Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Who: A Quick One (While He's Away)

So, another observation that was made the other day in that conversation about the Who is that their real heirs, the sector of rock where you can most see their influence, was prog, and since prog was very quickly discredited, there aren't as many musicians out there sticking up for the Who as you might expect.  This one I stand by.

That is, I don't think the Who's formal ambitions, their artistic aspirations, are necessarily the most satisfying thing about them, but I do think that they constitute the Who's most important legacy to 20th century music.  If you take rock seriously as music (rather than as a vehicle for street poetry or as a manifestation of social phenomena), it's because the Who did it first.

And some of their operatic stuff I do find incredibly satisfying.  Quadrophenia has some fatal flaws (maybe I'll write about them another time), but Tommy is everything it's cracked up to be (maybe I'll write about it another time, too).

But my favorites are their first two rock operas, neither of which is long enough to merit the name in retrospect, but each of which was billed as such at the time.  The first was "A Quick One (While He's Away)," and it's the more important of the two.  In fact I think it's one of the Who's most impressive songs of any persuasion, and quite the best integrated of their ambitious works.  At nine minutes it's not a second too long, taking the listener on a musical and lyrical journey in which each stage proceeds naturally but inventively from the last.  It's not just a medley of short bits (which is, be honest, what Tommy feels like much of the time), but a truly through-composed piece.  And it rocks.  And it has great jokes ("cello cello cello cello").  And, in true Who fashion, it's either as cheap and trashy ("we have a remedy," heh heh) or as spiritually deep as you want it to be (the ending must be one of the most grace-filled moments in popular song:  "you are forgiven").

The other is "Rael," which, at less than six minutes, really is too short to merit consideration in this category.  But it does move, if very quickly, through a number of movements, and it does tell a story in musical form.  And it does have that bittersweet ending, with the listener knowing the hero has been bitterly betrayed, with his contracted saviors deserting him, and wondering if it matters, if he needs saving, or not.

What's most fun about it, of course, is that it contains a passage that they'd later recycle and expand as "Underture" on Tommy.  It's probably more effective here, but that might just be because, if you come to "Rael" having familiarized yourself with the later work, you can't help but feel a thrill as that noble bassline wells up, as that guitar shakes its regal mane.

Having noted that, of course we have to mention the other musical bit of Tommy that shows up in those last few months before they made that album, which is in the song "Glow Girl."  The song itself doesn't have anything much to do with Tommy, but then the plane goes down and suddenly, "it's a girl, Mrs. Walker, it's a girl."  It gives me goosebumps every time.

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