Graded on a Curve:
The Who, It’s Hard

I’ve been walking around for years telling anybody who will listen that the Who died with Keith Moon, but I’ve never been certain it’s true. Sure, The Who lost its heart and soul when Moonie departed this mortal coil on 7 September 1978, but Pete Townshend is Pete Townshend and Pete Townshend didn’t stop being Pete Townshend the day Keith Moon passed away.

Or so I could only surmise, because the unvarnished truth is I’ve never listened to a post-Who LP in its entirety until now. Always struck me as an insult to Keith’s memory somehow. But hey, better late than never, and what I’m now prepared to say after sitting down to 1982’s It’s Hard is that I was right. The post-Moon Who isn’t a very good Who, and I think Moon’s absence has a lot to do with it.

A pitiful few of the songs on It’s Hard are winners. But more of them are flat-out duds, while a few others are semi-salvageable thanks only to the fact that even without Moon the Who remained a formidable recording unit. It’s Hard got a good keelhauling from many critics, many of whom were dyed-in-the-wool Who fans crestfallen—if not angry—at the album’s relative lack of merit.

And there’s lots to not like. The pompous “I’ve Known No War” is an overwrought anthem that fails to be anthemic and nearly ruins “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for me forever; it’s the sound of Pete Townshend waving the white flag. “Cry if You Want” is proof positive that the Who were never the same after Moon died; Kenny Jones’ martial tattoo simply ain’t up to the task, and it doesn’t help that the song is, well, boring man.

Meanwhile, “Cook County” has that classic Who sound but nothing to back it up; the vocal arrangements are intriguing, but they can’t disguise the song’s complete failure to pull you in. “One Life’s Enough” is a wistful and pretty little ditty along the lines of “Getting in Tune.” But it lacks the muscle Townshend used to crank up the dramatic tension on the latter song and it isn’t as pretty either. “A Man Is a Man” suffers from an outbreak of bad lyrics and the absence of Moon; something’s missing and it’s not just a compelling melody.

John Entwistle’s three compositions—and I can’t help but find the fact that he contributed three songs to It’s Hard a troublesome commentary on Townshend’s creative output or lack thereof—don’t improve the LP much. Entwistle wrote some great songs—“My Wife” and “Trick of the Light” come to mind—but these ain’t them. The best of the trio is “One at a Time,” which features some wacky horn blare to start and continues to leave me befuddled; for the life of me I don’t know whether to love it or leave it. On second thought, I think I’ll leave it. “It’s Your Turn” sounds like “Jump” era Van Halen but lacks Van Halen’s bounce; I like the Quadrophenia-era lyrics, but Quadrophenia it ain’t. As for “Dangerous” it brings to mind Genesis, and when a songwriter looks to Genesis for inspiration you know he’s in trouble.

Which leaves us with the LPs three singles, all of which are keepers if not amongst the Who’s Best. “Eminence Front” is a classic Townshend song if not a classic Who song—there’s a difference. Townshend’s work on the Lowrey TBO-1 organ is as enthralling as the synthesizer opening to “Baba O’Riley,” and if “Eminence Front” will never be as great as “Baba O’Riley” you can’t say Pete didn’t give it his best shot. “Athena,” on the other hand, is a friendly example of Who Lite in the tradition of “You Better You Bet,” which is to say it may not be for the ages but it’s meaty, beaty, big and bouncy nevertheless. And the same can be said for “It’s Hard”; it’s hardly one of Pete’s best compositions, and I’m not enthralled by Jones’ drumming, but the cool chorus, natty backing vocals, and Roger Daltrey’s star turn on vocals render it infectious, and you want to catch the Who flu don’t you?

The irony of calling an album whose best songs are anything but hard, It’s Hard isn’t lost on this guy; at their best the Who go pop on this one with a vengeance. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I love pop as much as the next guy. But if you’re going to write pop tunes they should be good pop tunes and most of the songs on It’s Hard are simply not up to the grade.

And the more I think about it the more I become convinced that Pete Townshend the songwriter really did need Keith Moon the madman on the skins, and that their pairing constituted a form of creative alchemy that brought the best out of Townshend. Moon’s attack dog approach to the drums put Townshend on edge, and it’s that edge that’s MIA on It’s Hard.

Which is just another way of saying that I’ve become more convinced than ever that the Who really did die with Keith Moon. Robert Christgau wrote that after It’s Hard the Who were ruined for him, and I guess that’s how I feel too. It’s Hard is hardly as clear-cut a case of shitting on your own legacy as Bob Dylan’s Live at Budokan, but nobody will ever shit on his or her own legacy as successfully as Bob Dylan did on Live at Budokan. The post-Moon Who might as well be the post-plane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd. God save us from survivors.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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  • Wish bone

    Just here commenting on how stupid your pretender review from three years back was..

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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