Classic Music Review: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy by The Who

the-who-meaty-beaty-big-and-bouncy

Shame on me! The only Who review I’ve done is Who’s Next, and that was over a year ago! What kind of blog am I running here, anyway?

The truth is that I have seriously conflicting feelings about The Who and the majority of its members. As far as John Entwistle goes, I feel nothing but fondness for his quirky songs and his top-of-the-class bass playing. I think Keith Moon was a Neanderthal wacko whose frenetic drumming was exciting at first but grew tiresome over time. I think Pete Townshend is a very odd person, a jump-ball lyricist and an occasionally brilliant composer who spent too much time immersed in offbeat philosophies and murky research. I think Roger Daltrey is one of the greatest rock singers of them all, but I’ve never heard anyone whose early imitations of black guys were as embarrassingly awful as his.

Despite my reservations, I’ve decided to review a one or two more of their creations, beginning with this greatest hits compilation that pre-dates Who’s Next. That works for me, because I have no intention of touching anything that came after Who’s Next, my favorite Who album and one of my favorite albums of all time. This means that when The Who section of my library is complete, the history will show that they went out on top. How bloody thoughtful of me!

However, I reserve the right to review Quadrophenia if Review Writing Day coincides with my period and I need to use something as a punching bag.

Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy is a solid collection, but the compilers came up with a track order that screwed up the timeline more than James T. Kirk ever did in any Star Trek episode. I’m going to review the songs in their release order and parenthetically list the track order in a subtle form of protest against historical desecration. Shall we begin?

“I Can’t Explain” (1): When you find out that this song never made it higher than #96 on the US charts, the title makes perfect sense. I’ve always found it to be a curious fact of history that The Who were virtual unknowns in the United States until they played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and that singles like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” “Substitute” and “The Kids Are Alright” went completely unnoticed by the American listening public. The Who didn’t escape the lower regions of the Billboard U. S. Charts until “Happy Jack” made it into the mid-twenties in late 1966. Since some of those songs later became American favorites featured in movies and commercials, one theory is that The Who of the mid-1960’s had been victimized by management disputes, poor marketing and a lack of industry connections. Another is that they were a little late to the game, as the main wave of the British Invasion had landed the year before, and Americans had already moved on to the shiny new thing, as they are wont to do. Sad history aside, this is melodic rock at its best, combining pelvic stimulation, exciting harmonies and background vocals, and a James Dean-like rebellious vulnerability in Roger Daltrey’s performance. It also displays all the band’s strengths in barely over two minutes: Keith Moon’s thunderous attack, Entwistle’s booming bass, Daltrey’s ability to stay in character and Pete Townsend’s guitar talents. It’s the ideal demo for an emerging group, and deserved a better fate at birth. Townsend claimed he based it “All Day and All of the Night,” and if so, he didn’t listen very well or was drunk when he heard The Kinks’ classic hit. While there are certainly rhythmic similarities, the chord structure doesn’t line up.

“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” (8): Skipping ahead SEVEN tracks to stay in sync, this tune reached #10 in the UK and went nowhere in the U. S. The chord structure is basically the “Louie, Louie”/”Hang On Sloopy” I-IV-V with a variation in the chorus, a sure sign of a follow-up single. Though the song itself is pretty weak, The Who add several touches that would become part of their standard fare: Keith Moon’s tom roll and crash combination, a frenetic solo from Townsend full of nasty feedback, and an equally frenetic piano background that gives the track an avant-garde flair. At this point, they’re already experts at call-and-response vocals, a common feature of their early works.

“My Generation” (6): I have seriously mixed feelings about this song, largely because I was raised by Baby Boomers who never hesitate to remind me that their generation was so very, very special in so many, many ways. Yeah, yeah, yeah. My typical response is, “Well, there certainly were a lot of you,” reminding them that there is no correlation between quantity and quality. To me, “My Generation” was a marketing gimmick designed to exploit teenage buyers by encouraging them to believe in that special status. “Hope I die before I get old” is one of the dumbest lines in the history of popular music, a childish outburst that engages in the kind of stereotyping the Baby Boomers found absolutely appalling when applied to race, gender or youth. Philosophical differences aside, the performance is incredibly exciting. Daltrey’s behind-the-beat stutter is marvelous, Entwistle’s bass runs are killer and Keith Moon goes suitably crazy on the drums. The end of the song collapses into a mess, largely because there’s really nowhere for this song to go once the moronic marketing message has been delivered.

“Substitute” (13): What a fabulous fucking song! So fabulous it failed to chart in the USA! Huh? Part of the problem may have been a disgusting substitution made at the behest of the American record company, Atco. “I look all white but my dad was black” was re-recorded as “I try walking forward but my feet walk back” because Atco courageously decided that any reference to race would spell doom in American market. Absofuckinglutely despicable, even for the land where all men are created equal. Politics aside, the song moves incredibly well and the build to the endlessly exciting chorus is superb. The harmonies are very strong, Daltrey nails the character’s oscillation between bitterness and regret, and the arrangement never loses its energy, with the stop-time guitar breaks serving as accelerators. The lyrics are the best in the early Who catalog, describing the comic and tragic aspects of trying to fit in with both compassion and wit. I love the line, “I look pretty young but I’m just back-dated, yeah.” Pete Townsend’s penchant for teenage dramatic monologues will get stale later in his career, but at this stage, it’s a fresh approach.

“A Legal Matter” (10): The legal matter is teenage divorce, and since teenage marriage is an incomprehensible concept to me, I have a hard time relating to this song. However, I love Townsend’s tone on the main riff and even though the melody is rather obvious and reminiscent of The Stones “The Last Time,” it’s a pleasant rocker with a slight honky-tonk feel that made a good B-side for a much better song, namely . . .

“The Kids Are Alright” (2): Another melodic rock classic, this story of mild teenage angst is sheer delight. Validating The Count Basie Effect that tells us that the simplest choices are often the best, the opening chord—a pretty run-of-the-mill D5—was voted the second most distinctive opening chord after (duh) “A Hard Day’s Night” on Rock Town Hall. The melody moves beautifully and gracefully through the scale, and the harmonies sound so good they almost put me into a waking dream state of pure ecstasy. Keith Moon’s relentless attack gives the arrangement rock song credibility by tempering the sweetness, and Townsend’s supporting guitar gets right to the edge of lead guitar orgasm without crossing the line into explosion, leaving that pleasure for the listeners. And where did this diamond land on the US Charts? #106. Shee-it.

“I’m a Boy” (14): According to SongFacts, “Pete Townshend wrote this for a Rock Opera he was composing called ‘Quads,’ which was about a future where parents could choose the sex of their children.” The parents placed an order for four girls; someone in the shipping department fucked up and sent one with a little pecker attached. Dear Mother wants nothing to do with peckers (obviously, or she wouldn’t have had to order her kids C. O. D.), so she treats him “like a girl,” forcing him into hairpins and makeup and denying him the uniquely male pleasures of rolling around in the dirt and bleeding. Townsend was wise to drop the concept, which reflects gender stereotypes that people of the era believed were solidly grounded in both biological science and theology. Wrong! Having grown up about a mile from the Castro, where men range from muscular he-men to some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever laid eyes on, this song seemed really foreign to me until my parents gave me a lesson in the history of gender identity repression. Putting aside Townsend’s understandable cultural naiveté, this is one of my favorite Who songs from a musical standpoint, and you can certainly hear hints of Tommy in the melodic structure and arrangement. Although the low quality of the recording weakens the effect, Entwistle plays a nice French Horn passage that also foreshadows Tommy.

“Happy Jack” (3): I love this song! The guitar riff is one of the first things I wanted to learn on my guitar, and though it took a while to develop the necessary callouses, I pulled it off—the proudest achievement of a truly shitty guitar player. The chords are very simple, but the alternating 3/4, 2/4 time signatures in the verses are an exciting variation to standard rock rhythms. Once again the harmonies are exceptional and cause me to wonder why on earth The Who chose to reduce the use of harmony over the course of their career. John Entwistle is perfect in the role of storyteller, and this is one song where Keith Moon’s manic bursts really work, providing greater contrast to the alternating loud/soft dynamics. Up to this point, Pete Townsend’s songwriting had been admittedly derivative; this is where he starts to differentiate himself and find his voice.

“Pictures of Lily” (5): This one didn’t make it in the U. S. either, but I can understand why: it reminds me of early melodic Move songs that were terribly popular in the UK but never raised a speck of interest across the water. What strikes me about this song is the striking melodic movement and the relative complexity of the chords compared to their other early singles. The story line certainly hints of jacking off to an ancient pin-up girl poster, and hints that the moral of the story is that such behavior leads to young lads preferring fantasy to the awful reality of girls. Townsend takes a nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach that is understandable given the times. (Postscript: It’s four days since I’ve written this and that melody is still stuck in my head.)

“Boris the Spider” (11): I don’t know if he’s willing to admit it, but I think this is where Peter Gabriel got the idea for “Moribund the Burgermeister.” I mentioned in my review of Mind Spiders’ Meltdown that I hate spiders with a burning passion (my favorite execution method involves frying them with electric current while a wicked laugh escapes from my lips). Despite this powerful aversion, I think this song is a hoot! Entwistle wrote this after a drinking bout with Bill Wyman, indicating just how wonderfully wacky those bass players can be. The song is astonishingly well-arranged though, and the contrast between the growly basso profundo and the creepy crawly falsetto creates a humorous and creepy effect. Bravo for Boris!

“I Can See for Miles” (4): The Who break into the Top 10 in the US! Know what? It’s one of my least favorite songs on the album. Typical of me, ain’t it? I think the lyrics are childish, trite, repetitive and spiteful. I think the melodic progression is substandard. The opening passage with its single note of distortion would have been impressive had it not come out six months after Eric Burdon and The Animals came out with “When I Was Young” (a much better song anyway). Keith Moon’s drumming crosses the line into excess, and Townsend’s guitar becomes rather irritating after a while, like a car alarm that keeps blasting through the night.

“Magic Bus” (12): God, I hate this frigging song. As an attempt at a Bo Diddley groove song, it fails to get out of the gate. Entwistle’s bass part and the claves never seem to establish the connection between ears and hips; listening to it gives me the jitters instead of moving my mojo. The lyrics are dumb, the call-and-response is dumb . . . did I tell you that I hate this frigging song? The Who were never very good at anything hinting of R&B, and this settles the case.

“Pinball Wizard” (9): The crown jewel of Tommy was written after the boys played a demo of their rock opus for a reviewer and received a lukewarm response. Ever ready to please the critical powers that be, Townsend discovered that the guy liked to play pinball and decided to stick a pinball song into his not-very-carefully-crafted libretto. I can still remember feeling this was a very exciting song years ago . . . but it’s been played to death and I’m tired of it.

“The Seeker” (7): The quality of The Who’s singles would decline once they became more of an album band, from this turkey all the way to the execrable naughtiness of “Squeeze Box.” This one’s a total bore, from the unimaginative chord pattern to the pathetic lyrics referring to The Beatles, Dylan and Timothy Leary. I can see why the evil compilers tried to hide this song in the middle; they would have been better off leaving it in the can.

It’s been three months since I’ve reviewed a new release, and it’s certainly not due to a lack of effort. What started out as a very promising year has turned regrettably sour. Fortunately, great music is timeless, and there are many gems from the past I look forward to reviewing. Listening to this collection reminded me that despite their frequent misses, The Who created a sound all their own, something I deeply appreciate as I slog through a musical climate where everyone tries to sound like Everyone Else, and Everyone Else is completely devoid of imagination.

 

18 responses

  1. Superb review, and I agree with most of your opinions, including the ones about the Who having stopped being a nifty singles band at the late 1960s and “Magic Bus” and “The Seeker” being way substandard.

    I only beg to differ on the subject of cronology on compilation albums. I’m a popular music researcher and have worked on some such projects (most on Brazilian music); I think that the main concern must be not only accuracy, but in a tie with listenability. Some artistes have a very consistent career which is very listenable throughout; others alternate phases more or less (sometimes much less!) brilliance. For instance, as much as I love the Kinks, I admit that their first two years as a whole are mostly for fans, and thus I don’t feel much inclined to listen very often to the early part of kronologically-assembled Kinks kompilations; to me, non-kronological komps, such as The Kink Kronikles and The Great Lost Kinks Album, give the band a much bigger service, as the best tracks and not so good ones sit beside each other komfortably and the music flow is a pleasure to the non-kultist as well as a joy for the kompletist. In short, to me music is to be listened to, not simply archived, and a compilation must act like one but must not sound like one.

    As I said, artists with more consistent careers can have cronologically-sequenced retrospectives that are a pleasure to hear; witness the Robert Johnson collection (although I feel the alternate takes should be put aside as bonus tracks rather than be listened to in a row), the Stones’ Rolled Gold and the Beatles’ 1962-66 and 1967-70 doubles and the “1” single. And for both bands the non-cronological approach also has yielded excellent comps such as A Collection Of Beatles Oldies But Goldies (released in England in late 1966, it’s the first-ever Fab Four such album, and a excellent one – 16 tracks, 15 of them from singles plus one released only in the USA at the time), besides the Stones’ High Tide And Green Grass and Through the Past Darkly.

    So I think the non-cron aspect of the Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy album contributes to make it all the more attractive; even the worst songs sound much better in context. Indeed, the cron sequence would place “The Seeker” as last track and thus become the definition of “anticlimax” and “a most unpleasant aftertaste”. Nah, placed between “My Generation” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” it gets even rather savoury. Ditto for “Magic Bus” between “A Legal Matter” and “Substitute”.

    I agree about the “hope I die before I get old” line being a most unfortunate boutade to rival “never trust anybody over thirty”; I revel in a 1970 or 1971 Townshend interview where he – then an old-timer of Methusalah proportions at 26 – says he had to endure people throwing the line on his face (I quote from my memory of a Portuguese translation): “Well, you got old, what now?” (And recently, earlier this year, he, then at 67 going on 68, was called a “seventy-something-year old man” during a concert; read the whole story here http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music-arts/guitarist-telling-girl-f-article-1.1278924)

    As for “I Can’t Explain” being very Kinks-influenced, I think the only departure from the Muswell Hill troupe is that the chords are not barred nor distorted; otherwise, it lives up to Pete Townshend’s statement in Rolling Stone that “it can’t be beat for straightforward Kink copying”. Same for “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” with, the feedback solo apart, is very Kinksy too, down to their having Nicky Hopkins chewing away on piano.

    And yeah, yeah, yeah, “The Kids Are Alright” is very Beatlesy indeed – even the melody to the “and I know if i don’t…” line bears more than a little resemblance to “close your eyes and I’ll kiss you”!

    Cheerio,

    Ayrton

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    1. Ah, just one more thing. You said: “I have no intention of touching anything that came after Who’s Next.” Well, I dare suggest you try The Who By Numbers: ten songs with no general concept, no bloated arrangements, no great lyrical pretentions… My favourite post-Who’s Next album and one of my favourite Who albums in all, although I may be alone in thinking that… But I love every minute of the day anyway.

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      1. Oh, goodness, I can’t do an album with “Squeeze Box!” I couldn’t possibly handle three spins of that song!

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        1. Well, if you skip two tracks from Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions album, only one off The Who By Numbers isn’t all that bad…

          (I do agree with you in that Innervisions is much better than TWBN, and Townshend himself might agree… But relativity aside, I still like TWBN.)

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          1. Touché! It’s on my list!

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    2. My insistence on order is purely for the convenience of the reviewer. The mix does make for a better listening experience by balancing weak and strong tracks. I simply have a strong preference for unvarnished history and I love to study patterns of development.

      Back to Townshend as a geezer, the more basic problem with the message is that it’s us-vs.-them. That’s always a dead end. I’m getting ready to skewer John Lennon for that crime.

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      1. The Stones were also guilty of it. One of the most appealing aspects of the Kinks’ work during the latter half of the 60’s was that they were always sympathetic to the plights of their elders, maybe because Ray and Dave’s sisters practically were from the previous generation. Arthur was the best example of that. I know you have big problems with Arthur’s execution, but it’s the subject matter as well as the music that has won over so many Kinks fans. Of course, it was commercial death in the late 60’s. Can’t wait to read your review of the deaf, dumb, blind pinball wizard. Even as a kid, I thought it was kind of thin material.

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        1. Deaf, dumb and blind? Give me Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy anytime…

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  2. This album in my opinion is one of the greatest collections ever put together. The Who were primarily a singles band in the beginning; some of their early albums are okay but unlike the Beatles, (and to a lesser degree the Stones and the Kinks) it is pretty obvious what songs were “filler” and which ones were the singles. I don’t really have too much of a problem with the sequencing; after all, with cd players you can program them in the order that they were released.

    This was the first Who album I heard and I was amazed – I had to then get as many of their albums that I could find. Imagine the disappointment!!!!! I like a few albums; A Quick One, The Who Sell Out, Who’s Next and Live At Leeds, but nothing is as good as MBBAB. Like you, I am amazed that very few of these cracked the American charts.

    My big problem is the sound quality. I know it was early in the development of sound and recording studios, but most of these tracks sound like shit. I know it was supposed to be raw, but compared to the Stones and Kinks tracks of the period (also very raw, but still listenable), this is horrible. Every time I listen to this album I shake my head numerous times and think what a shame it is that this is so badly recorded. I own a couple of different copies on cd and 4 or 5 copies on vinyl and not one of them sounds really good. It’s too bad, because most of this is some of the greatest rock and roll ever recorded. I know that I shouldn’t be bothered by the sound quality, but I can’t help it. I mean, Who’s Next is so nicely recorded and it greatly enhances the music because you can hear the textures. Imagine Baba O’Riley recorded as badly as some of the early tracks – it would lose a lot of the majesty. I don’t usually gripe about sound quality, but this is one lp that never fails to make me shake my head wishing for something better.

    I don’t dislike much off this either. Magic Bus is fine with me, although a lot of other people dislike it greatly. I like The Seeker too. Granted, not the greatest song but a killer guitar sound and cool riff. The only one I am not killed on is Pinball Wizard. Like you, Tommy I think is overblown and not deserving of it’s reputation. Besides a couple of songs on Tommy, I am left with the feeling that a lot of the songs were just written to fill in the story and because of this a lot of the music is uninspired. This is my thoughts on most rock operas – or musical theater/opera in general. Of course, I think that Tommy wasn’t really the first rock opera – if you consider that the whole album tells a story. The Village Green Preservation Society came out long before Tommy, and even The Who Sell Out has a unifying theme of the radio station (although it falls apart on side two).

    As a side note, in the last few years there have been different versions/mixes/edits of some of these songs released on different albums. A copy of MBBAB that I had on cd a couple of years back had different edits and so on, and it was annoying to me. I’m used to these songs the way they always were and now hearing them with different mixes and edits is a disconcerting listening experience. The Kids Are Alright, My Generation, I’m A Boy and Magic Bus are very different (although to be fair, there has always been several different edits or Magic Bus I have heard on different albums). This is why I love the original vinyl, the original is still the best. I don’t have a big problem with releasing other versions/mixes/outtakes of the material, but when they replace the versions that everyone knew for years with newer mixes or edits or whatever, to my tastes, that’s a bit too far. You listen to it and say, “What? there is something wrong with this – it doesn’t sound right”. At least mention on the album that they are new mixes or something – put them as bonus tracks. Don’t pass it off as the original – you are editing history. At least when Apple put out the new remixed Yellow Submarine they had it as a whole new album, the “Songtrack” and Let It Be was redone as “Naked” to differentiate from the original albums.

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    1. My father has the vinyl and I’m going down to see him this weekend so I will definitely check it out. He also feels very strongly about this album and ranks a Who concert he saw at Civic Auditorium in SF as one of the best. If you get him started, he’ll go on forever about the live version of “Substitute.”

      This not-the-real version thing bugs me too. I’m running into it now as I look at The Animals. I know that the version I have of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” doesn’t sound the same as what I remember hearing at my parents’ place when I was there last month. I did some research, found I wasn’t going crazy and want to compare the versions this weekend. I think the practice is offensive; like a bait-and-switch.

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    2. The Who’s first three years of recordings (1965-68, not counting their false start as The High Numbers in 1964) were a total shambles – although in the USA it didn’t look like it that much.

      Their management managed a secure recording contract in the USA, so their recordings would be issued in the country on just one label, Decca (renamed MCA c. 1972), and so it was throughout the 1970s (until the first Moon-less albums). But in England the Who were in the hands of independent producers (Shel Talmy, Kit Lambert) who recorded independently (more often than not in non-state-of-the-art studios) and leased the recordings to the labels which would take them. So the first three Who albums were released in England on a different label each! (From Sell Out onwards they managed to settle down at Track Records up to and including The Who By Numbers).

      Many of the Who’s records – particularly the Kit Lambert-produced ones – have sound quality of (to be polite) pre-demos. Moreover, they fell out with Shel Talmy to the extent of their recordings produced by him – their 1965 output – having gone out of print in England for some 15 years (that’s why the 197os Story Of The Who compilation includes “My Generation” in a live version, not the original); in the 1980s the situation was partially solved – the Who could reissue their 1965 recordings but not from the original master tapes (the Maximum R&B box set suffer from this, even apologising in the booklet for the High Numbers single – recorded for a big label, Fontana – sounding better than early Who). Licensing & rights tangles went even further: “Substitute” and “I’m A Boy”, in order to be included in MBB&B, had to be so in the form of re-recordings.

      And we haven’t commented on the quality of some of their USA editions. Beware of faux stereo editions of The Who Sings My Generation (although muscally it’s better, replacing their god but pro forma version of “I’m A Man” with the much better original “Circles”, albeit retitled “Instant Party” to get around even more Talmy hassles) – and avoid at all cost the Magic Bus compilation, the Who’s Flowers only much worse in track selection (only 11 of ’em, many repeated from) albums) and sound quality (imagine already badly recorded mono tracks being crudely reprocessed for stereo).
      Recently the Who made amends with Shel Talmy and reissues from the original tapes began to appear – more than that, some in stereo versions before final overdubs, making for fascinating musical footnotes.

      And, dear ARC, I’d like to read your review of The Who Sell Out – which ties with Who’s Next as my favourite ‘Oo album and is undoubtedly (IMHO anyway) one of the funniest rock albums ever.

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      1. I have The Who Sell Out on my list; probably around mid-November. I felt an urge to make some final comments on The Beatles’ solo efforts and do my absolutely positively very last review of The Kinks.

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        1. >my absolutely positively very last review of The Kinks<

          That reminds me of the Who having been the inventors of the Yearly Farewell Tour, heh heh.

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  3. About The Who, I can only add that I was never persuaded.
    if you were traveling those long straight stretches of interstate 80
    You might put on The Who, but my interest would wander, sooner, rather than later.
    There seemed so much other music during the same era, Weather Report, The Stones,
    To name two , that resonated and that stayed in the memory.
    The band just missed the mark in some way.

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    1. I have a theory as to why they missed the mark that’s the basis for my upcoming review of Tommy, but yes, I think you’re right.

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  4. […] a flurry of jingles that take us to “I Can See for Miles.” I wrote in my review of Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy that I don’t care much for this song, but it’s amazing how a change of context can […]

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  5. […] The Who, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy […]

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