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The insider's guide to The Who

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(CNN) -- The Who have released the 12th album of their 42-year career and their first in 24 years -- but what do the critics make of their latest offering?

The Who ... Ah, it takes me back to the 60s -- Swinging London, mods and rockers, sharp suits and scooters, happenings and hippies ... those were the days ...

Yeah baby! Your knowledge of 60s cliches is impressive. The Who were the third of the trio of British rock bands, after the Beatles and the Stones, to take everyone's favorite decade by storm with hits like the epoch-defining "My Generation" -- a record whose DNA can be traced through garage rock, heavy metal and punk -- "Substitute" and "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Unlike the pop-tastic Beatles or the more derivative R&B-influenced Stones, the Who embraced teenage delinquency, Mod-ish hooliganism and art school attitude to create a swaggering style that was all their own. They can also claim to have invented many of the totemic myths of rock 'n' roll -- smashed up guitars, Cadillacs in swimming pools and trashed hotel rooms.

And they're still going strong more than four decades later? What happened to dying before they got old?

Drummer Keith Moon, the archetypal wild man of rock, just about managed it when he overdosed on pills he was taking to stop him drinking in 1978 at the age of 32. But, although the band hadn't made an album since 1982's "It's Hard," they have continued to tour regularly ever since their heyday. Bassist John Entwistle also bowed out in a style befitting his band's reputation when he was found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2002 following a cocaine-induced heart attack.

So not so much "Who's Next" as Who's left?

Entwistle's death reduced the band to the original creative partnership that had always been its core, with guitarist Pete Townshend writing the songs and giving them their distinctive power chord-driven riffs and Roger Daltrey providing muscular vocals and stage-stomping showmanship. The two of them are back on the road once again, beginning a 15-month world tour to promote new album, "Endless Wire."

So is "Endless Wire" more "Pinball Wizard" or "Boris the Spider"?

Unsurprisingly, coming from the man who virtually invented the rock opera with "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia," Townsend steers hard left to the pretentious end of the pop spectrum and resolutely stays there. The climax of "Endless Wire" is a 10-track mini-opera called "Wire and Glass," the story of a multi-faith pop trio who aim -- and ultimately fail -- to bring the world together through music. Other songs consider the destiny of Judas ("2000 Years") and being transfixed by the eyes of a suicide bomber shortly before they blow themselves up ("Black Widow's Eyes").

What do the critics make of it?

Rolling Stone magazine liked it, hailing it as an album worthy of comparison with the band's best work: "Daltrey and Townshend have made a record as brazen in its way and right for its day as 'The Who Sell Out' and 'Tommy' were in theirs." But Townshend's pompousness, revealed at its worse in the album's copious sleeve notes, seems to have rubbed some of them up the wrong way. The Observer newspaper described "Endless Wire" as "a concept-heavy album whose complexities hamstring it at every turn." And the Guardian complained "there's also a lot of hoary, old-geezer rock that sounds labored."

Still, most agreed that as a closure on the Who's career rather than as a new beginning, the album succeeds on its own terms. "Part exorcism, part quixotic attempt to raise the bar for rock's modern day songwriters, 'Endless Wire' serves as an accomplished sonic full-stop for the band," concluded Uncut magazine.

What about the kids? Surely they're not excited about a couple of old men?

The kid's are alright... but they're probably more interested in Pete Doherty's drugs problems than Pete Townshend's hearing problems (four decades of crunching power chords having taken their toll on the old boy's ears). Still, if it wasn't for the Who where would the Libertines and their like be today?


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The Who's Roger Daltrey (left) and Pete Townshend -- 42 years in the business.

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