Face Dances may be the great unsung Who album (released 3/16/81). The first LP recorded after Keith Moon’s death, this now four-decade-old record has received but scant retrospective attention in the interim despite that very profound significance. Granted, it was reissued in expanded form in 1997 around the same time as other items in the iconic British band’s discography, but apart from a handful of the previously-unreleased studio and live tracks, it was hardly presented with the same discerning hindsight the group, in particular its titular leader Pete Townshend, has afforded other titles such as Tommy.
Given how the chief songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist of the Who so loves to wax rhapsodic, it’s startling he penned no liner notes for this expanded edition (released with markedly little fanfare in comparison to its original issue). In fact, a brief (and uncredited) prose timeline within the minimal eight-page booklet is barely longer than the explication given for the cover art: sixteen different portraits of the band members overseen by Peter Blake (who performed similar work for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). The notes for the individual tracks are hardly more illuminating (even the Wikipedia entry is skeletal).
Like its companion pieces, Face Dances was remixed and remastered for its re-release. Yet the work of Jon Astley and Andy Macpherson doesn’t wholly address the sonic issues afflicting this LP. Around the time of its 1981 release, Townshend himself expressed dismay with the audio, remarks eventually well-documented in Richard Barnes’ excellent book The Who: Maximum R&B. Still, the shortfalls then and now remain mystifying: the aforementioned pair of co-producers had the contributions of mastering expert Bob Ludwig in curating the new version, while the original producer, Bill Szymczyk, had previously done stellar audio work with the James Gang and the Eagles prior to collaborating with the Who.
But the latter engineer cum creative consultant probably deserves as much credit as criticism for his contributions on behalf of the iconic British band. The nominal strengths of this ninth Who album (and first in a new contract for the Warner Brothers label) are in marked contrast with the self-conscious strain for novelty that dominated 1978’s Who Are You; on the contrary, the nine tracks evince an economy of arrangement and musicianship epitomized by the LP’s first single “You Better You Bet.”
As typified by this cut, which remains a standard entry in the group’s present-day repertoire, Townshend actually returned to his roots as a writer of pop songs here. Conventionally-structured verse/chorus/bridge/verse compositions dominate the album, as does group harmony singing so prevalent on “Cache Cache.” Tight, economical playing and singing also precludes overstatement and/or pontificating on the personal nature of the author’s spiritual beliefs as appears in “Don’t Let Go the Coat.” And while long-time Faces’ drummer Kenney Jones, in the place of the ever-so-eccentric Moon, reaffirms his well-established penchant for maintaining time on his studio debut with the Who, he doesn’t acquit himself with the same confident authority on these additional live cuts..
His simpler, more pointed style on the kit nevertheless benefits Townshend, who is restrained in his playing both rhythm and solo guitar. Late bassist John Entwistle (who passed most unexpectedly on the eve of a 2002 tour) is likewise unencumbered by the need for keeping the beat, so his inimitably mobile instrumental work reminds of his crucial, stable presence in the group chemistry. As do his two original songs as both serve the same function his compositions always have on a Who album: to provide pacing. “The Quiet One” manifests a lighthearted tone compared to the introspective material of the group’s titular leader, while the savage playing of “You” contrasts its more nuanced surroundings.
For his part there, and throughout the record, Roger Daltrey completely inhabits the material. His voice and phrasing are particularly forceful on those numbers with which he readily identifies, such as “Daily Records,” and while there’s little if any profundity to be found in “Another Tricky Day”(or much of trademarked Townshend the angst in a studio outtake titled “I Like Nightmares”), the frontman’s sly delivery suits the tone of that closing tune, indicative of the nuance he can bring to lyrics.
The grand fretboard chording that opens that track deepens in impact with every repetition. And given that majesty appears on the final number, it leaves a lasting impression, one similar to the effect left by the similarly-positioned cut on the comparably underrated The Who By Numbers (“In A Hand or A Face”); as with that 1975 LP, there is much more to the ear than first appears on Face Dances, even though it’s plagued by a generally muffled audio quality.
There is hardly enough sonic presence to reinforce the instrumental power of the realigned quartet. The piano rings, to be sure, proving how much Townshend picked up from Nicky Hopkins’ previous sit-ins with the band (going all the way back to the Who debut My Generation). But his guitars miss the massive crunch they so often deserve, the bass becomes almost non-existent at times and Daltrey’s voice doesn’t emerge from the mix as prominently it should (and did on Quadrophenia). The synthesizer work does echo the groundbreaking use of the device captured on Who’s Next, but lacks the clarity and edge so dominant there.
Both “Did You Steal My Money” and “How Can You Do It Alone” would benefit dramatically from a booming rhythm section and a sharper thrust in the guitars, if only to more naturally evoke the immediately recognizable, kinetic energy intrinsic to the sound of the Who. All the more reason, then, to crank up the volume when going back for a retrospective listen to this somewhat forgotten LP and thus at least simulate the accurately visceral punch: then, in a very practical way, it will foreshadow the healthy maturity and adherence to the style that reappeared thirty-eight years later on 2019’s WHO, the 2019 album that, perhaps not coincidentally, sported cover images by the very same graphic artist who commissioned the sixteen paintings on its predecessor.
The rallying cry “Long Live The ‘Oo” has turned out to be a prophecy over the last forty years, one that still resonates on Face Dances, albeit in a somewhat muted tone.