Friday, December 9, 2011

Track by Track: ‘A Quick One’ by The Who

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

As was their way, The Who entered 1966 in a cyclone of tumult. They’d recently sacked Shel Talmy, the American producer who clamored up their first L.P., My Generation. The split was acrimonious, and the contract dissolution left Talmy with a 5% piece of The Who’s pie for the next five years. Dissent was also strong in the band itself. Roger Daltrey’s frustration with a group that had long since slipped out of his control brewed violence. Sick of taking the occasional thumping from their thuggish singer, the other guys and manager Kit Lambert asked Roger to quit. Afraid of losing a good thing, he resolved to be “Peaceful Perce” from then on. But violence still loomed in The Who’s ranks. In May of 1966, Pete Townshend wacked Keith Moon with his guitar when the drummer showed up late to a gig. As The Who played their next few shows with a stand-in, Moon convalesced and schemed to steal away bassist John Entwistle to form a new group with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page called Lead Zeppelin.

Once again, a breakup was avoided. Kit Lambert realized The Who needed a project to better balance their power and their wages. As resident songwriter, Pete Townshend received the bulk of the band’s income. Their trademark destruction of equipment on stage and failure to achieve success in America were also ravaging their finances. On top of all that, Townshend’s song coffers had been largely depleted after several singles and an L.P. Having assumed the producer’s chair vacated by Shel Talmy, Lambert suggested Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle each contribute two compositions of their own to the next record. They were all fairly untested songwriters at the time. Daltrey received co-composer credit on the band’s second single, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, though his involvement may have been minimal. Moon and Entwistle co-wrote the B-side “In the City”, a thin Beach Boys imitation that didn’t signal any great, latent compositional talents. But the trio was game, and each did his best to contribute songs with varying degrees of success.

The record was still low on fresh material. So the band re-recorded the scrapped single “Circles” and the huge British hit “I’m a Boy”, as well as a handful of surf and soul standards, with the intention of collecting them on an album called Jigsaw Puzzle. The results were hardly adequate for a band struggling to distinguish itself in a pop scene that included such staggeringly innovative items as Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, and Aftermath. If The Who were to compete with the major players, they’d need something better than Jigsaw Puzzle. That’s when Kit Lambert had his next great brain wave: a suite of brief segments tacked together to formulate Rock’s first extended narrative, its first “opera.”

When Pete Townshend obliged Lambert’s request, The Who planted the seeds that would sprout into the album that made them international superstars and placed them in the same league as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Dylan. But Tommy was still a few years away. A Quick One was not the commercial juggernaut that full-length Rock opera would be. Rather, it is The Who’s most modest, most informal record. Its grooves do not broadcast the arrival of the Huns, as My Generation did. It is not a consummately created art piece, as its follow-up The Who Sell Out and its operatic progeny Tommy would be. A Quick One is a goof, an experiment, the sound of former foes attempting a truce and having some great fun while they’re at it. It’s an opportunity for non-songwriters to learn how to write and arty pop concepts to get their first airing. It’s a platter on which an old-fashioned Motown cover sits uncomfortably alongside a madcap polka, an abbreviated Buddy Holy tribute, a strange ditty about a spider’s sticky death, and a nine-minute yarn about infidelity, and possibly, pedophilia. If Sell Out is the weirdest Who album overall, A Quick One is easily the one with the weirdest individual songs. Despite Lambert’s desire to rescue his group’s career with it, it is also the band’s most obscure album. It contains no hit Pete Townshend standards like “My Generation” on the L.P. before it or “I Can See for Miles” on the one that followed. Yet the composer/guitarist later told New Musical Express that the album is “still about our best; we really discovered The Who’s music for the first time, and that you could be funny on record.”

So let’s take a deeper look at the songs secreted on that odd and funny record; the record that transformed The Who from Pete Townshend’s pet project into a truly democratic organization; the record that birthed the Rock opera and unveiled John Entwistle’s distinctly original and peculiarly macabre songwriting talents. Ladies and gentlemen… here’s A Quick One.

A Quick One by The Who
Originally released December 9, 1966 on Polydor Records
Produced by Kit Lambert

Track 1: Run Run Run (Pete Townshend)

“Run Run Run” sounds like it was specifically composed to function as a bridge between My Generation and A Quick One, joining the aural terrorism of the former with the offhand lyrical whimsy of the latter. As a composition, “Run Run Run” is slight: a rudimentary riff over which Daltrey shouts about the unluckiest girl in the world: she walks under ladders, cracks mirrors, opens umbrellas indoors, hangs out with black cats. Basically, she’s looking for some cosmic trouble. What makes “Run Run Run” a stand out is
the overdriven, overloaded, overhyped performance. Townshend’s guitar and The Ox’s bass are well in the red. Moon’s drumming is a wash of abused cymbals. Daltrey plays cock of the walk. Then Townshend rips off an effortlessly blazing solo that burns the whole enterprise to the ground before the band catches their second wind for a final-verse modulation that finds them ranting and raving into the sunset with that most unlucky lady on their collective arm. According to Steve Grantley and Alan G. Parker’s The Who by Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music, Jimmy Page is rumored to be the true culprit behind this track’s guitar solo. Yet that ascending, palm-muted riff is a Pete Townshend signature. Compare it to the one he tears off before the first modulation in “My Generation” at The Monterey Pop Festival. Very similar, indeed. Grantley and Parker also insist “Run Run Run” would have been a “sure-fire” hit had The Who released it as a single. That we’ll never know. The Cat and The Birds (featuring future Face/Stone Ronnie Wood and future Creation bassist Kim Gardner) didn’t have much luck with their interpretations of it, though.

Track 2: Boris the Spider (John Entwistle)

The Who fully exits My Generation territory with the second track on A Quick One. “Boris the Spider” is a first on several levels. It is the first Who song to eschew teen themes in favor of a more macabre—and completely lucid—storyline. It is the first track on which Townshend’s guitar is not prominent; a melodic bass riff is the driving force rather than a slashing chord sequence. It’s The Who’s first (though hardly their last) overt comedy song. And, of course, it’s John Entwistle’s first solo composition to appear on a Who record (though it isn’t his first solo composition, as has often been suggested).

Lunging in with a descending, chromatic riff, “Boris the Spider” sounds thick and weighty because Entwistle’s bass tone is so rich: distorted and crisp at the top of its range; round and sonorous at the bottom. All Keith has to do is thump along with each note. All Pete has to do is strum a single tremeloed chord to highlight the final note in the riff. “Boris” really sounds like a song written on the bass guitar. John’s lyric sounds like it was composed by a guy who neither understood nor gave a good goddamn about pop songwriting. It’s a nursery rhyme for demented children: the Little Miss Muffet-esque narrator watches a black, hairy, and very small spider crawl up his wall. The creepy crawler drops to the floor, and the singer briefly views the situation from its perspective (“Maybe he’s as scared as me”). That doesn’t stop the singer from stickily ending Boris by bashing him with a book. The end.

“Boris the Spider” unveils Entwistle’s love of the macabre and somewhat horrific subject matter. Along with the story’s gruesome conclusion, there’s the spider’s name— an homage to horror’s greatest star: Mr. Karloff. Entwistle’s voice was always the most versatile in The Who. He could affect a choirboy falsetto just as easily as crooning in his natural, throaty baritone. On “Boris the Spider” he tries on all his guises, drooping into a lugubrious baritone for the verses, ravaging his larynx for the monstrous refrain, and zipping into his upper register for the bizarrely fluttering bridge (“Cree-py, craw-ly, cree-py, craw-ly…”). Because Moon and Townshend maintain such low profiles, and Daltrey doesn’t even make a guest appearance, “Boris the Spider” is a veritable one-man show for Entwistle. Its success is inarguable.

Townshend later admitted he was jealous of how easily his bassist wrote the song. He may not even have understood the full extent of just how quickly it was composed. When the guys asked to hear what Entwistle had to contribute to the upcoming record, he quickly improvised the riff in the studio before dashing off home to complete the song. The off-the-cuff title was residue from the previous night’s festivities with fellow bassist Bill Wyman. Bill and John spent the evening making up silly names for animals over drinks (oh, to be a spider on the wall during that chat!). Townshend was even more irked when he learned his hero, Jimi Hendrix, rated “Boris the Spider” as his personal favorite Who song. Along with “Magic Bus”, it was the band’s most requested stage number, further drawing Pete’s irritation. “It’s the silly songs they like. Daft punters,” he grumbled.

Silly and cartoonish it may be, but “Boris the Spider” is the first evidence that The Who housed not one but two great writers. Even Pete admitted it should have been a single, and it has grown into a sort of honorary Who hit in the ensuing years, earning the only L.P.-track spot on the singles compilation Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy. “Boris” is also the only A Quick One number to remain in the band’s set lists throughout Entwistle’s life. It was his signature song, and when he recorded his first solo album in 1971, he began it with “My Size”, a track on which he revisited the “Boris” storyline, completely reviewing it through the many eyes of the title arachnid.

Track 3: I Need You (Keith Moon)

The song Keith Moon contributed to A Quick One originally bore the very Keith Moony title “I Need You (Like I Need a Hole in the Head)”. The finished product is not as unwieldy or savage as that title, yet “I Need You” still flashes Moon’s stamp in its overt debt to his all-time favorite band and its cheeky humor. The Beach Boys inspire his surfy drums and keening falsetto. The Beatles are the target of his good-natured jabs. Throughout the “Swinging London” era, Rock’s hippest convened in the penthouse of 7 Leicester Place, W1, in London. This exclusive club was the Ad Lib where everyone from Mick Jagger to Mary Quant to Ray Davies to Julie Christie could be found carousing until the wee hours any night of the week. Holding court over the proceedings was the Fab Four. Keith played court jester, a role he obviously cultivated, but “I Need You” indicates he may have resented The Beatles’ royal status a bit. He assumes the role of an outsider desperate to crack into The Beatles’ inner circle (“Please talk to me again! I need you!”) and willing to do whatever it takes to get close to them, whether it be dancing in their general vicinity or stroking their egos by begging to learn their legendary skills (“We want to learn, let us come and sitar with you”!). The furious beat dissipates. Waves of harpsichord arpeggios flood in. Moon employs the band’s Scouse road manager to impersonate Lennon. In contrast to Moon’s mock fawning, the faux Beatle is his usual laconic self, drawling, “Reorge and Gingo are coming down later with the wives, you know” (perhaps that means John and Paul should be called Pohn and Jaul for the purposes of this song). In reality, Moon was a beloved mascot of The Beatles, and he (unconvincingly) denied the spoken passage was a Lennon impression. He was a close friend of John and Ringo, even though the former took issue with him swinging from a chandelier buck-naked and dipping his scrotum into the Beatle’s soup.

Despite its colorful back story, Who historians tend to write off “I Need You” as a trifle by a guy always better behind the drum kit than the writing desk. To this writer’s ears, it is a creative power pop song and a fine contribution to The Who’s power poppiest album. With its moody minor key, unexpected harpsichord passages, and daft comedy interlude, “I Need You” is surprisingly sophisticated for the 19-year-old non-composer (he wrote it in the spring of ’66 before turning 20 in August). But does that sophistication raise a red flag? Could it be he sought the help of Entwistle or even Townshend to complete the song? This certainly wouldn’t be the only instance of Moon receiving credit for a song actually written by another band member, as would be the case with “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” on Tommy and the drummer’s second credited song on A Quick One. But alas, Moon may have taken the answer to this question with him to the grave.

Track 4: Whiskey Man (John Entwistle)

“Boris the Spider” gets all the attention, but Entwistle’s superior song may very well be “Whiskey Man”. Though not as unconventional as “Boris”, “Whiskey Man” is more legitimately spooky and more of a real Who performance. Townshend’s echoing chords and Keith Moon’s surfy drumming form the backdrop behind John’s morose voice, while his rudimentary bass takes a supporting role. Taking the instrumental center stage is Entwistle’s forlorn French horn, an unexpected ingredient in any pop song, let alone one by the fast and nasty Who. The instrument would become just as integral a bit-part player on The Who’s records as Jagger’s harp was on The Rolling Stones’, honking its way onto “See My Way”, “Pictures of Lily”, “Overture”, and many others.

Lyrically, Entwistle is once again spinning yarns. The main character of “Whiskey Man” is an alcoholic suffering the DT’s and hallucinating a fantasy friend who joins him on his benders. The narrator ends up getting collected by “two men dressed in white” and whiling away his days in a gloomy padded cell. Fortunately, good ol’ Whiskey Man is there to keep him company. According to Grantley and Parker, Entwistle received his inspiration from the 1966 western Ride Beyond Vengeance, in which Claude Akins plays a rancher with his own imaginary pal named Whiskey Man. Although the bassist didn’t suffer anything as serious as alcohol-induced hallucinations, he did experience some rather troublesome issues while recording “Whiskey Man”. Entwistle had trouble pronouncing the letter R, initially causing the refrain of “Whiskey Man’s my friend” to sound a bit garbled. The inventive bassist overcame his speech impediment by singing “flend” on one track then overdubbing “fwend” on a second. Somehow, the combination of the two mispronunciations do indeed sound like “friend”.

Track 5: Heat Wave (Brian Holland/Lamont Dozier/Edward Holland)

Tamla/Motown hits were Mod favorites and staples of The Who’s early live act. Short on original material (poor Roger could only manage one composition), the guys dip into their old trick bag to boost A Quick One to an even ten tracks with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” (a Billboard #1 R&B hit in the summer of ’63). The Who’s greatest asset was Pete Townshend’s songs, but the band could be mightily impressive when interpreting other artists’ material: Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rolling Stone”, Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and “Here ‘Tis”, Marvin Gaye’s “Baby, Don’t You Do It”, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and “My Way”. They even managed a fierce, punked-up rendition of The Stones’ “Under My Thumb”. Their take on “Heat Wave” doesn’t approach the standards of these other covers. It isn’t in the same universe as The Vandellas’ sublime original. The Who rush through their version, which doesn’t even clear two minutes. The harmonies are rough, and the recording is unusually noisy and compressed. Amidst the quirky numbers that comprise A Quick One, a slapdash Motown cover sounds particularly out of place. The Who gave “Heat Wave” greater attention when they attempted it in April 1965 for possible inclusion on a debut album that would have mostly consisted of covers. The version that ended up on A Quick One was recorded during the August 1966 sessions that spawned the Ready, Steady, Who E.P., which contained covers of “Barbara Ann”, Jan and Dean’s “Bucket T.”, and the theme to the very pop-art “Batman” television series. “Heat Wave” would have been adequate for that release, but it mars this L.P. In the U.S., MCA Records replaced it with The Who’s first stateside hit, which closed side A and served as the amended album’s title. Consequently, Happy Jack is that rare American album that bests its original UK counterpart.

Track 6: Cobwebs and Strange (Keith Moon)

From the perfunctory to the absurd. “I Need You” found Keith Moon indulging in a bit of chummy satire. He looses his marbles completely on “Cobwebs and Strange”. Well, at least someone does. The second composition credited to the drummer on A Quick One is an instrumental polka punctuated with absolutely mad detonations of drums. Originally titled “Showbiz Sonata”, “Cobwebs and Strange” should be impossible to rate as a proper Who song, yet its drum solos are so iconically Moony it is impossible not to recognize as the work of The Who. As crazy as their recent hits “I’m a Boy” and “Happy Jack” are, and as weird as much of this album is, “Cobwebs and Strange” still belongs in a class of its own. Moons manic drums and a bit of hyperactively strummed guitar aside, the main instruments are farty brass. Leading the march is John Entwistle, who gets off a rapid-fire solo on his trumpet, joined by Roger Daltrey on trombone and Pete Townshend on penny whistle. Kit Lambert initially recorded this ramshackle oompah band parading through the studio, sometimes stomping out of the microphone’s earshot! The following year, The Who revised and reprised “Cobwebs and Strange” on their pirate-radio parody The Who Sell Out, where it served as a Heinz Baked Beans advert. But wait. Why was Entwistle now credited as the tune’s composer? Well, the truth is, he was the real genius behind Keith’s cobwebs, according to an interview the bassist conducted with Goldmine magazine in 1996. There’s no reason to believe he was lying, because why would anyone in their right mind want to take credit for “Cobwebs and Strange”? At least the band sounds like they had an absolute blast recording it.

A Quick One in the U.S. : Happy Jack

Track 7: Don’t Look Away (Pete Townshend)

No side of a Who record contains fewer Pete Townshend compositions than the first one of A Quick One. With only a single, brief vocal spotlight on “Heat Wave” and an unusual scarcity of prominent guitar parts, he’s barely present on Side A once “Run Run Run” fades. Pete makes his comeback on Side B, though the song that opens it is one of his least enduring. Obscure “Don’t Look Away” may be, but it is evidence of how clever, tuneful, and witty his songs remained, even when he was tossing them off. “Don’t Look Away” picks up on the Country & Western vibe The Who first messed with on “A Legal Matter”. The newer track is less electric, less aggressively Who-like, more bubblegummy. The cute melody and Beach-Boys style harmonies contrast a gruesome lyric worthy of Entwistle: the singer begs his lady friend not to abandon him as he’s being eaten by a lion! Roger’s drawn out drawl and a minor key dip right before the refrain supply a touch of menace. Townshend’s bendy, twangy licks during the solo compliment the pleading tone nicely. As far as filler goes, “Don’t Look Away” is first-rate, and it’s a far more welcome addition to A Quick One than “Heat Wave”.

Track 8: See My Way (Roger Daltrey)

Songwriting wasn’t Roger Daltrey’s main ambition. An attempt to form a partnership with Pete resulted in the great early single “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, but Townshend’s preference for working alone put a quick end to that. Tasked with writing two songs for A Quick One, Daltrey could only squeeze out one. “See My Way” is a skimpy pop song, not even making it to “Heat Wave’s” 1:54 length. Set alongside Entwistle and Moon’s songs, it is the least original and inspired, yet it’s still a decent little number. The obvious inspiration is Buddy Holly, and the writer was so intent on recreating the dampened sound Jerry Allison achieved on “Peggy Sue” that Moon ended up drumming on cardboard boxes! Entwistle’s French horn bursts are a quirky counterpoint to the galloping, Rock & Roll rhythm.

Like “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, “See My Way” reflects the singer’s tough-guy persona, desperate to force all others to share his point of view, bitterly moving on when failing to do so. Yet there may be a more private message in the song. Roger Daltrey was always The Who’s odd-man-out, not sharing the others’ indulgences, whether they were chemical or musical. He was a straight-laced guy who liked singing hard blues and soul. Wayward onstage jams exasperated him (at least until he figured out how to participate in them, as he did so well on Live at Leeds). His tendency to emphasize his dissenting stance with a punch didn’t endear him to his bandmates. There was often talk of booting him from The Who, though “See My Way” suggests he may have had his own designs on splitting (“I’m glad it’s goodbye”). A trace of self-doubt (“Although at times when you kept on I thought that I was mad”) and the music’s softness humanize Roger’s angry message. Roger and The Who reached a shaky truce, but his role as songwriter didn’t last. Aside from one outtake (“Early Morning Cold Taxi”) and an ultra-obscure B-side (“Here for More”), he never penned another Who song.

Track 9: So Sad About Us (Pete Townshend)

If Martians landed on Earth and demanded to know the meaning of “power pop,” one spin of “So Sad About Us” would be a perfectly definitive response. Townshend’s finest traditional song on A Quick One encapsulates The Who’s charm in 1966. It is extremely powerful, but sweet and melodic with lovely harmonies between Roger and John. The lyric is as regretful and sensitive as the performance is joyful and just a touch brutal. “So Sad About Us” eulogizes a relationship, yet also celebrates the love that will continue to endure (“But you can’t switch off my loving like you can’t switch off the sun”)—a more mature attitude than one generally found in mid-‘60s break-up songs. Townshend’s ringing, authoritative 12-string Rickenbacker chords and Moon’s pummeling beat whip up as strong a storm as they did on My Generation, but the overall effect is far prettier than anything on that record (with the arguable exception of the similar “The Kids Are Alright”). Beginning the performance in high gear, The Who can only achieve climax by modulating, a trick that worked well for them on “My Generation”. It does here too.

“So Sad About Us” gains much momentum from its performance and nuance from Pete's lyric, so the fact that the central riff is a complete recycle of The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” doesn't detract any pleasure from the track. Although The Who never gave the song the attention it deserved, only including it in their stage sets briefly, it has become a cult favorite, inspiring loving interpretations by The Merseybeats (who tackled it even before The Who on a flop single), Powder, The Jam, Primal Scream, The Breeders, and…errr…Shaun Cassidy.

Track 10: A Quick One, While He’s Away (Pete Townshend)

Even with the worthy contributions from Entwistle, Moon, and Daltrey—and despite Townshend’s usual prolificacy— the new record was still ten-minutes short. Opera enthusiast Kit Lambert suggested Townshend fill out the remainder by stringing together unfinished songs into a single, epic suite. Pete was initially skeptical, insisting, “Rock songs are two minutes fifty by tradition!” A little cajoling from Lambert awakened his latent pretentiousness, and he set to work on formulating the piece he would later refer to as his first “mini opera” and “Tommy’s parents.” Rather than reviving material from the vaults, Townshend composed six new miniatures to convey a simple narrative he might have cribbed from a stag film. A lonely damsel frets in the absence of her man. She seeks solace in the bed of a dirty old engine driver named Ivor. Her beau returns to catch them in falgrante delicto. The piece climaxes with the girl (played by Townshend), her fellow (Daltrey), and Ivor (resident transgressor Entwistle) forgiving each other in soaring three-part counterpoint.

Part one of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is the brief, a cappella “Her Man’s Gone”, in which scene is set. Gone for “nigh on a year”, the boyfriend was due to return yesterday, but still ain’t here. The guys form a sort of barbersop sextet by dubbing their voices multiple times. The resulting harmonic mass is rich and wide-ranging, almost supporting Entwistle’s claim that The Who could harmonize just as well as The Beach Boys. The otherwise powerful live arrangement of “A Quick One…” always began a bit anemically since the singers could not reproduce the density of the studio version of “Her Man’s Gone”. But let’s not dwell here too much because we’re quickly on to…

… “Crying Town”, in which a Greek chorus provides further details about our heroine’s predicament. Her plight is so great that her very street is world famous for the sounds of her weeping. Built around an elliptical guitar figure and Entwistle’s tuneful, wordless falsetto, this is the segment that sounds most like The Who as we’ve come to know them…

…“We Have a Remedy” is The Who of the near future. The suspended guitar lick is not unlike the one that leads “So Sad About Us”, but the rhythmic pomp and “fa-la-la-la” chorus provide the piece’s first instance that really sounds operatic, though in the light, intrinsically British mode of Gilbert and Sullivan. Townshend would revisit this approach anytime he sought an “operatic” feeling, as he did on “Rael”, much of Tommy, and “Guitar and Pen” (Quadrophenia, however, is more in line with the bombast of Wagner). Also like “So Sad About Us”, “We Have a Remedy” is musically mighty yet houses atypical sensitivity. The singers are not suitors but consolers who promise to stave off the heroine’s sadness by keeping her company, bringing her “flowers and things”, and helping her pass the time chastely. Yet their assurance that “he’s only late” does little to quench her desires. Enter…

… “Ivor the Engine Driver” is where the narrative comes into focus. Entwistle plays the role in his lowest, smuttiest, most chop-licking baritone. Townshend seems to have been directly inspired by the singer of this segment. The use of a grungy bass riff rather than the usual Who chord sequence recalls “Boris the Spider”. Moon distinguishes himself with his neck-breaking drum rolls and the flush of cymbals Kit Lambert mixed with emphasis on the high-end to mimic a steam engine’s hiss. “Ivor the Engine Driver” is where we first learn the heroine is actually an under-age Girl Guide, whom Ivor lures with sweets. This is quite a development. So the character so distraught over lack of sex has been a child all along? Or at least a teen? Transgressive The Who may be, but “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is still difficult to buy as a comedic romp about pedophilia. The Girl Guide development comes off more as pornographic role-playing—a sex kitten who dons a schoolgirl uniform for titillation. However, following his more recent revelations about his own boyhood sexual abuse at the hands of an actual engine driver, Townshend’s jokiness takes on a disturbing tinge. His revelation that “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is a tale of child abuse seems like a revision of his original intentions following the realization that some of its events parallel his own life. He has never suggested he consciously set out to explore child abuse when cobbling it together in 1966…

…“A Quick One’s” most controversial passage is followed by its slightest. The hero’s return is conveyed with a clip-clopping, Country & Western chant set to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’s “Happy Trails to You”. This is the segment teased at the end of “I Need You”. For live versions of “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, The Who edited down certain sections. Most egregiously, “Ivor the Engine Driver” lost a verse. But it’s safe to say no one complained when the interminable four repetitions of “Soon Be Home” were cut in half on stage. Extreme repetition wasn’t always a bad thing, as The Who would prove on…

…“You Are Forgiven” is the mini-opera’s necessary climax in which the hero returns home, forgives his girl’s infidelity, she joins in to forgive him for his absence, and Ivor offers forgiveness for…well, who the hell knows why? The hole-riddled, possibly deviant plot becomes instantly irrelevant as soon as the singers communicate the man’s arrival by singing his knocks on the front door.

“Dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang!”

Budget constraints preventing The Who from hiring a cellist (a long repeated tale possibly debunked by the fact that cello is prominent in an outtake of “Happy Jack” from the very same period) inspire further vocal mimicry.

“Cello, cello, cello, cello, cello, cello!”

Following the Girl Guide’s words of forgiveness and a guitar figure that would recur in the future operas “Rael” and Tommy, the floodgates burst. Once again building their choir with the magic of overdubbing, Pete, Roger, and John embark on a breath-taking volley of “You Are Forgiven!” John’s falsetto steals the show, winning a brief solo spotlight before the other voices and instruments rush back in for an exhilarating yet brief coda—the Rock & Roll equivalent of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. With that, Townshend’s mini-opera comes to a shuddering end. The Who would never be the same. This exciting and original nine-minute suite is where highfalutin concepts first became an integral element of the group’s modus operandi. It is not just the parents of the Rock opera Tommy, but the L.P.-length parody The Who Sell Out, the failed sci-fi project Lifehouse that ultimately spawned Who’s Next, the song cycle Quadrophenia, and the “Wire & Glass” mini-opera that completed the 2006 comeback album Endless Wire. These wacky, perhaps pretentious, certainly ambitious and imaginative projects are what saved The Who when they were losing money and failing to break into the essential American market. All that considered, this obscure track at the end of The Who’s most obscure album might be the most important thing they ever recorded.

A Quick One was released 45 years ago today.

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