‘Who Are You’ at 40: Jon Astley Talks

❉ Eoghan Lyng talks with the co-producer of The Who’s last grand statement, released 40 years ago today.

Who Are You was definitely meant to be a return to rock. They were planning a big tour and they also had The Kids Are Alright coming at the end of all of that. It wasn’t always easy to make, everyone in different places but they enjoyed making an album in a way they hadn’t in about ten years.”

The title track is a monster, a roaring raucous rocker that completes a trilogy of rock angst anthems that lineates My Generation, Won’t Get Fooled Again and, of course, Who Are You. The last of these has differing segments and sequiturs, heavy in guitars, ornamental in piano, Beach Boy-like in harmony. Was it an easy track to put together? “It was basically there in Pete’s demos” Jon Astley replies. “We recorded it and I put it on six track, then I got the razor blade, putting it in the different bits where it goes “ooh ah ooh ah” to “dah dah dah dah” bits. They all liked it, but everyone thought it was a bit long, the demo was definitely longer, so I cut out another verse. It was eventually released, I think, as the lost verse version”.

Who Are You, The Who’s first original album in three years, came a three sixty degree turn around from the lyrical poetry of the sparse and intimate The Who By Numbers (1975).

“I remember seeing Pete around Numbers. He liked acoustic instruments, all these six string banjos and mouth organs. He’d play them all, having mastered them very quickly. But Who Are You was definitely going back to rock as Numbers was doing something different to Who’s Next”.

The Who, Shepperton Studios, photographed by Terry O’Neill.

Astley co-produced Who Are You with Glyn Johns, a rock legend who had cut The Rolling Stones, Small Faces and Led Zeppelin as an engineer, before co-producing The Who’s elephantine Who’s Next in 1971. It was a stroke of luck that brought Astley to Johns’ attention.

“I was working in Olympic in 1973, and Glyn’s assistant engineer was sick one day. The whole place was running around like headless chickens wondering what to do. So, I volunteered. They didn’t know what to make of it, but Glyn said ok. We got on, and Glyn came to like me. We did The Eagles and Joan Armatrading together, and later he asked if I’d like to do The Who. Pete Townshend and I had somewhat avoided working together, as we were family (brothers in law, in fact), but I thought if I was working with Glyn, like I did on Rough Mix, I thought it would be OK to work with Pete and The Who”.

During the three year break between Numbers and Who Are You, Pete Townshend had collaborated with Ronnie Lane on Rough Mix, John Entwistle and Keith Moon released their solo efforts, while Roger Daltrey, fresh from his success as the titular Tommy, starred in Lisztomania and The Legacy. Now, they were back to doing what The Who did best.

“It was definitely meant to be a return to rock” Astley says. “They were planning a big tour and they also had that film [The Kids Are Alright] which was coming at the end of all of that. Pete had some of his songs turned down by Roger, which Roger thought weren’t right for The Who, one of which was Rough Boys, which some of us scratched our heads at, as we thought it would be good for their sound, but Pete always respected what Roger thought”.

Townshend still managed some of his best songs from the band’s era, Sister Disco, a-prog disco track that offered a newer direction for the early-thirtysomething year old men who sang it; New Song, a thriving New Wave radio anthem; Guitar and Pen, eclectic in nature, maintained Townshend’s thirst for the innovative; and Love is Coming Down featured some of his more affecting lyrics, a channel of razor edges and come downs suggesting all wasn’t well.

“He was going through some hell, he cut his hand very badly, couldn’t play guitar some days and then there was some of his drinking. He’d then go off in the afternoon to collect the kids, while Roger liked to work in the afternoon, so it was all a bit bitty.”

Bitty and erratic, especially from the band’s drummer, whose excessive weight relegated him to a seat (coincidentally – and in retrospect, poignantly – stencilled “Not to be taken away”) for the Terry O’ Neill photo shoot. “I wasn’t there for the cover shoot” Astley says.

“I do know at the beginning he really wasn’t playing well, and he was all over the place and they had to sit him down and tell him to get his shit together. I don’t think he was drinking at the time, he was on slimming aid and things like that. In fairness to him, he did get it together on the album and he really plays really well on parts”.

Astley’s not wrong. Listen again to John Entwistle’s Trick of The Light and Had Enough – Entwistle wrote three out of the album’s nine songs, the highest ratio Entwistle had to that point on a Who album – rattling with animal energy, the first rock steady, the latter orchestral in dynamics, embellished by Ted Astley’s exquisite string arrangement.

“He did two strings, didn’t he, Had Enough and Love Is Coming Down. It was one of the last overdubs we done, back in Olympic. And Keith is fantastic on Had Enough. He said to me, it’s basically 2 /4 isn’t it? I said, do you know how to do 2/4? Anyway, he went for it, I know there’s some tom there, but it’s really Keith. The band weren’t there for it, and the next day Pete came in and asked [feigned surprised tone] Is that Keith? It’s very good.”

Moon, sadly, died three weeks after the album’s release. “They got him a job in the PR office, to keep him occupied, but he got bored and started drinking again. It was very sad when he died, and we still miss him. I was at Kenney Jones‘ [Moon’s replacement] audition, where we did Real Me from Quadrophenia for fun. He came over to me and admitted he didn’t know if he was to be Kenney or Keith, so I said, be Kenney, you can’t be anyone else and that’s why you’re here. I always thought Kenney played nicely, though I heard Roger gave out about him on the road, Kenney was dynamic and Roger wanted it harder, which Kenney goes for counter dynamism”.

It’s forty years since Who Are You was released, and while it has been overshadowed by many of their earlier works, there is enough rock gargantuism here to merit an enviable anniversary remastering. It may be The Who’s last grand statement.

“It’s important because it was the last one with Keith” Astley opines. “It wasn’t always easy to make, everyone in different places and when they worked with Bill Szymczyk on the next one, he was very orderly, after lunch everyone back in the studio, which Who Are You wasn’t, so they enjoyed an album in a way they hadn’t in about ten years. But the fact we still made a half decent record with everyone all over the place is something!”

He needn’t be so modest- it’s bloody brilliant!

❉ The Who – ‘Who Are You’ was originally released on 18 August 1978 by Polydor Records in the United Kingdom and MCA Records in the United States.

❉ In 1996, the album was reissued on CD, remixed and remastered by Jon Astley and Andy Macpherson. This remaster included five bonus tracks.

❉  On 24 December 2011 Universal Japan reissued the original analogue mixes of the album on CD for the first time in over a decade. Although the album used the original mixes, the bonus tracks from the 1996 album were included using vintage mixes where possible for these tracks. The album was reissued in a miniature replica of the vinyl album for CD. As of January 2012, there were no plans to reissue these original mixes on CD anywhere other than on this limited, numbered edition of the album in Japan.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life. 

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