Life at 33 1/3: Gender confusion, murder and the village idiot

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The Who: The Reaction Singles 1966 (Reaction/Universal)

Released: August 2015

Part 2 in this lovely series of original The Who-singles (check out last week’s edition of Pattaya Mail for part 1) takes us to 1966, the year the band fell out with its producer Shel Talmy and left both him and the record company Brunswick for Robert Stigwood’s brand new label Reaction.  It wasn’t the smoothest of operations, and not surprisingly they got themselves into legal trouble.  Their first release was simply blocked.

“Substitute” / “Circles” (March 1966, postponed)

“Substitute” was a brand new song, but the B-side wasn’t.  And that’s when the trouble began.  “Circles” was meant to be the official follow-up to the magnificent “My Generation”.  The Who recorded it, Shel Talmy producing, and then changed their minds and left.  For their first Reaction release they re-recorded “Circles”, putting it on the B-side.  Shel Talmy would have none of it.  He claimed that as he was the producer of the original recording, the group could not by-pass him by re-recording it themselves.  Townshend tried to fool him by re-naming the track “Instant Party”, but neither Talmy nor his lawyers fell for it.  So the release was postponed, a new B-side had to be found and the re-recorded “Circles” was put on hold for eight months (finally landing on the “Ready Steady Who” EP).

Thus the copy in this single box is the first official release of the “Substitute”-single as it was originally intended.  Now read on for the original substitute.

“Substitute” / “Waltz For A Pig” (March 1966)

How do you follow up one of the greatest and most aggressive hit records of all time: “My Generation”?  The Who found the perfect solution.  “Substitute” is just as angry (maybe even angrier), but both the lyrics and the music shows a more advanced and ambitious band.  The whisking acoustic guitar intro (actually a preview of the song’s chorus) leads you to expect a softer pop song, but then the whole band enters, led by John Entwistle’s rumbling, distorted bass, and you know you’re in for something completely different.

The rolling thunder provides Daltrey with a most suitable platform for the singer’s alter-ego, an embittered and rebellious working-class lad who is even more Johnny Rotten than Johnny Rotten himself.  He is tired of pretending, dead tired.  He gives society the finger, expressed via a long and poisonous monologue aimed at his girlfriend.  She represents everything he despises: double standards, hypocrisy, snobbery, complacency.  “Substitute” snaps at the rigid values of the establishment and tramples joyfully on taboos.  Townshend couldn’t have given Roger Daltrey a lyric that matched his personality better.

Substitute me for him

Substitute my coke for gin

Substitute you for my mum

At least I’ll get my washing done

Substitute your lies for fact

I can see right through your plastic mac

I look all white, but my dad was black

My fine-looking suit is really made out of sack

It’s a song with a frantic drive, it packs a solid punch but is still extremely easy on the ear (enjoy the nice counterpoint between the airy harmony voices and  Daltrey’s cocky attitude).  This recording is a clear warning of what The Who would deliver during the next two or three years.

B-side, “Waltz For A Pig” (the pig being Shel Talmy, of course), is quite an ordinary sounding instrumental – wouldn’t have been out of place in a contemporary Peter Sellers movie.  Performed by The Graham Bond Organisation, calling themselves The Who Orchestra for the occasion, and written by Ginger Baker.  It earned him enough money to buy a car, lucky Ginger.

The legal dog-fight between Talmy and The Who continued throughout 1966.  In the end they reached a settlement giving Talmy percentages to all future The Who recordings for the coming five years.  Totally absurd.  But this was 1966.  Pop musicians knew nothing about neither law nor economics, and their advisers were more known for their huge salaries than for their good advice.

“I’m A Boy” / “In The City” (August 1966)

An airy pop song about gender confusion.  The Who’s bizarre humor gave adventurous results.  “I’m A Boy” even reached no. 1 on some Pirate Radio charts in Britain, and thus appears to be their biggest hit to date.

The three short verses concern themselves with a major childhood trauma.  It’s both funny and tragic, and through Townshend’s few, spartan, but extremely well written stanzas the boy becomes real.  You believe in his frustrations, and the descriptions of his crazy mother who refuses to accept that she got a son, is absolutely terrifying.  She forces him to wear female clothes, wear make-up and play with girls.  Townshend had to sing the most offending lines, while the ultra macho and homophobic Daltrey’s distaste for the song’s setting gave him super powers when he finally cut in:

My name is Bill and I’m a headcase

They practice making up on my face

Yeah, I feel lucky if I get trousers to wear

Spend ages taking hairpins from my hair

The song erupts every time they get to the chorus, ignited by Keith Moon who is all over his drums with propeller arms.  The chorus itself is sweet as honey, lovely harmony singing clearly influenced by The Beach Boys (Keith Moon’s favourite band).

The last stanza is brilliant:

I wanna play cricket on the green

Ride my bike across the stream

Cut myself and see my blood

I wanna come home all covered in mud

And then they dive into the sparkling, divine chorus for the last time.  A phenomenal pop song: sharp, witty and to the point – the single version lasts two and a half minutes (there is an extended version to be found on later compilation albums).  This re-recording was meant for the album “A Quick One” (released in December 1966), but they changed their minds and dropped it.

The B-side is a melancholy little gem written by the rare composer-duo John Entwistle & Keith Moon.  Moon is probably the originator, at least initially, for who else could have thought up a sad lyric about the impossible dream: London transformed to a combination of Drag City and Surf City.

Well you can surf in the city

You can swim in the pools

Do anything you want

Because there ain’t no rules

Drive your super-stock carbur to the long highway

And you can drag.

In London?

“Ready Steady Who” EP (November 1966)

Named after the TV show “Ready, Steady, Go!”  The original idea was to collect the last four songs they performed in the show on October 21, 1966.  The TV company Rediffusion London decided otherwise.  So The Who had to go for Plan B: Five new studio recordings, an eclectic bunch of songs indeed.

The opening track, “Disguises”, is far out, so far out that it would not have fitted well on the “A Quick One” album that followed a couple of weeks later.  It’s The Who’s most psychedelic recording.  Parts of the backing sound as if it’s pulled backwards through a keyhole, ZZZZZZZAP! at uneven intervals, establishing a strange rhythm pattern the whole song through.  It’s a big production peppered with reverb and effects.

The lyric is a collection of disturbed confessions from a paranoid guy who is obsessed with a girl who keeps slipping away in her ever changing disguises: “I don’t think you want me to see you ever again / And today I saw you dressed as a flower bed / Last week you had a wig on your head / Directing traffic in the street”.  Not the stuff you would serve your grandmother for breakfast.

“Circles” (the re-recorded version) finally got its release on this EP as they had solved their problems with ex-producer Shel Talmy, to their own disadvantage one has to add.  Nice harmony voices, strong melody, a slight Eastern flavour with hints of psychedelia.  And they’ve crammed lots of teenage frustrations into the lyrics: “Circles, my head is going round in circles / My mind is caught up in a whirlpool /Dragging me down”.  Not a classic, but still a good pop song that scores with ease.

Side 2 is Keith Moon at large.  Finally he gets The Who to play his favorite music: Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys.  They blast through the “Batman” theme at a furious pace, leaving Jan & Dean’s version in a ditch outside Gotham City.  More Jan & Dean in “Bucket T” (The Who version was released as a single in Scandinavia and hit no. 1 in Sweden, to Townshend’s annoyance as they had to play it over and over again when they visited Sweden in 1967), taken at an insanely fast pace, unpretentious, fun, and absolutely crazy.

Finally, “Barbara Ann”, a monster-hit for The Beach Boys in early 1966.  The Who play it at such breakneck speed they stumble on their own falsetto.  It doesn’t matter.  This is precious stuff: The Who at their merriest.  I bet these songs were a dress rehearsal for the recording of “Happy Jack”.

“Ready Steady Who” was one of the last EP’s recorded as such, as opposed to just another collection of hits or album tracks.  The EP-format was slowly phased out in 1967.  Listening to “Ready Steady Who” again reminds me of what fun we’re missing.

“Happy Jack” / “I’ve Been Away” (December 1966)

The Who’s Christmas single for 1966 completed an explosively productive autumn, coming hot on the heels of an album (“A Quick One”) and an EP (“Ready Steady Who”).  Just like “I’m A Boy”, “Happy Jack” is a piece of exuberant and highly commercial fun.  If “I’m A Boy” was a bit over-produced, “Happy Jack” definitely is under-produced.  It’s actually a tiny little chamber piece for bass and drums.  The verses are sung over a minimalistic arrangement consisting of the bass plucking the same two fat notes over and over, a muted guitar strumming behind it, and Moon’s clattering drums joining in on every second line.  The harmony voices go la-la-la-la in falsetto.  Between verses (and before the bridges) Moon goes absolutely ballistic, delivering violent bursts of hilarious madness.  It is the most stark The Who production ever, and a genuine piece of comedy.

The lyric is a whimsical tale of village idiot Jack tormented by a gang of sadistic little children.  It may not sound funny, but it is the way The Who tell it.  Even more so when we know that Keith Moon had been banished from the studio as his presence made it next to impossible to record the harmony voices.  He’d been making funny faces that forced the others to collapse with laughter.  He kept trying from behind the control room window.  And that’s why Pete Townshend calls out “I saw ya!” at the tail end of the recording.

John Entwistle’s “I’ve Been Away” occupies the B-side.  A very bizarre song, sort of a crippled waltz, telling the story of a guy who’s just released from prison.  It’s time for revenge as it wasn’t him that committed the crime, but his brother Bill.

Brother Bill’s gonna pay

No one’s ever gonna speak to Bill again

Never ever gonna speak to Bill again

He’ll be too cold and bony

Only The Who could wish you a happy Christmas with a jolly tune about a mentally disabled man being tormented by evil children, and then backing it up with a dead pan story  about a guy waltzing off to murder his brother.

The singles all come in white factory sleeves as the original 1966-releases did, whereas “Ready Steady Who!” is housed in a glossy cardboard replica of the original picture sleeve.  Yummy!  There’s also a nice booklet with information and photos.

If you want all 11 songs on vinyl albums, you will have some trouble.  “Direct Hits” (1968) includes “Bucket T”, “I’m A Boy”, “Substitute”, “Happy Jack”, “In The City”.  But the album is hard to find now.  “Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy” (1971) got “Happy Jack” and “Substitute” (+ the re-recorded “I’m A Boy”) on it.  “Rarities Volume I” (1983) has got the whole “Ready Steady Who” EP, “In The City” and “I’ve Been Away” on it.  That leaves “Waltz For A Pig”, I haven’t found this track on any officially released vinyl album.  But why look.  Buy this singles box instead, then you get them all collected.  It’s good exercise to switch the turntable to 45 now and then.