Shel Talmy is ousted by Kit Lambert as The Who's record producer…
We included four other Shel Talmy produced tracks on the box set, one an early B-side, the other three tracks from The Who’s début album My Generation which was retitled The Who Sings My Generation for the US market. ‘Daddy Rolling Stone’, the B-side of ‘Anyway’, is a fine rocked-up blues; ‘The Kids Are Alright’ is just great power pop, with another of those terrific chiming chord solos in which Pete and Keith raise the stakes even higher than they did in ‘Anyway’ (in a move that beggar’s belief, some oaf at MCA chopped this solo from the original US release); ‘The Ox’ is The Who’s over-the-top take on surf instrumentals with John and Pete trading leads against Keith’s relentless pace; and ‘A Legal Matter’, with Pete on lead vocals and no sign of Roger, is just there because it’s catchy and probably the first ever British pop song about divorce. These four songs display The Who’s varied influences, inventiveness and eclecticism, from Roger’s blues and R&B leanings to Keith’s peculiar penchant for surf music, from John’s love of Duane Eddy to the baroque dynamics that Pete was soaking up from Kit Lambert’s classical collection.
Behind the scenes Kit Lambert and The Who had decided to ditch Shel Talmy, so Lambert took the group’s next single, ‘Substitute’, to his friend Robert Stigwood who put it out on his Reaction label (marketed by Polydor). Talmy sued and, in an out of court settlement to his enormous benefit, was granted a 5% royalty on all The Who’s records for the next six years, up to and including Who’s Next in 1971. (He would thus earn considerably more in royalties from The Who’s record sales than the individual members of the band ever did... without so much as lifting a finger. Even today, five decades later, Talmy still collects royalties on every track The Who recorded up to 1971.*)
Pete Townshend now cites ‘Substitute’, my own personal favourite Who single (a line from it gave me the name for my blog), as the first ever record he produced. Not a bad start: I still melt when I hear that riff with its ringing open D string, and way the song pounds along, driven by John’s bass, and the three way-vocal on the word “substitute” in the chorus. From the outset, I wanted this box set to emphasise how good The Who were on stage and thus far there was nothing live, so I made a conscious and probably controversial decision to include the version of ‘Substitute’ from Leeds, which is just so fluent, even though it omits the bass/chord solo and final chorus. This didn’t go down well with some fans, and might have been a mistake since the acoustic guitar-driven single is also an ace, but there was no early live material around and unless I introduced a live track here the first CD would be almost entirely bereft of live material. (One problem we had was that for reasons I could never fathom the BBC refused to allow us to use Who recordings in their archive which included stupendous live versions of ‘Anyway’ and ‘Happy Jack’, both of which I played to Polydor execs at a meeting in their offices. No doubt the BBC was saving them for their own eventual release but had these been available to me, I’d have used them both, and included the studio rather than live ‘Substitute’, but it was not to be.)
The rest of Disc 1 is dominated by three great early singles and A Quick One, all early Kit Lambert productions. Kit was a theorist, a musicologist and great at creating the right atmosphere, but he was no technician and his recordings were far from sonic masterpieces but this didn’t matter because when Jon and Andy cleaned up the tapes they sounded wonderful. The three singles – ‘I’m A Boy’, ‘Happy Jack’ and ‘Pictures Of Lily’ – are all polished little gems, especially ‘Happy Jack’ on which the dynamics (Moon again) just explode all over the place. It’s no exaggeration to say that Moon effectively leads the band on this one, controlling the pace, filling in with lead runs normally played by the guitar and somehow even helping the melody along via his toms. Apart from its strange lyrics, ‘I’m A Boy’ offers another of those great guitar/drum build-ups, again at the end of the solo before Roger wails in with a line that only British fans could understand – ‘I wanna play cricket on the beach’ – while the third in this trio, ‘Pictures Of Lily’, is quite probably the first pop song ever to deal quite so overtly with masturbation. Which brings us back to the originality of Pete’s lyrics: who else was writing about transvestism (‘I’m A Boy’), simple-mindedness (‘Happy Jack’) or masturbation (‘Lily’)? What sort of mind did this man have? It all served to build up anticipation for what this fellow with the big conk, evidently a chap whose literary aspirations went somewhat beyond the norm, might come up with next...
The answer was the first rock opera, or mini-opera, or at least a cycle of short songs segued together and designed to tell a story. I have to confess that I missed A Quick One the first time around and only discovered it after Sell Out which as an album was infinitely better than A Quick One (which was renamed Happy Jack in the US in case it offended someone or other and because ‘Happy Jack’ became a minor US hit for the band). From A Quick One we have two individual songs, John’s comic ‘Boris The Spider’, soon to become a stage favourite (and which after ‘Batman’ is my five-year-old daughter’s fave Who song), and the superb ‘So Sad About Us’, power-pop at its finest with a feast of ringing power chords and harmony vocals fired off at a terrific pace over one of Pete’s catchiest early melodies. Listen out for the lovely counterpoint guitar lines that thread their way into the chorus, and the staccato guitar solo around the basic melody riff. Then there’s ‘A Quick One’ itself, the blue-print for greater things to come. OK, it’s tad clumsy and the melodies don’t gel that well, but half way through we move from the studio to the live version recorded at the Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus TV show in December 1969 and the mini-opera breaks out into another Who tour-de-force, John’s extraordinary falsetto vocals leading the band towards one of their stupendous climaxes. Nevertheless, I can’t pretend that ‘A Quick One’ is my favourite Who piece, and a better, far more fluent rendition can now be found on the newly reissued Live At Leeds album which trumps this version and the rather tentative Monterey showing that would be heard (and seen) on the forthcoming 30 Years Of Maximum R&B Live video.
Before we leave Disc 1, let’s just mention ‘Disguises’, which might just be the first grunge record ever, so dense is the guitar track, and those explosive verbals which open the disc, courtesy of an angry Townshend who was attempting to quell a disturbance in the crowd at Long Beach Arena on December 10, 1971. They came courtesy of a bootleg, suggested by my friend the photographer Ross Halfin, an avid Who collector, and I just loved the aggression in Pete’s voice. But the real reason why I included this rant was that when The Who arrived on stage they ARRIVED. At their peak they ran on stage, Pete and John often plugging in and playing something, anything, as loud as hell, Keith grabbing his sticks and bashing his kit equally loud, and Roger pacing around in circles like a caged lion, while the crowd roared their welcome. Then, at the crack of Pete’s whip, this huge raucous undisciplined 15-second din subsided into silence as suddenly as it had erupted, to be replaced, in a matter of nanoseconds, by the precision-tooled in-yer-face opening chords of ‘Explain’ or ‘Substitute’. Jeeezzus... something was happening up there. This band was serious. No question about it, The Who knew how to make an entrance, how to grab your attention from the get-go, so I tried to open the box likewise, to make an entrance. When I told Pete I wanted to open the box with this, he complained: “But it makes me sound like a real loud-mouth.” Exactly, Mr Townshend, exactly!
* A longer and more detailed essay on the recordings The Who made during 1965 and their relationship with Shel Talmy can be found elsewhere in my Who posts on Just Backdated, under the title My Generation – A Strange Tale, in three parts.