I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.
Cards on the table here -- I consider The Who to be the greatest band in the history of rock and roll. I'm not saying they're my favorite band. Some days they are, other days it might be Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes, or even The Good Rats. But looking at it as objectively as I can, when you consider their achievements -- the genius writing of Pete Townshend (and I don't use that word loosely); the musical expertise of each of the band's members; the chemistry of the band; their accomplishments as a live band; and their studio album output (they have at least three albums that are ranked among rock's all-time greatest -- hell, they're the only band on my Sputnik ratings list to have three albums rated 5's, and I've only awarded 14 albums a 5 rating over 50 years of music) -- I think you can see why I say this. All of this is a huge disclaimer, of sorts. I want you to understand where I'm coming from, so if you're one of those who doesn't like this band, or who doesn't share my opinion of their greatness, you're going to want to knock at least a star or so off my rating.
I opted to review Magic Bus: The Who on Tour for three reasons: 1) Feeling as I do about The Who, I really wanted to review a Who album; 2) Since I usually only review albums that don't have a full review posted on Sputnik, this was as close to a Who studio album as I could get. Technically, it's a compilation album, but for those of us who live in the States, it served the function of being The Who's fourth studio album (more on that later); and 3) I've been reviewing some serious, somber stuff lately -- a bunch of progressive rock, including Rick Wakeman's Myth and Legends of King Arthur album, and some dark wave and electronic ambient LPs (Lycia's Estrella and Tangerine Dream's Firestarter soundtrack) -- all good-to-great albums, but none of them exactly chuckle fests. While The Who also had their share of serious and thoughtful albums, Magic Bus isn't one of them, making this a welcome break in mood for me.
First things first -- in spite of the title Magic Bus: The Who on Tour, this isn't a live album. I guess some bright light in the offices of Decca Records (who's probably either passed away by now or is at least long past his solid food days) took the whole "bus" idea and decided to run with it, never imagining that almost 50 years later, I'd be writing a review complaining about how he confused people. As I said earlier, it's technically considered a compilation album. The Who never went into the studio to record these particular tracks together. In fact, when they did the photo shoot for the album cover, the band never even knew that's why the record company had ordered the shots in the first place. When the album was released, they were pissed, and Townshend in particular frequently expressed his dislike for this album. Decca compiled it to deal with a couple of problems: first that it had been a year or so since the release of The Who Sell Out and they wanted to sell some records and keep the band's name out there, and second, because they had a trio of singles that were reasonably successful in the U.S. that had never been released on albums and weren't otherwise scheduled to be. So they pulled together some other songs that hadn't been released in America, filled it out with a few songs they repeated from previous studio albums, and abracadabra! Before you knew it, they had cobbled together an album. So for Who enthusiasts in the United States, this was as close to a studio album after The Who Sell Out and before the release of Tommy as they were going to get.
I don't know why Decca chose the songs they did. Six of the eleven songs were obvious: the three singles, and their corresponding B-sides ("Call Me Lightning", "Pictures of Lily" and "Magic Bus" with "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Doctor, Doctor" and "Someone's Coming"). "Disguises" and "Bucket T" had been released on the British EP Ready Steady Who but never in the States. As for why they slapped on "Run Run Run", one of the Who's least inspired songs from the Happy Jack album or "I Can't Reach You" and "Our Love Was, Is" (which are at least better songs) from The Who Sell Out, I'll never know. There were a number of earlier songs and even some good singles that had never been released on a U.S. album, so go figure.
Anyway, as you can see, the album is kind of a mishmosh. To make things even worse, seven of the eleven songs on the album were recorded in mono. Only "Magic Bus" and the three songs pulled from previous LPs were stereo recordings. No wonder, then, that The Who weren't pleased with Magic Bus.
Here's the thing, though. Taken on its own terms, the album is kind of fun. Three of the songs on it are Entwistle songs, and feature his bizarre sense of humor. "Bucket T" is a cover of an old Jan and Dean song, and was doubtlessly recorded to please surf music lover Keith Moon. Even most of the Townshend songs are pretty lighthearted and kind of silly. If Magic Bus didn't exist, it wouldn't effect The Who's reputation as a great rock band in the least. But its existence is just a little extra seasoning on the gourmet meal that is the band's recorded output -- you don't really need it, but you're grateful for that little bit of extra flavor.
The funny thing is, even the singles aren't overwhelming. I wouldn't rate them to be anywhere near as good as such other singles from The Who's pre-Tommy days, as "Substitute" or "The Kids Are Alright", and none of the three were as iconic as "My Generation". "Call Me Lightning" is one of the band's more forgettable songs, and although "Magic Bus" reached #25 on the Billboard charts, it's never been one of my favorites (although I'll admit it's grown on me over the years). "Pictures of Lily", wherein a noble Dad tries to help out his son by giving him some pictures of a long-deceased but hot British dance hall star, is better. And yet, somehow, Magic Bus works as a whole.
My favorite song on the album other than "Lily" is probably Entwistle's "Doctor, Doctor". It's sung from the point of view of a typical hapless Entwistle musical protagonist. This time it's a hypochondriac who believes he has every ailment under the sun, speaking to his beleaguered physician. After recounting a list of his various maladies, he asks "Do you think it's time that I made out my will?/I'll leave everything to you to pay my bill". Again, the Who's legacy might not be built on their John Entwistle-penned songs, but it's certainly enriched by them.
I can't really tell you why I like "Disguises" or "Someone's Coming". The first is a ridiculous Townshend song about a changing teen relationship. Its hero begins by singing "I used to know everything about you", but now his lady friend has changed so much that he has trouble even recognizing her. It's not just that her hair or her figure that have changed, though: "And today I saw you dressed as a flower bed/Last week you had a wig on your head/Directing traffic in the street/And your shoes were too big for your feet". Like I said, ridiculous. "Someone's Coming" is a different sort of tale of a teen relationship where the girl's parents have forbidden her to see the boy, so every day she uses walking the family dog as an excuse to sneak off to spend some time with him. Why the song is written in such a way as to have him explaining these things to her, though, is unclear. Presumably she already knows all of this. As I said, I can't explain why I like either of these songs. But somehow I do. That's kind of the story of this album.
I'm pleased to see that Magical Bus's average rating on Sputnik is 4 out of 5 stars, so there are obviously other fans out there who have enjoyed this album besides me. In spite of the band's displeasure with it, it did well enough in the U.S. that Direct Hits, a similar compilation album with a slightly different set of songs, was released in the UK shortly thereafter. Taken together, these two albums marked the end of the era of The Who as a singles band before the release of Tommy, which made them major stars in the burgeoning album rock/FM radio arena, and helped to open up the world of rock and roll to previously unforeseen possibilities.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars