Before Pete Townshend gilded himself in gold leaf and proceeded to help ruin rock (or save cheeseball comedy) by introducing the dreaded phrase "rock opera" into the lexicon, he and his band sure could pound it out. And before grunt-boy extraordinaire Roger Daltrey heard the word "opera" and frightfully altered his singing voice accordingly, he had quite a bellow. Keith Moon never changed a lick except for when he died, so we can't blame him for anything, nor can we blame John Entwistle, who's probably right now standing stony-faced on a stage somewhere wondering where the hell his mates are and when the gig's going to start.
Granted, all rock bands ultimately fail, except for those fucked-up enough to self-destruct in their prime, and before the Who started sucking, somewhere around Live at Leeds, they were an ace Brit Invasion band, the best of the bunch except for maybe the Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles and the Swingin' Blue Jeans. But hey, that's some smart company, and on the newly released BBC Sessions they proudly plant their pole as the fifth (or sixth, if you count the Sir Douglas Quintet) best Invasion band, and one who occasionally pummeled all of the above.
BBC Sessions consists of recordings made for the Brit radio station between '65 and '73 and features most of the songs that made the Who great. These songs were recorded when they were lads, and you can tell; Daltrey's voice is still recovering from puberty, and Townshend's doesn't seem to have reached it yet. Sessions traces an evolution mirrored by all the Invasion bands of note: Early white-boy R&B replication gradually morphs into a sturdy foundation as the band discovers its own voice. Whereas the Kinks evolved into romantic agrarians and the Stones into scraggly hedonists, the Who (specifically, Townshend, who wrote most of these songs) seemed to always desire a spot at the Algonquin Round Table, and that he never got seated -- and ultimately embarrassed himself by trying way too hard -- doesn't matter; the drive was drunken and crazy, and along the way he and the Who dropped some serious rock.
The early stuff -- "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and "Good Lovin'" (made popular by the Rascals) -- shows a band that's loose and sweating to keep up with drummer Moon, who never misses a beat and usually uncovers a couple dozen amazing extras. As they progress, the naked nature of the Sessions -- all recorded live with no overdubs -- illuminates a band that can lock tight, catapult Townshend's brilliant melodies into the stratosphere (especially on "Disguises") and keep them levitating there for the duration of the songs. Their rendition of the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets" is worth the price of admission alone, as is "A Quick One (While He's Away)" -- though if you want the best version of that song, you gotta get the Rock & Roll Circus soundtrack.
BBC Sessions captures a truly great rock band in their prime, before they got too big for their britches and decided that doing BBC sessions was below them. But maybe that's best: Neither "You Better You Bet" nor "Eminence Front" makes an appearance. Nor does anything from the aptly titled Who by Numbers years. The years represented here are the on years, and when they were on, they lit up like a lighthouse.