Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Who - Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (1971)

Though they became a colossus of album-oriented rock in the 1970s, with their rock operas and their innovative arrangements, the Who were at heart the same singles band that had astonished listeners in the previous decade.  In the seventies, they were simply bringing their original songwriting styles and their fierce performances to a grander stage.  
The Who were largely an underground band both in Britain and America in the sixties, recognition in the United States developing sporadically through appearances at Monterey and on the Smothers Brothers' TV show.  Their legendary performance at Woodstock and their huge breakthrough with Tommy established them as a mainstream rock act, but some of their best work was already behind them, and Robert Christgau once suggested that their monumental seventies albums were merely elaborations on their earliest singles, particularly their pointed youth anthem "My Generation."
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, released at the end of 1971, features some of the Who's groundbreaking singles - and one album track - released between 1964 and 1970, and it remains as important a chronicle of what the Who were all about as Who's Next or Who Are You, if not more so.   The band honed its style on these tracks, resulting in a loud, driving sound that was a force of nature.  Roger Daltrey's emphatic vocal delivery was balanced by Pete Townshend's cutting guitar playing, both weaving and bobbing through John Entwistle's thundering bass.  The explosive drums of Keith Moon, though, held everything together, the rest of the band found themselves trying to keep up with his pulsating sonic boom.  But Moon was not as stable a person as he was a musician; his legendary substance abuse kept the band in a permanent state of tension and threatened to upset its fragile chemistry.  When he died in 1978, the power of the Who's music died with him.      
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy captures all of that power, during a period when the band had less to lose and everything to gain.  Indeed, many of the songs here were not big hits in America, and they only became staples of classic rock in the U.S. largely through their inclusion here.  But what songs!  From the Beatlesque pop of "I Can't Explain" and the sharp Mod stylings of "The Kids Are Alright" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" to the clarion call of "My Generation" and the introspection of "The Seeker," Pete Townshend's lyrics are filled with wild-child wonder at the world, with a few nods and winks in the irreverent English tradition. The jokey psychedelia of "Magic Bus" and the mystical cynicism of "I Can See For Miles" are as light as Townshend ever got, with the seemingly innocent "Pictures of Lily" turning female-idol worship into a coded tale of masturbation and the ostensibly nonsensical "Substitute" poking fun at deceptive appearances.  The seamier side of parenthood creeps into Townshend's lyrics, from the jerk who impregnates and abandons his girlfriend in "A Legal Matter" (with a Townshend lead vocal) to the woman who makes her son cross-dress in "I'm a Boy," while John Entwistle is content to sing about naming - and then killing - a creepy-crawly creature in the album track "Boris The Spider."  The Who were indeed a highly original band in the seventies, but  Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy masterfully documents the beginning of their unique perspective.

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