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Oct 16 2010

Popular Culture 20101015. The Who. A Quick One While He’s Away

It seems that I get the most response from this series, which I enjoy writing immensely.  However, entertainment is sort of trivial compared to science, so I urge everyone to read the series about science and technology that I post on Sunday evenings, Pique the Geek.  No matter.  The Who are one the most important bands to release music, and I am glad to write about them.

I suspect that many of you will not recognize this excellent piece of music, since it was first released in 1966, before The Who became a sensation with the release of Tommy in 1969.  However, Pete Townshend always called it the parent of Tommy, and I think that it is just wonderful.

To make my point about how much influence that The Who have had in popular music, I have included several covers that many consider to be important bands these days.  Many of those are good, but no one could do it better than The Who did in the day, or even later.  In case you do not know, I will give you a lineup of the band from the first video.

The original studio version was never released as a single or as an EP (ask if you do not know about EPs).  Rather, it was released in the UK in December of 1966 on the vinyl album named, interesting enough, A Quick One. The US agents did not like the suggestive title, and chose to release essentially the same album with the title Happy Jack in May of 1967.  In addition to losing the suggestive title, the single Happy Jack was a pretty big hit in America, so they made the business decision to link them.  Since Happy Jack was on the album, it made some sense.

This one is from the rarely seen The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, from 1968.  Notice that Keith Richards himself introduces The Who.  This may just be the very best live performance of A Quick One, While He’s Away ever done, although the one from the record Live at Leeds is also excellent.  On the far left is John Entwistle, arguably the very best rock bass guitar player who ever lived.  If Sir Paul, another very good bass player, is reading this, I suspect that he would agree.  Even if he does not, I would love to hear from him as to why not.

Of course, Roger Daltry with curly blond hair is the lead singer, and Peter Townshend is the one with the guitar in his hands.  This particular piece does a good job of getting Keith Moon’s face in the picture, along with Entwistle.  Most of the videos just have Townshend and Daltry in them for the most part, and those omissions fail to capture the full flavor of The Who.  My metaphor is that Moon was the soul of the band, Townshend the brain, Daltry the voice, and Enwistle the glue that held them together.  After Moon died in 1978, they lost their soul, and never really got it back.  They also lost their sound and did not regain it until the brilliant Zak Starkey semiofficially joined the band.  Interestingly, Zak is the son of Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr.  Moon used to visit and help Zak put puzzles together and play with him when Zak was just little.  He was like an uncle, but not Ernie.  Those of you familiar with Tommy will get this little joke.  Interestingly, Entwistle wrote Uncle Ernie and sang it on the original record, but Moon did play him in the movie.

None other that Keith Richards introduces them, and they do a WONDERFUL job with the song.  Note the good video of both Enwistle and Moon, often neglected when people filmed them performing.  Just as a thought, have any of us EVER been that young?

This was not the first iteration of A Quick One.  The original is on a vinyl album is I already indicated.  It has a charm that the live versions do not have, but the live ones “rock” a bit more.  By the way, if you listen to A Prairie Home Companion, the background music for the cowboy segment bears a suspicious resemblance “We’ll Soon be Home.”  

Here is the story behind it.  Kit Lambert (their producer) wanted Pete to write songs that would top the charts, to make the band, and especially  Kit, money.  Pete was getting tired of writing what he called “a story in two minutes 30”, and wanted to do something more serious.  He finally agreed to write something that could be sort of disassembled to make one or more hits.  Thus it came to be.  Kit was a pretty good producer, and loved the money.  Pete and Kit came to actual fighting later, and The Who left him with hard feelings.  As far as I know, they never made up and Kit fell down a staircase to his death in an alcoholic trance several years later.  Kit also had a narcotics addiction, but in the end it seems that it was the alcohol that finished him.

The genius of Kit Lambert can not be overemphasized.  The band had had a few fairly minor hits with Peter Meadon and Shel Talmy, but neither of them had the drive that Lambert did.  Actually, he was looking to make a film about new bands and recognized the potential.  He knew how to make that band perform at the top of their ability.  Without Lambert, The Who would have been relegated to the dustbin of rock.  He was the hammer that forged them into a real power.  Later, they sort of self produced (although they always credited producers), but at the time the band were babes in the woods insofar and real musical production went.

But in 1967, Kit and the band were rocking.  They released I Can See for Miles, one of the very best songs that Pete ever wrote, still their biggest chart topper in the US.  Pete actually had written it a couple of years earlier, and kept it in his hip pocket for the proverbial rainy day, since he was sure that it would be a really big hit.  It was finally released on the following record album, The Who Sell Out, which is one of the very first concept albums.

Unfortunately, none of the individual songs in A Quick One were big chart toppers, but the work in toto is wonderful.  Most people who are not really huge fans of the band do not realize that their choral work, especially in the early days, was outstanding.  One of the finest examples of this appears in the opening lines, “Her man’s been gone for nearly a year…”.  All four of them were singing, in perfect harmony.  Pete’s writing obviously had a lot to do with that, but it goes even deeper.  Three of the four actually could sing very well, but Moon had an extremely limited range.  Pete wrote later that Moon had the sweetest voice in the band, but that his range was so limited that he (Pete) has to write very carefully so that Keith could actually hit the notes.

Drummers and usually not known for singing.  Off of the top of my head, the only drummer who became lead singer was from Genesis, after their lead singer left.  Peter Gabriel, their first singer quit the band and Phil Collins took over the vocals for the most part.  My editor reminded me the Levon Helm also fill the bill.

I guess that I am getting extremely analytical, but that is the nature of The Geek.  Thus, we shall examine the entire work in some detail.

It starts with the choral work, and then there is Pete on guitar with the opening licks.  Then there is a little more choral work, and Daltry starts to sing the story.  Enwistle and Moon also begin to play, and the whole thing begins to, well, rock.  It is the setup for the whole thing, and talks about how the girls on a particular street were well known as being “easy”, and more than a little inviting.  The setup is a little vague, but later movements indicate that one of those little girls was lonely because her boyfriend was away from her.

In this movement, called “We Have a Remedy”, her hopeful lover tries to convince her that he would do anything to get her and her boyfriend together again.  Obviously he has ulterior motives, but he is persistent.  Written in very optimistic and encouraging themes, it seems that her resistance is, if not gone, wearing down quickly.

The next movement, “Ivor the Engine Driver” allows us to see who is trying to seduce the girl.  He tells her that he knows her boyfriend very well, and that neither he or her boyfriend would ever lie to her, and then asks her to “have a smile for an old engine driver”, certainly a reference to a locomotive engineer.  Evidently she submits, but this comes later.  The brilliance of this piece is the almost supernatural drumming by Keith, using his cymbals to imitate a steam powered train’s sound.  That was Kit Lambert’s idea.  Keith almost never used a high hat (he hated them), but I think that I have at least one very early clip showing him using one.

The next movement, “He’ll Soon be Home”, is almost country and western.  This is the one that is so reminiscent to the tune used by Garrison Keillor for The Lives of the Cowboys segment for background music in A Prairie Home Companion to this day.  In my way of thinking, it combines the thoughts and longings of both principals of the story, each of them longing to be back with the person that he or she loves.

The last movement, “Reunion”, is just hard to describe.  Incidentally, I am writing these words at the same instant that the first Chilean miner was brought safely to the surface after over two months’ confinement.  The words, “I can’t believe it!  Do my eyes deceive me?  Am I back in your arms?  Safe away from all harm!  It’s like a dream to be with you again!….”  I think that the scene from the news could be an excellent candidate for that part of the work.  But it does get a little darker on the song.

It turns out that the female DID have relations with Ivor.  Interestingly, Ivor was the only named character in the whole work.  But there is also forgiveness.  After she confesses to him that she had been unfaithful, he sort of implies that he a had also had been, but then the song sort of develops into a post modern doowop, with “Cello, cello, cello…” starting it.  As it finishes, they both forgive each other (although I have not been able to find the second, personal forgiveness statement except on the studio original) and, I suppose, live happily ever after.

Well, that is my explication of the work.  It only occupies around seven to nine minutes (depending on the version), but it stimulated Pete to write Tommy, and many other great works.  Without Kit Lambert, none of the music that we take for granted now would have been possible, because he made The Who into the band that we now remember.  The next time that you lift a glass, think about Kit, Keith, and John.

Here are a few videos that I found to be nice renditions of them, in no particular order.  The first one is from the Monterrey Pop festival in California in 1968.  Note that both Pete and John were using Fender instruments.  I can not make out the brand of Keith’s drums, so anyone with better knowledge would be welcome in a comment.  He liked Premier drums, but I do not think that those are Premiers.  I assume that they were still using Marshall amplifiers in this era.

Here is the original studio version.  Note that with the advantage of the technology at the time (probably eight tracks of feed, but possibly more), it was possible to overlay both voice and instrumental tracks.  At the time, it was still all analogue and on what we would now call very crude tape.  The result was a more polished, if not as raw, sound as on the live renditions.  I like this very much.  I am sorry that no video is available, and I am not sure that any even were taken at the studio.  This version is the one that I first loved, and still do.  I hope that you like it as much as do I.

The version from the concert at Leeds is excellent.  Sorry, no video, but you can hear that they got a bit more sharp with it, and since no multiple tracking was possible, it was just the four of them.  This was before they started touring with musicians to fill in the voids of their studio work, particularly keyboard work.  Please enjoy.

I really like that take on the song.  But it is more important than just for them.  It is possible to argue that this was the very first “rock opera”, if one exists, and that it was the germ of the idea for the “concept album”, and those certainly do exist.  I am not alone in thinking that this is a masterful work.  Look at a few who have covered this.

How about Green Day?  They were pretty popular, and this short clip was all that I could find.  They did a pretty good version, as well as I can tell.

Now, if this were not important to other bands, why would Eddie Vedder whilst playing with My Morning Jacket play it?  And they did a pretty good take, very faithful to the original.  I appreciate them for that.

There have even videos that try to play it out without any particular band showing.  This one is typical, and not too bad.

There are many more covers, and many more versions from The Who.  I shall leave you with this one, fairly recent by Pete himself, on acoustic guitar.  It is nice.  I do not who the ladies around him are, but that is of no consequence.

It is interesting that his voice is sort of degraded, but his guitar is perfect.  Thus are the tolls that the years take on one.  He is lucky to be alive, considering the era that he not only endured, but helped to form.

Well, I guess that this is all about this topic for now.  I hope that the many minutes listening to the music to which I have linked add, rather than detract, from your life experience.  In mine, The Who have added much more than they have detracted.  If I get enough encouragement, I shall write about some of their other earlier material next week.

The Who have contributed significantly to the genre of rock and roll.  I believe that the test of time will look favorably on them, as it will on several other bands and individuals.  I suspect that those music services that offer Bach, Beethoven, and the like will include The Who in their offerings a century from now, except that everything is now online and for free.

Please feel free to contribute video or sound clips that you have found that pertain to this topic.  I would ask that you limit it to A Quick One, because there is so much material that we can get off topic very quickly.  I appreciate your input.

Warmest regards,

Doc

Crossposted at Docudharma.com and at Dailykos.com

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