In 1981, the rock gods rebounded from tragedy by getting in tune with the times
The Who entered the 1980s with a lot to prove, both to themselves and their fans.
When Keith Moon died just weeks after the release of 1978’s Who Are You, the band lost its drumming dynamo, its clown prince, and an unhealthy amount of its joie de vivre. As perhaps the most distinctive rock drummer of his generation and the band’s biggest personality, Moon left a gargantuan hole in The Who when he passed.
Fans and, by some accounts, the band itself weren’t even sure if a Moon-less Who could carry on, never mind how. It didn’t help matters that the follow-up to Who Are You would also be their first since New Wave had fully dominated the rock mainstream, rightly or wrongly making bands of the “My Generation” generation yesterday’s news. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle were in their mid-thirties in the early ‘80s, which for rock at the time was viewed as a half-step from worm fodder.
WIth all that working against them, The Who still somehow managed to make 1981’s Face Dances their most potent album since 1973’s Quadrophenia, though there are Moon purists who will deny that notion with their dying breath.
Part of The Who’s unique dynamic was that they’d had a lead bassist and lead drummer instead of a lead guitarist. Entwistle’s flailing, high-register runs and Moon’s earthquake-on-a-drumstool style gave the band a sound unlike any other. Wisely, they eschewed the fool’s errand of trying to find someone to “replace” Moon. Instead, they got a new drummer with a different slant altogether and revised their approach accordingly.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could complain about the selection of Kenney Jones, drummer for The Who’s mid-’60s Mod peers The Small Faces and that band’s ‘70s iteration, The Faces. The former made Britpop history and the latter created a Stones-worthy level of loosey-goosey whiskey-swilling rock ‘n’ roll both as a self-contained outfit and Rod Stewart’s backing band. For the first time, The Who had a backbeat, and they made the most of it.
Jones was just right for the sharper, more concise modus operandi The Who employed for their new era. The band didn’t do anything as ill-advised as attempting to “go New Wave” on Face Dances; they simply sheared off a bit of their ‘70s grandiosity (and a fair amount of Roger’s leonine locks) in favor of something more in tune with the times. It’s a gambit few bands of their time pulled off successfully, other than the Stones and The Kinks, but The Who had the brains and balls to make it work.
While Townsend spent the previous album writing about hating disco and stumbling around drunk, here he spends his time on tunes about maintaining cocksman status in middle age (“You Better You Bet”) and keeping a laissez-faire attitude through changing times (“Another Tricky Day”). The melodic framework for his musings is shuriken-sharp and the The Who brings it all to life like an urgent muscularity that suggests they knew just how much they had to prove at that point.
VIDEO: The Who “You Better You Bet”
American radio ate up “You Better You Bet” with a monogrammed coke spoon, especially since some savvy soul excised a grossly sexist line (figure it out for yourself if you must) for the song’s single edit. But even in the uncut version, Roger’s caddishness feels more like a rock journeyman’s burlesque than a roue’s bravado.
The hard-charging A sections of “Cache Cache” are as close as The Who comes to onboarding a punk-informed feel. But when you remember that they pretty much wrote the rulebook for punk over a decade in advance with “Can’t Explain” and “My Generation,” it just seems like a natural part of their continuum.
The Ox acquits himself exceptionally well here too. Entwistle would often get one or two tracks on Who albums to showcase his singing and writing, but naturally his tunes never rivalled Townshend’s. It’s tougher to say that here, and isn’t because Pete was laying down on the job.
“The Quiet One” winkingly plays on Entwistle’s stoic image within the band, and it’s a full-blast rocker with as much visceral impact as anything on the album. Daltrey takes the vocal on the Ox-penned “You.” Lyrically, it may lumber into a similarly icky/sexist direction to “You Better You Bet,” but riffs and hooks have always been the area where Entwistle shines, and on that score, the track’s dynamism is undeniable.
The Who would only hang together for one more album–1982’s estimable, underrated It’s Hard (more on that next year). But on Face Dances, they showed that they still had plenty to bring to the party.