Getting In Tune — An Alternate History

This project sprang out of a certain frustration I felt when going through all of the non-LP Who tracks — hit a-sides that never appeared on an album, really great b-sides (especially by Entwistle) that likewise never appeared on LPs, unreleased but fully realized studio tracks (including a wealth of great covers), studio versions of songs well-known in their live versions, and alternate takes of songs from the LPs — that had sprung up like dandelions on the streaming services and the internet over the past decade. I'd get some stray melody or lyric from one of these tracks stuck in my head — for instance, the break (or is that the chorus?) in "I Don't Even Know Myself" where the band sings "I don't mind if you try once in a while" over drumstick taps — but being a little foggy-minded in general, I couldn't always recall where it came from, and so would have to hunt around on Spotify to find it. 

The Who was my favorite band in high school. Yes, there were competitors among the new wave and other acts I was absorbing from MTV — The Cars, The Police, U2, R.E.M., The Smiths (who never appeared on MTV), and so forth. Punk hit when I was 7, MTV when I was 12. I had my Hendrix and Bowie collections, and for some reason really got into Jethro Tull (entirely through my stepdad's LP collection), but I was really devoted to the band, and to Pete Townshend in particular, while struggling with my zits, hormones and nascent creativity. Several tracks from Face Dances — "You Better You Bet," "Don't Let Go The Coat," etc. — were on heavy rotation on MTV, along with tracks from Empty Glass — "Rough Boys" and "Let My Love Open the Door" — that really hooked me. Townshend's lyrics were particularly impressive — I learned the meanings of both "recrimination" and "fester" in the course of one line! — but I also liked his style, which could count as an anti-style amidst the peacocks, blown-dry posturing and playful androgyny of many of the bands trying to cause a stir through the still-new medium of the music video. I loved the way Townshend put his Hush Puppy shoes on the table in the snooker hall while executing what, to my mind, is some of his best half-rhythm half-lead guitar work in the blistering "Rough Boys." 

Of course, I had the albums, too: Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who's Next, Quadrophenia, Who By Numbers and Who Are You were in my stepdad's collection. I bought with my very own money Faces Dances (and later, It's Hard), Empty Glass (and later, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes), Odds & Sods (which was just one LP then), Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, The Kids Are Alright, and the rerelease of My Generation packaged with the US-only Magic Bus: The Who On Tour. Townshend's first Scoop and his collaboration with Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix, were also on heavy rotation. I seem to remember pawing Hooligans at some point but I don't think I owned it. Two LPs I know I didn't hear in high school were A Quick One and The Who Sell Out, and, in fact, it was my much later listening of these albums on Spotify that got me back "into" the Who. I had known "A Quick One" from The Kids Are Alright film, and tracks like "I Can't Reach You" and "Our Love Was" were on the Magic Bus compilation, but listening to The Who Sell Out beginning to end was a real revelation — I just hadn't encountered that dimension of the band. 

Enter the present day, and here we are all "locked down" by the Covid-19 pandemic, seeming to have nothing to do nothing but wash dishes, cook once-exciting recipes again and again, and do our work and have happy hours through computer screens (at least, I am), and shower occasionally. So, stressed and maybe depressed, I get into one of my modes where I have the need to collect a lot of stray, random artifacts and try to bring some coherence to them. This is just some weird flaw in my character — there are certainly better things to do. Years ago, for example, I put together a site called Scavenged Luxury: L.A. Post-Punk, Art Rock and Power Pop (c. 1977-1987) which included 20 compilations of music (and some liner notes). Another project I've been working on for a few years is a history of Los Angeles art during the Modernist era, and similarly, for going on a decade now, an anthology of Los Angeles poetry from the beginnings to the McCarthy Era. Collect, organize, research, write, design — that's kind of what I do, like an ant carrying fragments of potato chips back to the colony, arranging them in patterns on a display dish made of leaf, and presenting them to a clearly indifferent queen. 

I started with a Spotify playlist I called "Who's For Dinner — The Who's Lost LP," then started a second, "Who's For More Dinner? — The Who's Second Lost LP." Now here's another motivation: I get a little annoyed by the adulation the Beatles received and continue to receive for each of their successive records, not to mention the near-mythical status of each bellyache the band had during their brief career. Finding all of this great music by the Who on Spotify presented the opportunity to express this peevishness about the Fab Four — who, of course, were a great band — not to mention my quasi-patriotic devotion to the Who by thrusting a series of brand new, old LPs into, in a sense, history. Both Spotify playlists eventually grew into enough material for two LPs each — yes, with perhaps a little filler, but considering all of the experimental wackiness that appeared on The Who Sell Out ("Cobwebs and Strange" anyone?), it was hard to figure out at moments what constituted proper Who tracks and what — were they jokes? — simply failed in their execution ("Barbara Ann," anyone?).

As all of this was going on, I became obsessed with the sequencing of the LPs. The double-LP from the 70s I conceived, which is largely made up of extra Lifehouse tracks, five tracks intended for an EP from before Townshend became absorbed with Lifehouse, and a stray single released after Tommy, settled into an order quite easily. All of the tracks, with the exception of the single, had Glyn Johns, who had co-produced Who's Next, behind the board, so there was a consistency of tone and quality across them. 

Coincidentally, I've always been struck about how the Lifehouse tracks that didn't appear on Who's Next are similar in their generally positive, hopeful tone, whereas much of Who's Next is angry and mournful, letting the sunshine in briefly such as in the heavy section of "The Song is Over." They are also generally less monumental sounding than, say, "Won't Get Fooled Again," with odd instrumentation — the jew's harp in "Join Together," for example — that made them seem just more fun and light-hearted than Who's Next (though "Goin' Mobile" is an exception and could have been on my imaginary LPs). This set of songs, which can have a cosmic element to them given the influence of the Meher Baba, was nicely set off when interwoven with the bluesy rock tracks, best known to Who fans in live performance, such as "Water" and "Naked Eye." I chose for this later collection a title Keith Moon had offered for the unrealized EP, 6 Ft. Wide Garage, 7. Ft. Wide Car, the meaning of which I still don't understand but which reflects what I see as a more relaxed attitude for the album. Easy peasy. 

Sequencing for the earlier collection, which I called Jigsaw Puzzle, an early title for the LP that eventually became A Quick One, was more difficult. I decided early on that I wanted the under-recognized "Disguises" to open the record. It has a great searing guitar line — and what is that is that chugging along behind the harmonies, some sort of factory machinery? Daltrey had worked in a sheet metal factory as a youth — did they bring, "Leader of the Pack"-style, one of these machines into the studio? Did the Who invent industrial music? The lyric is also really great, a series of one-liners in the vein of "Substitute" and "I'm A Boy," in examining the question of identity through shattered mirrors. An excellent cover of an Everly Brothers' song, "Man With Money," which was festering (see what I did?) in a dark corner of Spotify, settled into place as the second track.

Outside of that, I found it difficult to create any order out these tracks, not to mention to decide which tracks to include, as the band were terribly prolific in the studio in the years 1965-1968. Jigsaw Puzzle became an apt title for the collection as I was linking tracks in mono with tracks in stereo, cleanly executed "power pop" songs with tracks the band had never resolved (like "Circles," which exists in several different versions), and searing kick-out-the-jams covers like "Summertime Blues" with tidy, 2:12 minute gems. Not least were the clashing personalities of the band's songwriters themselves — namely, Townshend's earnestness and experimental nature with Entwistle's mordant satire and horn arrangements and Moon's inability to take anything seriously in the few tracks he penned. 

Lastly, there was the problem of how to intermingle classics like "Happy Jack" and "Magic Bus," whose opening seconds are as well-known to fans as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is to, well, about everyone, with obscure tracks like "Glittering Girl" and "I've Been Away." Given that I couldn't remaster the tracks, I also spent a lot of time listening to the ends of songs and testing how they set up the next track, considering, for example, how "Melancholia" (with its tacked-on faux ad bit known as "Bag O' Nails," a remnant of its possible place in The Who Sell Out, which I couldn't delete) set up "Little Billy," a neat power pop track I'd known for years from Odds & Sods and which I imagine Paul Weller likes quite a bit. 

Another problem that I had was what to do with two of the best-known non-album singles, "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," since it seems, in a recovery project like this, that one should take in all of the stragglers, especially these classics. A solution eventually presented itself when I decided to give all of the bonus tracks from the My Generation (Super Deluxe) edition a virtual spin and was really blown away by them. I'd known "I'm the Face" from Odds & Sods but felt no compulsion to include it Jigsaw Puzzle — it just didn't sound like the Who yet. 

Most would argue that these "super deluxe" tracks, mostly covers, don't quite sound like the Who either, but they do sound like a very exciting, even revolutionary, Mod-era live act. The recordings, under producer Shel Talmy, sound consistently pretty great, and the selection, mostly drawn from American r&b and pop, reflect a very sure sense of the sound and image the band wanted to present. Daltrey in particular sounds confident and like he was having fun trying by turns to ape the styles of James Brown, Garnet Nimms and Bo Diddley, and Moon's drumming and Townshend's surprisingly many leads were in cooler styles that wouldn't reappear on later Who tracks. Entwistle doesn't quite make an impact on these tracks, mostly because he's buried in the mix, but his bassline in "I'm the Face" signals things to come. 

Anyway, so that's when the perhaps very stupid idea arose of creating a final single LP around this music, and in addition, creating an entire pre-Who history for the band as the High Numbers, a name they only used briefly for the "Zoot Suit" single in July 1964. This LP, just like the 6 Ft. Wide Garage, 7. Ft. Wide Car, fell into place easily: the early High Numbers single, the first two Who singles, and a bunch of covers recorded with Shel Talmy. I also, cleverly, included in the set "Call Me Lightning" which was actually released in 1968 as a sort of place-holder until Tommy was completed, my justification being that Townshend had recorded a demo of the track in 1964 (it appears on Another Scoop). "Call Me Lightning," along with another Townshend track, "Instant Party Mixture," just didn't fit into either of the other rather capacious double-LPs, but here fit snug as a bug. My only regret is that a track that only appears on the Who compilation Thirty Years of Maximum R&B from 1994, a charming cover of Bo Diddley's "Here 'Tis" (recorded as the High Numbers) isn't on Spotify. As you'll see, however, I link to a recording on YouTube on the LP's page (see what I did?).

After essentially creating an entire LP for a band, the High Numbers, that had only ever recorded 3 or 4 tracks, I set about designing LP covers, as graphic design has been something of a hobby of mine since the 90s (I'm actually a pretty well-known poet and digital artist — just saying). I'd been planning on writing proper, informative liner notes for the collection from the beginning, but now that I'd really drunk the Kool-aid of alternate history (a genre I'd always liked, especially in the hands of Philip K. Dick), I decided to spice up the liner notes with some fictional accounts of the albums' creation. The primary motivation was to justify why the albums were recorded and released when they were — to make them seem as inevitable as, say, Tommy or Electric Ladyland. So reader beware: very much of what you will read, should you choose to do so, on the other pages of this site is utter bullshit. Not only that, it's probably not even very good bullshit. But I don't want to get sued or give surviving members of the band apoplectic fits, so I'm placing this warning here. 

But for the sake of fairness, since some readers of this site might not know the actual history of the Who, I'd like to list the most egregious acts of tampering with the facts:

1. As noted, the High Numbers never recorded an LP. "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" were in fact released as Who singles and both became huge hits. The songs were not tucked away as deep cuts due to conflicts with their management or because Townshend was unsure of his songwriting skills. I made all of that up to extend the history of the High Numbers as largely a covers band (though I do think "Baby Don't You Do It" would have made an explosive follow-up to "Zoot Suit"). I particularly like the cover for this one since it concretizes what sort of impression the band might have made when chanced upon in the LP bins. I also like Keith Moon's shirt and haircut, which wouldn’t have been out of place in Joy Division.

2. I stuck to the facts with most of the recordings included on Jigsaw Puzzle, but the band did not rush out a complete side of tracks because they became aware of the imminent release of double-LPs by Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. "Magic Bus" was a non-LP single released after The Who Sell Out and was a big hit, not the first single from Jigsaw Puzzle. There was no pencil and water glass, but there was a forgotten demo. My alternate history deletes the compilation album Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, released in 1971, which includes all of the hit a-sides. As with the above, the band's relationship to managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp is entirely fictional. The band looks pretty tired and serious in the photo (I think taken in San Francisco) on the sleeve, almost absurdly so, but I went with what I had.

3. Finally, and perhaps most annoyingly to fans and Mr. Townshend himself, Lifehouse was not a project that Townshend conceived of after the release of Who's Next. In fact, the majority of Who's Next were tracks intended for Lifehouse, an "aborted" multimedia project that Townshend, several years later, would return to, releasing Lifehouse Chronicles in 2000. Lifehouse, like the Beach Boys' intended follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile, has become legendary over the years as albums that should have been. Townshend did actually conceive of a project called Rock Is Dead — Long Live Rock! which would be a "history of the Who," a concept that was eventually realized in the rock opera Quadrophenia. "Long Live Rock" itself, recorded in 1971, only appeared as a single in 1979. 

I used to own a few books about the Who but over the years they've disappeared — lent out, stolen, sold, don't really know. Which is to say: I didn't do much research for this project beyond what I could find on the web: Wikipedia pages, fan pages, official pages on the Who's own site, liner notes someone had posted, and YouTube videos. There are probably moments where I, myself, think I am conveying a sure fact but might be basing it on someone else's fabrication or mistake! If you'd like to get your mitts on some stable facts, just a few, about the tracks, here is the spreadsheet I created while putting together this site. And as you'll notice, I added, in the spirit of Spotify and endless repackaging and reissuing, a few demos to the ends of each of the compilations, two from Townshend's album Scoop and three from My Generation (Super Deluxe Edition). "Mary" in particular is one I've always found haunting.

Well, don't read the text — listen to the music! It's pretty damn good. 

Brian Kim Stefans

September 6, 2020


Popular Posts