Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 1, 2009: Hey, Hey, We’re the… Who?

1968 was a shaky year for the ever-unpredictable Who. The group was without a new album to promote, and the three singles they released (“Dogs”, “Call Me Lightning”, and “Magic Bus”) were all flops. Having yet to fully break through in the U.S., regarded as little more than a novelty act in their English homeland, and regularly blowing their pay checks by destroying instruments, hotel rooms, and anything else in their path, the Who needed a fresh idea to rescue their career, and they needed one quickly. Prior to his death in late 1967, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ famed-manager and owner of the booking agency that handled the Who, had been pressing for the group to star in their own TV series. Hell, the concept had made stars of the Monkees, so why not the Who? As not-ready-for-prime-time as the boys were, their wildly colorful image and penchant for cartoonish tunes like “Boris the Spider”, “Odorono”, and “Dogs” made them pretty apt candidates to do for the BBC what the Monkees had done for NBC in the States. As they had already proven in this promotional video for “Happy Jack” shot on December 19, 1966, the Who were funny and charismatic… if not too busy singing to put anybody down:

The Who’s long-lost TV project may be the stuff of legend, but most fans do not realize how close it came to reality. A newsletter released in conjunction with the group’s Spring 1968 tour of the U.S. announced that the show was in the works, and the BBC issued a press release confirming the project. The program was to be titled “Sound and Picture City”, and would have been filmed largely in America, even though it was slotted to air on the BBC. While “The Monkees” was essentially a sitcom with a few tacked-on music videos, “Sound and Picture City” would have been more of a variety show (coincidentally, this was the very direction the Monkees wanted to take their own show when its ratings were on the wane). Every week the Who would star in a three-minute comedic serial and perform a new song. Otherwise, the show would feature performances by their peers, and such stars as Bob Dylan (!), Lulu, and the Monkees, themselves, were reportedly already booked to appear.

Alas, the deal was never closed, and the world was deprived of the sublime wackiness of “Sound and Picture City”. Most speculate that this was probably all for the best. On the one hand, the Who may have suffered the slings and arrows of critical snobbery for embarking on such a fluffy project, much as the Monkees had. The show most likely would have ended the Who’s career upon its inevitable cancellation. This means no Tommy (the career-resuscitating gimmick that ended up taking the place of “Sound and Picture City”), Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, etc.

On the other hand, the greatest era of the Who’s career arguably ended in 1968. While I do love the band’s ‘70s work, no period will ever compare to their run as the greatest Pop-Art provocateurs of the mid-‘60s. There’s no denying that the Who “played their own instruments”— better than any other band ever, no less—so they surely would have side-stepped that criticism regularly flung at the Monkees. The Who also had Keith Moon, the most naturally hilarious rock star ever, as their comedic ace-in-the-hole. Townshend was no slouch in that department, either. Watching Keith and Pete impel the lethargic crowd to their feet during a canned version of “Salt of the Earth”—all while wearing seat cushions on their heads— is one of the great pleasures of “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”…

…as is watching them lay waste to everyone else appearing on the program with a magnificent performance of “A Quick One, While He’s Away”…

Daltrey eventually embarked on an acting career during the ‘70s, so he probably would have been comfortable enough on the show. Entwistle, however, would have been the wild card. The greatest bass player of all time may have been the greatest bass player of all time, but he didn’t exactly exude charisma, as this clip from “Russell Hardy Plus” confirms:

So, we can speculate that Pete Townshend would have been the Mike Nesmith of “Sound and Picture City”, as both were the leaders of their respective groups and both balanced their goofy senses of humor with genuine dark sides. Keith Moon would have been Micky Dolenz, the hyper-active clown (and the two drummers eventually became fast friends and incorrigible drinking buddies in real life). Roger Daltrey, the ostensible heart-throb of the Who, would probably have been relegated to the Davy Jones role. This would have left John Entwistle to fill the Peter Tork role, both being talented multi-instrumentalists. Of course, Entwistle certainly would have balked had he been forced into playing the moron, as Tork was on “The Monkees”, a role he deeply resented.

Alas, all we have regarding “Sound and Picture City” is speculation. Fortunately, the Who appeared on camera regularly enough throughout their career to essentially quench the thirst for such a program. The Kids Are Alright alone is probably worth 100 episodes of “Sound and Picture City”. Still, one can’t help wistfully wondering about what might have been, shedding a gentle tear, donning a purple spangled superhero costume, and beating up Steve Martin:

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