Friday 16 July 2010

The Who "A Quick One While He's Away" (1966) (News, Views and Music 67, Revised Review 2016)

You can now buy 'Gettin' In Tune - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Who' in e-book form by clicking here!

Run Run Run/Boris The Spider/I Need You/Whiskey Man/Heatwave/Cobwebs And Strange/Don’t Look Away//See My Way/So Sad About Us/A Quick One While He’s Away

The Who “A Quick One” (1966)
The Who never seemed to exist in the same time zone as other 60s artists. Whilst The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Hollies and The Kinks were on a near-impossible deadline of two or three albums a year plus up to six singles made up of new material, The Who released one album a year if fans were lucky. Whilst it’s fair to say that more than any of the other AAA groups The Who thought of themselves as primarily a live touring band and wrote new material more with their stage act in mind than their albums in these early days, ‘A Quick One’ shows more than any other album how much contempt the band had for the record buying public. Whilst debut album ‘My Generation’ mixed blues covers with Pete Townshend’s first crop of original songs, this second album ‘A Quick One’ splits the writing credits between all four members – three of whom had never written a note before and two of whom will barely ever write for the band again. To top it all, in 1966 The Who were officially broke despite scoring some of the biggest singles of the period, having spent all their money on touring equipment, paying off debts and destroying countless guitars, drumkits and hotel rooms along the way. They were also directionless, having had a major row with producer Shel Talmy not long after The Kinks had also fallen out with him and won themselves out of a costly contract only thanks to a clause that would give the troublesome producer a proportion of their future royalties, without anyone in The Who camp able to replace him just yet or willing to trust another outsider just yet. Perhaps thanks to all this chaos there had been a gradual drying up of Pete’s muse during 1966, with the band’s post-Substitute singles showing a gradual decline in sales and acclaim. As always but more so, the band were also at each other's throats, with Roger Daltrey ever so nearly kicked out of The Who in this period (before agreeing to tone down the aggressive side of his nature and blossom into '{Peaceful Perc' - to his credit the singer keeps his cool from now on, at least up until 'Lifehouse' when everyone started getting pissed at Pete). Frankly, things weren't looking good that The Who were going to see the end of their second year as a recording act and the band were in danger of f-f-f-f-ading away.

This is clearly not the formula for a successful sequel and nor did Pete Townshend have the backlog of songs that his peers did to get them out of trouble, having hit his stride as a songwriter at about the same time the first Who singles came out. The band patently can't go back to doing James Brown covers again and by 1966 mod and Union Jack-ets are becoming passé, while the one and only cover song on this album (the ever-popular 'Heatwave') is as dated as a timeless band like The Who will ever sound. So what's a band to do when the writer isn't writing, the band isn't getting on, the money isn't coming in and after a year of silence punctuated by a mere three singles and one EP, The Who seem on the way out? You make a quick album while the muse is away and hope that everything will come right again soon (which it will the following year). 'A Quick One' is very much a 'treading water' kind of an album. The edge, the nihilism and originality of  the Townshend-written parts of 'The Who Sings My Generation' has been replaced by a gradual dilution of what The Who used to be about as the band try to stretch their musical legs whilst still being new they simply keep falling over. The best songs here nearly all hark back to their previous formula of confident paranoia: 'Run Run Run' and 'So Sad About Us' reflect 'My Generation's bitterness and cynicism, even if the performances are a lot more joyful this time around, while 'Don't Look Away' is a first tentative go at the ballads that will become some of The Who's best material in future and  the title track tries to take Pete's ability to tell a short compact story and stretch it into a novella, maybe even a mini-novel. Had Pete been given even more than a year of to acclimatise him to the sudden constant need for material (which, as a former art student who by his own admission spent most of the day in bed, was a shock) or had the better material from the recently-released 'Ready Steady Who' EP been kept back then this second album might yet have paid dividends and established The Who at the forefront of popular music again. Instead Pete gets just those four songs on the album - the lowest of any Who release ev-uh, while collectively the other untested band members write five between the three of them. This is clearly a bonkers decision - a little like locking The Spice Girls in a room and telling her she can only sing material she writes from now on rather than hiring songs about grrrl power from middle-aged men or asking Bono if he could shut up and give the other guys in U2 a go at the peak of their fame. You'd only do it if you had to...

...And arguably The Who had to. Nobody back in 1966 (well, maybe The Beatles and Beach Boys) was thinking of their work as 'art'. Money drives most industries, then and now, and poetry only counts as an achievement if it 'sold'. The Who may have already cut some of the finest singles of the 1960s, but in terms of star power they're not quite there yet - and badly in debt to boot. Band manager Chris Stamp was weary already of the band backstabbing and the competition between lead singer Roger Daltrey and lead writer Pete Townshend on the one hand and John and Keith's boredom with the power struggles and demands to form another band if the others don't cool it' on the other (they almost joined Led Zeppelin in their pre-record contract days - curiously Stamp doesn't mention any of this in his surprisingly placatory CD sleevenotes...). So in order to take the pressure off his protégé Pete and give some power back to Roger and getting some quick handy money to keep the debt collectors off their backs into the bargain the band won some 'easy money' from publishing company Essex Music with the promise that they could get three new signees to their organisation while also reinforcing the idea of The Who as a ‘team’ and a ‘democracy’. No one, it seems, asked the band if they minded. One of them didn't: John had been characteristically quite about it but had been writing for a while - 'In The City', recorded at these sessions, was released before this album on the B-side of 'I'm A Boy' and a few reviewers even preferred it's jolly simplicity to Pete's ambitious A-side. Keith was willing to have a go at anything, even if he admitted later to not having a clue what he was doing and borrowing lots of help for his two tracks 'I Need You' (finished off with a lot of help from Townshend) and 'Cobwebs and Strange' ('inspired' with a lot of help from Tony Crombie's instrumental soundtrack from the film 'Eastern Journey', which is how this song would sound if it was 'sober'). Roger hated the experience and struggled to come up with his song, the Buddy Holly-esque 'See My Way' while admitting defeat altogether when it came to a second one (that's why 'Heatwave' got substituted at the last minute!) Even in the anything goes spirit of the early 60s this seemed like madness: trying to sit Keith Moon down long enough to come up with anything must have been a headache (and his contributions are suitably surreal and uncommercial) whilst Roger Daltrey has admitted several times down the years that he was never a natural composer and much preferred interpreting the works of others. No other leading band of the 60s would ever have been told ‘hey, you all have to write songs and they all have to go on an album’ – can you imagine anyone telling Mick Avory he had to write for The Kinks or Charlie Watts for The Stones? – and what’s puzzling about this album isn’t why it doesn’t match the other early Who LPs but why it sounds even vaguely as good as it does.

The whole exercise would have been a complete mess had not the quiet, dependable bassist John Entwistle come to the fore, writing two absolute gems for the group – one of which will become one of the most famous songs The Who ever recorded. In fact, out of all The Who’s records, ‘A Quick One’ is The Ox’s finest hour (or 32 minutes anyway –  ‘A Quick One’ is the shortest Who LP of all): his melodic bass playing underpins several of Pete’s songs, making the more complicated ones sound hummable and the easier ones are given a certain class and style they otherwise wouldn’t possess. John also gets more vocals on this album – apart from his two lead contributions he turns in some lovely harmony work, his comparatively innocent voice really contrasting well with Roger’s snarl and Pete’s already quite acerbic and knowing falsetto. John also gets the chance to indulge his first musical passion for the French horn. Most fans coming to these albums fresh often assume that The Who build up their more exotic mood pieces of the mid 60s by courtesy of session musicians and countless overdubs – in actual fact its nearly always John Entwistle playing something or other and on this album its invariably a horn part. By adding not only his usual dependable band skills but another writing source and an extra colour to add to The Who’s template of sounds, Entwistle excels himself across this album and turns a half-baked collection of first draft songs into something approaching a cohesive and inventive whole. If 'The Who Sings My Generation' is the moment when Pete Townshend becomes The Who's hero then 'A Quick One' is the moment when The Ox nearly matches him.

The rest of the band don’t fare quite so well. Pete Townshend is suffering the first of his occasional songwriting slumps and – far from dominating the writing credits as he will from next album ‘Sell Out’ onwards, here he can only manage four tracks, four less than on ‘My Generation’ (even if one of them is about six tracks in one). Only one or possibly two of these songs are up to Pete’s later standards too, although his most significant contribution, the title track mini opera, is quite a milestone by 1966 standards and the reaction to it and it’s future successors is still shaping the way Pete thinks about songwriting even now. Even Pete’s guitar playing sounds muted at times though – perhaps because its less suited to the more melodic Entwistle/more raucous Moon tunes he’s playing or perhaps because he’s just fed up – few musicians ever showed their heart on their sleeve more than Pete, as anyone whose listened to ‘Who By Numbers’ or ‘Empty Glass’ will know. The difference is Pete's not self-confident enough to start putting his own self into songs yet and he's also struggling to connect with a 'new' audience outside the mixed-up mods he identified with from the first so his songs take on a slightly generic quality (except for 'A Quick One', which is Pete developing his role as a story-teller rather than a 'mirror' to his peers; the next two albums, 'Tommy' especially, will develop both sides of his writing style). Keith Moon gets more to do than normal and his compositions sum up both sides of Keith’s personality – the arrogant, destruction-filled wild and raucous persona he liked to show the world at large and the rather quieter, more peace loving self that he largely kept hidden, even from his fellow band members most of the time. ‘Cobwebs and Strange’ is heralded by fans then and now for being outrageously wacky and completely unlike anything else being made in 1966, but it’s actually the sweet and rather fragile-sounding ‘I Need You’ that’s the braver song from Keith’s point of view, revealing more of his inner self on a Who record than we’ll hear until ‘Bell Boy’ on ‘Quadrophenia’ and actually more, you sense, of the real person behind the mask than Pete has managed just yet. Roger, meanwhile, still seems slighted after his attempt to take over direction of the band failed – he was on his last warnings and told not to cause any more trouble in late 1965, which must have been galling after all the work Daltrey had put into the group – and his new self doesn’t really sound comfortable on record until ‘Tommy’ three years later. But his one song is still pretty darn impressive for a first attempt and the  Daltrey-written outtakes for next album ‘Sell Out’ show a real talent that could have been quite something had it been developed or better handled by his peers or manager.

The split from Shel Talmy has several immediate downsides, as The Who needed somebody with discipline and structure to get the best of their young selves (and Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were as keen to experiment and go wild as the band were in this period) and nobody around the band knows quite how to record a band like The Who. The muddiest, grottiest sounding Who album of them all (though the CD re-mastering helped a little bit), 'A Quick One' sounds suitably slapdash compared to 'My Generation', even though it was made across a much shorter timeframe. The sound is one akin to the inmates being left to play in the asylum or The Monkees making their own albums. However the split with Talmy is still, on balance, overwhelmingly positive. There is an abundance of energy and joy on this album which makes it impossible to look away from, even when to be quite honest it's sometimes not very good as the band are simply having such a good time making work fun that you don't worry about things like making art of career progressions. For all their differences in this period, The Who do pull together on this album, turning in some really tight backing tracks for what are actually some quite tricky songs (the title track alone would stretch the abilities of any band in 1966, even if The Who do play it better in their period concerts when they've got to know it that bit better). In the spirit of the day they're also keen to experiment and see what they can get away with - a unique drum-sound here, a fuzzbox guitar there, gloriously unhinged bass playing scattered throughout and whatever the hell is going on in 'Cobwebs and Strange' (which is what Stockhausen would sound like if he'd taken acid).

What this album doesn't have is any cohesion. The four band members all have their own writing styles and they don't sound anything like each other, while Keith's and Pete's contributions sum up their schizophrenic (quadrophonic?) personalities by not sounding anything like each other besides that. In many ways 'A Quick One' is The Who's 'White Album' (except that it's black) with the band offering up their own contributions and going in different directions. The only even half-theme across the whole album is one of being scared out of your wits - by the bad luck and superstition on 'Run Run Run', the appearance of 'Boris The Spider', the ensuing madness of 'Cobwebs and Strange' (which do feel at times as if madness is chasing The Who, Keith particularly, round a studio while using a brass band as it's unhappy medium), the girl's understandable fear of Ivor The Engine Driver on the title track and in a way the sudden realisation of emptiness on 'I Need You'. If The Who of 'Sings My Generation' were cocksure and confident, seeing through the lies of society (of age on the title track, of marriage on 'A Legal Matter' and 'The Good's Gone' and the press on 'It's Not True'), then here they sound less sure of themselves, worried about things that they cannot control or change. The unheralded 'Don't Look Away' especially is the start of a shift in Pete's songwriting from commenting on outside societal forces to commenting about himself and relationships, admitting for the first time a desperate aching need to be loved and understood that will manifest itself on 'See Me Feel Me' and most of 'Lifehouse' and 'Quadrophenia'. Other songs too are about things beyond the narrators' control - the narrator sees nothing wrong with his own madness on 'Whiskey Man', Roger stumbles to a halt in his love-life on 'See My Way' and The Who shrug with nonchalance that it's 'So Sad About Us' now they've split up with someone, accepting that there's nothing they can do about it. Perhaps significantly, the only characters on the whole of this album with self-determination are the humble Boris The Spider (at least until Entwistle thwacks him at song's end) and the girl on 'A Quick One While He's Away', who stands up to the split with her boyfriend and the implied rape by the 'dirty old sooty old engine driver here to make you feel alright' by offering the only active thing she can give in such circumstance: forgiveness. The plot of 'Tommy' waking from his self-made tomb to forgive those who abused him is just a couple of albums, three years and some future spiritual insight from the works of Meher Baba away.

Without the drive, energy and sheer noise of ‘My Generation’ or the psychedelic splendour of ‘Sell Out’, ‘A Quick One’ often gets overlooked. But even though it's not the equal of these two records – few albums truly are, even from the 1960s – ‘A Quick One’ has plenty for fans to enjoy, as the band have fun stretching their musical palettes whilst keeping the volume and feedback-drenched noises they’d become known for. Though bitty, this album is often witty and very often pretty and John's contributions and the best of Pete's sit beside the best of anything else The Who do in this decade, while only 'Heatwave' is truly awful - and as a last minute piece of filler harking back to yesteryear. it's meant to be pretty terrible. To be honest, though, it's a shame we can’t hear a properly recorded live set from the band in this period instead, as the few tracks that did make it to their live set sound so much better than their studio counterparts here, which are clearly knocked off by the band in a few hours in between gigs. With more care and a few more Townshend songs this second album could have been the equal of any of the others – as it is it seems rushed and hurried, a sort of ‘quick one’ in between the dynamic debut and the thoughtful third albums. Like practically everything The Who did, though, there’s a class and style about even their worst songs and recordings and ‘A Quick One’ still stands up well against other albums of the period. Even the album cover has a touch of class about it, with established artist Alan Aldridge's pop art cover more famous than the contents for a long time, with adult cartoon depictions of all four band members and 'their' respective songs coming out of their mouths/instruments. Notably all four members have their backs to each other and sing their own songs into the icy blackness, but they do so with a symmetry that still makes them look like a 'band' - actually quite a decent summary of where The Who were at in 1966. Note too that the album cover quotes 'Whiskey Man' rather than the more famous 'Boris The Spider' by the way - everyone assumed at the time that this was John's brilliant song, not the arachnid ditty he knocked off in a few minutes on the spot when Stamp asked him if he could write a second song sometime. Even the back cover (which with its 1960s Carnaby Street clothes, period graphics and oversized ties has dated far more than the front) features solo photographs of the band rather than a shot of them all together (even the words emphasise their differences and individual quirks - and no, I didn't know Keith bred chickens either! That sounds like a Moon joke to me...) The Who have at last found the identity that they've been searching for since before coming up with the band name - unfortunately, for now it's the identity of four strong personalities rather than one that will benefit the group as a whole. That'll come, with 'A Quick One' an important and under-rated stage in getting there...

First up is ‘Run Run Run’, which is quite usefully a good microcosm of everything good and everything bad about the album. Pete’s opening and multi-tracked stinging guitar riff is perfect for The Who and would have sounded great live, with Roger barking the hell out of the song over the top and Pete and Keith given plenty of space to add their own deft touches. Best of all, though, is Pete’s out-of-control but still on-the-money solo, frustratingly his only one on the whole record, which is one of the best he ever played, spiralling out of control as the narrator gets more and more frustrated before bringing the song to a short-lived full stop. Top marks to producers Jon Astley and Kit Lambert, too, whose electric guttural howl on the sound has rarely been bettered, even on The Who’s own ‘Live At Leeds’, perhaps the best long-=playing example of this great claustrophobic sound.  The subject matter of the song – superstition – is also pretty forward thinking for the time, if a little odd. You see, the girl in the song is dead unlucky and the boyfriend narrator is afraid to be with her in case the bad luck rubs off onto him. It’s certainly fun to hear tough-boy Daltrey singing about his great fears on this song and in true Pete Townshend style this song manages to be both arrogant and fragile at the same time. However, inspiration seems to have left Pete after this great idea as some of these lyrics are the worst he ever wrote – the rhyme of ‘moon’ and ‘room’, for instance, is stretching it a bit and Roger’s insistence on pronouncing them ‘mun’ and ‘ro-em’ could be either sarcastic sabotage or evidence of how rushed this album is. The dull chorus of ‘run run run’ also palls after the first verse, never mind the rest of the song and this track desperately needs some kind of climax other than the guitar solo, something that made ‘Substitute’ or ‘I’m A Boy’ so memorable. Oddly, considering this is the most Who-like song on the whole album, it was originally given away by Pete to a band named The Cat, only to be brought back to the group when the single flopped.

‘Boris The Spider’, the best known song here by far, must have cured a whole generation of Who fans of arachnophobia because we all want to get to know Boris better. Boris was actually John Entwistle’s second ever song and was only ever written because of that infamous publishing deal. After spending weeks crafting ‘Whiskey Man’, John was apparently phoned up by Kit Lambert and told the band would be recording his second song that day. John didn’t have the heart to mention that he hadn’t written it yet and, when asked by his band what his new song was about, looked round the room for inspiration – and saw a cobweb (the studio must have been full of them, what with Keith’s song’s name and all). He then made up a catchy and simple five note descending riff, the first thing he could come up with, and thought ‘what does it matter how bad it is, it’s only an album track ‘Whiskey Man’ is my moment of genius!’ Of course we know differently now, but ‘Boris’ had rather a muted reception at first, simply because it sounds so different to anything ever written before. Now one of the many things my A-level music course got wrong was that you can never ever write a song on consecutive notes (Denny Laine’s under-rated anti-Macca song ‘Japanese Tears’ is another). Nobody ever seemed to tell the band that because ‘Boris’ is one of the most memorable and best loved of all Who songs, catchy and hummable on first hearing whilst being just about wacky and original enough to overcome its simplicity.

We can all sympathise with the narrator of Boris, who seems to be quietly contemplating life before the ‘invasion’ of that five note-riff and its rather macabre chorus line, sung by John in an excellent comedy gruff voice. The chorus line, reportedly Pete’s contribution repeating ‘creepy crawly’ over and over, complete with rumbling bass, is a surprisingly scary and, well, hairy moment and adds just enough threat to a song that in other hands could have become quite unbearably cute. John’s excellent vocal is also poised halfway between amusing anecdote and knowingness, as if letting us into one of his stories, and the matching of John’s bass and Pete’s guitar – which happens surprisingly few times in The Who’s canon, makes for a great sound. Fun enough for mums and younger brothers to sing along to but dangerous enough for Who fans to love, ‘Boris’ will hang around the human psyche forever – which is more than the poor spider did, being squashed by a book in the last verse. Fans have mourned him ever since.

‘I Need You’ is a fascinating song from the pen of Keith Moon. Even though it’s as noisy and energetic as you’d imagine, this song has such a fragile and sensitive heart beating in it that its hard to believe this is the same Keith who threw televisions out of hotel rooms and drove cars into swimming pools. The opening verse contains words like ‘knowing’ ‘embrace’ and other words not associated with 60s pop and the subject matter of a lost and disillusioned narrator all alone at a party full of people and desperate for their attention is as unlike The Who as you can get. The pained chorus of ‘I Need You!’ is no mere pop trick either, but a seemingly genuine from-the-heart cry that Keith wants love and attention. As if to add to the oddness of the song, long-term session friend Nicky Hopkins tickles the ivories on not a piano but a harpsichord, that most stately and un-Who like of instruments. We also get Keith’s vocals, heard in harmony with Pete, for the first time which just adds to the strangeness and unlike many fans I wish he’s sung it alone – Keith’s vocals often got laughed at by the band and fans (he was adamant to the end that he could sing better than Roger!), but they’re affecting in their poignant little boy lost way (just listen to ‘Bell Boy’ or the Quadrophenia outtake ‘We Close Tonight’). Perhaps the most interesting bit of the song is the cacophonous middle eight – the drums drop out, we get the Decca doorman telling the hapless narrator to be ‘move yer car sir’, while Nicky Hopkins does his best impression of a country and western soundtrack and the rest of the band gabble away in the mix inaudibly – the perfect depiction of isolation within a crowd of people. Alas the two songs on this album are the only ones by Keith ever released by The Who (a third, the poppy and rather ordinary ‘Girls’ Eyes’ was recorded during the ‘Sell Out’ sessions) – because this song really does have talent, being one of the most intriguing and fascinating on the album.

‘Whiskey Man’ gets short shrift from fans as a sort of lesser ‘Boris’, but John Entwistle much preferred this, his first ever song, and the band spent far more time on it. It’s an intriguing and very Enwtistle track that takes in madness, alcoholism and the shallowness of society, with a narrator who sees an imaginary friend whenever he drinks and thinks the world is mad for not seeing him too. Like many Entwistle tracks the narrator is on his own, adamant that the rest of the world is wrong even though the jokes on him (see ‘Dr Dr’ and ‘My Wife’ more examples), leaving the listener unsure as to what their response to the song should be.        Posied between knowing laughter and genuine sadness as the plot unfolds (just listen for the line ‘I can’t even reach him because he hasn’t got a phone’ – ha, ha goes the audience, good joke, ‘and hasn’t got a home’ – which, together with the sensitive music and the way Entwistle sings it is more likely to see the listener sobbing. One of the best parts of the song is Entwistle’s glorious brass lick in the middle, echoed by Pete on suitably echoey guitar, adding a poignancy to the song which in other hands could easily have been just another novelty song. The circular and rather Byrds-like guitar riff with which Pete ends the song also suggests the narrator being drugged with tranquilisers and, like him, we’re rather upset that Whiskey Man has gone forever. One of the best Entwistle songs out there, its impressive how the bassist found such an original writing style so quickly and how confident his expressive vocal is (even if he still had problems pronouncing his ‘r’s back then – you may notice that the double-tracked John’s pronounce ‘fwend’ and ‘flend’ at the same time in a rather failed attempt to cover this up). Both funny and sad at the same time, Whiskey Man is an under-rated track that’s more than the equal of anything Townshend wrote for this album.

‘Heatwave’, a cover of that old Motown classic, was a stage favourite of the day and was a curious omission from the ‘My Generation’ sessions. However, its appearance here as the only non-band original, revived at the last minute when Roger failed to come up with a second song in time, sounds like an awfully backward step for 1966 standards. That ‘Heatwave’ can’t compete with even the James Brown covers on ‘My Generation’ shows just how hurried this album was and the backing is as unfocussed as The Who ever got (Keith is playing a full second behind Townshend by the last verse, when the song goes badly out of synch. If this was the intended effect, then it was a bad one – if it wasn’t , then why the heck did the band not go for another take?) Roger’s vocal is also badly subdued and actually has less power double-tracked than Pete’s cameo single-tracked, making the whole thing sound most unimpressive, even if hearing Pete and John doing their best impression of Martha and the Vandellas is quite fun.

‘Cobwebs and Strange’ is even more unfocussed, but deliberately so. Stories about this Keith Moon ‘song’ have been rife ever since it was recorded. Most famously, the band recorded the backing track and then attempted to overdub with a variety of instruments they couldn’t play whilst marching up and down the studio. Alas, no one pointed out to the band that they couldn’t hear the backing tape and that the whole thing was badly out of synch by the end. The result is, as the title admits, truly strange but its also quite compelling – you just know the song is going to fall down in pieces somewhere along the line but no matter how many times you listen you can’t quite tell where. The tune is also quite catchy, so catchy that the band revive it for their ‘Heinz Baked Beans’ advert on the next album (where, curiously, its credited to Entwistle) and the band’s playing on their ‘ordinary’ instruments  – especially Keith’s un-copyable drum fills near the end – is impressive. Play it back to back with the tracks off ‘My Generation’, though, and fans of the day must have thought The Who had lost the plot when this came out.

‘Don’t Look Away’ is much more ‘normal’ – a slight but rather intriguing slice of Merseybeat songwriting from Pete Townshend.  The tune is again one of its authors’ catchiest, with the way the song moves from its verses to its choruses and again in the middle eight a truly astonishing bit of craftsmanship from a songwriter on only his second album. Again, though, the words are terrible – ‘there’s a stone in my shoe so I can’t catch you out, my head’s in a lion’s knot and I can’t beat it out’ is one of the oddest couplets in Pete’s canon, right up there with the later ‘Cache Cache’ and ‘Athena’. Like many of Pete’s ‘Sell Out’ songs, he seems to be talking to his audience here: ‘Don’t Look Away’ seems like a plea not to a girl but to the audience, as Pete underlines the confusion he feels and his dissatisfaction already with the writing market, as Pete dismisses the fickle fan-base with the line ‘I don’t understand, last week you were my girlfriend!’ A nice bit of country playing gives this song an added texture towards the end, just as Keith’s powerhouse drumming and John’s Stax-like bass playing threaten to become overpowering, but its too little too late. Another ‘A Quick One’ track with elements of greatness that nevertheless sounds rushed and silly by the time its on the record.

‘See My Way’ is Roger’s lone song on the album and even though its Buddy Holly-ish and quite derivative, its actually pretty good with a catchy hook and enough parts to the song to make it sounded and complete. Unlike some of Pete’s and Keith’s songs, it also makes a lot of sense: ‘Someway, someday I’ll find a way to make you see my way’ turns into ‘I’m glad its goodbye, you don’t have to ask why, come back another day, come back when you see my way’ by the end, via a verse about the narrator thinking himself ‘mad’ because of his partner’s slow response. Another interesting thought – like the last track, is this Roger writing not to a girl but to his band and fans? Arguments over the state of the band’s future were rife, with Roger the clear leader of 1964 when it specialised in cover versions effectively ousted by Pete Townshend’s songwriting by 1966. The narrator is clearly angry about something and adamant that he won’t back down until the other character ‘sees my way’. If so, then its ironic that Roger is effectively using Pete’s medium to argue back at him, just as many of Pete’s angry-at-Roger tracks have the guitarist singing the lead vocals. The band attack it with plenty of vigour too, especially Pete – whose harmony vocals are genuinely respectful and spot-on of Roger’s contribution and John, who again shows off his bass skills with a quite breathtaking run through the key changes of this song, never letting up for a second and adds another thoughtful horn arrangement. ‘See My Way’ might not be the best song on the record, but thanks to the pizzazz of the performance and the rounded ending, it sounds so much better than it has a right to. What a shame Roger didn’t give write a second song for the album (although the unreleased-till-1990s ‘Early Morning Cold Taxi’ might have been in the running).   

‘So Sad About Us’ is the album’s one true classic, the hit single that never was, updating the band’s fiery ‘My Generation’ sound with the more placid, poppy sound prevalent in 1966. Even though this is one of Pete’s simplest and catchiest songs for some time, ‘Sad’ is in no way ‘soft’ or ‘feeble’, with the band charging at the song at 100 miles an hour like never before. The song’s pretty riff, which is again very Byrds-like, is turned into a powerhouse thanks to the sheer noise of John and Keith filling in all space behind it. Roger is also back to his confident best, with the band adding some gorgeous harmonies into the chorus line – in fact these are probably the best harmonies on a Who record and would have quietened many of their detractors had it appeared as a single. The song also makes sense for once on this record, with Pete writing some clever lyrics about his regret at breaking up with a girl and his realisation that they’ll actually always be together in his heart (‘you can’t switch off my loving like you can’t switch off the sun’ is one of his all-time best, right up there with ‘hope I die before I get old’ and ‘substitute you for my mum, at least I’ll get my washing done’). Could it be that, for a third track in a row, the band are writing about each other and how their split could so easily have destroyed them – but hasn’t? Certainly ‘So Sad About Us’ is one of the most joyous sounding songs of heartbreak I’ve ever heard and the verve with which the band play  it make it sound like they’re having a right old laugh in the studio too. Listen out for the period live versions of this song is you can, which feature a very different arrangement with more drums from Keith and more harmonies from John (The ’30 Years Of Maximum R and B’ DVD is probably your best bet, as it is with most archive footage of the band) .

‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ is all things to all people – at the time it was value for money for the fans (six songs for the price of one!), afterwards it became the prototype for all the mini-operas and rock operas of Pete’s career (from this into Rael and onto Tommy, Lifehouse and Quadrophenia), somewhere along the line its been called a classic, even though it left record buyers of the day scratching their heads. Don’t forget, this track was a big leap – no bands had recorded anything longer than five minutes yet and here was a ‘song’ that lasted for over nine! – and few bands had ever attempted the sheer scale of this song. After all, the vogue in 1966 was back to short and snappy three-minute singles (‘Revolver’ is one of the Beatles’ shortest ever albums and ‘Pet Sounds’ isn’t much longer) and in this context ‘A Quick One’ sticks out like a sore thumb (trust The Who to add such a sarcastic name to their longest track too!) This tale of a girl who falls in love, only for her fiancé to go away and leave her alone moping when a ‘dirty old engine driver’ comes along to take advantage of her, is so unlike anything else around at the time it must have been hard whether to herald as the best thing ever – or the worst. Enough people must have like it for The Who to stick it in their live repertoire though – you only have to listen to the band’s Monterey Set or, best of all, their cameo at The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus to hear how truly fantastic this song sounds once its 1967/68 and the rest of the world has caught up with The Who.

Not for the first time, though, the Who’s first tentative try out on record sounds nothing like those wondrous live versions down the road. The band plainly don’t know the track very well yet and play against each other rather than with each other. There’s also lots of extraneous things added to the track in the mistaken belief that to make a longer piece ‘epic’ they need to add more: the tambourine, acoustic guitar and country sound effects on the slower part of the song all get badly in the way. The band also sound horribly unsure in the vocal department and only really get going in the ‘remedy’ section, which is, not un co-incidentally, the most Who-ish part of the song. Roger has enough problems of his own, but John Entwistle’s unexpected cameo as the train driver sounds gauche and self-conscious in deep contrast to the vocals on his own songs. Only Pete sounds like he’s having fun and even vaguely knows what he’s doing, but even some of his harmonies sound terribly out of tune at times.  The best parts of the song are the ‘remedy’ section, which the band turn into a terrific minute-long rock song and the ending when the fiance returns home and Pete rather grandly announces ‘you are forgiven’ to the wayward girl.  The worst section by far is the ‘soon be home’ country and western one which drags like anything and things don’t get any better as the band all sing the nonsensical ‘dang dang’ at different times in different keys, which is truly painful to the ears. Listen out too for the band chanting ‘cello cello cello’ throughout the last section of the song – in a neat summing up of the album, this is the band singing where the cello overdubs were meant to go – but the band were under such pressure with the tight deadline the overdubs were never actually recorded!

In all, as it stands on record, ‘A Quick One’ is a seriously flawed attempt at doing something brave and unusual. Pete’s vision is clear, but he hasn’t yet persuaded his band, his manager, his record company or his fan base to follow his lead. What we have here is a terrible version of a great song which will be one of The Who’s best when they play it at gigs, knocking off the rougher edges and making it much tighter and powerful as a result. If anyone ever doubted the need to play albums on the road before knocking it into shape in the studio they need only look at this album and Dark Side Of The Moon (which genuinely pulled off that trick and sounds so much better on record than it does live). Even at its worst, though, ‘A Quick One’ sounds like the way forward – and to be honest very little of this record sounds like a way forward apart from this.

Not that the record ‘A Quick One’ is bad by any means. There are moments of pure genius coming when we least expect them, from Pete’s opening solo to John’s many French horn solos to the sheer madness of having three non-writing members come up with songs at short measure. Play it against other albums from the time and the only thing that’ll disappoint you is the sound – the muddy mix is so bad in contrast to the brightness of ‘My Generation’ and ‘Sell Out’ it sounds more like a Stones record of the time. Even standing still The Who had more nous than most and even if, ironically for such a band name, they seem to have lost their identity for a bit this album shows a number of glimpses of the greater, louder, brighter Who who are just around the corner. And what a trip that will be... 

A complete collection of Who reviews:

'The Who Sing My Generation' (1965)

'Sell Out' (1967)

‘Tommy’ (1969)

'Live At Leeds' (1970)

'Lifehouse' (As It Might Have Been) (1971)

'Who's Next' ('Lifehouse' As It Became) (1971)

'Quadrophenia' (1973)

'The Who By Numbers' (1975)

'Who Are You' (1978)

'Face Dances' (1979)

'Empty Glass' (Townshend solo 1980)

'It's Hard' (1982)

Surviving Who TV Clips 1965-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1964-1967

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1968-2014

Pete Townshend “Scoop” 1-3

The Best Unreleased Who Recordings

Live/Solo/Rarities/Competition Albums Part One 1965-1972

Live/Solo/Rarities/Competition Albums Part Two 1972-1975

Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Three 1976-1982

Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Four 1983-1990

Live/Solo/Rarities/Compilation Albums Part Five 1991-2000

Essay: Who Are You And Who Am I?:


  1. Fantastic review of a flawed diamond.

    1. Thankyou very much! I'm revising a lot of my old Who reviews this week so you might see a run of them on here 8>)