A Quick One, While He’s Away

You might not thank them for it, but The Who invented concept albums. Before they delved all the way into long form narrative songwriting, they started with a mini-opera in six movements, which clocked in at a relatively modest nearly-ten-minutes. That alone should remind you just how incredibly weird The Who really were. They don’t get nearly enough credit for how avant-garde they were. Perhaps their memorable habit of smashing things was too much of a distraction and overshadowed their more intellectual innovations, though it also put them among the godfathers of punk. How many people can take credit for paving the way for both punk and prog-rock? But besides being trailblazers in the field of onstage violence and offstage misadventure, they also blew open the limitations of pop songwriting. Pete Townshend wanted to tell stories that were more complex than the usual three-minute pop song structure was thought to allow, so he threw away the three-minute pop song rulebook. Even the Who’s three minute pop songs weren’t the usual pop song stuff; they were frequently clever and humorous, but they told stories that were darkly subversive. A Quick One came out in 1966, and knocked around in various iterations, the best of which, I think, is the long-buried Rock and Roll Circus performance. It tells, in six distinct segments, what appears to be a straightforward story of marital infidelity. It wasn’t until decades later that Townshend revealed that the song was actually his attempt to articulate memories of childhood sexual abuse, under the loose cover of a typical cheating-spouse narrative. That certainly explains the high level of emotional intensity packed into those eight minutes. Only something vividly personal could feel that angry and cathartic. That feeling of anger and catharsis made for a few legendary live performances, but it was unsustainably draining. The Who stopped playing a Quick One in 1970 and didn’t play any part of it again until their reunion in 2014 – it was just too painful.

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