They arrived in the sixties as one of the fiercest acts to have ever graced the stage. For this reason alone, The Who will remain a permanent fixture in the pantheon of pop culture. However, by the time they reached 1978’s Who Are You the band had been transformed from the beating heart and spit-laden voice of Britain’s disenfranchised youth into a global money-making machine.
The album was the band’s eighth and received huge commercial success despite being given mixed reviews by critics. It’s most notable for its titular track and being the final album that the group’s legendary, hell-raising drummer, Keith Moon, would be a part of the recording. For that reason, the LP can be seen as the group’s epitaph.
Let us set the scene. Having triumphed in the previous decade with the kind of rip-roaring performances that could slice you in half and not come close to apologising about it, the band made their name on fast and frenetic tunes. Hits like ‘My Generation‘ typified the group that had seemingly emerged fully formed from the growing youth subcultures that swirled around Britain. By 1978, things had changed drastically.
After a run of impressive performances in America during the British invasion, including a particularly explosive showing on the Smothers Brothers show, The Who, led by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey and backed by John Entwistle and Moon, were quickly registering as one of the biggest bands on the block.
A heap of singles, a run of impressive albums and even the odd opera or two would solidify their position during the seventies and confirm The Who as one of Britain’s finest exports. But it would also confirm the distance they had covered since their emergence — the group were becoming more and more disconnected from those who had given them their big break. In 1978, The Who were quickly becoming old-fashioned.
Amid the flurry of punk rock, the hint of new wave and the trained eyes on a new century somehow rapidly approaching, The Who’s Who Are You felt like a wobbling mess of overpaid rock opulence the likes of which was no longer wanted. To make matters worse, the group even added the song ‘Sister Disco’ to the nine-track album that appeared to lament the death of disco. Considering the timeframe, the group may as well have hung a sign around their neck that read: “out of touch”.
Of course, there are some good moments on the album. ‘Who Are You’ is still a belting song, no matter what decade you listen to it in. Side Two opener ‘Trick of the Light’ is also a nice refrain from the mind of Entwistle. However, on the whole, it’s hard not to see this album as the band’s last attempt to remain in their prime. Now, it remains as the group’s rock and roll gravestone — their last hurrah.
Naturally, much of that rhetoric can be traced back to the tragic loss of Keith Moon. Every release since Who Are You has felt a little less potent without him. Even just knowing he was in the studio means the intrigue for a Who song increased.
To remove such a presence is to remove one ventricle from the group’s beating heart. However, listening back, it would appear that the heart was already suffering from commercial cholesterol by the time the band readied themselves for Who Are You.