Perhaps, in hindsight, Led Zeppelin had the right idea: When your linchpin drummer dies, simply call it quits. Not so, the Who — who thereby created a second, less celebrated legacy without Keith Moon.
They were, of course, never the same. And yet, they have continued, first as a threesome featuring Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend along with ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones, and later — after Entwistle’s passing in 2002 — as a duo with various sessions players.
The results have been at best uneven, and at worst unrecognizable. But there have been moments, even if ever so brief, when the Who’s controversial decision to carry on seemed worthwhile. Here are five of them …
“ATHENA,” (IT’S HARD, 1982): A broken promise of a song, “Athena” pointed to a return to form for the Who on its second Moon-less project, with its rumbling guitar opening, thrilling tempo changes, and the way Daltrey’s barking verses bleed into Townshend’s Greek chorus of a countermelody. Oft-maligned Moon replacement Kenney Jones even tosses in a few explosive drum rolls, as a bright brass section weaves in and out.
The Who hadn’t sound so much like the Who for years, going back to before Moon’s performances began to deteriorate in advance of his sad end. Unlike so much of the previous Face Dances — and, as we would soon see, the rest of It’s Hard, as well — this song was perfectly suited for Daltrey’s staccato rasp. Only this time, his reliably cocksure street tough has become ever more romantically confused, until the song ends with a flourish amid Daltrey’s desperates pleas. Unfortunately, it’s mostly downhill from there.
“REAL GOOD LOOKING BOY,” (THEN AND NOW, 2004): During the long period between It’s Hard and 2006′s Endless Wire, the Who continued to tour with numbing regularity — even after a heralded farewell jaunt. What they didn’t do is record much. In fact, though Entwistle died in 2002, his most recent studio work with Daltrey and Townshend dates back to a cover of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” done for 1991′s Two Rooms, a tribute for Elton John and Bernie Taupin. “Fire,” from Townshend’s 1989 project Iron Man was also credited to the Who.
The remaining duo apparently attempted a new album in the early 2000s, recording two tracks in 2003-04 (this one, which makes nifty use of the theme from Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and “Old Red Wine’) that ended up on a subsequent hits package. The best of all four of these grab-bag sessions is undoubtably “Real Good Looking Boy,” featuring Zak Starkey on drums and Greg Lake of King Crimson and ELP fame on the bass. Daltrey again plays the lovelorn hound-dog to the hilt, Townshend tosses off a few stabbing riffs, and Starkey animates a whisper of Moon’s old octopus-armed cacophony.
“YOU BETTER YOU BET,” (FACE DANCES, 1981): This isn’t just the best song on this first post-Moon attempt at songmaking, it’s the only thing worth recommending on an album that feels as disjointed and sadly uninteresting as the Who was clearly, in fact, becoming. Many, including Daltrey, have placed the blame on Moon’s two-album replacement Jones — but the fact of the matter is, the material just wasn’t up to the Who’s standards. And, maybe more even than his playing, the band sorely missed Moon’s sense of reckless ambition.
Ironically, the best thing that didn’t make the cut was Townshend’s title track, which somehow ultimately ended up on his own All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes a year later. And so it went, with most of the (well, yeah) better songs that Pete was coming up with in the 1980s ending up elsewhere. This is a rare example of one that made it onto a Who album, and — what do you know? — it became a hit.
“EMINENCE FRONT,” (IT’S HARD, 1982): It would be easier to call this the best post-Moon song of them all, if it sounded anything at all like the Who. Sure, “Eminence Front” boasts a gas pedal-mashing groove. But listen more closely: John Entwistle thunks his bass, but without the murderous intent we’ve come to expect. And that tense little keyboard figure can’t obscure the fact that Daltrey is nowhere to be found.
Coming, as it does, after vocal features for Daltrey (the too-wordy title track) and Entwistle (the anonymous rocker “Dangerous”), “Eminence Front” should have ended It’s Hard with a sense of newfound direction from the remaining three founding members. Instead, it sounded like what it was: The first Townshend solo song as the Who went dark. They would remain so, with the exception of those four single tracks recorded here and there, for almost 25 years.
“FRAGMENTS,” (ENDLESS WIRE, 2006): In that brilliant, circular overture of synthesizer — not to mention an angrily contemplative riff — we find a triumph for what’s left of the Who. “Fragments,” as a tune, is everything this band should have been doing instead of slowly but surely turning itself into classic-rock cash-register out on the road.
“Fragments” was simultaneously familiar, yet utterly new, an echo that doesn’t repeat itself so much as deepen — from the cracks that encircle Daltrey’s voice, and the slowing of Townshend’s ever-turning windmill — into something like a fine wine. So, they go and mess it up later. (The now-inevitable mini-opera? Feels rote, rather than right.) Still, for “Fragments,” and maybe even “Fragments” alone, the Who can be forgiven for continuing past not just the untimely death of Moon but (by this point) of the entire rhythm section. But only just.