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November 7, 2006

With nothing left to prove, the Who still keeps it fresh with Endless Wire

If Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney decided to make a new Beatles album, chances are you’d dismiss it as ridiculous and in no way connected to their previous brilliance.

However, that is exactly what Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have done for The Who. With half the band now deceased, Townshend and Daltrey returned to the studio for Endless Wire.

Endless Wire is The Who’s first album since 1982’s It’s Hard. On that album, the band was already without Keith Moon, the legendary drummer and hotel room menace who died in 1978. Some believe that The Who died with Keith Moon, but unlike Led Zeppelin—who disbanded shortly after the death John Bonham, their own incomparable drummer—the band pushed on. Now, after the 2002 death of Who bassist John Entwistle, Townshend and Daltrey are the only surviving members. Despite the loss of half of the band, the verdict is in: Endless Wire is a Who album.

The first track, “Fragments,” opens with a synthesizer rhythm reminiscent of the epic song “Baba O’Riley.” That is the only moment on the album when an obvious return to an old song occurs. The mini-opera “Wire and Glass” gives Townshend the ability to return to the genre he first visited with Tommy. Every rock opera from Pink Floyd’s The Wall to Ludo’s Broken Bride owes a huge debt to Townshend and The Who. It takes repeated listening to fully understand the narrative of “Wire and Glass,” but the opera makes the album far more compelling than it would have been otherwise.

The acoustic pieces of Endless Wire showcase the sensitivity of Daltrey and Townshend. “A Man in a Purple Dress” shifts the tone of the album from synth rock to folk rock. Other acoustic numbers like “You Stand By Me” and “In the Ether” are perfectly juxtaposed with classic hard rock numbers. Because of the combination of these slow pieces with hard tracks, the album takes on a new wavelength for The Who.

The album is incredibly ambitious for a band with nothing left to prove. Despite their enormous

success, Townshend and Daltrey believe they have more to give to the world than merely Greatest Hits packages. Endless Wire aims to catapult them once again into the music of the present.

While the album is by The Who, it may be difficult for some to accept without Moon and Entwistle. However, as the tracks go by, it slowly becomes clear that The Who will be The Who until the day Townshend dies. The new bassist, Pino Palldino, and drummers, Zak Starkey and Peter Huntington, avoid becoming carbon copies of their predecessors. While the other three original members all made tremendous contributions to the history of rock and roll, Townshend always defined The Who’s music.

The music of The Who possesses patterns that make it truly unique. Despite the loss of the half the band, Townshend and Daltrey have inherited their own tradition without producing derivative material. The music on Endless Wire is undeniably new. The influence of The Who can be heard throughout popular music and Endless Wire shows why they affected so many musicians. The energy that the band displayed on Quadrophenia and Who’s Next is channeled successfully on Endless Wire. Neither Townshend nor Daltrey has become a parody of his former self in the mode of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

The Who take a number of risks on Endless Wire, and they are not always successful. The greatness of the band exists in their willingness to create something totally original. Earlier in their career they emulated mop-top musicians during the British Invasion. They soon transitioned into hard rockers and then embraced electronic music. It took The Who 24 years to escape the ashes of It’s Hard and the deaths of two members, but like a phoenix they have risen again. Endless Wire is not the band’s best album, but it demonstrates that they will always be relevant.

In the song “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey once captured the brazenness of youth when he sang, “I hope I die before I get old.” Well, Roger and Pete didn’t suffer the romantic youthful demise of James Dean or their own bandmate Keith Moon. After listening to Endless Wire, we should consider ourselves lucky that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey didn’t flame out too soon and that they kept on rocking even as they got old and gray.