Let it Rock!
When I was in sixth year at school, in the late sixties, we had a ‘shame noticeboard’ at the back of our classroom. On it, much like Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds corner’, we placed cuttings of some of the more outrageous pieces of writing we came across, particularly about music. We were serious about our music in those days – as opposed to celebrity.
The quote that has stayed with me over the intervening period came from Richard Williams – at the time a tyro journalist with the Melody Maker, now a respected music and sports writer, and former Times assistant Editor. He wrote, and I can still see the clipping and hear the lunchtime laughter, after more than four decades: “While the hirsuteness of Daltrey is less ersatz than that of Jagger….” (No. Me neither.)
I thought of that as I entered the Hydro in Glasgow on Sunday night to see The Who – allegedly for the last time – although you can never tell with Pete and Roger. It was 47 years and 29 days since I’d first seen them as part of my first ever rock concert at the Liverpool Empire. That’s a long time in anybody’s book and I fell to wondering about the effect of listening to a band’s music – and watching them live – for nearly five decades.
It’s easy to forget that, in the sixties, the expectation – indeed the certainty, was that ‘pop groups’ – even those such as the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who – would have a shelf life of not more than four or five years. If you had told me I would be listening to their music ten years later – never mind watching them live when I was in my sixties, I would have laughed. It was, simply, unthinkable and without precedence.
I suppose I’ve seen them around half a dozen times over the years – the first tour of “Tommy” – at Liverpool’s Empire again: at an unannounced gig at Liverpool University, to a crowd of around 200 (Thanks Steve!) where they previewed “Who’s Next”; in the Playhouse at Edinburgh in 1981; in Dublin two years ago for the “Quadrophenia” tour, and now in the Hydro.
What I notice is that I get a different measure of excitement when I watch The Who than when I watch other bands. The only comparison would be with “Horslips” – a favourite Irish band – but, like other favourites, Fairport Convention and Eleanor McEvoy, they operate on a much more accessible level: I’ve sung songs with them in their dressing room after gigs, they make a point of being friends with the fans.
The Who are a far bigger prospect, and yet, over the years, seeing them feels ‘different’ – and it’s not as if going to a concert is a rare occasion. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen many major performers over time: The Stones, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Carole King, Thin Lizzy, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, the Beach Boys, Wings, The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, and more.
It wasn’t meant to be like this, of course. Pop music, by its nature, is supposed to be ephemeral – a 3 minute sugar hit that raises the mood and then recedes into history. At the risk of straying into Richard Williams territory, its apotheosis was surely to be found in the Brill Building in the late fifties and early sixties. Song writers such as Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Greenwich and Barry, Kirschner, Simon, Pitney, Diamond, De Shannon, Leiber and Stoller and more, working office hours in tiny cubicles to churn out instant hits for music corporations.
In their early days, even bands we think of as songwriters, were playing these hits: the Beatles, the Stones and the Who included. It was once it became fashionable for the bands to write their own material, wresting some control from the publishers of Tin Pan Alley, that the conveyor belt approach to top ten hits shuddered to a halt (though, amongst others, Tony Hatch, Chinn and Chapman, Mickie Most, Tony MacAuley and, later, Stock Aitken Waterman, showed it can always be a profitable method).
We started to learn the names of individual band members, songwriting credits were perused – as were producers’ credits. Production by Glynn Johns or Joe Boyd was much to be prized.
The whole thing became, I suppose, more intellectualised – for better or worse. Whilst, formerly, individual songs might retain personal importance because of a time in one’s life, now there were LPs to be treasured and whole periods to be remembered fondly.
For me, the Who were part of that. Always there in the background, a symbol of my beginning of concert going, and with an album to match most of the development periods of my life. “A Quick One” reflecting my love of Pirate Radio; “Tommy” and then “Quadrophenia” matching study and reflection of literature and music; “Who’s Next” as a companion to university life and then, at varying points, the chance to see them live and recall younger days and friends and times.
“Tommy” was a Christmas present from my mother, and as a family tradition was also the giving of festive Turkish Delight, I can’t hear a track or see the cover of that album without tasting the sickly sugary aftertaste of that confection, or remembering the overwhelming ‘size’ of the production when I saw it live in 68 for the first time. “Who’s Next” was a wonderful surprise – a call from my best schoolfriend suggesting I come down from Edinburgh to Liverpool “to meet old friends”. Discovering it was about a ‘secret gig’ for about 200 at the University with the Who “trying out” their new material, and I still remember the looks around me as the intro to “Baba O’Reilly” hit the air and we all wondered what on earth was making that noise. It was one of the few times in the late 60s /early 70s when I actually felt I was part of the ‘scene’ that the rock journos kept writing about. And it was a lovely declaration of friendship, a lifelong friendship – to be thought of and invited.
The singles, too, have resonated through my life: schoolboy sniggering at Daltrey’s stuttering “F-F-F-F-F” in “My Generation”; Moon’s laughter and his “I saw yer” at the end of ”Happy Jack”, Daltrey swinging the mike at the Empire as they powered into “I can see for miles” – the first time I experienced ‘ear buzz’ at a concert; losing the single of “Pictures of Lily” for two years amongst some tea chests – and the joy when it reappeared; I can still show you the site of the shop where I bought “Pinball Wizard” when on holiday in Edinburgh as a schoolboy (It’s now a hairdressers in Bread St!) and my enduring love for “Substitute” – still one of the first on my list of favourite songs.
After fifty years, you can’t help but gain an affinity, some kind of ‘love’ for the band. Like the best aspects of popular culture though, it is, of course, illusory. If I passed Roger in the street, I would feel I had to say hello to him – but, other than a vague memory of trout farms and American Express adverts, I know nothing of his personal details – where he lives, his wife and family and so on – and I’m not really interested. Similarly with Townshend: other than some pretty vicious tabloid headlines and his stint as a poetry editor with Faber and Faber, his background is pretty shadowy for me.
Maybe that reflects that the Who were always a kind of ‘band for the lads’ – just like the guys you play five a sides with or meet at the game: the other parts of their lives are of no interest. It seems that men are good at compartmentalising.
I think it’s a great compartment that I share with the Who. It’s youth, growing and reflecting; it’s my generation’s love of music for music’s sake and the thrill of live performance; it’s a continuity in a life were most things have mutated, moved on, changed texture; it’s the reliability of the opening chord of “I can see for miles”, resonating somewhere in your stomach; the crescendo of the introduction to “Pinball Wizard”, the aching desolation of the vocals on “Behind Blue Eyes”, and the ‘let’s jump up and down and lose it’ freedom of the descending bass on “Summertime Blues”. At their best, and live, the Who took us out of ourselves – while confirming who we were, and what was really, irresponsibly, and indefensibly important – the here and now, mates, music, and giving it all up to emotions.
Not a bad legacy – anyhow, anywhere, anytime – for fifty years.
Let it rock!