Saturday, January 30, 2016

Under the Big Top # 5: “Of Wit and War”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “I Can See For Miles”
Album: The Who Sell Out
Release Date: December, 1967

In the weeks prior to the 2016 New Year, I began jotting down notes in preparation for this blog series on the Who.  One note read “Woodstock, that heavy sound”.  As with several other pieces of chicken scratch, I did not have much to work with.  My only thoughts at the time I jotted those words down were related to the first few times I watched The Kids Are Alright (see Big Top # 2), a film which captured my fascination in all aspects excepting for the highlight footage of the Who’s set at Woodstock.  Those first viewings of that footage the music felt too intense, too over the top.  But eventually I came around to recognizing both brilliance and artistry, and just this week, what I see as an underlying meaning of that performance in the early twilight hours on the 3rd day of that big event on Yasgur’s Farm in 1969.  Coming at the time it did, the insight caught me by surprise, because this week I found myself listening to The Who Sell Out, a 1967 studio offering by the Who which, at face value, appeared light years from the intensity of Woodstock.

The Who will likely go down in history as a serious, powerful, force-of-nature of a band.  And yet, like the Beatles, they also knew how to have fun and could charm their fans with tremendous wit.  A great showcase of this was The Who Sell Out, an album which included commercial “jingles” in between songs (as such, “Sell Out” is referring to the alternate definition of the term; “a betrayal of a cause for personal advancement”, and not “the selling of an entire stock of tickets to an event”.  Needless to say, this was all done tongue in cheek).  The jingles, which included splendid self-made promos for products like guitar strings, deodorant, baked beans, and acne cream (“Henry Pond had no fun; he had a face like a currant bun”), were done in grateful tribute to off-shore “pirate radio” stations, especially Wonderful Radio London, which gave the Who a tremendous boost in their early years through routine airplay of their songs, but had been forced off the air in 1967 by a new law passed in Parliament that effectively wiped them out.

  • Side Note: As a young adult growing up in the Boston area in the late 70s and early 80s, I could appreciate good radio, having listened incessantly to WBCN, 104.1 FM; a very entertaining and enlightening radio station which I have talked about before in this blog.  The DJ with the most clout on BCN was, Charles Laquidara, who was a force in the region in all things activist and charitable (though occasionally done off color) during his 30 years on the local airways.  Laquidara included The Who Sell Out as a top-ten favorite album in a Boston Globe article around that period, which makes sense considering the radio tie-in.  Not long after his public endorsement, I bought the album. 

The Who Sell Out as a whole is a solid affair and could be viewed as the band’s lone offering to the psychedelic gods.  There are several standout tracks, including “Tattoo” (which turned out to be a great live staple for the Who for many years), “Maryanne with the Shaky Hand”, “Our Love Was, Is” and one of the few top-10 hits in the Who’s career, “I Can See for Miles” - this week’s Big Top entry, which I will get to later.  There is also an intriguing number at albums end, “Rael”, a lengthy multi-part song, which got me rolling with this week’s focus on Woodstock. 

“Rael” was the remnant of an aborted concept (later fleshed out more on the Who’s 2006 album Endless Wire), a fictional Pete Townshend narrative, with the setting being modern-day Israel (hence the title), which at the time of the making of The Who Sellout was under siege by its neighbors, culminating in the “Six-Day War”.  The anxieties of pending war and the patriotism of this one character are captured in “Rael”.  Pieces of the music, specifically those from the more zealous parts of the storyline, were later used on the Tommy song “Sparks”, which was performed by the Who at Woodstock and which is a part of their set that is captured on The Kids Are Alright (I did some research…. it turns out, Townshend grew up with Jewish tenants in his parents’ home, who took him under their wing during his parent’s tumultuous relationship.  Later, Pete Townshend found himself relating with Zionism).

This was my first real hint to where I wanted to go with that “heavy” Woodstock sound.

Keith Richards and Pete Townshend approached their respective biographies, Life (2010) and Who I Am (2012), in very different ways, but one commonality was their early impressions on post-war London; the chaos, the rubble, and the struggles of everyday life.  As an American who never had to experience anything so close to home as this, it can be hard to relate.  But for Brit, German, French, Russian, and any other number of European youth growing up in the late 40s, who may have read these or any number of others books written about this period, it must have sounded all too real. 

I was a history major in college though, and since I found the world wars and their aftershocks to be of particular fascination, I loaded up on courses that focused on these time periods, and read quite a bit on my own time as well.  One course I took my sophomore year that had a lasting impression, was a Post War Literature course, which contrasted European literature and cinema, primarily from the late 40s and 50s, with that of the USA.  The course was taught by Dr. Ellen Schiff, who was Jewish, and whose family had experienced personal tragedies during the Holocaust.  The syllabus included heavy European works of realism such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959), Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960), and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), and matched these against the a world of American optimism - bordering on fantasy; think It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  The drive-home message for us American students was just how weighted down and tangled up Europe had become by these wars, having taken place on their home turf.  It worked, at least for me.

One assignment near the end of the course was to give an oral presentation on the ramifications beyond those early post-war years, in both Europe and America.  I chose to focus on the turmoil of the late 60’s, with a particular emphasis on the music and musicians of that period.  A premise was that a far greater percentage than the norm of this music was uniquely timeless.  I explained that the reason for this was what appeared to be an almost desperate search for truth beyond the trauma, shame, secrecy, denial and fantasy in the decades preceding it, especially in Europe.  The artists that searched for this truth in the 50s, those European authors and playwrights on that syllabus for example, were being usurped by young rock musicians.  And the generation doing this was the children of those who fought in the war, who seemed to be trying, whether knowingly or not, to overcome their parents and their own trauma. 

Some of the musicians who lead this effort were John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Ray Davies, Roger Waters and Bob Dylan.  There were some big differences in their passions, ideologies, backgrounds, and motivations, but each seemed to be striving for truth through their music, which during periods in their respective careers, centered on the effects of war.  Pete Townshend was no pacifist.  Neither was he a war monger.  However, he confronted the topic head on, and this is what unfolds so masterfully at Woodstock in the opening “Sparks” ( and through to the very end of their set.  On the album, Tommy, “Sparks” takes place near the beginning of the “rock opera”; a story that plays out like a post-World War II Shakespearian tragedy, revolving around an English family and its self-and-society-inflicted mental and spiritual wounds. The entire album builds on that burden (with the son Tommy ultimately overcoming it all).  It’s what you hear in the live renditions of Tommy.  And the original ideas look to have been germinated with “Rael”.

Woodstock meant many things to many people, but I think the Who got it right more than anyone.  They were one of a small handful of British acts that were well outnumbered by North American ones.  Americans were dealing with Vietnam at the time.  Those in attendance were a bit beyond the flower power of the years prior, and now facing a stark reality as friends and family members were coming home in traumatized states of mind and body bags. The Brits had already been through all of this (and then some) a quarter century earlier.  The Who tapped into the mood at Woodstock seamlessly because they were on that ride from the beginning.  Even their early stuff; instrument destruction and songs of desperate odd-balls, teen angst and the like could be seen as a lead-up to the reason behind that “that heavy sound”.  And yes, even that effortless clear-headed English wit, seen and heard in Technicolor on The Who Sell Out, could be.

When I think of the Who concerts I attended over the years, I realize now that I got to see this mood on a handful of occasions.  The band went back to that Woodstock sound for parts of their sets in the years before Entwistle died in 2002, and now I believe what they were doing was resurrecting that old musical personification of war and it’s after effects.  It really showed at the ‘Concert for New York’ after 911, where the Who were head and shoulders beyond everyone else.  The band was in the moment, and the firefighters and police officers in the front rows knew this:  You could almost feel their amazement through the television (and they would show their appreciation years later, serenading Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey through a rendition of “Baba O’Riley” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008).

Put it all together, and this week’s Big Top entry, “I Can See for Miles” ( ) takes on new meaning.  Yes, the Who could indeed see through the miles, as well as the decades and the generations.  They were able to do this because they stuck to their ideals, which played out so vividly in front of half a million wet and muddy souls in the Catskills of Upper State New York on that early summer morning of 1969.


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