Knock knock

Music - Richard Cook on The Who, rock philosophers of the Sixties kitchen sink

The Who seem to have been with us for ever, but in fact their official lifespan was from 1964 to 1983. The subsequent reformations have been sporadic and enigmatic. While other bands have reunited under a recidivistic blend of nostalgia and cashing-in, The Who - whose members have long since gentrified themselves to the point where financial imperatives are largely irrelevant - are a peculiar example of rock's unwillingness to let go. When Peter Townshend wrote the incomparable manifesto of "My Generation" in 1965, he could hardly have thought that it would come back to mock him, literally decades later. Yet Townshend and his gang of middle-aged mods now seem to have come a remarkable full circle. As pop itself has become fat and moneyed, these sour old men have retained at least a sliver of real, hard-won hurt.

They are a last link with the days when mainstream pop still had some authentic bile. It is important to remember that The Who were an immensely popular group which, in the midst of that success, still retained an element of comparatively unaffected outrage, a sting that eluded their grandest contemporaries, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Townshend's writing had an authentic nastiness about it, to go along with the Sixties kitchen-sink philosophising. Neither Jagger and Richards nor Lennon and McCartney would have come up with anything as tough as Townshend's chilling "Substitute", a parable of disenfranchisement as volatile as any slug of Sixties "realism" from the stage or screen. John Lennon might have positioned himself as a "working- class hero, something to be", but he never dared write anything as bold as Townshend's "Pictures of Lily", one of the few works of art concerning masturbation.

It was this almost helpless honesty that made Townshend's work so compelling, and which sowed the seeds of The Who's destruction. In the end, Roger Daltrey, who sang most of Townshend's lyrics, found his position as mouthpiece almost intolerable. When the group released the most hurtful of all Townshend's song cycles, The Who By Numbers, in 1975, Daltrey all but admitted that songs such as "However Much I Booze" were figments of an imagination that he didn't care to own up to.

By that point, the brilliant band of "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" had long since matured into an awkwardly grown-up part of rock's golden age. Townshend eventually revealed himself as a short-story writer who longed for success in the epic-novel form: hence the livid colours of those early singles bled into the operatic-rock folly of Tommy and his magnum opus, Lifehouse, only recently released as an obese and unsatisfactory multi-disc set of Townshend verbiage. That kind of indulgence makes it tempting to dismiss him as a dysfunctional relic, but Townshend's persistence has brought him a crusty dignity. At a show I saw about 18 months ago, Townshend, with a hand-picked band of compatriots, drove through a set of The Who and other favourites with the bloody-minded fervour of a man with nothing to prove, but with a great deal of vinegar to dispose of.

His fellow bandsmen have, perhaps, less to offer. Daltrey, his various careers as actor, TV personality and salmon-farm owner at a somewhat low ebb, has only boredom to keep at bay; John Entwistle, the eternally faceless man of the group, can still play the written-in-stone bass solos on "My Generation" off pat. Kenny Jones joined the band following Keith Moon's death in 1978, and there is very little to say about him other than that. The Who has always been Townshend's vehicle, and his pilgrim's progress from three-minute pop-tune bard to literary eminence is among the more unusual evolutionary products of the rock cycle. The compensating elegance has been Townshend's particular self-awareness. He seems to know that he has the makings of a great writer, but never the wherewithal to turn that gift into something solid and real, beyond the simple confines of a great pop song.

Simple? There must be few explosions of 20th-century culture as profound and enduring as Townshend's greatest Who songs. Maybe he was the first of the rock literati to obsess over the idea that his chosen medium would never be enough; but the rest of us beg to differ. The leap of faith comes in insisting that the best of Townshend's work is as powerful and endemic to its times as that of Mailer and Godard. Not that they had to churn out their best stuff one more time for stadium audiences. And if you want to know more . . . oh, I can't explain.

The Who are at London Docklands Arena (0870 512 1212) on 13 November, and at Wembley Arena (020 8902 0902) on 15 and 16 November

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis