Saturday, January 9, 2016

Under the Big Top # 2: “The Awakening”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “A Quick One”
Album: A Quick One
Release Date: December, 1966

As mentioned in last week’s first “Under the Big Top” entry, The Who has been a major source of entertainment for me for over 35 years.  The closest analogous word I can think of to describe this band is “circus”....  a four-ring circus…..a perfect circus (hence the choice of title for this series).  Pete Townshend, lead songwriter, has throughout his career balanced nicely his pop-culture instincts with his deep convictions, his extroversion with his introversion.  Townshend’s commitment to the Who has always fascinated me because early on this musician had pretty much convinced himself  that he would be better off creatively by going it alone (think Clapton, Young, Bowie).  However, every time Pete Townshend pushed them the rest of the band rose to the occasion.  In return Townshend remained loyal (he was the last member of the band to release a solo album).  And so, despite the odds on a range of fronts, this extraordinary circus act survived….and then thrived; their original incomparable lineup intact for 15 years.  Lucky for many.

My true appreciation for this band goes back to 1980, my first year at North Adams State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).  Before this, I had scattered fragments of insights related to the Who.  I believe what threw me off in terms of bringing it all together was the diversity of their sound.  As such, I knew many of the songs, but never equated it all to one band.  Pre-MTV videos like “You Better You Bet” and Roger Daltrey’s “Free Me” helped to put a few fissures in my mental wall, but that was about it.  The real breakthrough played out in a movie theater.

A bit of background: Early on in North Adams, I was not in a particularly good position for meeting people, living in an off-campus house with the landlady (an elderly strong-willed woman, Ma Betti) and four roommates who were destined to be minor footnotes in my life.  However, one of these roommates introduced me to a group of characters who lived on campus in Townhouse # 1 ("TH1").  I was welcomed into the fold for a handful of reasons, including that I played a good game of both 8-ball pool and darts in those days.  Also the ringleader, John “Jocko” Miller, was impressed with the fact I could go toe to toe with him eating hot peppers. 

If my hometown buddies, Phil and Mac, kept me on my toes in my high school years with their quick wit and sarcasm, this motley crew brought things to another level when it came to my having to stay alert.  There was no sympathy for naive comments, which were responded to with a resounding "BAHHHHHHHH!!!!” (think a loud, obnoxious sheep). Most everyone referred to each other by last name only (Swanna, Kershaw, B-Lee, McCabe, Pierce and Miller).  Kurt (Ellis) was the only one who kept his first name intact (as did I).   It was a friendship devoid of the innocence of my younger days, but at that point I was ready for it.  I settled into this atmosphere rather comfortably for a couple of years (with an eye on my grades, I declined a sophomore-year offer to move in to TH1) before heading up to Ottawa, Canada on an exchange program my junior year (others from the townhouse also moved on, though not as voluntarily; victims of Blutarsky-esque grade point averages).

One evening we all headed to the old Mohawk Theater in downtown North Adams to watch the then 1-year old Who rocumentary The Kids are Alright.  I had no idea what I was in for. The film started off with a bang (literally).  As I watched the smoke clear off the stage after the Who performed “My Generation” in a clip off the late 60’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (this is the opening salvo in the movie,, where it's said another guest that evening, Betty Davis, fainted while watching Keith Moon’s drums explode) I leaned over to Kurt, the only TH1-er I could trust to ask the occasional naive question.  I somewhat knew Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and the imposing presence each of them could display.  But now, seeing that the bass player and drummer each had his own unique aura that put the two of them on equal footing with their bandmates (in both cases, I had not until that moment picked up on the importance or distinguishing possibilities of their respective instruments in a band), I absolutely needed to know more.  The exchange went something like this:

Me: <leaning in so as not to be heard by the others> "ok, that's Pete Townshend and that's Roger Daltrey.....but who's that playing the bass guitar again?"

Kurt: <looking at me in utter disbelief, and responding loudly> "PETE.... THAT'S THE OX! BAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!"

The rest of TH1: "BAHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Me: <turning back to the screen> "uh, oh, ok"

I sat back for the long haul, and did not utter another word for the remainder of the show. I figured Keith Moon out on my own.

The movie continued at a torrid pace, each preserved concert footage, music video, and interview leaving in ashes the one before.  I had never seen anything like it, and this was not even a live event.  Then about halfway thru, the song "A Quick One" unfolded on the screen.  This was a live concert version from the 1968 Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus show, which was ultimately scrapped as a movie.  Now, most of the songs in the The Kids are Alright I had already heard many times on the radio, but this 10-minute 'mini opera' was new to my ears.  Typically songs take a few listens to settle into the psyche.  Not this time.  This was instant karma.  The performance was over-the-top astounding!  I was hooked. 

** I recall hearing that the main reason the Rolling Stones abandoned the “Rock and Roll Circus” movie was because the Who out performed them (the film was finally released in the 90's).  And because it was abandoned, few had ever seen this footage until The Kids Are Alright rockumentary was released (the Stones gave the Who permission). 

Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite movie is, my atypical and yet honest response is The Kids are Alright.  A big reason is that this is the film that had the most effect on me (it was produced by an American fan, Jeff Stein, who was utterly inexperienced in movie making, but who was somehow able to convince the Who he could do it, which is probably something I subliminally connected with).  What was it that grabbed my imagination (and continues to do so) with that movie?  This is the question I have been asking myself all week.  I found the answer in “A Quick One”, this week’s Big Top entry ( This one song encapsulates the movie, which in itself encapsulates the Who, revealing much of what I love about this band.

First off, I believe that when a number of people work together to pull off a common goal, there can be infinitely more variables in the mix than when someone tries to accomplish something on their own.  Therefore, a wider pendulum swing exists between the potential lows and highs in the outcome.  With all those variables, the possibility of a group of people attaining the highest range of high is rare, but possible (and more often fleeting than lasting).  It can happen in sport.  It can happen in governing.  It can happen in battle.  It can happen in science.  And it can happen in music. 

What the Who had, which is captured oh so magically in the “A Quick One” clip, is this wonderful organized chaos, as well as a musical equilibrium of the highest caliber between members (if anyone took a back seat, it was Roger Daltrey, and he was the band’s ‘golden god’ front man for goodness sake... what other group could make such a claim?).  I loved how they could flail around, discarding instruments, and still have this impeccable sense of timing; from the bass being in precise synch with the guitar, in turn in synch with the drums, playing off the vocals.  Mixed in were impromptu utterances (including whoever yells “Hey!” at the end) and improbable recoveries (there’s a moment near the beginning of the song where Townshend gets whiplashed by Keith Moon’s microphone.  He growls at Moon, but never misses a beat).  This was like watching four house cats get spun head over heels in the air and still land on their feet, one on top of the other, time and time again.  

I loved that this group did not seem all that impressed with each other, despite the fact that the entire musician-heavy audience was obviously blown away, including Brian Jones and the short-in-stature clown caught on film at the very end of the clip: “That was marvelous!” the clown gushes while Jones whistles in agreement.  Tell me about it.  Also, no one in the band appeared pretentious in any way.  On the contrary, as I was to learn later, there was quite a bit of self-criticism, both toward each other and themselves.

I loved the improvisation.  Midway through “A Quick One” for example the Who chant “cello, cello, cello……”.  What was this all about?  Subsequent viewings of The Kids Are Alright, I was in the know as to why.  Along with his bass playing, John Entwistle (the Ox) also played a multitude of brass and string instruments on Who songs.  When the Who gathered to perform the studio version of "A Quick One", Entwistle forgot to bring his cello, and so the band sang the word “cello” at the point it was supposed to be played:  A classic Who improv that played out in many other ways in their history.

Another revelation for me, in terms of something I had not seen before, was the multi-part aspect to the song.  “A Quick One” is a storyline, with each piece of the story having a signature anthem: A young man leaves his home and his sweetheart for a year and is overdue to return; the young woman grieves and in her weakness has a one-night dalliance with “Ivor the engine driver”; the young man comes home; the young woman tells all and … forgiven).  The last few minutes are a crescendo of song and story.  John Entwistle’s wonderful, high countertenor (an extreme of his vocal range that he would lose later in life), repetitious singing of the word “forgiven” plays off Townshend and Daltrey’s baritone response of this declaration of absolution.  This is followed by an instrumental stretch where I swear the Who must hold some kind of record for most notes to come out of 3 instruments in a ten-second span.  Townshend’s “Your ALL Forgiven!” is an exquisite final exclamation: Wow, you mean all of us, me too?

Many years later, not soon after John Entwistle died, I recall reading a Pete Townshend interview that had me laughing.  He was discussing a moment in a Who show between songs where Roger Daltrey shuffled over to him and complained, yet again, that Entwistle’s bass was too loud, and that he could not hear himself, and that the Ox would not turn down the volume. Townshend commiserated but stated that if this were an ordinary band (as in every other band in the world) he would agree.  But this was The Who, which had long ago become something else entirely, and that there was no taming it.  The cat had been let out of the bag. 

I believe the seeds for this 4-headed beast were germinated in that 1968 performance of “A Quick One”. 

As for me, watching that performance was the beginning of a long, fun process of album purchases, books, articles, lyric interpretations, volume, and air guitar.

- Pete

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