The Who's final album with Keith Moon took almost a year to record and pushed the band to the limit. Engineer and producer Jon Astley tells the remarkable story behind Who Are You?'s title track.
When The Who re-entered the recording studio in September 1977 following a couple of years on the road, it wasn't in the best of circumstances. For one thing, constant touring had been taking a toll on Pete Townshend's marriage, so the composer/guitarist determined to turn things around by adhering to office hours — hardly a recipe for no-holds-barred creativity. And after more than a decade of hellraising, Keith Moon turned up in no shape to drum at an acceptable level.
Moon relocated from Los Angeles to London for rehearsals, which took place at the band's Ramport Studio in Battersea, and right from the start it was clear that he might just have an attitude problem. On one of the first days, bored with all the hanging around, he used his gold-plated lighter to set a noticeboard on fire; and when producer Glyn Johns' assistant, Jon Astley, assiduously set about miking the drum kit with a setup far more intricate than the simple technique which Johns had traditionally employed, his work was quickly undone in classic Moon fashion.
"Glyn trusted my engineering, and for the first time he was interested in getting away from big, open miking and actually trying something different with close miking," Astley explains. "He was open to some of the things that I wanted to try and do, and it was quite interesting that he would let me do that — I used a bunch of different mics on Keith's kit, and Glyn came in the next day and said 'OK, we'll try it.' Up until then, Glyn had only ever used three mics on a drum kit, so it was a big step for him to take. You see, the sort of ambient recording thing had been and gone, and this was the disco era when everything was in your face and very dry and very, very close-miked.
"On the bass drum I used an AKG D30; I had a Neumann KM84 on top and underneath the snare; I used a Shure SM58 with a pad in it for the hi-hat; overheads were Neumann U87s; and for toms I used anything I could find that matched, such as Sennheiser 421s. Then, the day after I'd set all this up, Keith came in and went around the kit for me. I just wanted to make sure the stereo imaging was OK, so he played and then asked 'Is that all right?' I said 'Yeah, that's fantastic,' at which point he stood up and walked straight through the bloody kit. He obviously was aware that I'd put a lot of work into it, balancing the whole thing, but I just thought 'Oh, well, welcome to the Who. Here we go..."
Not that Jon Astley was all that unfamiliar with the band members and their idiosyncracies. His sister Karen was then married to Pete Townshend, who had initially bonded with the teenage Jon by taking him to some of the group's gigs back in the mid-'60s. "Pete was courting Karen at the time, so it was probably to keep my parents happy that he'd take me off their hands," Astley surmises with a smile. "I was a Who fan anyway, and although I was a bit young to be a Mod [Astley was born in 1951], I embraced the whole Mod thing. Then, after my sister married Pete and I finished college in 1971, I bought a house in Twickenham, not far from where they lived. After working at the Radio Luxembourg studios for a couple of weeks, I then got my big break, working as a tape operator at Olympic in Barnes. For me, this was the home of rock & roll — the Stones had recorded there and, very soon after I joined, the Eagles were there, too, and that's when I met Glyn Johns."
During his time at Olympic Studios, Astley worked on David Bowie's Diamond Dogs as well as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. In the mid-'70s, he became full-time assistant engineer to Johns, producer and/or engineer of choice for everyone from Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Joan Armatrading and the Steve Miller Band to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. "Glyn and I did a couple of Eric Clapton albums together, Slowhand and Backless, on which I was officially assisting, but some days Glyn didn't show up and Eric would say 'Oh, let's do a whole track. We'll show him!' In fact 'Tulsa Time' was all me — producing, engineering, the whole lot — and Glyn was fine with that. He didn't mind at all. He thought it was part and parcel of the job, and we got on very well.
"In '77, Glyn came up to me and said 'I don't think there will be a conflict of interest, but I have been asked to do the next Who record. Because you're working for me, I can't see that it'll be a problem. But if you do, then say so.' I said 'No, that's all right. I'd love to do that with you.' So we went to Battersea, to what we called 'The Kitchen', which was Ramport Studio, and started on Who Are You?."
Housing a newly built custom Neve 8088 black 40-input console, a 24-track 3M tape machine and 16-track Studer, Ramport had what was purported to be one of the first quadrophonic control rooms, with four huge JBL speakers at the front and two at the back.
"Pete would come in with a new song, which would serve as the backing track for The Who to perform on, and John [Entwistle] would do the same," says Astley. "Pete had a Polymoog that was programmed to play his backing tracks, and then the other guys would overdub their parts. The problem was, Pete was bringing in 24-track demos and Glyn wanted to work 16-track, because the sound coming off a two-inch head block with 16 tracks was so much better than a 24-track with Dolbys and everything else. In fact, the Dolbys at Ramport never seemed to be lined up properly — one day it used to sound bright, the next day it would sound dull, and I could never tell what was going on. Every night there was a different line-up of maintenance men, and the result was that things never sounded the same from one day to the next. It was very, very odd."
Not that this was the biggest problem during the recording and overdubbing sessions that took place during the last third of 1977. "Every time we came to overdub Keith, it wasn't great," remarks Astley with considerable understatement. "His timing was out, which was unusual for him, and this became frustrating for everybody. He was drinking a lot and taking drugs to stop himself putting on weight — which wasn't making that much difference — and while he was still the jovial Keith character, it sometimes wore a bit thin with everyone else."
With tensions mounting, something had to give, and this is precisely what happened during a playback of 'Sister Disco' on Thursday, October 27, 1977. "Roger leaned over the desk while Glyn was sitting there and he said 'Can I hear a bit more bass?'" Astley remembers. "Glyn stopped the machine and said 'What?' and Roger said 'I just want to hear a bit more bass in the mix.' Glyn said 'We're listening to all this fucking work that they've done, and you want to hear a bit more bass?' At that point, things exploded. It was unbelievable. They both stormed out, and then I heard this kerfuffle in the corridor and Glyn came back in the control room with tears in his eyes, holding his nose and saying 'That's it. I'm going home.' Roger had nutted him and driven off in his Ferrari."
According to Daltrey's own recollection several years later, he'd told Johns that he thought the strings made the track sound over-produced: "He called me a little c**t, so I thumped him."
Thereafter, by not turning up at Daltrey's night-time vocal sessions, Johns basically delegated responsibility for producing these to Jon Astley. Not that reborn family man Townshend was there, either. "Pete would often leave the studio at four in the afternoon to pick up his kids from school, and we wouldn't see him again," Astley states. "Roger, on the other hand, only wanted to do his vocals in the evenings, so my days were very, very long. In fact, I remember Pete leaving when I was preparing to do a vocal session with Roger, and he said 'Make sure he sings the right notes.' I thought 'Oh, is that my job? I suppose it is now.'"
The bar at Ramport Studios amounted to a fridge in the corner of the studio, out of which most present drank port — rock & roll! Entwistle preferred wine, and Moon indulged his taste for Coca-Cola mixed with whatever spirits were available, but Daltrey asserted that the port was good for his vocal cords.
"His voice was very good," Jon Astley confirms. "It held up when we put him under great strain, although he only did a lead vocal about once a week — it wasn't like he was doing two or three a night — and the two of us had great fun experimenting with different mics. I had cardioids and figure-of-eights, one above the other, to put his vocal into stereo by bringing it up on four channels... of course, you can buy a microphone now that does all that, but back then we had quite a hoot trying different things. The only thing was, it kind of made you sick when you listened to it, because if Roger moved slightly left or right the stereo image would move around in the speakers. I remember thinking 'I'm not sure whether or not this is a good thing,' so I ended up mostly using one Neumann U87 with a Urei 1176 on it.
"Still, something I didn't notice during the Who Are You? sessions, but which became evident when I worked with Roger during the '80s, was that if you go past four or five takes with him, even though he's still singing perfectly, he does lose an edge. It's very difficult to say exactly what that edge is, but it's a really good tone that cuts through stuff, and that disappears when his voice smooths out. Although that initially sounds nice, it isn't nice at all in real terms. And unless he's been on the road, singing every night, that happens in the studio after four or five takes. Having said that, I did comp his vocal from multiple takes on 'Who Are You?', and he also had to come back in and sing 'Ah, who the hell are you?' for the radio version, and I then matched it up. After the track had been picked as the single, we were worried that radio wouldn't play it because of him twice singing 'Ah, who the fuck are you?', so I had him come in and redo those parts when I was mixing the record at CTS in Wembley.
"I also remember getting Roger back to try to do some harmonies with himself on certain songs. However, he's one of those great singers who's note-perfect when doing a lead vocal and knows what he wants to do, but struggles when it comes to singing backing vocals. He'll pick harmonies that cross, and if you say 'I just want the third harmony on this line,' he might have a hard time. However, this seems to be a common thing with lead vocalists."
Things staggered on until the end of the year. That December, string sessions took place at Olympic, with Jon Astley's father Ted — composer of the music and theme tunes to such well-known British TV shows as The Saint, Danger Man, Department S and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) — taking care of the arrangements for 'Had Enough' and 'Love Is Coming Down'. Then it was time for a very welcome Christmas break; a break that quickly evolved into an extended sojourn after Pete Townshend put his hand through a window and Roger Daltrey had surgery following a throat infection. Only in mid-March did the band reconvene, this time at RAK Studios in St. John's Wood, where Glyn Johns was interested in trying out the API console and, more to the point, experimenting with a much-needed change of scenery. This lasted less than a week.
"I remember an extraordinary day at RAK when Glyn brought in another bass player and I thought 'This is a bit funny,'" Astley recalls. "You see, John wanted to play kind of lead bass and Glyn felt they needed someone to play solid-bottom bass to nail down '905', which was very John-orientated. As it happens, John was fine about it. He went 'Yeah, yeah, whatever. Have a go,' and so in came Dave Marquee — who'd played on the Joan Armatrading sessions that I had done with Glyn — and we then had this very strange session where we tried to record a backing track with drums, two basses and keyboards. John had actually brought in a backing track that consisted of all these synths, and it was on two tracks of the 24-track machine... I'd left the first eight tracks and was recording the band on the last 16 tracks, but the maintenance man had wired up the remote with the wrong cable and when I put the last 16 tracks into Record it wiped the first eight. We were 10 seconds into it and I went 'Hang on a minute! Stop!' We'd already wiped John's backing track, although by managing to stop it before we got too far into the song I was able to copy a verse and splice it onto the front.
"I was thinking 'Oh no, I don't believe this day, I don't believe this day.' Keith was awful, Glyn went home early, the rest of us went out for a bit of dinner, and I sat down with the Who in a restaurant in St. John's Wood where they told Keith that he was out of the band. It was a case of 'Unless you do something drastic, Keith, we've got to find a new drummer.' I think Keith thought he'd been playing all right, but his attitude was like 'Oh yeah, OK. Whatever.' He probably went home and got depressed about it, but at the time he appeared to take it in his stride."
Another break followed, this time for a few weeks, before the sessions resumed at Ramport that April with Keith still behind the kit but without Glyn Johns behind the desk. Officially, this was due to a prior commitment, but there can be little doubt that he'd also had his fill of the Who. Suddenly, Jon Astley found himself producing as well as engineering.
"It was strange," he recalls. "The band came to me and said 'Er, we'd like you to take over as producer... if that's all right with you.' They were very reasonable! They seemed to have great faith in what I could do, although I have no idea why. I had never produced anybody before. I suppose for all they knew I could have gone off with Glyn, instead of which I thought 'Oh, yes please. Thank you very much. I've always wanted to produce the Who. I'm your man!'
"To be honest, I'm sure they just wanted to get the record finished. And I suppose my role changed, insofar as I was suddenly putting forward some of my own ideas — we had a piano player in, but I felt that Pete's piano on one of his demos was better. I said 'I'd prefer you to play it, Pete,' and I also suggested that he sing the middle eight. So I was contributing towards the production, which was something I'd always wanted to do. Fortunately, they were very, very open to suggestions."
But didn't Astley's promotion irk his erstwhile mentor, Glyn Johns? "No. If anything, it caused more of a problem between me and Pete. He said 'This is work, that's family. They're different things.' He was trying to be a normal dad and have a normal relationship with his family while making a record for this legendary rock & roll band. It was very, very odd. I remember him hating the drive to and from Battersea, so he bought himself a speedboat, thinking he could belt up and down the Thames at 90 miles per hour. He'd get to Battersea quicker than if he was driving... of course, he was wrong.
"When it came to his guitar playing, he did let it rip every now and again. For instance, when he did the main part with a Gibson Les Paul on 'Who Are You?', recorded in the control room by Glyn, using a Gelf preamp and some nice plate echo, everybody stopped and went 'Shit!' He reminded us of how great he was. And this must have been when Pete was starting to go deaf in one ear, because he had a specially built headphone box that would cut out whenever anything got too loud."
Aside from the overdubbed lead vocal, lead guitar, bass, drums and Rod Argent's piano, most of the title track comprises the demo that Townshend recorded in his home setup, including the acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboards, handclaps and omnipresent backing vocals that he tracked himself. Forget the promo video, filmed at Ramport in early May of '78, which features the band members all gathered around the mic and working together as a band — in reality, their parts were overdubbed separately. On previous records the band had played together, even when overdubbing, but this time around Keith's faltering abilities dictated otherwise, and this was hardly aided by the six o'clock nightly routine of a maintenance engineer announcing 'The bar is open, gentlemen.'
Little was straightforward on the Who Are You? project, which saw the band's collective spirit showing definite signs of wear and tear. Little, that is, aside from Mr. Reliable, John Entwistle; ever present, ever consistent, he delivered few suprises both in terms of his demeanour and his bass-playing virtuosity. "If there was nothing to do, John would simply replace his bass parts," Astley says. "He'd set up exactly the same sound and say 'OK, run the tape,' and he'd play exactly the same thing. You could A/B between his bass parts over the course of five months and they'd all be exactly the same. Still, at least he was always there, staying on in the evenings to give Roger encouragement when he was singing, and he was just great to have around. It was also the first time he'd written three songs for an album, although that was probably because Pete, quite incredibly, had quite a few songs vetoed by Roger: 'Nah, I can't hear myself singing that.'"
Meanwhile, given one more chance, and with his back now firmly up against the wall, Keith Moon finally got his act together, laying down all of his drum parts within about 10 days. "He was great," asserts Astley. "The band couldn't believe it. When they did '905', which was bass drum, snare, off-beat, on-beat, everybody went 'That can't be Keith playing!' It was so unlike him. The timing was great and it was difficult to do, but he pulled it off. The only thing on which he couldn't play, which Pete warned me about, was 'Music Must Change'. Pete said 'It's in 6/8 and he doesn't feel 6/8. He never has, he never will. Don't even go there.' He was right. We ended up putting footsteps on the track. On Pete's demo he was walking around in a circle, and had it been quadraphonic it would have been wonderful to listen to — you could hear his squeaky shoes, and the sound of him walking around in a circle was the pace of the record... I mean, never mind 6/8, Keith never really felt 2/4 either. He felt orchestra — timpani here and big cymbals there. It was acting, it was theatre, and he really was great. I loved him.
"After completing all his drum parts, he got a job working for the Who as a PR man. He used to come into the studio and announce [in a very authoritative, upper-crust voice], 'Yes, well, I have another meeting today. I have to go and see these people...' He'd also go riding in Hyde Park. He just loved playing the English gentleman. Very odd."
"Glyn Johns is the only person I've ever worked with who knew when a hot take was about to happen," says Jon Astley. "He'd look at me across the control room or sit beside me at the desk and say 'Mark the next one on the box,' and nine times out of 10 he was right. He just knew when the band was about to come up with the right performance. With Joan Armatrading he was right every time. When we were recording 'Love And Affection' he would say 'We're not quite there yet, but the next one will be,' and then he'd say 'Got it.'"
When it was time for the mix, Jon Astley initially got the cold shoulder as a result of the Who getting cold feet. "Pete came to me with this extraordinary excuse," Astley recalls. "He said 'Jon, this is the first thing you've ever produced, and we're worried that, if it backfires and becomes a complete flop, it won't be good for your career.' I thought 'Oh yeah, you fucker. I know what you're thinking.' Of course, I just said 'Oh, OK, Pete. All right,' and he said 'We've asked Glyn to mix it.'
By this time, I was working with Glyn on Eric Clapton's Backless album, so I asked 'When's he doing it?' 'He's doing it at Olympic next week.' 'Oh, right. I wondered what I was booked for.' As a result, Glyn and I spent an excruciating few weeks inside Olympic's Studio One, where Glyn would push up a fader and give me this quizzical look across the room, as if to say 'What the fuck's that?' Then he'd push up the vocal and sigh 'Oh, you used a compressor on the vocal.' It was awful. Anyway, I sat through that, put together the master and delivered it as per his instructions, only for the Who's management to reject it and say to me 'Jon, you've got to mix this.' After all, I knew the record inside out, I knew what I was doing and I had an idea as to where I was going with it, and they heard that in my rough mixes. So, it was quite a step for them to take, rejecting Glyn's mixes, but they were very, very unsure about the record because it signalled a big change of direction in terms of Pete's writing and they were obviously quite worried.
"John was with me for the mix at CTS, and the Neve we were using was the first ever board to have little faders on motors going up and down. It was incredible. Then again, thanks to the great big motor, it was impossible to grab hold of a fader for just a second. I kept thinking 'Oh, I wish I could lift that snare drum just there,' and of course I couldn't. Anyway, after I had finished mixing the album, we had a playback session at Ramport, everybody loved it, and [management exec] Bill Curbishley came in and said 'Jon, I've got a pair of Concorde tickets here 'cause I know you love flying, and I want you to go and master the record in New York.' All my life I've loved aircraft, and the opportunity to fly on Concorde was amazing, so off I went to Masterdisk. That was management's way of saying 'Thank you for getting us through this,' which was really nice."
At a time when punk was questioning the band's sell-by date, Who Are You? resisted any urge towards bandwagon-jumping by diving head-first into synth-based prog rock and symphonic arrangements. In this regard, it's hardly surprising that doubts arose, yet the album was hugely successful following its release in August 1978, rising to number two on the American charts and going platinum in the process. The title track, released as a single the previous month, reached number 18 in the UK and number 14 in the US, yet all of this was overshadowed by the untimely death of Keith Moon on September 7 of that year — ironically, on the album cover he is sitting in a chair labelled 'Not To Be Taken Away'.
"He had got quite excited towards the end of making the record," recalls Astley, who is now a full-time mastering engineer for the likes of Tori Amos, Chris Rea and the Go-Betweens, while his remastering credits include all of the Who's recordings and others by Led Zeppelin, George Harrison, Abba, Them, John Mayall, Tears For Fears and Level 42. "I remember Keith really, really liking 'Guitar And Pen' and the things we did on that, and he was generally very up about the record. However, although he'd pulled himself together after being given the ultimatum, as soon as we finished the drum parts I know he went partying and clubbing. As it happens, John also went clubbing every night... but he did it in a very quiet way."
Lastly, whatever happened to the 15 minutes of middle section that were edited out of 'Who Are You?' (see box, below)? Sitting in the upstairs studio of his Twickenham house that overlooks the home of British blues, Eel Pie Island — the house formerly owned by ex-brother-in-law Pete between 1968 and 1980 — Jon Astley looks pensive. "The stuff I cut out included Pete fiddling on piano and more acoustic guitar parts," he says. "I'd love to know what happened to it all. It must be on a reel somewhere, and it might be worth digging up... I bet it's down the road from here. Can you imagine putting together the original 20-minute version? The only problem is, most of it wouldn't have any lead guitar..."
Thanks to Andy Neill, co-author of 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle Of The Who 1958-1978' , for providing background information used in this article.
The Who Are You? album marked a major departure in Pete Townshend's approach to songwriting, and the title track in particular saw him using his 24-track home studio in Goring, Berkshire to the full.
"Writing-wise, I think he was limited in terms of what he was trying to do," says Jon Astley, "because he was going through what I refer to as his Gilbert & Sullivan phase — 'Guitar And Pen' and 'Sister Disco'; all these operatic parts that didn't lend themselves to rock guitar. Still, he was really getting into his piano playing, and I thought his piano playing was quite astounding. On the previous album [The Who By Numbers] he'd played acoustic guitar almost all the way through, and now he was into the keyboards — all the little guitar bits in the middle eight of 'Who Are You?' are from his own demo — so he was always looking for something more to learn and master for each record.
"His demos were fantastic. He came in with a 24-track demo of 'Who Are You?' which was about 22 minutes long, and this consisted of one extra verse and chorus and a middle section that just went on and on into Neverland. Extraordinary. Glyn and I listened to it with the band, and he said 'I wonder what we should do with this?' Pete said 'Well, I think the middle section probably needs cutting down a bit,' so Glyn said 'Yes, that's a good idea... All right, we'll see you, um, tomorrow then, Jon.' And everyone went home! Because I knew Glyn wanted to work on 16-track, I actually edited the 24-track demo that Pete had made, and I had pieces all around the control room marked with Chinagraph, indicating where the various sections came from. God, it was such an absolute nightmare.
"I put together the middle section and I thought 'Oh yeah, that works. That's quite interesting.' Originally, it had gone on for about 15 minutes, whereas now it lasted about 90 seconds, representing all my favourite little bits. The whole thing was driven by Pete's angular rhythm guitar part, played through an ARP 2600 suitcase synth which had an auto-pan and a filter that was opening in time with the auto-pan. This created a kind of wah-wah synth sound, and since it was played in four-bar sections it was easy to edit together. Anyway, I bounced the whole thing down onto about six tracks of the 16-track, and when everyone returned we played the 16-track Studer and Glyn went 'Yeah, it sounds good. What do you think, Pete?' 'Yeah, it sounds good.' And that was it. That became 'Who Are You?', along with a slightly reworked intro. The song was down to around seven minutes, and there was a further edit that we did later when we took out another verse, but the lost-verse version has since appeared on the [1996 CD] reissue of Who Are You?."