27. The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again

(Preamble to #27, or I like to call it #20g.  "Won't Get Fooled Again" is the first song on my list that I think deserves to be in the Top 20.  The problem is, I've got 27 songs that I wanted in my Top 20 and I'm not enough of a math whiz to make that work.  With all of the songs up to now I have been satisfied with their position.  Starting with this song, though, I feel bad for the 7 that ended up just outside that mythical "top 20," because they all deserve the honor.  I guess I shouldn't worry too much though, because I doubt Pete Townshend is losing much sleep over the fact that he only made #27 on my list.  I doubt anyone other than me has suffered any sort of angst over the ranking of any of these songs.  So as pompous and preposterous as my opening statements are, I just wanted you to know that there are some great songs coming up and I love them all.)

For some reason, when the all-time great rock & roll bands get discussed, The Who never seem to get the recognition that they deserve.  For so many people it's boiled down to a Beatles/Rolling Stones debate and everyone else can just suck it.  It's like breaking down the greatest baseball player of all time to either Babe Ruth or Ted Williams and not considering the at least dozen other players that you could make a good argument for.  Now I'm not saying that The Who are the greatest rock & roll band ever, because we all know that it's Ratt - I'm just saying that they deserve more time in the argument.  I've always wondered if Townshend had had a McCartney to his Lennon rather than the other way around that I'd be making my argument now for a Beatles song.

The Who were a great band (I use the past tense because the band that played at this year's Super Bowl wasn't really The Who, just like a Beatles reunion wouldn't be the Beatles at this point).  They recorded some great songs and really pushed the envelope of what was considered rock at the time and changed what you could do with a rock & roll song.  You couldn't rock and have keyboards in your song for the most part until The Who really brought a rock sound to a keyboard.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" is probably the best example of how The Who changed the way rock & roll could be done.  With that amazing keyboard intro, which they had the balls to let go on for the entire first thirty seconds of the song, it changed the way rock fans listed to rock music.  The Who wasn't going down the progressive rock path, they were blazing their own trail that was, at its heart, a rhythm and loud guitar kick you in the ass sound.  I know it sounds like I'm downplaying their versatility in doing numerous styles of music, but I'm not.  I'm just UPplaying their tremendous rock side.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" has been called an anti-revolution song, holding true to conservative values, but that's oversimplifying the message that Pete Townshend put together lyrically.  It's a song that's much more complex than that.  The lyrical message certainly contains parts that have problems with revolutions and revolutionaries:

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong

And after all of the fighting, all of the blood, what are they left with?  The leaders of the revolution promised change and progress, but have they delivered?  Townshend has his doubts:

There's nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right

Then there's the iconic line that is so often quoted, that it's become almost trite, but you have to remember it was genius at the time:

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

It's a reference of the old axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  So eventually, the revolutionaries will become the establishment that they fought desperately so long ago.  But the deeper message that can get lost among all the hyperbole is that even if you grant the premise that revolutionaries will turn into their own establishment, there may have been progress along the way.  So when the next revolution comes along, or what Chairman Mao called his "permanent revolution," it will start from a spot further along the cultural evolutionary scale.  Townshend addressed this in a post on his website in 2006:  
It is not precisely a song that decries revolution - it suggests that we will indeed fight in the streets - but that revolution, like all action can have results we cannot predict. Don't expect to see what you expect to see.  I am just a song-writer. The actions I carry out are my own, and are usually private until some digger-after-dirt questions my methods. What I write is interpreted, first of all by Roger Daltrey. Won't Get Fooled Again - then - was a song that pleaded '….leave me alone with my family to live my life, so I can work for change in my own way….'. But when Roger Daltrey screamed as though his heart was being torn out in the closing moments of the song, it became something more to so many people. And I must live with that.

His candor and the fact that he accepts responsibility for a song that he helped create is refreshing.  There are so many artists who try to distance themselves from songs they've done in the past, but Pete has always faced criticism head on, both defending his songs while also accepting that criticism is an unavoidable partner to the songwriting and performing process.

It's astonishing to me how much I've written about this song and I haven't even gotten to the bulk of the music yet.  It's not a negative reflection on the music, it's a celebration of the overall strength of the song.  As interesting as the lyrical content may be, the music may be even more interesting.  Starting with the now iconic keyboard riff that opens the song and is played throughout the song.  I always had the image of Townshend sitting there at the keyboard, frantically playing all sorts of keys to get this intricate keyboard sound.  In reality, though, it's a Lowrey organ that is processed through a synthesizer that oscillates each of the notes, giving it that definitive pulsing rhythm.  It's brilliant in its simplicity and adds such depth to the song right off the start.  I'd never heard a keyboard lay such a strong rhythmic foundation before.  Keyboards were always atmospheric and mood builders, but here they help lay the rhythm before you even hear the drum or bass.

But every aspect of the music in "Won't Get Fooled Again" is brilliant in its own way.  Townshend shreds on the guitar with a surprisingly heavy sound (especially for 1971) and keeps up the pace throughout the song.  There's anger in that guitar and you can feel it through the speakers.  I've always thought that Keith Richards and Pete Townshend were pioneers in not only playing great guitar, but getting you to feel what they were playing.  When you add the hyperactive way he plays the guitar live with all of the windmills and running around, it adds even more depth to the emotion of his guitar playing.

For the rhythm section of bass player John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, this isn't a song where they hold back, either.  Everyone is letting loose, yet it still doesn't sound like too much going on.  The sonic profile and the lyrical content can handle this much instrumentation.  No one in the history of rock & roll played the drums as hard as Keith Moon.  They used to have to put him across the room from the microphones in the studio so it wouldn't be unlistenable distortion.  I can feel his intensity at the end of the second keyboard break where he really lets it loose.  Entwistle, on the other hand, is a bassist that I apparently have always underrated.  When I watched the live video of "Won't Get Fooled Again" that I posted below, I noticed that Entwistle was dancing all over the strings and frets on his bass.  His sound can get lost if you don't pay attention, but if you do, you'll hear some serious bass playing going on.

To top it all off, you have Roger Daltrey's searing (and soaring) vocals.  You couldn't pick a better singer to perform a song about revolution.  I love Townshend's quote about that Daltrey "screamed as though his heart was being torn out" because it's so appropriate.  His vocals match the emotional intensity of the rest of the band's playing.  And for my money, his "Yeah!" scream at the end of the second keyboard break is the greatest scream in the history of rock & roll.  Sure, Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin are up there, but this scream is drenched in emotion.  I can't imagine how his vocal chords hold up to performing it live night after night.  Daltrey's voice is pretty versatile, but he's at his best when he's leaving restraint at the door and giving his all.  This song is the perfect example of that.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" clocks in at nine minutes in length, but it keeps you captivated the entire time.  It would be like going to see a great action movie, like The Dark Knight, having it be five hours long, and you weren't bored for a minute of it.  It's almost unheard of that a song can rock this hard for this long, but also maintain its frantic emotional pace throughout the entire song.  "Won't Get Fooled Again" is a song that has long been underrated for me, in the fact that I haven't listened to it nearly enough.  I'm going to make up for that mistake and cue it up again - for the ninth time!

Two videos for this entry.  The first is The Who's live performance from their documentary The Kids Are Alright, which has all of the trademark Who elements in it:  Townshend's windmill, Daltrey's mic spin, Entwistle's flying fingers and Moon's booming drums.  A classic live performance.  The second video is one I found that is an interview with Townshend about how the keyboard sound came together.  It's fascinating if you're a music geek like me.

(Fun Fact #67:  There's a really cool story about the bass that John Entwistle used on the Who's Next album, which features "Won't Get Fooled Again."  During some downtime in the studio, Entwistle was bored and pulled out a half dozen basses that were all broken to some extent and started futzing with them.  Armed with a screwdriver and a soldering iron, he took them apart, looking for parts that he might be able to salvage.  When he realized that with the parts from five of those basses he could create one single functioning bass, he went to work.  The result was, in Entwistle's words:  "The neck, pickups and circuitry are from a ‘dead’ slab bass, the tailpiece from a Jazz bass, the pickguard from a black P bass and the machine heads from 2 white P basses...Two hours with a Phillips screwdriver and a soldering iron and I was ranting around my hotel room screaming “It’s alive, it’s alive!”  It was hence knows as Frankenstein.)
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