In this part of my essay on 30 Years Of Maximum R&B we move into the Shel Talmy era. More about this period tomorrow.

It’s no secret that by the end of 1964 The Who were desperate. Pete was smashing guitars which he could ill afford, and new managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp had to beg, borrow and steal to keep the ship afloat. So when Fontana passed on a follow-up to ‘I’m The Face’ and every other label in town turned them down, they grabbed the first chance that came their way, a production contract with London-based American producer Shel Talmy who had just taken The Kinks to number one in the UK charts with ‘You Really Got Me’ (and number two with ‘All Day And All Of The Night’).  
         It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the catastrophic economic consequences of this deal would effectively govern the way The Who’s entire career developed, and an understanding of it is crucial to a proper understanding of The Who and their career. In a nutshell, Talmy signed the group to a six-year production deal, giving them a 2.5% (soon raised to 4%) royalty, and could place their records with whichever label he chose. He was therefore ideally placed to play both ends against the middle, securing for himself a royalty from a record company far in excess of what he paid The Who. He took their tapes to American Decca who released them in the UK on the Brunswick label, and in the US on Decca. Unfortunately, within a year the relationship between Talmy and Kit Lambert, and to a lesser extent The Who, was in terminal decline.
         As far as I was concerned the Talmy deal, and the ongoing hostility which still existed, meant that Jon and I didn’t have access to the master tapes of the stuff they recorded with him, which included their next three singles, the whole of their first album and several relatively unimportant but nevertheless interesting outtakes, all of them covers, some of which had turned up on the MCA albums Who Missing and Two’s Missing. Consequently we had to work from copy tapes and as a result the next seven tracks on Disc 1 of the box set – ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’, ‘Daddy Rolling Stone’, ‘My Generation’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘The Ox’ and ‘A Legal Matter’ – do not sound as crisp as those that follow, or even as sharp as the four High Numbers’ songs that precede them for that matter. Also, unlike most of the rest of the box, these songs are in mono. We must therefore ignore the technical imperfections when judging this music.
         First, let’s remember that ‘Explain’, ‘Anyway’ and ‘Generation’ were intended as singles, and recorded accordingly (and magnificently) by Talmy. The original 45 rpm black-and-silver-labelled singles, cut deep into the grooves of sturdy 7” black vinyl, thundered out of juke-boxes, transistor radios (pirate radio loved The Who) and cheap Dansette multiple change record players and sounded all the better for it. Nothing can replace that sound, the sound by which The Who first staked their claim on my consciousness. ‘I Can’t Explain’, their opening salvo, was a shot across The Kinks’ bows, and in what would become the norm in so many of their early records, it’s the drums – those rifle-shot drums – that lift the song beyond anything the Davies brothers’ rhythm section was doing. Listening to Keith’s rapid-fire ricochet after the words “I know what I mean but...” it’s clear that something big and new and sparkling is happening here, a different dynamic in which the drums, hitherto used for keeping time at the back, are the lead instrument, while the guitar and bass keep time. This is The Who’s first great musical innovation. Then there’s the words: frustation, anger, mortification. At a time when all pop songs (including those by The Beatles, Stones & Kinks) seemed to be about love, either falling in or unrequited, and were written largely as romantic escapism, The Who present us with a different kind of pop song, with lyrics that are couched in reality, that deal with unpleasant truths with which real teenage boys, not just those lucky enough to have a girlfriend, can identify. Moreover, it’s a song about the frustration of being unable to express yourself, not just to the girl of your dreams but, in a broader sense, to the grown-up world as a whole. 
         ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’, their next single, takes the same direct lyrical route, except that the singer has by now overcome his earlier handicap and adopted an aura of blind invincibility. Musically, we’re introduced here to the second great Who innovation: the chiming bell-like open-stringed power-chord, cross cut against pounding drums and bass and allowed to feedback on itself and drone into a wall of electronic discord. These two ground-breakers lead naturally to the third in The Who’s great opening trilogy, ‘My Generation’, in which Pete’s churning two chord riff sets the stage for Roger’s ‘controversial’ stuttering vocals, John’s thunderous bass solo and another of Keith’s ferocious drum assaults. As if the first two raging minutes aren’t enough, The Who pile on the pressure with an upward key change and climax with a brutal wipe-out of distorted feedback. In Roger’s hands the lyrics become the perfect war cry for anyone under 20 – i.e. most of us – who felt that the adult world just wasn’t for them. From here there was no turning back – hope I die before I get old indeed.
         These three songs, the most obvious Talmy-produced tracks to include on the box, seem to me to emphasise just how much the four guys in The Who needed each other to survive. The sound they made was unique because these guys played their instruments differently from all the other boys in England who’d taken up guitars and drums in the wake of The Beatles’ emergence. (Not that The Who had done that... they been at it for almost three years. The timing of their arrival just made it seem that way.) Townshend invented a different – noisier, more rhythmic, far less theoretical – way of playing the guitar which would not have suited any other band, while Entwistle had invented a different style of playing bass, turning a deep toned rhythm instrument into something that picked out mid-range lead lines. As for Moon, as his name implied he was from outer space, light years ahead of his rivals, a complete original, while only a hard nut like Daltrey, far and away the toughest, most hard-headed member of this little gang, would have the strength of character to hang on in there and make himself heard above the din. All of them were odd, unconventional, extreme, inventive, original, contrary, and somehow they found each other. In any other band they would have been fired for insubordination; in The Who they simply egged each other on to greater heights.


Richard Evans said...

I'll second that! The four opening chords of 'I Can't Explain' still send a shiver down my spine.

Anonymous said...

Those 4 tracks are definitely in my top 10 of Who songs. Raw rock n roll, constant reminders as to how great the Who were.

Anonymous said...

Loving this, thank you!

Chris F said...

Good producer or not, Shel Talmy completely took advantage of them and is obviously a selfish jerk. I'm surprised Roger didn't eventually clock him.