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Monday, June 20, 2016

Under the Big Top # 25: “Bloody Good Use of Cockney”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Bellboy”
Album: Quadrophenia
Release Date: October, 1973

On a ferry ride from France to Ireland during a life-changing backpacking tour of Europe with great friend Bob Mainguy in the summer of 1986, I stood outside on the decks for quite some time during the daylight hours to gaze at England’s southern coastline, in particular the intermittent ranges of white-chalk cliffs, as the ship wrapped around Great Britain to get to the Emerald Isle.  The region had captured my imagination after multiple viewings of the movie Quadrophenia to that point.  The most spectacular scenery in that film is along one of those coastal white-chalk cliffs near the seaside resort town of Brighton, where the lead character Jimmy, in a very agitated state of mind after a series of mishaps, rides a stolen scooter, ultimately gunning it directly toward the cliff, jumping off just as the bike careens over the edge and down to obliteration. 

The stolen bike belonged to the movie’s “Ace Face”, the head of the Mod pack so to speak (as written about in Big Top # 9, Mods were a British youth subculture of some renown in the early to mid-60s).  Jimmy too is a scooter riding, pill popping, fashion-conscious Mod, but considers himself just a face in the crowd, someone whom this Ace Face (played flawlessly by an as-yet famous Sting in the movie) would probably not recognize despite having shared moments at dance halls and in big fights against rival grease-haired ‘rockers’.  For most of the movie, Jimmy has great admiration for this seemingly composed rebel leader, but as the film lurches to its climatic conclusion his fondness abruptly crumbles. 

That moment, discussed below, is the last straw in a downward spiral for Jimmy over the prior 24 hours, culminating in that dramatic scooter ride along the chalk cliffs.  The rest of that miserable spiral takes place in London, and includes Jimmy 1) getting fired, 2) getting kicked out of his home, 3) getting two-timed by his girlfriend, 4) getting shunned by his friends, and 5) getting into a reckless accident which ends up destroying his own scooter.  After fleeing from the big city on his personal mind-warp journey to the coast on the “5:15” train (this mind-bending experience is mostly due to a heavy dose of uppers), Jimmy experiences that last straw when he spies the Ace Face at a fancy beach hotel employed in the subservient role of bellhop.  Jimmy stares in utter disbelief as this ‘leader’ of the pack caters to the hotel’s upper-class clientele; those same people whom the Mods were railing against.  After screaming out “Bellboy!” he rounds the bend into an alley and spots the Ace Face’s scooter, which he proceeds to hijack. 

The Quadrophenia song “Bellboy” is all about this encounter.  “Bellboy” is so profound in so many ways, that I thought it appropriate to break it down, musical sequence by musical sequence and lyric by lyric.  What follows is that breakdown.  You can follow along with this url link: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5nMhhbwdOU).

First off an overview:  “Bellboy” is a two-character song; Roger Daltrey singing in the role of Jimmy and Keith Moon in the role of the Ace Face/bellboy.  This is the only well-known Who song where Keith Moon sings, and he does it brilliantly.  Generally speaking, Moon was a horrible music vocalist in most every circumstance (all one need do to confirm this is struggle through a cut or two from his singular solo effort, Two Sides of the Moon), and the rest of the Who did all they could to keep him away from the microphone in the studio since he was under the lifelong delusion that he was good at singing  (** Side Note: This internal battle is hilariously caught on record at the end of “Happy Jack” with Pete Townshend blurting out “I saw ya!” as Moon tries to slip into the recording-console room at the moment the rest of the band were performing the backing vocals). 

But Keith Moon was absolutely perfect for the role of the bellboy.  Considering how rarely Moon sang, how the heck did the Who figure out that he was the ideal vocalist for this song?  Listening to “Bellboy” I find this factoid alone a fascinating one.  Moon nails his vocals by exaggerating the absurdity of the character in his singing; in similar fashion to how Ray Davies could pull this same sentiment off for the Kinks in songs like “Mr. Pleasant” and “David Watts”, which was something that the other members of the Who frankly did not have in them.  I would go as far as to say that Keith Moon’s lead vocals in this one song ranks up with some of the best lead vocals in the entire Who catalog. 

Speaking of Keith Moon, “Bellboy” starts off with tremendously assertive drumming.  If a novice Who listener wants to get a good sense of Moon’s value to the band, the entirety of Quadrophenia is the best place to start:  This is his magnum opus.  It’s the record that first gave me true insight into the intrinsic value of this musical instrument when played at a supremely adept level.  Yes, it would take a Herculean effort, but this message did finally get through to me, and once it did, it opened a new world of perception to the drums and eventually to that other rhythm instrument, the bass (though the Who’s ‘rhythm’ section rarely adhered to this rather limited adjective). 

Ok, let’s move on to the lyrics, which I will color code: Red for Jimmy and Green for the Ace Face/bellboy.  I first have to note that I must not forget Roger Daltrey’s singing in the Jimmy role.  He is top drawer here too (making for a magnificent one-two punch with Moon).  The following opening lines by Jimmy (Daltrey) introduce us to the seaside setting, the ocean being a central theme to Quadrophenia in so many ways (including ultimately drawing out a ray of hope in Jimmy at the end of the story):

A beach is a place where a man can feel
He’s the only soul in the world that’s real

It’s a relief to know I’m not the only person who can feel this way at times (Pete Townshend has done this for me over and over again with his music).  From here the song “Bellboy” gets down to business.  It has not quite dawned on Jimmy (Daltrey) as to just what he is observing.  He realizes he is looking at the Ace Face but his mind has not yet accepted the absurd juxtaposition of the hotel uniform he is wearing, and so he daydreams a bit:

But I see a face coming through the haze
I remember him from those crazy days.
Crazy days.  Crazy Days

Images flash through Jimmy’s mind of the glory days:

“Ain’t you the guy who used to set the paces
Riding up in front of a hundred faces?
I don’t suppose you would remember me
But I used to follow you back in ‘63”

It is here at the end of this verse that the reality of Ace Face as bellboy kicks in with Jimmy and the music reflects this; the pace is faster, the tone more ominous.  Pete Townshend’s guitar playing sounds furious. After this short, intense musical transition, the bellboy (Moon) introduces himself in a self-mocking exaggerated cockney accent:

“I’ve got a job and I’m newly born
You should see me, dressed up in my uniform”

The Ace Face now bellboy continues by reflecting on the past himself.  In the movie, an earlier scene has a rumble taking place in Bristol between the Mods and the Rockers, with the entire resort town falling victim (a true story, with Pete Townshend retrieving some old news footage of the event as one of the many add-in effects between songs on Quadrophenia).  Included in the destruction is the hotel the bellboy now works at:

“I work in a hotel all gilt and flash
Remember the gaff where the doors we smashed!”

Jimmy gets back in the mix now, pointing his finger at the bellboy and screaming in incriminating fashion (much like the band did at Billy Idol when he played the role of bellboy in this tremendous footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5nMhhbwdOU).  From there it’s a back and forth between the two:

“Bellboy!”
“I got to get running now”
“Bellboy!”
“Keep my lip buttoned down”
“Bellboy!”
“Carry this baggage out”
“Bellboy!”
“Always running at someone’s heels
You know how I feel
Always runnin’ at someone’s heels”

A few soft John Entwistle bass notes transition the tone again, this time to melancholy, as the bellboy’s conscience seems to kick in.  This is where the depth of Pete Townshend’s intentions to the meaning of this song really becomes apparent.  Up until now “Bellboy” is about the notion of someone who disappoints us in life; perhaps a person who we held to high standards and later let us down.  That’s unique enough.  But here the songs focus shifts to the even deeper meaning of also disappointing ourselves, and soon enough realizing you are disappointing others.  I always knew there was something significantly more complex about this song, and yet I could not quite put my finger on it.  It was not until this week, when I gave “Bellboy” another series of good listens that I rounded out my understanding of the multiple levels of meaning that Pete Townshend intended when he wrote it:

“Some nights I still sleep on the beach
Remembering when stars were in reach
Then I wander in early to work
Spend my day lickin’ boots for my perks

At this point the opening stanza loops back (A beach is a place where a man can feel….”).  There’s not much to say about this part of the song other than recognizing Roger Daltrey’s extraordinary professional sixth sense that this is the second go-around, and so must build on the intensity of the first.  On the recent 50th anniversary tour, Daltrey called himself an alchemist in terms of his ability to interpret Pete Townshend’s music.  This part of the song is an excellent affirmation of that quote.

Another intense musical interlude is followed by Keith Moon bringing it all back home with yet another twist to the meaning of Pete Townshend’s song, the bellboy trying in vain to make sense of his plight:

“People often change but when I look in your eyes
You could learn a lot, from a life like mine
The secret to me, it ain’t flown like a flag
I carry it behind this pretty little badge, what says?
“Bellboy!”
“I got to get running now”
“Bellboy!”
“Keep my lip buttoned down”
“Bellboy!”
“Carry this baggage out”
“Bellboy!”
“Always running at someone’s heels
“You know how I feel
Always runnin’ at someone’s heels”

Bravo to the Who for giving me the opportunity to interpret in my own words another timeless masterpiece.

Pete

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