Rock's Outer Limits

Through turmoil and triumph, The Who makes music that will last

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Time enough, in 15 years, for three new generations and a dozen new audiences. The Who has outpaced them all. Time enough for a bewilderment of pop styles to flare, settle, burn out. The Who has outlasted them all. Too much time for most rock bands to survive. The Who, in every sense of the word, has outlived them all, and outclassed them too.

The Who has sustained—indeed, defined—the vaunting, unstable strength that is the soul of rock, the barefoot boogie along the keen edge of the blade. There are lots of scars and some wounds that will never heal. The music remains intact, inviolate. No other group has ever pushed rock so far, or asked so much from it. No other band has ever matched its sound, a particular combination of sonic onslaught and melodic delicacy that is like chamber music in the middle of a commando raid. No other group, in return, has ever had so much asked of it by an audience which takes it as an absolute article of faith that, every time out, The Who plays for mortal stakes.

In performance the band seems to play possessed. The music itself is animated by excess, insists on, and receives, a response in kind. Who audiences are some of the most fiercely loyal, and some of the wildest, in rock. Abandon is the aim, and to reach that The Who acts in concert with the audience; "They bring you alive," as John Entwistle, the bass player, puts it. The excess they want, group and fans together, is a release, an explosive culmination of energy, a detonation of good will and great music. "Rock's always been demanding," says Pete Townshend, who writes most Who songs. "It is demanding of its performers, and its audience. And of society. Demanding of change."

Society sometimes does not get the message, and that only seems to push The Who harder. The power and unpredictability of the group, along with its longstanding and much vaunted intramural volatility ("We've been breaking up ever since the day we started," says Vocalist Roger Daltrey), are a large measure of its appeal and, ironically, the core of much of its strength. It is also the source for a good deal of discomfort and antagonism among those who take rock music casually, and especially among those who would like never to put up with it at all.

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