I soon learned that Polydor had submitted a proposed box set track selection to the band which Pete had rejected out of hand. This was news to me, but not that big a surprise. After all, I was amazed that no-one had had a go at doing this before. I was sent four 60-minute cassettes from Polydor and knew immediately, simply by glancing at the track listing, why Pete had kicked this one into touch... not much imagination, not much previously unissued stuff, too many post-Keith tracks, nothing to get excited about. Thus, the first thing I had to get straight was a ratio between new (or previously unreleased) and well-known material.
It was essential to me that The Who’s box set wasn’t just going to be another extended Best Of, of which there had already been far too many. Unfortunately the record companies felt otherwise and there followed a long ideological battle between myself and the marketing departments at MCA and Polydor. And after a while I came to understand, if not exactly sympathise with, their attitude. To an extent. Box sets, it was pointed out to me, are bought largely by those fans who wish to replace their existing collection of an artist’s albums in one go. They therefore require the artist’s better known repertoire. How could a Who career anthology not contain their best-known songs? I could dig that. Then it was explained to me that those anthologies which concentrate on unreleased material of interest only to hard-core cultists sell only to collectors, or rabid fans, a relatively small market, and if this was where I and The Who were coming from the record companies weren’t interested. At least not interested enough to shell out for the four or five CD package and 76 page booklet I had in mind for my favourite band.
So I had to keep everybody happy here: the fans, many of whom wrote to me with suggestions, the band, the record companies and myself. This was not easy but a compromise was eventually reached which boiled down to 13 previously unreleased tracks (but not necessarily unreleased songs) among the total of 80, together with 17 bits of dialogue or spoof ads sprinkled liberally throughout to vary the pace. I’d have liked more but I’d also have liked a bonus fifth CD containing a complete live Tommy (from Leeds, 14/2/70). Pete scotched this because, he said, he was “Tommied out” as a result of the then concurrent Broadway show, and he felt the energy level in this performance slipped a bit half-way through, which is true, but it’s still the best live Tommy we had (far better in my opinion than the one played at the 1970 Isle Of Wight show which was released in 1996 in a deal in which I had no involvement). Also, Polydor didn’t seem keen on five CDs for financial reasons - so you can imagine how I felt three years down the line when they released Modernism – A New Decade, a five CD box set of The Jam. Now I’ve nothing against Paul Weller’s mob but their accomplishments hardly measure up to The Who, especially on a global level.
I’m getting ahead here. Next I met with Bill Curbishley, The Who’s manager, to sort out the terms of engagement, and with Jon Astley, the record producer who just happened to be Pete’s brother-in-law, who had the keys to Aladdin’s Cave – Pete’s tape archive – and who would oversee the technical studio work done by engineer Andy Macpherson. Fortunately Pete’s a hoarder, and for me the first real eye-opening moment of the whole project occurred when Jon presented me with a computerised print-out of everything stored in that library, like two dozen ‘My Generations’, twenty-odd ‘Pinball’s and so on. This wasn’t like work, this was going to be sheer unadulterated joy.
I naturally started at the beginning with The High Numbers, the name The Who used on their first ever recordings. Let’s not forget that by 1964, the year their earliest songs were recorded, the band (as The Detours) had been playing the West London pub circuit for two years, probably averaging three nights a week, with a different drummer. Keith Moon arrived just before, and just in time for, the High Numbers’ sessions in June 1964. (No Detours’ recordings seemed to exist by the way... more’s the pity.) ‘I’m The Face’ and ‘Zoot Suit, the A- and B-sides of their first single, are well known to fans and had been available (on Odds & Sods and the Quadrophenia soundtrack respectively, and as a re-issued single) for ages, as had ‘Leaving Here’ which turned up on Who’s Missing in 1985. I wanted more and, fortunately, the original four-track tape, recorded in June 1965, was in Pete’s library. It contained four songs, all the above plus ‘Here ‘Tis’, the HN’s previously unreleased shot at a Bo Diddley song. The tape was in good condition and after Jon had cleaned it up, The High Numbers sounded like they’d been recorded yesterday, leaping out of the traps like the young greyhounds they were.
Now no-one’s going to suggest that these four songs are masterpieces, or even anywhere near as menacing as the Stones’ early R&B covers that same year, but The Who/High Numbers had all the right ingredients, all present and correct: an imaginative guitarist, a cool bass player, a confident singer and a drummer who kept time. Listening to these recordings, I get the feeling that the band were being kept on a rein, that they want to push forward but are constrained by a producer who cannot imagine the music that Pete, and probably Keith, are imagining in their heads. So Keith, who’s mixed too low, sounds like every other drummer on these first outings, which makes the contrast all the more exciting when we move forward to ‘I Can’t Explain’. But before we do, let me add that since the box set was released a rough demo of ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’, probably recorded in September or October 1964 at Pye Studios in London, has come to light which shows that Keith had by now – two or three months later – thrown off the shackles and come into his own, as had the rest of them really. Amazingly, this shot at ‘Baby, Don’t You Do It’ sounds not unlike the way they played it in 1970/71... cruder, less skilful, questionable dynamics, not quite so confident perhaps... but marvellously anarchic and we hope to include it on some future anthology, probably a new edition of Odds And Sods, if Jon Astley can clean it up to an acceptable level.
So, after the opening Pete dialogue which I’ll get to later, we decided that side one would open with the only four High Numbers tracks that were available to us.