Just Who are these guys? Boxed set doesn't tell all


There are basically two kinds of Who fans in the world: those who truly love the band, and Pete Townshend.

At least, that's the sense offered by the new four-CD Who boxed set, "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B;" (MCA 11020, arriving in stores today). Toward the end of his rambling, slightly crabby introduction to the set, Townshend writes: "OK, if you hate The Who, you won't like it. [Expletive] you. I don't like The Who much, and I like it. That's critical distance for you."

Well, erm, yes. Thanks for sharing, Pete.

Yet as inappropriate as Townshend's less-than-ringing endorsement might seem, it does fit the feel -- if not the content and execution -- of "Maximum R&B.;" Because despite the obvious effort and care that went into compiling this set, it's hardly the monument most Who fans would expect.

Not that any boxed set ever is, of course. Fans, perverse creatures that they are, always tend to want more than they're given: more rarities, more favorites, more live tracks, more studio chatter, more pictures, more everything. And even then, there will always be a few willing to spend big money on obscure Bulgarian picture-disc editions.

That said, what the typical Who fan probably expects from a box such as this would be a smattering of classics, some tasty outtakes and unreleased material, a couple of song demos, and a disc or two of live tracks. Toss in some interview chatter, and voila! The perfect Who box.

Unfortunately, that's not quite what we get, and for reasons that don't entirely make sense. For instance, Chris Charlesworth and Jon Astley, who compiled the set, admit in the liner notes that it's hard to find truly outstanding unreleased Who songs because "Most of their 'better' rejects were released on the 'Odds and Sods' album in 1974." Fair enough. But four of those songs are included on "Maximum R&B;" anyway, while Townshend's song demos for The Who -- which, as Charlesworth and Astley note "have already been released on his two 'Scoop' albums" -- go unrepresented on the set. Explanations, anyone?

Then there's the matter of how The Who's output is represented. The recordings collected on "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B;" span from 1964, when the band cut its first single as The High Numbers, to 1991, when it contributed "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album "Two Rooms." (OK, so that isn't quite 30 years. Take it up with the band's accountants.)

Sorting through that much music can't be easy, but the most logical approach would be to emphasize the important work, and then flesh out the set with stuff from other parts of the band's career. Naturally, not everyone agrees on what The Who's greatest would be, but a rough consensus can easily be drawn. Most fans would rank "Tommy" at the top of the list, followed closely by "Who's Next," "The Who By Numbers," and such singles as "Substitute," "My Generation" and "Who Are You." (Frankly, I'd place "Who's Next" and "Quadrophenia" ahead of "Tommy," but that's just personal preference).

"Thirty Years of Maximum R&B;," by contrast, seems to think "The Who Sell Out" was the band's defining moment. That's right -- "The Who Sell Out," which is represented here by seven full songs, plus assorted outtakes and commercial snip pets. "Tommy," by comparison, merits a mere six selections, with one of them doing double duty as the requisite Woodstock representative. Though, as a bonus, we do get to hear Abbie Hoffman charge onstage at Woodstock, only to be decked by a decidedly un-mellow Townshend.

Hoffman's cameo is one of several "audio verite" moments sprinkled through the set; others include interview excerpts, stage patter and bizarre comedy snippets called "Life With the Moons." They convey a sense of the band's spirit -- one of the smartest things about this set.

As for the other rarities, suffice it to say they're a mixed bag, at best. Some are oddly fascinating, such as "Girl's Eyes," a 1967 song about fan worship written drummer Keith Moon, or "The Real Me," here taken from Kenney Jones' audition performance with the band (he was one of three drummers to work with The Who after Moon's death); others, like the live recordings of "Naked Eye" (from 1971) and "My Wife" (from 1976) are simply stunning. A few, like the part-live, part-studio performance of "A Quick One While He's Away," are simply inexplicable.

But then, that's The Who, isn't it? From the first, the band has made a habit of being as infuriating as it is exhilarating, as likely to divide listeners as unite them. In that sense, "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B;," being in many ways as messed up as the band itself, is the perfect tribute album.

Back to you, Pete.


To hear excerpts from The Who's "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B;," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6210 after you hear the greeting.

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