Sunday, December 24, 2017


One of my own Christmas traditions is taking the break time to go through a new boxed set, as it's often hard to find the time to enjoy a three, four or more multi-disc collection in one sitting. That means I put it on, and don't stop until it's done, reading the liner notes as I go. This year, the latest Who collection filled that bill admirably.

This five-disc set goes chronologically through the group's British singles, from their 1964 debut as The High Numbers, and the non-hit I'm The Face/Zoot Suit, until the last handful of stand-alone new singles that have been added to best-of compilations, the final one being Be Lucky from the 2015 set The Who Hits Fifty! Each b-side is also included, which means several of these very obscure tracks are being issued on CD for the first time, which makes the box pretty interesting for Who fans.

Focusing only on the singles means the box looks at the journey of the band in a much different way. Usually Who collections concentrate on the biggest hits and the four crucial albums, Tommy, Live At Leeds, Who's Next and Quadrophenia. But the 45's tell a much different story, especially during the first phase of the group's career, pre-Tommy, and then during the early '70's, when a string of stand-alone singles were released from abandoned projects. Then in later years, various live cuts came out from reunion tours or the need for b-sides, tempting bonuses for collectors.

The '60's Who were first an R'n'B band, then a pop one, and the 45 market was hugely important. In England, before Sgt. Pepper, it was the ring in which all the best bands competed for both chart sales and recognition, Pete Townshend matching wits with The Beatles, Stones, and Brian Wilson for pop supremacy. The Who's run of I Can't Explain, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, My Generation, Substitute, I'm A Boy, Happy Jack, Pictures Of Lily and I Can See For Miles matches them all, and is as fruitful a period as the group's more-recognized early '70's heyday. A batch of rare b-sides from this period yields less important but often fun tracks, including several written by John Entwistle, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his thinly veiled description of Keith Moon. Unless you own the original singles or the various rarities collections used several years ago such as Who's Missing/Two's Missing, you'll be missing several of these minor gems, and now you can get them in glossy remastered audio.

The early '70's saw Townshend trying to come up with a way to release his concept album Lifehouse, which was eventually scrapped, and the best of the songs salvaged for Who's Next. That left a surplus of tracks, several of which emerged as singles, with varying quality and success. Let's See Action, Join Together and Relay were decent-sized British hits but didn't do much in North America, and there were even more b-sides that show different sides to the group's sound at the time. Entwistle had become a better writer, and his Heaven and Hell, often used as a live show opener, is found here in its rarer studio version.

After Quadrophenia, album tracks such as Squeeze Box, You Better You Bet and Don't Let Go The Coat were selected as singles, so the more interesting finds here come from best-of's and compilations, such as the beloved 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright, which featured the brilliant Long Live Rock. Another song written for an abandoned project, and found on the catch-all set Odds and Sods, it's clearly one of the great anthems of rock, and should have been a huge hit, oddly rarely considered in the lists of great Who tracks. A 1990 live album saw the release of Join Together/I Can See For Miles/Behind Blue Eyes, and helps show that the band really did continue to make magic on stage in that long stretch of "final" tours and reunion charity concerts.

As usual for Who reissue box, the accompanying book holds copious and informative notes, which is a must for my traditional Christmas binge-listening. This time however, there are none of the ravings of Chairman Pete, often a favourite inclusion for Who fans. Has he said all he has to say? I doubt it.

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