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Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Who: A Quick One

THE WHO: A QUICK ONE (1966)

1) Run Run Run; 2) Boris The Spider; 3) I Need You; 4) Whiskey Man; 5) Heatwave; 6) Cobwebs And Strange; 7) Don't Look Away; 8) See My Way; 9) So Sad About Us; 10) A Quick One, While He's Away; 11*) Batman; 12*) Bucket T; 13*) Barbara Ann; 14*) Disguises; 15*) Doctor, Doctor; 16*) I've Been Away; 17*) In The City; 18*) Happy Jack (acoustic version); 19*) Man With Money; 20*) My Generation / Land Of Hope And Glory.

The Who's second attempt at staking a solid claim on the LP market ended up even less convin­cing than the first. While they did secure some personal and (questionably) financial freedom by cutting ties with Shel Talmy and negotiating a new contract with the aid of the Kit Lambert / Chris Stamp managing team, this happened under an extremely bizarre condition — namely, that each member of the band should contribute to the songwriting on an equal level. Apparently, Lambert thought of this as a financially beneficial strategy, and it may have put a bit of good money in the individual pockets of the four band members at the time; but in the long run, it only made sure that A Quick One would remain of The Who's most inconsistent (and, in spots, even em­barrassing) albums, at least in the Keith Moon era.

Do not get me wrong: it is still a fine LP, and the goofiness of the concept adds a certain naïve charm to the experience as a whole, one that you will never find on later, Townshend-dominated packages. And the approach did result in at least one excellent consequence — it stimulated John Entwistle into beginning to write songs and establishing a unique style that would later be ex­plored in depth both on The Who's and his own solo records. On the other hand, forcing Daltrey and Moon to write songs was the clear equivalent of making a legless person climb a pine tree: while listening to ʽI Need Youʼ and ʽSee My Wayʼ, I do not so much hear actual music as feel the sharp nervous pain experienced by both when trying to put this stuff together. And, even worse, the process seems to rub off on Townshend, since he was definitely not contributing his best efforts to the LP, either, mostly saving them up for several great singles.

On the whole, the album ended up surprisingly lighter and poppier in tone than My Generation. Throughout, there is not a single «monster noise» track like ʽThe Oxʼ, or even a properly noisy coda or mid-section — Pete still uses plenty of power chords, fuzz, and feedback, but only as extra melodic elements rather than chaos generators. There is, in fact, only one properly aggres­sive and abrasive song — the album opener ʽRun Run Runʼ, whose somber stomp is slightly re­miniscent of ʽMy Generationʼ, but whose message is more akin to The Beatles' ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ, albeit wrapped in slightly more intricate wording ("your horseshoe's rusty and your mirror's cracked / you walk under ladders, then you walk right back" is Lennon's syntax crossed with Dylan's lexicon). As a sidenote, the song has nothing to do with The Velvet Underground's ʽRun Run Runʼ, but both tunes do share the grim one-string vamp structure that, perhaps, simply brings on inevitable associations with run-run-running. And it is fun, but it ain't ʽMy Generationʼ.

Pete is being even more lightweight on ʽDon't Look Awayʼ, a rare excourse into folk-rock, if not country-rock, for him (another subconscious nod to Rubber Soul, perhaps?) — a catchy, but fairly throwaway tune on the whole; and ʽSo Sad About Usʼ, the album's only acknowledged Townshend semi-classic, seems to be a little too worshipful of The Kinks (in their pre-Face To Face songwriting stage) — to be honest, I have never been much of a fan of this tune, just be­cause it feels strained and suppressed to the kind of simplistic pop formula that Townshend had already outgrown at this point. (Odd enough, this is a rare case where I prefer the cover versions: both The Jam and The Breeders did slightly sped-up, tightened-up covers on which they sound more dedicated to the material than Pete and Roger seem to be on the original). Plus, the bridge section of the song really sucks — seems like they threw together the key change and the clumsy lyrical skeleton in about thirty seconds, and the line "you can't switch off my loving like you can't switch off the sun" is mega-corny for Pete even in 1966. It is allegedly Paul Weller's favorite Who song, though, so what do I know? So bad about us!

In any case, in the Great Inter-Who Songwriting Competition of 1966, Pete Townshend is only awarded second place after the silent John "Ox" Entwistle. Introduction of dark humor and creepy absurdity into pop music had only just begun, and luckily, John was just the kind of guy to whom the perspective of writing a simple (or even a complex) love song did not really appeal as much as the perspective of writing one song about a spooky spider and another one about delirium tremens. His spiritual predecessors in this whacky business include Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Bobby ʽBorisʼ Pickett, but John's big advantage was being a professional and innovative bass player, which sort of made him the obvious choice for the band's mascot-of-macabre — plus, he had a poker face attitude, and nothing could be more helpful when singing about ʽBoris The Spiderʼ. Of course, ʽBorisʼ is essentially a spooky kid song, but that does not prevent it from being innovative in the bass department — John's rumbling, sinister descending riff is another small step in rock's evolution toward heavy metal. In addition, ʽBorisʼ gives us Entwistle's full range, from the falsetto of "creepy crawly, creepy crawly" to the pharyngeal depths of "Boris the spider, Boris the spider!", so throw in a bit of amazing showmanship as well.

Next to the ubiquitous ʽBorisʼ, which went on to become a stage favorite (hundreds of imaginary spiders named Boris were fictitiously hunted, maimed, and trampled on stage over the years), ʽWhisky Manʼ remained practically forgotten, because it is a comparatively quiet little pop song, yet it also has its share of fun and sorrow, and, most importantly, introduces the French horn as a secondary favorite instrument for Entwistle — he may have never learned to play it in as virtuoso a manner as he played the bass, but he had a knack, from the very start, to extract impressive melodic content from it. You can already hear faint echoes of Tommy's overture in his slightly «Eastern raga-meets-Siegfried»-style horn lines, which end up to be one of the artsiest flourishes on the entire album. As to the lyrical content of the song, I would not take it too seriously: in 1966, the band's problems with alcohol were not that great yet, so ʽWhisky Manʼ is more of a darkly humorous tidbit in good old British style than a truly autobiographical representation. It would go on to become autobiographical for at least two members of the band, though.

Next to the somewhat slacking Pete and the unexpectedly enthusiastic and original John, the less said about the con­tributions of Moon and Daltrey, the better. At least Roger had the good sense to restrict himself to one composition: ʽSee My Wayʼ is a very poor attempt to write something in the semi-meditative style of The Beatles circa 1965-66, and would end up being one of only two songs he'd ever written for The Who completely on his own. Moon's ʽI Need Youʼ is even worse, although that one is at least curious for its novel character — Keith actually trying his hand at a sentimental love song? during a short break in between stuffing cherry bombs in toilets, no doubt. He must be complimented on diligently trying to go for a verse, bridge, and chorus structure with a powerful build-up, but ultimately the powerful build-up remains squarely dependent on his drumming force rather than the song's melody. Much more Keith-like is ʽCobwebs And Strangeʼ, a drunken-elephant circus romp that is best taken with the accompanying video (fortunately pre­served in its entirety in The Kids Are Alright) — an accurate enough illustration of Keith's friend­ly destructive force, but little else.

So far, we have seen some boring and some fairly successful entertainment value in A Quick One (including, among other things, a mighty fine cover of Martha & The Vandellas' ʽHeat­waveʼ, with surprisingly effective and tuneful falsetto harmonies that totally rival the original), but not a lot of substance. That substance might theoretically be expected from seeing a nine-minute track round out the second side of the album — but while ʽA Quick One While He's Awayʼ may have been a musically and lyrically groundbreaking composition for 1966, time has not been very kind to it: its multi-section structure became routine in the wake of the art-/prog-rock explosion, and its storyline — the silly tale of a housewife seducted by an «engine driver» — may have been somewhat titillating in the still somewhat innocent 1966, but today the story is not even very funny, just a bit of bad, clumsy comedy.

That said, from the purely musical side ʽA Quick Oneʼ is a daring and entertaining creation, although, like so many other Who songs, it truly came to life on stage — arguably the finest version I have heard to this day is their performance in The Rolling Stones Rock'n'Roll Circus, where the overall environment was perfect for a bit of dazzling vaudeville, and The Who turned up the amps, tightened up the riffs, and gave the show of a lifetime (better, I think, than on the Live At Leeds version, where the song was played more like an obligatory prelude to Tommy and was ever so slightly sloppier). Still, even on the studio version the creativity is admirable: all the different sections are played in different styles, from pure pop to a bit of ska to a bit of Roy Rogers-style country-western (the "soon be home" section) to the grand finale where, unable to hire themselves a chamber orchestra for better effect, they ended up singing "cello cello cello" instead, and whose "you are forgiven" section is like Beethoven for pop toddlers.

Not that Who fans expected anything like that at the time, I think — and it is not so much the issue of a multi-part nine-minute suite as is the ostentatiously pop nature of the album. In fact, 1966 marked an important stylistic split in The Who's creativity: with My Generation, they tried to bridge their studio activities with their live shows, but starting with A Quick One, The Who live and The Who in the studio would essentially be two different bands for the rest of their lives, and especially for most of the Sixties (it was not until Who's Next that the bridge was brought back, and even then only tentatively). And A Quick One was almost shamelessly poppy; but this actually reflected Townshend's changing attitudes toward pop art, in whose lightness, humor, and relative freedom-from-conventions he saw — at least, pretended to see — something approaching true progress at the time. This conception would not reach its peak until late 1967, though; in 1966, The Who still seemed too dazed and confused about their transformation from Shel Talmy pet dogs into posh artsy trendsetters under Kit Lambert's creative directorship.

Modern CD editions of the album come with a slew of bonus tracks, yet end up omitting the classic string of 1966 singles that pretty much obliterated anything on the album — ʽHappy Jackʼ (there is an alternate acoustic take here, though), ʽSubstituteʼ, and ʽI'm A Boyʼ still have to be purchased separately on hit compilations, such as the classic Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy, or later best-of packages. I do not think that it is a sound decision, but at least the bonus section does a good job of collecting various B-sides and other rarities that should never ever be forgotten (this is the goddamn Who in their liveliest years we're talking about — every sound bite is priceless). In this particular case, what we have is arguably the single best version of the ʽBatmanʼ theme found on record (the theme is all about its thunderous bass line, and who'd handle thunderous bass lines better than The Ox?); a couple of hilarious covers from the early Sixties (ʽBucket Tʼ, with another endearing passage on that French horn; ʽBarbara Annʼ, a particular favorite of Keith Moon's that The Who perform with less pure vocal harmonies than The Beach Boys, but far more kick-ass energy); and at least one perennial classic — Entwistle's ʽDoctor Doctorʼ, which I honest­ly think is his single most underrated song in the entire catalog. It's got all the pizzazz of ʽRun Run Runʼ (fast tempo, chugging bassline, nasty feedback pops from Pete's guitar) plus some of the most hilarious lyrics you ever get to hear in 1966, yet just as relevant for some people (I'm sure we have all met characters like that in our life) these days.

Even the bonus tracks, though, are almost universally jocular and sarcastic: the stuttering semi-psychedelic B-side ʽDisguisesʼ is just about the only exception, and it seems to be trying a little too hard to emulate the slow, lazy, hazy style of Beatles songs like ʽRainʼ (at this point Pete would probably start throwing rocks at me, since he'd spent a large part of 1966 trying to explain to fans and journalists that The Beatles really weren't where it was at). But they are all fun, catchy songs, proving that the pop idiom was not at all out of reach of The Who — in particular, their attempts at adapting the style of The Beach Boys (ʽIn The Cityʼ) were moderately successful, and with three capable and one tone-deaf (Keith) singers in the band, they achieved impressive suc­cess in the art of multi-part vocal harmonies, far more than could generally be expected of a band that seemed to place loudness, noise, and reckless experimentation before everything else at the start of their career.

So what would be the final verdict? From a purely «objective» stance, A Quick One should be considered a failure — too much pop, too many strange contributions from invalid songwriters, and a nine-minute mini-rock opera that turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for much more ambitious and profound things to come. I do not think that many will disagree with the obvious: in the big creative album race of 1966, The Who lost to the other biggies (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Beach Boys, Dylan, etc.) fair and square. Yet the band's talents, multiplied by the overall magic of the year 1966, still ensure that A Quick One is a fun listen — the most lightweight The Who ever got, but for some people, this might actually be preferable to the «heavyweight» Who of Tommy and particularly the post-1970 period. Subtract one or two really weak songs, throw in the hilarious bunch of bonus tracks (even a bizarre take on ʽMy Generationʼ that segues into a quaky-wobbly ʽLand Of Hope And Gloryʼ), and you are set for a fun roller coaster ride populated with spiders named Boris, engine drivers named Ivor, whiskey men, cobwebs, and strange. No matter how serious life is, there should always be a moment left for a quick one, and the album is such an important link in The Who's evolution anyway that thumbs up are still guaranteed.

4 comments:

  1. Nah, just weak. Yes, much potential here and there, yes, the dark humor is beginning to show up and, yes, the mini pop opera is a hell of thing for 1966 but overall the album feels like a collection of odds and ends.

    The tracks considered to be highlights here just don't cut it for me. 'Run run run' is just a, well, run run run of the mill by Townshend's standards, 'Boris the Spider', innovative as it might be, always lacked a true melody for me and the title 'track' was executed live much, VERY MUCH better.

    Easily worst The Who's album for me, and yes I get my kicks from certain 'It's Hard' tracks.

    Love the 'Heatwave' cover, though. Prefer it to any other versions out there for some reason. So tight and fun.

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  2. Some fun moments, to be sure, but this is easily the worst album the Who did while Keith Moon was alive - possibly beyond that. I certainly have no problem with the Who going "pop" - indeed, I think Pete was always something of a pop songwriter - but most of the album just isn't up to snuff on even those terms. That it sounds pretty awful too doesn't help matters much either.

    The worst part about it, though, is that this came out in 1966! It doesn't just lose to the "other biggies" but is utterly obliterated by them. Put Pet Sounds, Revolver, Blonde and Blonde or Aftermath on and give this a spin to see just how big of a gulf there was between the Who in '66 and the others.

    Ah well, at least this slump didn't last long - and, as you say, was more than made up for by the brilliant singles they released at the time. Substitute may just be my favourite Who single of the sixties and that's really saying something!

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    1. Yeah, actually I always considered Pete to be a really good pop songwriter. Great hooks, great musical ideas, very appealing. The stuff on 'A Quick One' is better described as 'lightweight' or 'half-assed'.

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  3. I was under the impression that a Quick one was auto biographical & was about PT being molested as a boy , not a comedy song at all , you are forgiven for getting this wrong of course.

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