Endless Wire Label: Universal Republic Records
Give the Who credit for marketing, if nothing else. The long, lost mini-opera Wire & Glass, which was reportedly in the creation stages for the better part of 20 years, gets lumped together with the band’s first studio record in a quarter century and dubbed Endless Wire. Oh yeah, I promised maximum marketing. They tack on a five-song live DVD recorded this past summer in France. And it ain’t just five random live licks either; it’s “I Can’t Explain,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Baba O’Riley,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with the new “Mike Post Theme” wedged masterfully in between. All for the low, low retail price of…oh hell, does it really matter? It’s two full discs of new Who music and a bonus live DVD, all at a single-CD price! What’s not to love?
Well, contrary to most of the wishful-thinking and advanced reviews of the Endless Wire material, this ain’t your typical late ‘70s Who record. Don’t get me wrong. Taken as the extensive potpourri of packaging that it is, this new release is probably worth the price, especially to the ardent Who fan. From the opening “Baba O’Riley”-like synthesizer that kicks a vintage “Fragments” to the hushed acoustics of “God Speaks of Marty Robbins” and “You Stand By Me,” these nine songs which comprise Endless Wire are vast and interesting, and no two are similar. Amidst themes of war and religion (“A Man in a Purple Dress” was inspired by “The Passion of the Christ”), these songs showcase the aging yet timeless strengths of the Who’s two fixtures – Pete Townshend’s windmilling Gibson, played hard until fingers bleed, and Roger Daltrey’s regal vocals, not an ounce worse for the wear.
Let’s get one thing straight, however: this is as much a Townshend solo record as Empty Glass was. Townshend wrote and produced every song, and with the exception of Zak Starkey’s drumming on “Black Widow’s Eyes” (which ironically sounds more like a Daltrey solo cut), he played every instrument on the entire album, including mandolin, banjo, and violin. Townshend himself insists it’s a Who record and without Daltrey it would have never seen the light of day, though having been intermittently recorded by Townshend over a five-year period, it’s unlikely that Daltrey’s role went beyond singing.
The Who have never really stopped touring since 1982’s It’s Hard. They are, after all, a live band at their very core. Sure, they gave the term “mini-opera” meaning, and studio creations like Quadrophenia and Who’s Next routinely rank among the top classic rock albums of all time. But having seen them on stage in the ‘80s and again in present day, I can assure you they are a live band first and foremost. A ridiculously overdue project like Endless Wire will do little to improve the stature of an iconic band like the Who, but it also doesn’t hurt. While much of the material is predictable and notably mellow, taken as a whole (with the complete Wire & Glass session in tow), this new album is decent. And 30 years beyond their legendary prime, being decent is probably good enough.