Life at 33 1/3: The Who’s real golden years – Part 1

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The Who, The Track Singles 1967-1973 (Track/Universal)

Released: October 2015

Part 3 in this lovely series of original Who-singles takes us through the band’s golden years 1967-1973, when rock was born and The Who ruled the world.  During this period they released five of rock’s greatest albums of all time: “The Who Sell Out”, “Tommy”, “Live At Leeds”, “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia”.  And even if Pete Townshend lost his enthusiasm for the single format after “I Can See For Miles” bombed (relatively speaking), he still managed to work up enough passion to record and release a string of fabulous 45’s too.  All on Track Records.  All of them included in this box. (Number after release date denotes highest placing on New Musical Express’ UK TOP 30, except from numers in brackets which are from Record Retailer.)

“Pictures Of Lily” / “Doctor Doctor” (April 1967) #4

When the bottles are empty, the dishes eaten and the guests have all gone home, I guess it’s time to own up and admit that “Pictures Of Lily” is the greatest The Who-single of them all.  It’s in your face, straight to the point, insanely catchy, brimming with adrenalin and hilariously tongue-in-cheek.  A pop masterpiece.  The melody is so strong in itself it would have been a hit by anyone.  But only The Who could pull it off with such over the top grandeur, not the least thanks to generous injections of Moon madness.  Moon is consistently almost out of control.  And Pete Townshend’s guitar sounds like The Byrds on speed.

The vocal harmonies are right up there with the Beach Boys and the Beatles (The Who actually were among best in England on harmony singing).  The stop-start trick of turning the music off in the breaks, only to let it explode in cascades when the band moves on, is cunningly effective.  And let’s hear it for the hunting horn fanfares of John Entwistle.  All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics yet.

Sung by Roger Daltrey in plaintive little boy lost mood, it is a precious portrayal of a teenage boy who found it hard to sleep until his father gave him pin-up photos of a woman called Lily.  The trick worked until he poor boy got obsessed with the woman and asked his father where he could find her, only to learn that the photos were old and Lily died back in 1929.  In other words a thinly disguised story about testosterone, porn and masturbation.  Not your average subject for a pop lyric in 1967.

Flip the record over, and you get a bizarre and fast moving slice of hypochondriac-rock from John Entwistle.  The Who never were about moons in Junes.  Both titles were included on the compilation album “Direct Hits” (1968).

“The Last Time” / “Under My Thumb” (July 1967) (#44)

The police had a go at The Rolling Stones during the so called “Summer of love”, it turned into a regular witch hunt.  And for a moment it looked as if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would have to serve time behind bars. Their drugs-related crimes were ridiculous: Some pills bought on prescription and a lump of hashish that was planted by the police themselves.  Brian Jones was soon to go down as well.  Pete Townshend went into action.

He threatened to record and release one single with Jagger/Richards songs every week until they were set free.  Fortunately it stopped at this one, as Mick and Keith were free to go after a few days.

The recordings were done in a hurry and sound like it.  As John Entwistle was on honeymoon, Pete had to double on guitar and bass.  “Under My Thumb” rattles along like a wagon on square wheels, completely charmless – which is an achievement in itself.  Even worse is “The Last Time”, delivered as a clumsy, rickety din.  The single sounds less like a blast of solidarity and support, and more like an attempt to take the mickey out of the Stones.  Purely unintentional of course, but still.  A-side included on compilation album “Direct Hits” (1968).  B-side included on compilation “Rarities Volume I” (1983).

“I Can See For Miles” / “Someone’s Coming” (October 1967) #13

And this is where pop stops, rock starts and the Who get serious.  The sound is booming, a cathedral packed with guitars and a hyperactive Keith Moon who fires his first thundering shots before you’ve even gotten a chance to find your seat.  Townshend’s guitars are all over the place, he’s slashing out chords, riffing like a madman and doing his trademark blistering solo-runs simultaneously.

The Who never sounded this mighty and powerful before.  The modern sound, created for state of the art stereos blasting at full volume.  The 45 doesn’t quite capture the full power of this recording as it’s in mono, so you’ll probably prefer the album mix (found on “The Who Sell Out” and later compilations).

The song’s main topic is obsession and jealousy, very dark, very frightening.  Daltrey stalks his girlfriend, no way she’s gonna cheat on him and get away with it, because he’s a seer, his magical sight pierces through any obstacle regardless of distances.  The words delivered with a threatening roar of anger.

The music is as busy and spellbindingly obsessed as the lyrics.  Keith Moon’s devastating and rapid canon rumble and syncopated jerks makes the whole song sway.  The dynamics are absolutely sensational.  Townshend actually has to fight to be heard above this awesome avalanche of rock’n’roll drumming, and what a battle it is!  The brutal chords that ricochete through the wall of sound should be X-rated, and the jingling, quivering note that howers above Daltrey’s “miles and miles and miles and …” turns your spinal cord into liquid fire.

It is powerful.  It is monumental.  It sounds extremely dangerous.

Pete Townshend thought he had created the greatest pop single ever and expected a sure fire number 1 in England.  It only got to 13 (in the NME), a devastating blow.  He lost his faith in the British record buying public after that, and The Who would never again approach the single format with the same care.  Had he glanced across the Atlantic, he would have discovered that “I Can See For Miles” reached no. 9 and became their biggest hit ever in the US.  It still is.  They never bettered it.

On the B-side you find “Someone’s Coming”, yet another twisted Entwistle-tune.  Meet the girl who has a secret rendezvous with her boyfriend, defying her parents’ ban on meeting him.  What they’re up to?  I’m not gonna tell, but beware, someone’s coming.

A-side included on “The Who Sell Out” (1967).  B-side on compilation “Rarities Volume I” (1983).

“Dogs” / “Call Me Lightning” (June 1968) #28

Pete Townshend had lost his love for the 45, thanks to the “I Can See For Miles”-fiasco.  It shows here.  “Dogs” is a couldn’t-care-less follow-up.  More a joke than a song, released for the hell of it.  The shimmering layers of voices in the chorus reveals that he did put quite some work into it, though.  Too much, perhaps, as it sounds quite muddy at times.

“Dogs” is a strange mix of pop music and radio play.  The group take turns in delivering the spoken word monologues acting as greyhound racing-obsessed beer-thirsty cockneys, which takes the song close to the neigbourhoods of Small Faces and The Kinks.  It’s a quirky and unfamiliar topic to non-British ears, more so in 1968 when a single should get you on the hook within its first 30 seconds.  “Dogs” wasn’t even released in the U.S.

“Dogs” has always been a secret favorite of mine.  The Cockney-monologues are exceptionally … uh, well … charming.  And the pay-off arrives every time the band hits the refrain

Yes it’s you little darling,

Yes it’s you little darling,

Now it’s you little darling,

Now it’s you.

In heavenly currency.

The B-side, “Call Me Lightning”, is the happy-go-lucky Who of 1966-67.  A crisp and bouncy slice of pop music with a strong chorus.  One of their better B-sides.  The Americans made “Call Me Lightning” the A-side, skipped “Dogs” and replaced it with “Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde”.

Both sides included on the compilation album “Direct Hits” (1968).

“Magic Bus” / “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde “(October 1968) #22

Rolling Stones did it with “Sympathy For The Devil”, but The Who did it first: percussion galore!  “Magic Bus” is pure percussion, dominated by a tingling rhythmic backing of claves, congas, drums and anything else they could get their hands on.  Voodoo, pulsating, cooking – and traces of world music (with a nod to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s 1967-hit ‘“Zabadak!”).

Daltrey seems to have great fun performing the lyrics half spoken.  It’s the story of an ordinary guy taking an ordinary bus, the only magic involved is the fact that every day this bus takes him to his girlfriend who lives further down the street, and that’s magic, good enough for him, so he wants to buy the bus.  The rest of the band deliver their call-response lines “too much, the Magic Bus” all the way through.  After a while Townshend enters with some thunderous power-chords.

Not very typical Who.  Too unfamiliar to most people’s tastes, no wonder it didn’t become a big hit.  But “Magic Bus” has withstood the test of time.  I like the simmering rhythm.  So did The Who as they turned it into a live favourite.

B-side is a showcase for another of John Entwistle’s eccentric topics with a twist to them.  The song has nothing to do with the horror classic it borrows its title from, however, but is in fact a painful stroll through the curses of alcohol.  Entwistle knew what he was talking about.

Both sides (A-side in stereo) included on American album “Magic Bus – The Who On Tour” (1968). B-side also on “Rarities Volume I” (1983).

“Pinball Wizard” / “Dogs Part Two” (March 1969) #4

What an intro, and what expectations it creates!  The song kicks off with a mighty wall of super fast flamenco that pulls you right out of your chair, and then you hit the ceiling when Townshend’s electric guitar eruptes, a hurricane-like bellowing in the left channel (an old stereo-trick).  Adrenaline shoots through your veins, you are ripe and ready when Daltrey enters center stage: “Ever since I was a young boy …”.  Finally, at this very moment, all bases covered and the listener trapped, begins “Pinball Wizard.”

Keith Moon bulldozes everything into its place (what a stunningly.fat drum sound!), and stabilizes the track at medium pace, giving Townshend room for his highly effective riffing played out against Daltrey’s graphic portrayal of the enigmatic deaf, dumb and blind boy Tommy, king of the pinball machines.

It’s a strange story that makes little sense outside the rock opera “Tommy” from where it’s lifted (the album wouldn’t be released until a couple of months later).  The lyrics aren’t that important anyway, because “Pinball Wizard” sounds so perfect in itself, it’s a super commercial pop single, wonderfully arranged, loaded with heavy riffs and armed with a chorus that’s contagious.

The B-side, “Dogs Part 2”, is such a rare thing as a Keith Moon composition, though he shares the credits with Pete Townshend & John Entwistle’s pet dogs, Towser and Jason!  That basically says it all.  Lots of over the top drumming accompanied by barking, both real dog barks and Moon’s own imitations of our four-legged friends.

A-side on “Tommy”. B-side included on CD compilation “Two’s Missing” (1987).

Next week in part 2 – 1970-1973.