This article originally appeared in Issue 10 of Crawdaddy in June, 1967
A year and a half ago, the Who put out an album called The Who Sings My Generation (Decca DL 4664). It was a brilliant thing with exceptional vocals, excellent original tunes, and, above all, the Who’s wholly original instrumental sound. The album was revolutionary then and is revolutionary now. There isn’t an American drummer playing with a major group who can touch Keith Moon‘s hard, staggered, choppy style of playing, running right through the record. Nor is there an American guitarist who has shown as full an understanding of the function of rock chording as did the Who’s genius-in-residence, Pete Townshend. “My Generation,” the lead song of the album, was pure guts. Its instrumental coda represents the most advanced concept yet recorded of the whole “raving” style. The schizoid imagery that the instruments create in their interweaving with the vocal justifies, for once, the label of “psychedelic.”
After such an auspicious beginning for the group, those having the good fortune to have stumbled across their first album eagerly awaited a second. But alas, it was not to be. Even while the group cranked out English number ones without end, contractual disputes and an indifferent and uninformed audience were burying them in the United States. In the last six months this has all begun to change. Problems with Decca have been patched up—the label is firmly behind the group, management problems have been resolved by bringing Brian Epstein into the picture, and the icy American audience has begun to melt under the impress of “Happy Jack.”
The release of a new Who album, named after the recent hit, should therefore be reason for celebration. Happily, it is, although the Who of Happy Jack are clearly not the Who of DL 4664. They have metamorphosed with the best of them, and the changes are vast. In fact, the new Who are really a contradiction of the first order. Onstage the group is still famed for its uninhibited exhibitionism and its instrument destruction tactics in which, via various gimmicks, one is led to believe that the world is coming to an end. The first album did much to recreate this state of affairs on a disc. But listening to Happy Jack after being familiar with the Who’s live antics, and the first album, one is apt to be surprised. Happy Jack is an almost arty and, for the Who, restrained affair. It emphasizes the group’s rare talents in the areas of self-editing (a lost art if there ever was one), humor, lyricism, and other things which one doesn’t generally expect to find in the wilder groups. The more extroverted side of the group is, in fact, played down.
In contrast to the frenetic Who of the earlier album, the Who of Happy Jack are basically sane. Fortunately they continue to avoid the eclectic and esoteric, both lyrically and instrumentally. They never were proponents of the view that the incomprehensible and the beautiful are synonymous, nor did they ever see it as their purpose to represent the meaninglessness of reality in their instrumental arrangements. Rather, the Who, even in their wildest moments, are a fantastically controlled group that never hesitates in coming straight to the point. They refuse to hide behind obscurity, and consequently are infinitely more brazen than many groups whose brazenness is only skin deep. Their sense of humor expresses a more concise understanding of the real than many groups do with endless instrumentals and pseudo lyricism. The Who have, in fact, wielded a dynamism out of their sense of humor coupled with their sense of the real that has become the recognizable Who approach.
The new album illustrates this dynamism to perfection. In its ten songs the Who run the gamut from complete and utter hysteria to some very thoughtful social commentary. In between is some good-humored, old-fashioned hard rock, complete with clichéd lyrics and some very imaginative arrangements.
Within the context of this aesthetic formula, namely, the synthesis of the comic and the sane, each Who shows a slightly different orientation, each writing his own songs. Pete Townshend, lead guitarist, wrote most of the songs on the first album and has written five of the ten on this one. The opening cut of the album, his “Run, Run, Run,” is the only one that sounds like old
Who. The song is done beautifully by lead vocalist Roger Daltrey (“like James Bond he drives an Aston Martin,” the liner notes inform us), and has the only example of Who feedback techniques on the album; but even so, the tune is really an anachronism in the context of the rest of Happy Jack. If nothing else, however, “Run, Run, Run” raises an interesting question in terms of recording practices. The Who are a four-man group with only three regular instrumentalists (Daltrey dabbles on the piano). When the group is recording, however, they are not averse to double-tracking rhythm instruments. (Cream does the same thing.) On “Run,” up to the instrumental there doesn’t appear to be a second guitar. But as Townshend goes into the solo, a guitar continues to play the chord pattern which was going on during the vocals. The rest of the cut continues with what l assume is a second, double-tracked guitar. This observation isn’t intended as a criticism but simply as a reassurance to lead guitarists everywhere
who may have been wondering whether Townshend is human.
“Don’t Look Away” and “So Sad About Us” are two other Townshend pieces, both of which sound a little like the Byrds. They feature three-part harmony, some wonderfully clichéd lyrics (“Sad that the news is out now / Sad that we can’t turn back now / So sad about us”), and amazingly right drumming. Moon loves to throw out cymbal crashes and offbeats at unexpected moments, to excellent effect. He and Townshend, who here exhibits his brilliant chording style (the only other major rock chordists are Jim McGuinn and Eric Clapton, the latter especially on the live side of Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds), work together as if they were both the same person. Townshend scratches his chorus, muffles his strings, or lets the chord stand out full depending on what Moon is doing—-the result being a perfectly unified guitar/drum sound that can’t help but make you feel happy even while the lyrics tell you to feel sad.
In between “So Sad” and “Don’t Look Away” is Roger Daltrey’s only song, not an especially good one, called “See My Way.” Moon continues to run away with it, while the rest of the group turns a mediocre tune into a first-rate cut. The problem here is that the song hasn’t much of either the Who’s comedy or their sanity, and as a result becomes a little too much like the more arrogant Stones, a pose which is unnatural for the Who. In contrast to Daltrey, bassist John Alec Entwistle’s two songs are easily as good as Townshend’s usual material. Entwistle is not too far removed from a perverse social commentary bag, which is fine with me because he avoids sophistry, facile moralizing, and the other pitfalls of socially conscious songwriting. “Boris the
Spider,” which hits as a hysterical bit of sadomasochism the first time around, turns out to be a reverence-for-life spiel, according to this interpretation, and its main point of emphasis becomes Entwhistle’s remarkably vivid account of Boris’s death, and his tremendous empathy for the killer (sure, and “Mustang Sally” is really a protest song against traffic speeding). “Whiskey
Man,” John Alec’s other tune, is a bit more serious, and really is in a social vein. Few groups are capable of creating instrumental patterns which so capture the feeling of a song’s lyrics as the Who do in this instance. The whole imagery of the hallucinated whiskey man who is wasting away because Entwhistle can no longer visit him is portrayed perfectly. On both cuts the Who’s sense of the real predominates, although in the first case it takes a comic form, and in the second a serious one.
Keith Moon‘s opus is very different from the work of the other Whos. It’s an instrumental called “Cobwebs and Strange” which is sheer hysteria, and which demonstrates just how much can be done with a very simple musical idea. Check especially Entwhistle’s marvelous horn work on the cut. And notice also the fantastic precision with which this seemingly chaotic number is performed. It is the height of the Who‘s brand of insane sanity. If the Who’s ideas are simple, their performance, their follow-through, does tend to get a little complex. This is clearly the case in Townshend’s two major works, “Happy Jack” and “A Quick One.” “Happy Jack,” who ‘when the kids would all sing, would sing out-of-key, but who couldn’t be prevented from being happy,” is the definitive statement of the Who’s three-instrument approach. On it they show that they can create more exciting and tasteful rock without ever playing a lead part than most groups do with the most virtuoso of instrumentalists blasting forth. Townshend plays exactly three chords for a whole thirty-second spot and, with the help of the other Whos, makes more interesting music than a Mike Bloomfield extravaganza or a whole “Viola Lee Blues.” The complexity in performance is in the attempt to make very little say a whole lot, something that is harder to do than making a whole lot say a whole lot.
But even “Happy Jack” must yield before one other—”A Quick One.“ This sad tale of a young lady whose “man has been gone for nigh on a year, due home yesterday, but he ain’t here,” and who then encounters a remedy for her severe depression, namely one Ivor, the engine driver, who informs the young lady that “you’ll come round, you ain’t no fool and I ain’t neither.” Which the young lady does, because she isn’t, only to be overwhelmed soon afterward by the return of her true love, to whom she confides that, “I missed you but I must admit / I kissed a few and once did sit / On Ivor the engine driver’s lap /And later with him had a nap.” To which he responds, “You are forgiven.” Sounds like enough story material for an opera, and that’s really what the cut is: a sort of miniature rock opera. There are nine different tunes and fragments employed at one point or another, all woven together with perfect transitions, and, on the whole, l feel that this is the most successful utilization of a long cut yet recorded, surpassing the efforts of Love, the Doors, the Dead, and even the Stones, in the level of imagination and creativity involved. Also it’s funny in a very hip and sane sort of way.
And, after all, that’s really what makes the Who so good—their sense of humor, coupled with their sense of the real. It’s the interplay between these two factors of the Who’s outlook that creates their dynamism and their ethos. They aren’t earnest or “serious.” They aren’t proselytizers, even when they proselytize. They’re sharp, sarcastic, cynical, but never weighed down with their own self-importance. They are a life force on a rock scene in which too many people are hiding behind facile slogan songs about how all the world needs is for everyone to love everyone else. Nor do they have to rely on psychedelic lyrics, or pseudo poetry, or meaningless attempts at the re-creation of the beauty of the Eastern pattern completely out of its natural context, to create music. Rather, they are much more influenced by the Western classical tradition, both instrumentally and lyrically, than that of any other culture. (Listen to their story lines, especially “Quick,” and also notice all those classical “la-la-las” on “Happy.”) It is natural for them.
The Who don’t pretend. Their music is them, and they don’t have to defend it by coming on too arrogantly, or freaky, within the context of the music itself. They say what they have to say in a manner that is perfectly natural for them, and therein lies their magic and their charm. We would all do well to listen, and to learn.