A “Retro” Review Of The Who’s It’s Hard Album

The Who It's Hard Album review

Photo: Jean-Luc / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

My Rock ’n Roll Schoolyard—Revisited

A “retro” review of
The Who’s It’s Hard (1982)

by Anthony Pomes

My first guitar hero was Keith Moon.

Yep, you read that correctly. From the first moment that I heard the legendary Who drummer’s high-octane performance on the “Overture” opening track of the British group’s 1969 landmark “rock opera” album Tommy, I wanted to play the guitar with as much ferocious attack and brash aliveness as he had played his drums. To a nine-year-old kid like me, the cymbal-smashing tsunami that was Keith Moon proved an irresistible ally in my ever-growing embrace of rock ’n roll. His was a full-tilt life example of extremes. I still remember reading a story about an elementary-school age Keith Moon in a book called The Who: Maximum R&B–a Christmas gift in 1981 from my late great oldest brother, Frank, who could see how Who-obsessed I was at the time.

This story about Moon involved a fairly lame game of “Duck, Duck, Goose” that the teacher had Keith and his classmates playing outside in the schoolyard. At some point, a fellow student tapped young Keith on his head and declared him the game’s “Goose.” Rather than chase the kid who had just tapped him before he was able to get back to his place in the circle, though, Moon proceeded instead to break away from the student’s circle and to run fully around the entire schoolyard property. To an impressionable young kid like myself, this was one of the greatest stories that I had ever read—and that mad scramble for freedom embodied by Keith’s young run for the proverbial hills was something that had swiftly found its way into my DNA, at least in terms of music. The more I learned guitar, the more I wanted to capture what I saw as that mad “Moon the Loon” passion in what—and how—I played.

I caught the rock ‘n roll bug before all of this, of course. Decades later, I can still recall very clearly how it was first The Beatles who won over my five-year-old musical heart. Once again, it was my brother Frank’s copy of The White Album—well, Sides A and B at least since the copy
that he let me borrow did not contain the accompanying album with Sides C and D on it—that was my first gateway to the incredible music of the Fab Four. And yet, I see now how it was really The Who that first awakened me to the vast thrill—and the danger—of rock music.

The first album that I ever bought with my own money at the age of eight—the same year that I began to play on a nylon-string acoustic guitar—was the double-LP soundtrack to their documentary film, The Kids Are Alright. I can still remember how amazed I was to see that the album’s sleeve opened from the top rather than along the customary right-hand side. (I still have the album—in fact, I am looking at it right now as I write this.) Having at that time only heard how the band sounded as captured by producer Kit Lambert on the Tommy album, The Who that I encountered on this other album was in many ways a far more raucous equation than I had expected. Here was a sound far louder, and filled with far more sonic menace than I had ever encountered before—suffice to say, my young musical mind was properly blown. To hear that album’s ten-minute-long closing live performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is to know that one is truly alive.

How ironic it was for me then to learn soon afterward that Keith Moon had in fact died two years earlier at age 32 in 1978. I would learn a few years later that his death had been caused by an accidental overdose of a sedative called Heminevrin, which he had been prescribed for use in battling alcoholism. Without that later-acquired knowledge, however, all my young self knew was that the guy whose furiously inspired drumming made me want to play on my guitar in the same feverish way was already gone—and that made me sad.

Flash forward to the summer of 1981, when a new channel called MTV debuted and caused me to never want to go back to school. In addition to sporadic footage of the Apollo 11 space flight, I would see videos by a variety of acts like The Buggles, Pat Benatar, The Pretenders, Styx, and even a band called Shoes. Oh, and there was another band with a video—you guessed it, The Who, for their song “You Better You Bet” from an album that I learned from the short white-lettered credits on the bottom left-hand corner of the TV screen was called Face Dances.

This was an altogether new kind of Who, with shorter hair and a shy yet affable looking fellow appointed like a rock-steady satellite atop the drum riser in place of the dearly departed Moon. The new player was, of course, Kenney Jones, who I would learn a little later had already made his name as the drummer for a group called The Faces featuring some singer named Rod Stewart. While I was happy with visual evidence that the group had a new drummer, the song that they were playing didn’t seem possessed by the usual excitement of Who music that I had been listening to up to that point. Far more exciting to my ears at the time was the song “Rough Boys”—and its accompanying MTV video—from none other than Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s recently released solo album, Empty Glass.

I suppose this was when I first learned how bad-ass one can look bopping around a smoke-filled pool hall while playing a maple-neck butterscotch blonde Fender Telecaster that isn’t plugged into an amp (which is what Townshend does throughout the entire video). It was in this moment that I realized just how much of the power and undeniable authority at the root of all things Who had not been coming only from Moon’s drum kit—it had also been coming from the raw passion of Townshend’s songwriting.

Nearly a year later—just as I was headed back to school in September 1982, at the start of my fifth-grade year—there was big mention on the top Long Island, NY rock radio station WBAB-FM (102.3 FM on the dial, for those of my fellow L.I. memory sharers) about how a new Who album titled It’s Hard was being released. Upon hearing the news, I began to pocket my daily school lunch money—a buck a day—so that I would be able to use those assorted dollars, together with my weekly allowance, to buy the album for myself. I can still remember going into the local Record World store in the nearby Sears mall to get the album—my Mom was cool enough to drive me to the mall, but also to let her ten-year-old son go into the store on his own to buy it.

The album’s front cover featured all four band members—guitarist Townshend and new drummer Kenney Jones on the left, bassist John Entwistle and lead singer Roger Daltrey to the right. Smack dab in the middle of the cover was a young blond kid—probably my age of ten at the time—facing away from the camera and playing an Atari Space Duel video arcade game. Over time, I would come to recognize this image as an update on the “crazy flipper fingers” sung about the Tommy character in the group’s monster hit “Pinball Wizard.” At the time, though, I just thought the arcade game looked cool.

I can still remember returning home that day, searching hurriedly with my thumb for a weak spot in the plastic covering so that I could tear it off and liberate the vinyl from the sleeve. Then on to the turntable, volume set just about to the two o’clock position on the VOLUME dial, and out poured a gentle flurry of cymbals alongside the magisterial and relatively laidback shimmery opening chords that began Side One. Before I knew it, both guitar and bass were joined by the spirited “Brrr-uh-RAT-ah-TAT-ah-!” playing by Kenney Jones on the snare drum; and then sweet release arrived, as Daltrey sang strongly the first word to the song “Athena.” I was instantly hooked.

This was it—It’s Hard was my Who album, my first embrace of new material from a band that I had come to know first through the Moon years but would now come to understand as something just a little bit different. I was awash in the sound of what I felt was a strong and vital band of my time, crashing and bashing like waves of wild ocean water against the rocks along the shore of the rock ‘n roll island that was continually constructing itself in my mind. Just as strong as the push of the music was the pull of the lyrics, splendidly fashioned by Townshend as a message that was seemingly being sent like some kind of fateful message aimed directly at me. I look back even now as I write this in remembrance of my first embrace of this music from my youth, and the following Townshend-written-and-sung lyrics at the heart of this opening track bring tears to my 48-year-old eyes:

“Look into the face of a child,
Measure how long you smiled
Before the memory claimed
How long would children remain
How long could children remain?”

From this rollicking start, the album then jumps into the first of three songs written by the usually dour John Entwistle (he of previous song “Boris the Spider” infamy, and the quiet sadist behind “Cousin Kevin” on the Tommy album). “It’s Your Turn” was another song that felt like it was aimed straight at me, as Daltrey sings of “a young kid inside me somewhere” and how “sleep is for fools, who never see the sunrise.” I would soon start to listen to this album repeatedly as I did my homework, which I recall getting a little more intensive around that time of fifth-into-sixth grade—all that study felt a little less lonely with the album playing in the background.

The second of Entwistle’s three tracks on the album, “Dangerous”—which featured a wonderfully strong bass solo line from Entwistle at the start of the song and again in the middle—plunked down some seriously existential angst on my head with the minor-key lyric “Fear is the key to your soul” before the track ended suddenly on a major chord. I would come to recognize this a few years later in my high school Advanced Placement Music class as what is called a Picardy third. “One at a Time” from the album’s second side is not one of Entwistle’s best, but the song begins with a sprightly horn section (I already knew that he played the French horn, thanks to the Tommy album) and once again maintains fierce energy from the entire band—especially from Kenney Jones, whose steady drum beat throughout keeps the briskly-paced track from breaking apart at the seams.

The rest of the album, of course, is comprised of songs written solely by Townshend, many of which are focused more directly and engagingly on issues of the world around us than perhaps any Who collections before or since. From Daltrey’s impassioned scream that “People are lonely!” in the song “Cooks County” to the lyric from the album’s title track (“It’s Hard”) that “Anyone can stop, but a few can wait”—which, to me, still feels to me like one of the best definitions of the word patience that I have ever heard, especially for those flustered by the bewildering speed of youth—these songs present a far more engaged kind of outer mind perspective than is usually associated with the more typically disaffected stance at play within much of the Townshend song catalog.

There are also songs here that deal with larger life issues, such as war (the tightly synth-laden militaristic pulse of “I’ve Known No War” that opens the album’s second side); lovemaking (the piano-driven “One Life’s Enough,” featuring one of Roger Daltrey’s most tender and soulful vocals to date); political naiveté (“Why Did I Fall for That,” very much the product of a songwriter who has already given us “Won’t Get Fooled Again” but now finds that foolishness may well have taken hold yet again in life); and even the healthy transcendence of toxic masculinity in the song “A Man Is a Man,” whose lyrics (“A man is a man / when he can offer his hand / not afraid of appearing insane if he can’t break a brick”) taught me the lessons that my own dear father was even then trying to impart to me, but that I couldn’t hear or receive from him at the time. It may seem oddly wrong-minded to cite The Who as a source of positive thinking and inspiration, but all creative art is said to be subjective—and again, this was my Who and I feel thankful now that the music reached me in that way then.

All things come to an end, though, and that applies to albums as well—actually, things end twice when you listen to vinyl because you have to get up at some point to turn the record over and hear the rest of the statement. This is where my relationship to It’s Hard as a guitarist really came to the forefront—because on both “Eminence Front,” which ends Side A, and the massively rocking track of “Cry If You Want” that ends the entire album, I came to more fully encounter and reckon with the remarkable skills of Pete Townshend as a guitarist. Interestingly, these two end-of-side songs are really the only tracks on the record where Townshend steps forward and deliberately plays some fairly straight-ahead guitar solos. Most of his playing on the album—in much of the Who’s discography, in fact—is largely textural or, as bespeaks his most vital gifts when it comes to rock history, presents a strongly “chordal” approach to his playing. Here is a style of all-encompassing rhythm guitar that was not ever as creatively employed and wholly embraced within the template of rock guitar until a certain young man out of Pasadena, California named Edward Van Halen exploded on to the scene fully formed and fleet-fingered in 1978—the same year, not coincidentally, that Keith Moon died before he actually did get old.

Perhaps that is the biggest lesson that I come away with now when listening to It’s Hard—an album that seems to me, in many ways, to be the last Who album even though Townshend and Daltrey continue to release product with that band’s name on it. What you get from Townshend’s guitar playing in The Who, especially on this remarkable 1982 album, is something tied more fully to the overall sound and synthesis of a group. So when he does break away to play his leads, first to the tune of the dance-track oriented “Eminence Front” and then especially in the last riotous minute of the all-out rocker “Cry If You Want,” Townshend swooningly unleashes that same wildly riotous energy that I had once as a young man come to see and feel and be touched and healed by as the unique contribution of Keith Moon and those mammoth drums of his. All these years later, I come now to more fully understand and recognize how that energy was not unique to Moon’s pounding output alone. It is instead a conversant gift of the senses, some ineluctable essence whose chief function is to breathe, to exist . . . and to survive.

Keith Moon ran far away in his life from that schoolyard Duck Duck Goose circle of children, as if he himself was asking of the world that same question Townshend asks in “Athena”—How long would children remain? Perhaps the answer is that children, and childhood itself, will not remain seated in a circle out on that schoolyard forever—something that I suspect Keith Moon never learned or could finally face, even as Townshend did and has. This is what I come away with most preciously when I listen again to It’s Hard after all these years. It is hard—all of it, the entire overwhelming enormity of life itself—but it is also far better to survive, to keep going—and to keep learning, which is why this album and this moment in the story of The Who remain so important to me. It’s like Daltrey sings at the end of “It’s Your Turn” from this remarkable album—“It’s your turn, step up and take it / If you’ve got the guts to hang on, you can make it.”

When you listen to It’s Hard, you find that it’s easy.

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