Recommended blogs

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Who's 'It's Hard' - reassessed after 36 years

Designed by Richard Evans; released by Polydor/Warner Bros
Why is one of The Who’s most diverse, most accomplished albums, so unknown and so often disregarded? Perhaps because it wasn’t understood in the time it was released in. Townshend was decidedly out of favour with rock’s self-appointed literati who saw the band as a middle-aged rock stadia irrelevance. Yet listening without prejudice reveals some of their best ever songs; songs with relevance then and arguably even more now. Who, in the realm of popular music at least, has ever tried to take on the subject of manhood (‘A Man is a Man’) and successfully captured the absurd expectations, contradictions and, sometimes, quiet bravery that it can encompass? ‘It’s so hard’, as a line in the title track notes, to be true to yourself, to be honest, to be consistent. 

Perhaps if men (and this is a man’s record) could adopt Townshend’s advice in the song ‘Cry If You Want To’, then failure could really be success. This track is part male rock bombast (check out the sonic guitar solo) and part emotional advocacy. Cry, because your childhood illusions have been destroyed – as we now know Townsend’s were – and the sloganising political simplicities of adolescence cannot capture global complexities. In a further example of the song-writing thread running through this album, ‘I’ve Known No War’ contrasts the then (and still) very topical abhorrence of nuclear weapons with experiencing war, and in whose wake The Who and others railed against the very notion of gratitude for past sacrifice. This song (and ‘The Green Fields of France’) should have found a place amongst the war memorialisation that recently marshalled the masses in an echo of 1930s regimes but with even less historical or political context. There are a few non-classics too, though the danceable 'Eminence Front gets close while ‘Cooks’ County’, ‘Dangerous’, etc. ain't filler. One of the most extraordinary tracks is the short but overwhelming ‘One Life is Enough’. It could have been an imagined Townsend/Lloyd-Webber partnership in its stagey-ness, but is almost operatic in the lyrical and vocal ambition that Townshend-Daltrey bring to bear.


Keith Rodway said...

This is an interesting review of a neglected album from a great British band. I dismissed this when it came out, partly because Face Dances wasn't very good, and partly because the whole classic rock thing seemed worn out and I'd given up expecting any fresh miracles. I'd turned to REM, The Go Betweens, post-punk, the Fall and other alternative 80s stuff.
Listening now though I realise that it's actually a pretty good late classic line-up Who album. Some of it wouldn't sound out of place on Quadrophenia, for me the last truly great Who album. As you say, some good songs, great production (no heavy reverb on the snares!), the band is tight and focused, Roger Daltry is in good voice and Kenney Jones does a decent job. It does seem a little too old-school male for its time, and there are some nods to then-current trends which are not entirely successful. But still - an enjoyable listen and a nice surprise.

Neil Partrick said...

Many thanks 'Unknown' for a very considered and informed response. It's great that you took the time and trouble to reconsider this album too.