it was easy to see how some long-time fans might have had a hard time accepting anything new under the old Who moniker. But with an album of songs this accomplished, it’s difficult to hold too much of a grudge against survivors Townshend and Daltrey — who turns 68 today — for opting to use the old name. It may have been more respectable to go out as a duo, but it certainly doesn’t pack the same wollop as saying “We’re the Who.”

That’s not to say everyone’s going to be convinced this is the Who. There were more shades of Townshend’s solo career than of his old band here, aside from obvious and questionable nods to “Baba O’Riley” in the album opener “Fragments.” And there were theatrical elements Townshend certainly would have liked to have pulled off with the Who but they wouldn’t have let him when all four were alive — such as the unintentionally comical vocals of “In The Ether,” where Townshend attempted to channel Tom Waits (and failed, miserably) and the overly emotive and, again, oddly sung “Trilby’s Piano.”

But then there were songs where the spirit of the old Who shines through, such as on “Fragments” (after the “Baba”-derived opening, that is), the “Who Are You”-ish “Mike Post Theme” (there was some fun irony there — a song about the man responsible for a huge number of TV theme songs sung to a song that sounds a lot like a song that is now a theme song for a very popular TV show), “Endless Wire,” “It’s Not Enough,” and the beautiful “God Speaks of Marty Robbins,” and album closer “Tea & Theatre” that mark a return of Townshend going the simple, acoustic route as he did so perfectly with By Numbers’ “Blue, Red, And Grey.”

Townshend saved up all the old anger and spite he used to channel into the old Who songs for one song in particular: “Man In A Purple Dress,” a vicious attack on the hypocrisy of religious figures who use their status to position themselves as leaders of the powerless. It was this Townshend that we haven’t heard in decades — and maybe never with quite this much unrestrained wrath, funneled through an equally revved up Daltrey, whose vocals here were among the album’s finest moments.

It’s a shame, then, that the “mini-opera” so touted with this album, Wire & Glass, was such a let down. Why it’s called out as such is also a mystery: The seeds were sewn early in the album, as “Fragments” and “In The Ether” played into Wire & Glass, but fall far outside of the self-contained opera.

The opera, itself, failed simply because it felt self-conscious, contrived, and hasty. While it picked up a storyline begun with Townshend’s 1993 solo album, Psychoderelict, one would be hard-pressed to decipher what exactly the story was here. And that was even its real problem: The story behind concept pieces was by far the least concerning element; instead, it’s that there is little flow. The best pieces stood on their own — “Unholy Trinity,” “Endless Wire,” “We Got A Hit,” and “Mirror Door” — but the linking material hardly felt complete and only tenuously tied them together. Its worst sin was that it felt terribly rushed, like an incomplete thought.

While Endless Wire wasn’t a perfect album, it was by far the best Who album in three decades, and one of Townshend’s best works in that time as well. The stumbles of its mini-opera weren’t enough to knock it down, either, as the album’s highs are far superior to its fortunate few lows. The album’s proper end (because the disc truly concludes with two extended takes on “We Got A Hit” and “Endless Wire”), “Tea & Theatre,” hints this may have been the true end of The Who, making this album a much more fitting closing note than the somewhat sour It’s Hard:

“The story is done – ‘s getting colder now
A thousand songs – still smoulder now
We played them as one – we’re older now.”

And if this was just the first part of a new chapter in the story of The Who? One can only hope they’ve got it in them to keep up the same quality for future projects — or know that it was best to leave Endless Wire as a solitary last note in the Who’s canon.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Peter

    Good piece, but I disagree with your conclusions about the “opera.”

    From what Townshend has said in numerous interviews, Wire and Glass wasn’t meant to be an “opera” any more than “Tommy” or “Quad.” were. Rather than “operas,” they are song cycles of greater stories. Song cycles inherently lack the “flow” you mention that appear in true operas (for Wire and Glass, the back story was a novella Townshend published online titled The Boy Who Heard Music). Simply due to time and many, MANY theatrically staged productions, Quad.’s and Tommy’s back stories are very well known by the general audience. Because of this, I believe it is easier for the listener to subconsciously fill in the gaps of those stories and therefore find the “flow” between the songs. The experience of listening to Wire and Glass will be quite different for the majority of listeners simply due to the relatively small audience that were exposed to The Boy Who Heard Music. Cheers!

    • Reading Is FUNdamental
    • Tom Johnson

      The suite of songs was actually sold as the Wire And Glass Mini Opera months prior to the album proper was released. I know because I bought the dumb little thing thinking/hoping it would be different in some significant aspect to what we got on the album (mixing, at least, if not completely different versions of the songs). It wasn’t. But it was promoted as a “mini opera,” and in that link in the first reply, it’s being discussed with PT as a mini-opera. Regardless, it’s no easier for the listener to “fill in the gaps” because it’s just a sloppy piece of work surrounded by superior material. The album would have been much stronger had the opera idea, “mini” as it was, been abandoned, and the good songs simply rolled into regular album songs. But I think Pete’s kind of lost his focus in the past couple of decades – he can’t seem to think outside of grand concepts anymore, which is such a shame when he has such an amazing ear for great songs. I’m convinced they’re still in there, but he gets sidetracked by trying to tie them all together into something bigger, and then he either turns out something flawed like Endless Wire, or, as now, nothing.

  • Haik Mendelovich

    Very good review.

    I’ve been a Who fan since the release of Who’s Next – as soon as I heard it, I was a Teenager In Love.

    But frankly, they lost it with By Numbers. Aside from two or three tracks, it’s their first disposable album. And that’s Townshend’s doing.

    I thought that perhaps as I grew older, I would connect with the dreary, depressing, world-weary lyrics. But I never have. Richard Thompson and Ray Davies have done Middle-Age Crisis better, and with more humor.

    And – By Numbers is when the sound of the band changed – and not for the better. Note the painful lack of crunching power chords. The soaring synths that were birthed with WN and which matured on Quad are mostly gone.

    The synths would return for Who Are You, but so would the despair. But with WAY, poor Keith had lost his amazing, world-beating, one-of-a-kind talent. And Pete, for the first time, started to veer into pseudo-jazz and musical theater territory. This was in no way an improvement.

    You can’t blame Kenny Jones for what followed, although clearly there were better drummers for the Who – Clem Burke of Blondie and Dinky Diamond of Sparks spring to mind. No, the real problem with the rest of the Who releases was again Townshend. But with Face Dances and It’s Hard Townshend was simply shortchanging the Who by keeping his best songs for his solo albums. Gee, do you think Rough Boys is a better tune than Did You Steal My Money?

    Endless Wire is, of course, a solo Townshend album in a sense. And that’s not necessarily any longer a good thing.

    With EW, Pete again indulged his Gilbert and Sullivan side, which is just about as good an idea as the “standards” albums by the likes of Rod Stewart. And the second mistake was the exclusion of the wonderful Zak Starkey from all but one song. The drumming on most of EW could have been done by a computer program. As could the bass.

    John Entwistle, of course, is as irreplaceable as Keith, but did the bass on EW have to be so far down in the mix? Did it have to be so boring? Someone should really have called Stanley Clarke and offered him a ton of filthy lucre.

    So… despite Roger having recovered his great voice, I’m not really looking forward to any new Who albums.

    I don’t want to be disappointed with another opera-thingie… Floss is it to be?

    Gilbert and Sullivan go to the dentist… No, thanks.