The Who Before Tommy. The Kids Are Alright.

In 1965 I knew about how the Beat from the Mersey tide that had swept us all up was now receding. Those lovable Mop Tops were moving right along. They not only bought a ticket to ride, ¬†they were driving the bus. The London art school boys were tired of waiting and drove pop forward anyway, anyhow, anywhere they pleased. England swings, like a pendulum do . Was I a precocious 12 year old ? I don’t think so. When the Beatles shook the world it was Year Zero for the youth. Something was happening and even if we did not know what it was, the music was telling us about new ways of looking at and thinking about the world. TV, newspapers,our parents, our schools,none of them understood the outer manifestations (the hair, the clothes) . How were they gonna even get near to a rejection of the straight jacket of twisted, hypocritical morality which had prevailed in “Great” Britain from Victorian times until 15 years after the end of World War 2 ? They were not.

Lennon & McCartney started a tradition of young British working class boys going into their bedroom with a guitar and their favourite music emerging with ideas and sounds which would affect the world. This voice had not been heard in their own homes before. Now, if you were any good, your music allowed you to reach millions of people. In 1965 some of those young Brits who walked through the door kicked down by the Beatles were ahead of the writers, the film-makers and the artists when it came to reflecting and anticipating change in the world.

Here are The Who looking bored on the edge of The Serpentine in Hyde Park as they lip-synch a track from their 1965 LP “My Generation”. The early days of the group (as the High Numbers) were a messy energetic mix of R & B, Motown and Surf/Beach Boys covers. This worked well enough in the mod clubs and the West London pubs but when it came to recording they needed their own sound. They found it immediately. The group’s guitarist, just 20 that summer, Pete Townshend showed a facility for song writing, of such originality, that he wrote 7 Top 10 singles from the first 2 LPs. He handed over his lyrics to the singer, Roger Daltrey, while he worked the power chords. Keith Moon was a drummer so unique that his busy but not intrusive style still surprises today. John Entwistle provided a solid bass rumble upon which the power and the fury revolved.

The third single by the Who was “My Generation”, a blistering cry of youth revolt , still regarded as a definitive rock anthem. It established them in the music world and the quality of Pete’s songs ensured their position was maintained and their reputation enhanced. “The Kids Are Alright” was released as a single by a record company from which the group were trying to extricate themselves . It was not a hit because the Who did little to promote the song. No matter, it is an outstanding example of the group’s early work. I could examine the entrails of the song., the pace, the harmonies, the chorded guitar break (hardly a solo) but is the whole which is most satisfying. Townshend had the three minute simple logic of the pop song down. The lyrics hardly match the angst and sexual frustration of other 60s Who singles but the song is a positive one about liking and trusting your friends. You know as I listen to this song I hear the pace and feel of early R.E.M. “Chronic Town” and “Murmur” were a young three piece band making a good noise, making their point and not hanging about. It is never not a pleasure to hear “The Kids Are Alright”.

The Who did not have big hits in the U.S.A. The brilliant run of singles had their champions in the press there but it was not until the tour of 1967 that the group made an impression. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was a gathering of the new Californian hippie tribe. It was the Who and the honorary Brit, Jimi Hendrix, who took the power and aggression of the music to an almost logical conclusion and destroyed the instruments they used to make it. Those L.A. hippies had the flowers blown clean out of their hair and the Who were on their way.

This appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Show” helped as well. “My Generation” was two years old but was new to Americans. The band are leaving the young Mod look behind and are in their Carnaby Street finery (and what seems like a layer of pancake make up). To us British it is the Who doing that thing they do. To American viewers it was another example of the strangeness of this new music. The story is that Moon, not wanting to be upstaged by Pete’s guitar smashing act, bribed a stage hand to increase the explosives in his drum kit. The resultant explosion shocked everybody. It is hilarious.

Pete Townshend, from early on, tried to find an effective way of linking his music. The second LP “A Quick One” had a title track that was 9 minutes long and was dubbed a “mini opera”. Released a year before the pivotal “Sergeant Pepper” Townshend was showing his hand too soon. The Who’s audience wanted those three minute vignettes combined with the muscle of the power trio. “So Sad About Us” from the LP and not a single is another Mod classic in the vein of “Kids”. After the Beatles, the deluge. Every band and their uncle were getting it together in the country in search of their “concept album”. The Who certainly delivered with “Tommy” an album that has sold over 20 million copies. In this writer’s opinion the LP before “Tommy”, an attempt at aural pop art with songs linked by radio jingles and ads is a finer piece of work. “The Who Sell Out” (113 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest LPs) is a more successful and fully realised piece of work.

Anyway, what do I know ? By the end of 1968 The Who were a major live act and in December they were guests on the Rolling Stones’ ¬†Rock and Roll Circus.This was a TV spectacular/the Stones’ answer to “Magical Mystery Tour”. It was not released at the time. The performance of “Salt of the Earth” is perhaps one reason, Jagger and Richard’s legendary procrastination another. The Who were straight off a concert tour and were fully match fit. Rather than perform anything from “Tommy” they reached back and revived “A Quick One”. They were sensational as you can see in the clip. Daltrey is becoming the master fringed frontman, not yet whirling the mic around. The others are all just so on it.Pete had now perfected the windmill power chord. Moon plays as though he has more than two arms. Entwistle, the rock solid bassist, provides French horn and falsetto vocals as required. Amazing.It may not be the best Who song but it is a great performance. Perhaps the reason for such a delay (it was finally shown in 1996) is that the “greatest rock and roll band in the world” were blown off stage by the Who that night.