I love it when I prove to my father that he doesn’t know everything,
“So, what’s up next for the altrockchick?”
“A Quick One.”
“Makes sense. I’ve noticed that your reviews are getting a bit too long-winded lately. What album are you going to review?”
“I told you—A Quick One. The Who’s second album.”
“Sorry Sunshine, but their second album was Happy Jack.”
“Only in the States. Decca insisted on putting ‘Happy Jack” on the American album because it was the hit single. You know the Brits didn’t like putting singles on albums back then. Here–I’ll show you.”
I led him over to his computer and pulled up the Wikipedia page on A Quick One and read the following passage aloud: “A version of the album with an altered track listing was released under the name Happy Jack on Decca Records in April 1967 in the United States, where the song ‘Happy Jack’ was a top 40 hit.”
“I’ll be damned. How did I miss that?”
“Let’s see . . . you were in your teens . . . living on the fringes of Haight-Ashbury . . . playing in a rock band . . . you hadn’t met maman yet . . . I’d chalk it up to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A Quick One finds the Who trying to figure out whether they were mods, rockers or mockers (Thanks, Ringo). Despite a string of hit singles in the U.K., the band was teetering on the edge of an early demise. In addition to legal and financial troubles resulting from their break with Shel Talmy’s production company, the band members hadn’t quite gelled yet . . . to say the least. Daltrey thought he was the leader; the other band members disagreed. On tour in Europe, Daltrey disposed of Keith Moon’s meth tabs by tossing them down a convenient toilet, assaulted the drummer and soon found himself out of a job. He was allowed back in under the condition that the band would function as a democracy. After Townshend whacked Moon upside the head with his guitar during a live rendition of “My Generation,” both Entwistle and Moon quit the band. Though the pair returned a few days later, Moon kept a sharp eye out for other opportunities.
The Who were brawling like the “Fighting Oakland A’s” of the early 70s, but unlike the A’s, they hadn’t come close to achieving the musical equivalent of three straight world championships.
Lucky for the Who, they had a manager who still believed in them. Balancing the need for fresh material with the even more pressing need to stabilize individual finances, Kit Lambert arranged a songwriting deal where each band member would compose two songs for the next album. Entwistle and Moon lived up to their end of the bargain, but Daltrey could only come up with one; his missing contribution was addressed via a cover of the Martha and the Vandellas hit “Heat Wave.” Townshend contributed three songs but had to add a fourth when Lambert told the boys they were ten minutes short of a full-length album.
Miracle of miracles, A Quick One reached #4 on the UK charts and has received honorable mention on more than a few “best album” lists, I’m not 100% convinced that it deserved those laurels, but given the state of the band at the time, A Quick One was good enough to serve as the lifeboat that ensured there would be a follow-up album—and a damned good follow-up album to boot.
“Run, Run, Run (Pete Townshend): The Who kicks things off with an upbeat rocker featuring crunchy rhythm guitar, superb harmonies and a wonderful low-string guitar solo courtesy of Mr. Townshend. Having been conditioned to expect manic drumming from Keith Moon on most Who rockers, I have to give the guy credit for playing it straight and driving the rhythm without unnecessary distractions. Townshend’s lyrics about a girl who obliviously ignores the danger inherent in classic superstitions (a black cat crosses her path, she opens an umbrella indoors and walks under a ladder twice) are quite clever and Daltrey delivers the tricky rhymes without a hitch. All I can say in conclusion is that they sure don’t sound like a band aching to knock the crap out of each other—they sound tight, collaborative and . . . happy.
“Boris the Spider” (John Entwistle): I covered this song in my review of Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, but it sounds even better in the context of A Quick One, where it stands out as one of the strongest compositions and arrangements on the album. I’m pretty happy with my initial take, so I’ll leave it here and spare you the trouble of clicking a link.
“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 humorously haunting effect. Bravo for Boris!”
“I Need You” (Keith Moon): I wish they’d kept the original title “I Need You (Like I Need a Hole in the Head)” to distinguish it from the George Harrison song and give listeners a clue about Moon’s intent—when he sings “I need you,” he really doesn’t. The song is supposed to be a poke at the Beatles and the “secret messages” allegedly present in their music, but if I hadn’t told you that, you’d have a pretty hard time sussing it out. The only clear reference is a dig at Harrison’s fondness for the sitar (“Let us come and sitar with you”). Moon does make fun of John Lennon’s “northern accent” in the spoken word section, but he’s no Rich Little.
Negatives aside, the song does have its virtues. Listeners who equate Keith Moon’s voice with his cockneyfied performance on “Bell Boy” will be shocked by his sweet, girlish falsetto but it actually sounds rather nice. Since this is Moon’s composition, he’s earned the right to throw in a batch of classic Keith Moon manic drum passages, but they do serve to express underlying tension. I’m not sure who’s playing the harpsichord or if it was even necessary, but this was the mid-60s, so you have to expect a harpsichord every now and then.
“Whiskey Man” (“John Entwistle): Entwistle said that this was the first song he ever wrote, and if that’s the case, he was obviously born with a gift for songwriting. “Whiskey Man” tells a poetically economic, compelling story about a man with an imaginary drinking buddy. Entwistle wisely chose to relate the tale in a first-person narrative, and the personalization makes the narrator’s perspective so convincing that we wind up empathizing with this whiskey-guzzler and start to wonder whether or not his insistence that his invisible friend is real is all that harmful.
The song opens with a driving beat led by Entwistle’s bass, supported by Townshend’s guitar and Moon’s volume-lowered drums. Entwistle’s vocal is clean, clear, in character and beautifully isolated from the background music. As the song proceeds, his voice moves to different spots in the soundscape, an excellent use of panning that compels the listener to follow the voice and the narrative.
In the first verse, the narrator describes his relationship with the Whiskey Man as harmless companionship, while also admitting that it probably seems pretty weird to everyone else:
Whiskey man’s my friend, he’s with me nearly all the time
He always joins me when I drink, and we get on just fine
Nobody has ever seen him, I’m the only one
Seemingly I must be mad, insanity is fun
If that’s the way it’s done
Use of the word “seemingly” indicates he’s not sold on the idea that he’s a nutcake, a perspective he emphasizes when describing his interactions with medical professionals: “Doctors say he just a figment of my twisted mind/If they can’t see my whiskey man they must be going blind.” We can only assume that someone close to him (a family member, a co-worker) was disturbed by his relationship with a figment of his imagination, for in the next verse, he finds himself abducted by the men in the van:
Two men dressed in white collected me two days ago
They said there’s only room for one and whiskey man can’t go
Whiskey man will waste away if he’s left on his own
I can’t even ring him ’cause he isn’t on the phone
Hasn’t got a home
The concern he feels for his imaginary friend is rather touching; in the next verse, Entwistle adds his French horn to the mix, a hint of melancholy to accompany the narrator’s profound sense of loss:
Life is very gloomy in my little padded cell
It’s a shame there wasn’t room for whiskey man as well
An instrumental passage follows featuring the French horn, ending in a series of rising flourishes. The music gradually cools down and Entwistle repeats the first verse in a very small voice tucked into the lower-left of the soundscape, leaving us with the sense that without the Whiskey Man the narrator will fade away into nothingness . . . and we wonder . . . is that really a good thing? One thing’s for sure—John Entwistle showed up big time on this album.
“Heat Wave” (Holland-Dozier-Holland): A big fuck you to the British critics who dismissed The Jam’s version of “Heat Wave” as sounding “too much like the Who version.” Oh, bullshit. Paul Weller proved to be a far superior soul singer when compared to Daltrey and The Jam version is loaded with punch while the Who version sounds like a quick and sloppy knock-off.
“Cobwebs and Strange” (Moon): This instrumental sounds like a Keith Moon audition tape for the Bonzo Dog Band. The horn fanfare somewhat resembles the horns on “Heinz Baked Beans” from The Who Sell Out executed at breakneck speed. When the best performance in a song comes in the form of Pete Townshend on a tin whistle, you know it’s time to flip the disc to side two.
“Don’t Look Away” (Townshend): Townshend’s second contribution falls somewhere between country, skiffle and the Byrds, winding up nowhere. The lyrics are one part cliché and two parts incomprehensible. I have no idea why the narrator’s head would wind up in a lion’s mouth just because his girlfriend dumped him, why he has a stone in his shoe or why this song made the cut.
“See My Way” (Daltrey): We can be thankful that Daltrey’s sole composition ends after one minute and fifty-four seconds because it’s pretty obvious he spent one minute and fifty-four seconds writing this piece of crap. The methodology behind the arrangement sounds like someone shouted, “Do whatever the hell you want, boys” and they followed those instructions to the letter. The only good news I can share is that Entwistle’s bass part is always audible, but even one of the greatest bass players ever couldn’t save this turkey.
“So Sad About Us” (Townshend): The guessing game here involves trying to figure out which song was the victim of a Pete Townshend ripoff: “Feel a Whole Lot Better” or “If I Needed Someone.” The guitar sounds more McGuinn than Harrison, so I’m going with the former. This is the third song in a row about problematic relationships related in classic teen rock fashion and I’m getting a bit tired of it. Fortunately, the song is partially rescued by tight harmonies and a good solid beat.
“A Quick One, While He’s Away” (Townshend): Hoo, boy! Townshend’s first stab at an extended piece is a filler-loaded five-or-six part suite about . . . how do I put this? . . . I know! I’ll do a fairytale!
Once upon a time there was a woman who was very very sad because her husband went out on a very very long journey and didn’t come back. The woman spent every moment of every day crying and crying and crying. Her neighbors were very sad that the woman was very sad because her crying was so loud they couldn’t hear the telly. One of the neighbors knew a very special man named Ivor who drove choo-choos and he suggested to his neighbors that Iv0r might like to drive his choo-choo into the woman’s woo-woo. And yes, Ivor did want to drive his choo-choo into the woman’s woo-woo! So he did! Hooray for Ivor! Hooray for the woman! Then one day the husband came home and when the woman saw him for the very first time in a very long time she repeated his name twenty-eight times! Jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald jerrald! After the husband gave her a sedative she stopped babbling and told him how she’d been a very, very bad girl to let Ivor drive a choo-choo into her woo-woo. Lucky for her, the husband was a very wise man and forgave her by repeating the words “You are forgiven” sixteen times! You are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven you are forgiven. Happy woman! Happy husband! Poor Ivor!
The extended and virtually empty instrumental passages are the major irritant; the band members actually sound like they’re having fun playing different roles. If you don’t take it too seriously, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” isn’t the worst way to pass the time.
Consumer Warning! I’ve written about my problems with Siri and Apple Music and I am very thankful that part of my planning for our temporary move to Ireland was based on a growing distrust of Apple Music. Before leaving, I called my father to find out which albums on the schedule were in his library and packed the ones I had that he didn’t. Hooray for me, because you can hardly hear the voices on “A Quick One, While He’s Away” in the Apple Music version. Without the voices, there is absolutely no point in listening to this song! If I hadn’t brought my copy of The Jarvis Cocker Record, I never could have reviewed “Excerpt Pt. 2” because the Apple Music product repeats “Excerpt Pt. 1!”
GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER, TIM!
A Quick One is probably one of those albums that sounded a whole lot better in 1966 than it does today. Nine-minute suites were virtually unheard of and the album has a fair share of new and unusual sounds that probably sounded super cool back in the day. Entwistle’s contributions clearly stand out, but Townshend would catch up with him in short order. Though it has its faults, A Quick One will always be remembered as the album that saved the Who.
And I LOVE the cover. I only wish that Cream would have hired Alan Aldridge to design the cover for Disraeli Gears.
Bloody awful, that one.