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.
If you’ve only ever heard this on the radio, you may be missing out on the bizarre freakout that is Tommy. The Who’s hit single still pops up a lot on those radio stations that claim they play anything, but it’s barely a trace of the weirdness from whence it came. The mother album was weird enough – a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball prodigy loosely inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba. It was a mountain of terrible ideas pulled off through sheer conviction, birthing the concept of concept albums on the way. But was that enough for The Who and their vision? No, they had to have their vision visualized, so they made a movie, with schlock auteur Ken Russell. That’s when things got really weird. You can enjoy it a lot more if you think of it less as a feature film and more as a very long music video. Also if you’re drugged to the gills. It’s certainly a feast of surreal images, and unexpected guest performances of various quality (Tina Turner, thumbs up; Jack Nicholson, not so much.) Ann-Margaret earned herself an Oscar nomination, presumably for the scene where she’s doused in baked beans. Roger Daltrey was not nominated for any awards, despite being very limber and blue of eye. Elton John’s guest appearance is another highlight. Sir Elton is no actor, but that’s not what the role requires. It’s the perfect Elton John cameo; it suits him both musically and aesthetically. It’s exactly the perfect collision of talent that could only happen in the musical wild west of the mid seventies, when movies of concept albums could get made and earn awards.
The irony hangs heavy over this one. “Hope I die before I get old” is a catchphrase that’s stuck with The Who like a misguided tattoo. It’s dumb line; no one honestly wants to die before they get old. It could only have been written by the very young and very defiant. Keith Moon, of course, did die young, but that doesn’t mean he succeeded where the others failed. The others, meanwhile have lived to see the generational divide so aptly illustrated in forced banter of Dick Smothers turn itself around. The guys who sang My Generation as ringleaders in a tide-turning, world-changing counter-cultural revolution are now the olds, the entrenched, the holders of the status quo, just waiting to be overturned in their turn. It is, as Elton John sang, the circle of life.
Like many of The Who’s songs, this one provokes deep thought. It’s a pretty simple song, at first glance straightforward. But every time I hear it, I wonder. As you may have noticed, the narrator offers to purchase the ‘magic bus’ that takes him to his baby’s house. Now, if he can afford to buy a bus, why doesn’t he have a car? If he has that much dough, he shouldn’t be riding around on public transportation in the first place. And why is he so emotionally attached to the method of transportation anyway? Is he projecting his feelings onto inanimate objects because he has difficulty expressing them in the normal way? Or maybe there’s a deeper meaning to it. Maybe ‘bus’ is some kind of code word for, like, drugs or something? Like he wants to buy the drugs that take him to his happy place, right. Or, wait, wait, wait, maybe it’s all a big metaphor! Maybe the girlfriend’s house is like heaven or the afterlife or something, and the bus is like the journey through life that takes us there and the purchase is an attempt at controlling the direction of the path of life. Wow, man, that’s so deep!
The fear that rock might be dead has plagued rock since the day rock was born. It cycles around every few years, the question “What if rock really is dead this time?” I think it become a debate every time a demographic has to face that it – and the artists it admires – has aged out of the zeitgeist. It’s really about the existentialism of fans facing their own mortality. The Who articulated it in 1974, when they themselves had to see their generation crest the hill of relevance and start going down the other side. Rock, of course, is never dead. It evolves and changes faces, and sometimes it may seem dead, but it’s just resting. Rock was far from being dead in 1974. ’74 was a great year for music, but it may not have looked like all that to fans who were becoming middle aged and finding themselves no longer fully in tune with the scene. The same question is being asked today, as 90’s kids goggle at the inexplicable wonders of EDM, and 2000’s indie hipsters mourn the decline of emo. Is rock dead now? It may be in a resting phase. I feel that there’s a lot of good music being made, and many young stars are on the verge of being minted, but nothing truly iconoclastic has yet emerged in this still-young decade. Inevitably, though, it will, and when it does the question will be not whether or not rock is dead or revived, but will I have the presence of mind to recognize it as living.
Let’s dedicate today to observing and appreciating a fine example of 1960’s style videomaking. You know I take music videos very seriously as an art form. As with any art form, it’s important to understand its history. In the 60’s promo videos per se were a rarity. The idea that songs could be accompanied by elaborate short films hadn’t come into vogue yet. Nor was there really any need for videos as we know them today; bands who wanted to visually disseminate their singles into people’s living rooms had a large number of musical and variety shows to go and appear on, such as Thank Your Lucky Stars, Shindig!, the venerable Top of the Pops, Ed Sullivan and many others. Today shows like SNL and late night talk shows offer a similar platform, but there’s only a few of them, they only host one act per show, and they only come on late at night. But back then, television variety shows were a vitally important avenue of publicity. In fact, since it was also rare to record concerts, those shows are our primary source of seeing live musical performances from that era. But don’t let the phrase ‘live musical performance’ mislead you; not all of those shows actually did any live recording. Many relied on the formula of a band lip syncing to their own recordings in front of a corny background (with often hilariously awkward results.) Top of the Pops was particularly notorious for this. That practice of lip syncing a fake ‘live’ performance became the basis of the first music videos and is still used today. Here we have an early example of a music video as we know it starring The Who and their hit single The Kids Are Alright. This video is, I think, an early creative departure in that it’s filmed outdoors with passerby reactions plainly visible. It’s also entirely synced and doesn’t even pretend otherwise. The Who appear rightfully abashed as a curious crowd of rowers and schoolchildren slowly gathers. It must have been an unprecedented scene, and probably rather embarrassing for the participants. The Who have a well-earned reputation as a smashing live band, and mouthing along to a recording does no justice to their charisma. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy artifact, showing a stylish young band on the rise, as well as a glimpse of what’s presumably a typical 1965 English park crowd. This has to be one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of a well- executed promo video, and if only they had been allowed to really play…
The Who’s Tommy has to be one of the greatest rock movies. That doesn’t mean it’s exactly a good movie by regular movie standards, but it’s too gonzo not to love. Tommy the album was classic enough on its own, chock-full of great songs and half-baked ideas. It didn’t hold together as a narrative, because that’s very hard to achieve through pop songs, but it made sense on an emotional level. The child Tommy experiences a trauma which makes him deaf, dumb and blind but doesn’t stop him becoming a pinball champion. He’s used and abused by various family members until he has some kind of a breakthrough and achieves enlightenment. Loosely based on Pete Townshend’s own traumatic childhood and search for enlightenment, it’s basically a story about trying to become a whole person despite everything that’s shitty in the world, from WWII to molesty uncles to religious cults. It was obviously just begging to be made into a movie. Surely director Ken Russell was more than delighted to take the job, as it gave him a chance to get away from worrying about petty things like narrative continuity and spend more time filming Ann Margaret wallowing in beans. Russell brought his usual flamboyant style, and cranked it up to eleven. Though the concept was Townshend’s baby, Roger Daltrey was cast as Tommy, for reasons that are obvious. Daltrey was comely and could even act a little bit. There were also appearances by Elton John, Eric Clapton, Oliver Reed, Keith Moon and Tina Turner, among others. I can’t recommend this to anyone who is not a Who and/or psychedelic drug fan, but if you are, then you’re in for a treat. Don’t call it a movie, call it a feature length music video. You’ll enjoy it more that way.