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35 Years Ago: The Who Struggle to Regroup on ‘Face Dances’

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The Who were dealt a crushing blow when original drummer Keith Moon died on Sept. 7, 1978. But they decided to carry on without him. Face Dances, their first album without Moon, was released on March 11, 1981.

Despite the tragic setback, the group hadn’t been out of sight during the two-and-a-half-year interim. To the contrary, their profile had rarely been higher. The Kids Are Alright, Jeff Stein’s excellent documentary about the band, came out in May 1979. The film adaptation of Quadrophenia, which featured a few new songs and bassist John Entwistle remixing the songs used on the soundtrack, arrived four months later. In the spring of 1980, Pete Townshend put out a solo album, Empty Glass, which contained his biggest hit, “Let My Love Open the Door.” Roger Daltrey turned to acting, starring in the movie McVicar and singing the soundtrack, both of which were released in the summer of 1980.

A few months after Moon’s death, the Who announced that Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces and the Faces, would be their new drummer. Jones knew that the task facing him would be a seriously difficult challenge.

“He had his own style of drumming, which nobody could mimic,” Jones told Drum in 2013, “because he played thousands of mistakes that sounded great. But I’m more of straightforward, solid drummer. When I do a fill it’s noticeable, rather than being a permanent drum solo. So I thought that the best thing I could do was to play the way I play. That’s being honest. I tried to take the best of Keith Moon — all his great fills, which you have to do in certain songs – and use them selectively. But the style would finally be me. And that’s all I could do, I couldn’t do no more.”

A world tour followed, but those dates towards the end of 1979 will forever be remembered by the death of 11 fans at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. The band still insisted on staying together, however, and a couple of months after Empty Glass hit shelves, they holed up in London’s Odyssey Studios to create their ninth studio record.

Watch the Who Perform ‘Don’t Let Go the Coat

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“You Better You Bet,” the opening track and lead single, gave a good indication of the new direction Townshend was looking to take the group – namely, Empty Glass with lead vocals by Roger Daltrey. That’s not necessarily a bad place to be: “You Better You Bet” gave them another Top 20 hit and stands up well alongside their best work.

But the problem is that Daltrey often seemed lost in Townshend’s lyrics. “Don’t Let Go the Coat,” a song based on the teachings of Townshend’s spiritual guru Meher Baba and “Daily Records” were solid, and “Another Tricky Day” had some of the old fire. But the others are sub-standard tales of approaching-middle-age angst that veer between confusing (“Cache Cache”) and borderline embarrassing (“Did You Steal My Money” and “How Can You Do It Alone”). John Entwistle’s two songs, “The Quiet One” and “You,” the latter sung by Daltrey, lack the black humor that often made his contributions stand out.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Townshend deserves the lion’s share for the inconsistent material; Empty Glass and his next solo album, 1982’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, suggested that he was keeping the best songs for himself – which Townshend has admitted. And it didn’t help that producer Bill Szymczyk stripped the band of its edge, which led to Kenney Jones ultimately being made the scapegoat for the crime of not being Keith Moon. It’s Hard followed a similar path and, after that tour, they decided to call it quits, but only temporarily.

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