Heritage - 12: 'I Can See for Miles and Miles...!' Charting the Rise of The Who to Rock Stardom
"I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise. I know that you have 'cause there's magic in my eyes. I can see for miles and miles and miles..."
Opening lines of Pete Townsend's classic, "I Can See For Miles"
What, or Who gets you going?
The curtain rises: We open with one night in a smoke-filled room at the Railway Tavern, Harrow Wealdstone, north-west London
The Who are in mid-song. Pete [Townshend] raises his guitar in a gesture of defiance above his head, and the neck of his instrument sticks in the low ceiling over the stage. Disaster! Or is it?
For now Pete's really brassed off. He yanks the guitar back down again and - fuming with pent-up rage and a hefty dose of adrenalin - sets about smashing it against his am(p. The crowd goes wild at this turn in the performance - .it's like freebies, something that wasn't in the programme (us Brits are always suckers for freebies)!
The week after, at the same venue the audience bays for a repeat performance but Pete won't hear of it. This is the cue for wild boy Keith [Moon] to lurch into overdrive . with a display of physical fireworks. He smashes up his drum kit. The evening finishes in mayhem, the crowd is ecstatic! How do you follow this?.(How can you follow this level of showmanship?)
'I Can See For Miles'
Attention vinyl freaks: Pete Townsend's lyrics and Roger Daltrey's vocals work their magic with John 'The Ox' providing the baseline and Keith Moon's drums laying the ground in 'I Can See For Miles' was an album track from 'The Who Sell Out' in 1967 and released as a single in mid-October, 1967. This was their biggest-seller in the US, their only one to reach the US Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.
'B' side: 'Someone's Coming'
September 1964, not yet the Summer of Love but The Who is the big thing in town, having been together for something going on a year.
Pete and John [Entwistle, later to be known as 'the Ox'] were at school together in Acton, West London, and had played in a trad jazz band known as the 'Confederates', bored out of their skulls with the same routine, the same audiences and hangers-on behind the 'Rugby Union curtain' of West London, Inner Middlesex and northern Surrey.
One day an older youth by the name of Roger [Daltrey] comes up to John. Roger says he's the front man, the 'face' of a band who call themselves 'The Detours' and does he want 'in'? John ropes in Pete, The Detours' rename themselves 'The High Numbers' and Keith is pulled in,to add percussion to the line-up.
Peter Meaden is picked to be manager. A 'Mod' down to his tie-pin, Peter puts them in smart new outfits.and gives them 'Attitude'. The message goes out to the faithful that a new band has started up that identifies with smart suits and slick hairstyles. The 'Mods' latch onto them.
They get a record out, 'I'm' The Face' with a B side 'Zoot Suit', both songs based on R&B themes and written by Meaden himself. Just over two hundred copies move off the shelves.
Come August a couple of dapper characters approach the band. They want to film them at a gig. 'OK, what can we lose?' Less than a month later they've got themselves two managers, Kit Lambert and Terence Stamp's brother Chris. Lambert and Stamp have ideas on the band's image and want to change their 'brand'.
The story goes that at their managers' office a record producer at the other end of the line during a phone call to Polydor asks for the name of the band in a 'Sorry, I didn't catch it first time' moment. He's told they call themselves 'The High Numbers' and they hear him explode with mirth, 'The who?!'
So the name stuck.
Roger's strident singing, Pete's unmistakable guitar riffs, Keith's aggressive drum style and John 'the Ox' on bass almost lifting the floorboards as the band gets into gear for another number. You can't copy this kind of playing, the most you can hope for is to get the tunes right. There's never going to be another band like them. This is raw. This is The Who!
... And the classic Rock Opera
A first, The film 'Tommy' featured Roger as Tommy with members of the band making an appearance. Under the directorship of Ken Russell, Keith played the evil uncle, tormenting and torturing the blind mute, the hero of the hour. Ann-Margret featured as Tommy's distraught mother and Robert Powell was his father, Tommy's RAF pilot hero. Eric Clapton showed near the end in a glitzy show put on for the afflicted who come to the venue for a miracle cure. A plastic statue of Marilyn is drawn behind Pete, John and Eric in their outrageous outfits and loud electric guitars (hard to say which was louder, the outfits or the music)!
TOMMY can you hear me?
Change is in the wind, however. The first ever rock opera manifests itself in 'TOMMY'. Concept albums have come and gone, but this followed its theme to its glorious end.
The story is about a boy who is disturbed by his parents one night. his Dad's an RAF pilot, pent-up fury repressed over the years comes out at Mum and little Tommy can't bear it. He turns into himself. His world is inside his head and he blocks everything out, becomes deaf and mute, blind even. Over the years, into his teens he learns to play the pinball machines in amusement arcades at the seaside and amazes onlookers. He plays the machines like no other! There is a happy end, just around the corner.
'Pinball Wizard' has been borrowed to great effect by Elton John, hyping up his performances with clown-like outfits, and a film was made with Roger as the eponymous hero Tommy. His Mum is Ann-Margret, Dad Robert Powell. Keith Moon plays an evil uncle who puts the mute kid through all kinds of physical torture. Elton is the clown-like pinball player in the arcade (true to type) who's jealous of Tommy's skill. Near the end there's a Faith Healing sequence with Eric Clapton, Pete and John playing their guitars ahead of a statue of Marilyn (from the scene where she stood over the hot air riser) and Ann-Margret leads the unfortunate lad past the faithful. You've got to watch it, describing with words falls short, it's a visual treat!
Are you a fan of The Who?
The strident lyrics are Pete's own. He's the man with the words, the emotions, the frustrations. And he can come up with the stuff at the drop of a hat!
The next pearl on the music market is 'I Can't Explain'. Classic 'Angry Young Man' of the 60's, hard-hitting rock - not Mod - music. They were leaving Meaden's Mods behind - fast! Just in time the number hits eighth place in the charts. The money comes in handy after a four-month wrecking spree at the Marquee. They're in need of new kit, and they're sorely indebted.
In May comes 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere', followed in October by the stuttering, pimply-youth anthem 'My Generation'. There's a beat to it, with a masterful bassline line from 'the Ox'. On a roll now. 'My Generation' rockets up through the charts to no.5. More great fuel for the frustrated is followed fast by 'Substitute', 'I'm A Boy' (a boy made to wear in skirts, and not even from north of the Border). Then comes the warning.Girlfriends beware!, 'I Can See For Miles'. Each one of these is a little volcano in the late 60's.
The year is 1967, the band takes to the road - across the Pond. America beckons. They tour the States, breaking the mould at Monterey and bringing chaos with smashed-up guitars (Wes Shaw, you're not reading this are you?) everywhere in front of sellout audiences.
Of course, they were still up to their ears in debt - it's what comes of having to shell out for new kit all the time - despite all that success with drawing audiences.
The second of Pete's rock operas, 'Quadrophenia' plots the fight between Mods and Rockers (scooter riders and bikers) in the south of England between London and Brighton. Mostly white collar, fashion-conscious Mods look down their noses at the mostly greased-up and unemployed or manual workers who call themselves Rockers. An argument with a girlfriend leads to the hero riding a mate's scooter along the cliffs of Beachy Head, leaving us to wonder - does he steer for the cliff edge?
QUADROPHENIA - The Mods Are Out On The Town
Pete went back to the Mod theme for 'Quadrophenia' in 1973. This is another epic rock opera to equal 'Carmen' for raw emotion, lacing the soundtrack with songs such as 'The Real Me' and 'Love Reign O'er Me'.
'Quadrophenia' is the tale of a pill-swallowing, Parka-wearing scooter cavalier who happens to be a 60's Who devotee. The album led to the film, a moody saga that ends - operatically - in disaster, but we don't actually see the lad come to harm as he buzzes along the clifftops near Beachy Head. Another 'must-see'.
New horizons beckoned and Pete's drive to glory manifested itself in 'Slip Kid' and 'Who Are You', pointing the way to Punk and New Wave..
Then disaster. Keith, always looking for something out of the ordinary, overdosed at home at thirty-two years young. Another of Rock's long list of casualties. Where to go now? Ex-Faces drummer Kenny Jones was recruited into the line-up. They were enabled again for the concert circuit, touring and knocking out albums.
Concept and Live Album covers
'Live at Leeds' is the live album we hunted for, high and low. The drawn out riffs, reverbs, and hot basslines, some tracks extending by twice and three times their album length. First rate performances from the lads who pulled together to bring us heart-warming renditions such as 'Magic Bus', 'Young Man Blues' and the classic 'My Generation'. .
'The Who Sell Out'
The band scaled new heights with every live act. And then there was Keith's follow-up 'cabaret', trashing his hotel room - TV out of the window, you know the score.
He was all coked up, an adrenalin junkie who took longer to come back down to earth after concerts - TV's out of the window and whatever else that wasn't bolted to the floor, you know the score... It would catch up with him eventually, and he wasn't the only one. There were fights between band members, with Roger having to put himself bodily between antagonists, often finishing up having to resort to fisticuffs himself.
'Who's Next' was the 'heir' to 'Tommy', to show Pete's prowess as a lyric writer was by no means diminished by his habit. This album has become a classic in its own right, with tracks such as 'Won't Get Fooled Again' and 'Baba O'Reilly' ('I don't have to fight, to prove I'm right!')
Audiences by now numbered tens of thousands - telephone numbers, really.
Monument to Rock, stark and threatening
A blast, a hoot, and play it loud so the walls shake! (Never mind the neighbours - tell 'em to go and get stuffed!) I wouldn't want to spoil the fun for you so I'll refrain from listing the tracks or making any comments. A word to the wise: If you live in a flat, just try not to cave in the floor when you start to dance!
First on the casualty list: Keith Moon, human dynamo, hell-raiser
New line-up, new face - Kenney Jones
Exit 'the Ox'
Again disaster threatened to knock the band sideways. In 2002 John 'the Ox' Entwistle died of a heart attack in sensational circumstances. High on drugs and like a rampant rabbit, he was with a hooker in the US when he went in his 58th year.
Pete and Roger put time into their charitable organisations such as the Teenage Cancer Trust. Discussion centres on what to do with their legacy that began to build from the night Pete's guitar went into the stage ceiling.
Poor old Pete's almost as deaf as a post after all this time standing in front of a blaring amp. He kept on performing despite warnings from specialists that he would lose his hearing. He played through the vibes last time, though. A bit like Beethoven, you might say.
Plans for more concerts? Your guess is as good as mine. Pete and Roger are the lucky survivors of a generation that lived life in overdrive. Remember the 60's? Chances are you weren't there.
Next on the casualty list, the 'Ox', John Entwistle - gone but not forgotten
Survivors, Pete and Roger
He might be as deaf as a post, but he'll never disappoint his fans - Pete was warned by his doctor that another performance would put paid to his hearing, that was a while back before more gigs saw him and Roger do another tour. A few misunderstandings off-stage saw Pete in trouble with the police over a completely non-music associated matter, and Roger's intervention saved the day. When will we see them perform again? That's the important thing.
© 2013 Alan R Lancaster