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WHO RETROSPECTIVE TAKES IT TO THE MAX

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Long ago - in an age when most everyone had 8-track tape decks in their cars, if you can envision so distant a time - I bought my first cassette recorder. I'd gone mad over rock and pop, singles and albums and wanted to string favorite songs together on cassettes according to my own eccentric whims. My friends seemed to enjoy, or at least put up with, most of these concoctions, but good old A.K. (we really called him A.K.) would chuckle whenever a song by the Who came over the speakers, at home or in my car.

"Ah ha!" he said more than once, with that laugh in his voice. "I was wondering when the song by the Who would turn up."The Who was my favorite group. A.K. was right: Just about every tape had a Who tune. I couldn't get enough of Pete Townshend's dual guitars - the acoustic strumming on the left speaker, the electric crackling like thunder on the right - in the instrumental prelude to the "Pinball Wizard" single. I thought "The Who Sell Out" an inspired mix of rock and humor (Roger Daltrey in a tub of beans on the album cover didn't hurt). "Tommy" was epic and epochal, "Who's Next" a progressive masterpiece.

Fast-forward to the present: In a year with a bumper crop of boxed-set retrospectives, the Who's "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B" was the one I couldn't live without. The four-CD set isn't your ordinary recitation of hits and favorite bits, rife as it is with oddities and rarities. Diehard fans will get a kick out of the diversity; others, though, may find some selections unfamiliar and jarring.

Live tracks are sprinkled throughout. A few, such as the early mini rock-operetta "A Quick One, While He's Away," even splice live and studio versions into one. Radio and studio chatter abound, along with a few concert dialogue outtakes. Songs on the last disc are separated by Monty Pythonesque humor, including a mock poetry reading and two segments of "Life With the Moons," the late drummer Keith Moon hamming it up as if he's the star of a BBC situation comedy.

Among the rare cuts are songs from the Who's early incarnation as the High Numbers; previously unreleased studio-quality performances like singer Daltrey's 1967 vocal "Early Morning Cold Taxi"; a cover of the Rolling Stones' "(This Could Be) The Last Time"; a second part to "Rael," a "Tommy" precursor; and non-album singles like "Dogs," "The Seeker," "Let's See Action" and "The Relay."

The 72-page color booklet is pretty good, with a fascinating but somewhat profane introduction by Townshend in one of his anecdotal stream-of-consciousness modes (the profanity matching the equally rough live opening to the set, with Townshend exploding before an unruly audience). The song-by-song annotations, though, could have been more informative.

But "Thirty Years of Maximum R&B" - the title refers to an early promotional description of the band that, when you think about it, accurately reflects their all-out mid-'60s attack - is a fine retrospective.

It gives us a chance to marvel at the wild chemistry of Townshend, Daltrey, Moon and innovative bassist John Entwistle. We can admire the instincts while cringing a little at the silliness of "A Quick One" and "Happy Jack," a sense of humor that evolved into the wry cleverness of better songs like "I Can See for Miles" and "Tattoo." We can admire the facility of a band that could show a gentle side on "Sunrise" and "Pure and Easy" yet roar with irony and barely repressed anger on "Won't Get Fooled Again."

That brazen individualism, that hint of rebellion, that attitude saying I'm-going-to-see-it-my-way-right-or-wrong was part of the Who from the beginning. It's there on "My Generation" in 1965, on "The Seeker" in 1970, on "Who Are You" in 1978.

"Nothing gets in my way, not even locked doors," Townshend wrote and Daltrey sang with a slur three decades ago, "I don't follow the lines that've been laid before. I get along any way I dare, anyway, anyhow, anywhere."

Such songs could even serve as the secret themes of milquetoast suburban kids like me.