Friday, January 13, 2012

The Who--A Quick One (1966)

1. Run, Run, Run; 2. Boris the Spider; 3. I Need You; 4. Whiskey Man; 5. Heatwave; 6. Cobwebs and Strange; 7. Don't Look Away; 8. See My Way; 9. So Sad About Us; 10. A Quick One, While He's Away; [bonus tracks]: 11. Batman; 12. Bucket T; 13. Barbara Ann; 14. Disguises; 15. Doctor, Doctor; 16. I've Been Away; 17. In the City; 18. Happy Jack (Acoustic Version); 19. Man With the Money; 20. My Generation/Land of Hope and Glory

Yes, I realize that there's a 13 up there, which is one point MORE than I gave the debut. I realize that the debut was a groundbreaking, influential work that is still acknowledged as a major influence by artists today, and that this one, especially when you factor in the bonus tracks, is practically a novelty album, and the one major influence it gave is not something that's considered a universal positive. Well, frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a flip-flying fuck--this is one of the most enjoyable records in my collection, and is one of my go-to listens when I need something light and less serious than a lot of the stuff I normally listen to. And that the influence on this album is just as important to my favorite styles of music as all the maximum r&b stuff on the debut, but I'll get to that later. Just to clarify, though, the 13 is for the CD re-release with the bonus tracks, the original album by its lonesome would get a 12.

So, anyway, the reason for the rather less-than-serious tone across most of the album, and for the rather radical shift in style to softer pop, is the fact that the record company gave each individual member of the band an advance--on the condition that they write two songs for the next record. Bar "The Ox" and Daltrey's co-credit on "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" none of the band other than Pete had even tried to contribute anything before, so this was a major gamble by the company, and I'm not quite sure why they took it, especially as Townshend had proved that he was more than capable of carrying the band's songwriting weight on his shoulders alone.

Thankfully, the gamble worked for the most part. I say for the most part because Daltrey only has one song on the album, and good GOD does it suck. It's AWFUL. I'm not sure if he was literally incapable of writing another song or if everything he came up was somehow WORSE than "See My Way," but thank God it has never seen the light of day, because "See My Way" is more than bad enough. Reading out of the rhyming dictionary does not constitute a song, Roger! I mean, come on, "Some day, some day, I'll find a way to make you see my way"? Christ, I've written better lyrics than that! Not to mention the fact that the band has to really stretch to make this thing reach two minutes, which unless you're a hardcore punk band or are writing a linking track for a rock opera means the thing should probably go back to committee for extensive retooling. Although Keith drumming on cardboard boxes is kind of cool, I guess. God, at least the R&B covers on the debut were well-written, even if the performances suck. Speaking of R&B covers, the version of "Heatwave" presented here actually isn't too bad, even if it is the second-worst thing here, and the cover of the Everly Brothers' "Man With the Money" included among the bonus tracks is actually pretty good. The point of all this is that Roger is a fantastic singer and seems like a genuinely great guy (anyone who records audio commentary for the Simpsons episode they guest starred in is a-OK in my book), and would eventually be a real asset to the band, but when he makes creative decisions the albums tend to...falter. Thankfully, this situation would be remedied in the future when he devoted all his efforts to making Pete's (and occasionally John's) songs come alive, although it probably wouldn't have hurt to give him another chance on It's Hard, and I should probably move on because it takes longer to read this rant than it does to even listen to the bloody song!

From a pure songwriting perspective, Keith probably has even less talent than Roger, but his two compositions here are much more entertaining than "See My Way (of Writing a Piece of Shit Song)." (I'll stop now. Sorry.) "I Need You" actually has the skeleton of a real song, and the lyrics aren't exactly inspired, but the drums are mixed so loud that it doesn't really matter, and "Cobwebs and Strange" is absolutely inspired. It's marching music mixed with short blasts of drum solo, and I'd be fine if it were twice as long. Listen to how fast he does that break at about 1:25--he may be sloppy, but Keith Moon is still without a doubt my favorite drummer of all time. And his singing on "Barbara Ann" and "Bucket T" is a total hoot (check out The Kids are Alright film for an hilarious performance of "Barbara Ann"). Funny how when at this stage of the game when the band did a legitimate cover I do nothing but bitch, but when they ham it up like this I love it. I guess mere competence is boring but ham is entertaining.

The real victory to the songwriting arrangement, however, is that it got John Entwistle into songwriting, and the very first song he wrote for the band is one of his most famous--yep, this is the album with "Boris the Spider." Yeah, it's a pure novelty song, but who doesn't love hearing the tragic tale of poor Boris and his encounter with a heavy book? Not to mention the contrast between John's proto-death metal growl in the chorus and the falsetto in the bridge. "Whiskey Man" is hardly any worse, though, I especially love the French horn breaks. The three John-written bonus tracks are also a lot of fun--"Doctor, Doctor," "I've Been Away," and "In the City" (the latter a Moon co-write) all have fantastic melodies and establish John as an absolute master of black comedy (he would only get more delightfully twisted--especially on his solo albums), and I especially love the falsetto on "Doctor, Doctor." I know some people like to bitch that John's songs sometimes distract from the serious, confessional nature of Pete's songs on later albums, but I for one almost always enjoy them and completely dispute the notion that The Who only had one great songwriter. He had a massively different style, but to me those moments of levity that he provides are very necessary, and some of my favorite tracks on later albums were written by John. The guy's a pretty decent bassist, too.

Pete, then, contributes four songs on the original album, by far the fewest he would ever contribute to a Who album, and while none rank among his all-time best all of them are good. "Run, Run, Run" would probably get lost in the shuffle were it in the middle of an album, but it works great as the opener, and "Don't Look Away" and "So Sad About Us" are solid pop songs. The real innovation, however, is the nine-minute title track, the first ever attempt at a rock opera. Yeah, the story is dippy as hell (Girl: "I'm lonely and horny since my man left town;" Ivor the Engine Driver (dirty old sod!): "He'll probably be back, but if you're that horny…" Girl: "Sure, why the hell not?" Guy: "Home now!" Girl: "Yeah, I kinda did it with the old creepy engine driver. I probably have herpes now;" Guy: "Eh, whatever"), but God is it ever entertaining. Roger, John (as Ivor), and Pete all do a great job telling the story, but my absolute favorite part is near the end when they all sing "Cello, cello, cello, cello" because they couldn't afford an actual string section! To be honest, this version sounds kind of wimpy compared to the giant balls the song would grow onstage, but it also has some extra lyrics that would eventually be cut out, making this version a worthwhile listen. And remember, without "A Quick One," there would be no Tommy or Quad, (not to mention all the rock operas by other artists--yeah, somebody would have created the concept eventually, but probably not well enough to make it really viable for future exploration), which makes it an extremely important track.

Now, let's see, among the rest of the bonus tracks, the band's cover of the Batman theme is a total hoot, and Keith's drumming on the weird mix of "My Generation" and "Land of Hope and Glory" is fantastic. You know, the more I think about it, the more I love most of this album. In a way, I guess I should be glad that "See My Way (to Getting Paid by Doing Minimal Work)" sucks such a fat one, otherwise I'd have to justify giving this baby a 14, and even I realize that that's just ridiculous. So, thanks, Roger. Never try to write a song ever again.

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