Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Summertime Blues

I got into The Who sometime at the end of 7th grade—it followed my initial forays into rock-n-roll in 1980-81 that began with The Beatles and then morphed into The Doors, because I was in 7th grade and that was the law! And then I tested the waters of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd and, a short time after that, The Rolling Stones.

But then came The Who. And along with The Beatles, who I’d gotten into in the Summer of 1980 prior to 7th grade and became a full-on fanatic about (chronicled here), this was the only band in my pre-age 18 years that I developed a legitimate obsession with. Sure, I would later become obsessed with Peter Gabriel (at age 18-19) R.E.M. (at age 19-20) and the Replacements (also age 20). And my deep and abiding love of Bruce Springsteen rightfully began sometime around my 17th birthday, but even Bruce was a slow build that took place over 3-4 years before finally exploding in the late 1980s. 

But this was different – like with R.E.M. and the Replacements would become and the Beatles were before them, this was a band whose music I just had to gobble up all at once. Once I’d listened to three, maybe four tracks that my friend’s older brother played for me (“My Generation,” “Happy Jack,” “Magic Bus” and, I think, “Pinball Wizard” – all of which came from the 1972 compilation Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy), I had to hear not just more, but all. There wasn’t a moment to waste. I had to hear it all.

I went to Marty’s Music Mart in my hometown (Bloomfield, CT – the store would later sell out to the up and coming Strawberries chain, which remains the single most awesome record store chain in history and there can be no argument about that) and bought the new Face Dances and the decidedly old Live at Leeds. Why did I start there? I think it’s all they had. In the next few weeks I would add Who’s Next, The Who Sings My Generation, compilations The Kids Are Alright and the aforementioned Meaty, The Who By Numbers and Who Are You. Tommy I would receive as a Bar Mitzvah gift from my brothers, and Quadrophenia would later be purchased with Bar Mitzvah money. Some of the earlier albums were (forgive me, industry) recorded off of friends’ records, like The Who Sell Out. I even bought It’s Hard the day it came out in 1982. I was a full-on Who junkie.

What was it that appealed to me so viscerally? I think it was the danger, something I didn’t hear in the Beatles (although later, when I developed a better ear, it was there plain as day) and certainly not The Doors (that was faux danger, and by the time I hit 14 I was done with them). There was a ferocity about them that somehow didn’t take away from their musicality. The stories and the lore—the smashed instruments, the insane Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey’s muscles, the fact that they were recorded as the loudest band ever, even the tragedy in Cincinnati—added a layer of menace that, having not heard a trace of punk rock yet, was entirely new to me. Daltrey’s scream at the apex of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was the single scariest and coolest thing I’d ever heard. John Entwistle’s lightning fast bass fill during “My Generation” made me want to play the bass just to learn how to do that (I never did). Everything Keith Moon did wowed me. Every power chord that Townshend hit inspired me. This was my band.

And it’s funny, because the other day I was trying to think back on the song that started it all. With so many bands I can pinpoint the very song that got me hooked—with the Beatles it was “Come Together,” with R.E.M. it was, oddly, “Time After Time,” with the Replacements it was “Talent Show” and with Bruce it was “Hungry Heart.” But The Who? I never really could recall.

Until last week, I did. And it should have been obvious, because it came off the first album of theirs I ever bought. The interesting thing was it wasn’t their song, but a cover. A live cover.

Great rock-n-roll cover songs is a favorite topic of mine. I love reading lists about the Greatest Covers ever. I love seeing these songs that were re-done so perfectly that the covering band basically came to own them. “Twist and Shout” just became a Beatles song. “All Along the Watchtower” just became a Jimi Hendrix song. Even “Jersey Girl” is more associated these days with Springsteen than its estimable author Tom Waits.

But for my money, this is my favorite cover song ever. And no, it was never done in-studio. Which is maybe why it eluded many “Best of” lists. But this is the sound of a band taking a truly great rock-n-roll song—to me this is a legitimate contender for the first punk rock classic ever written—and making it all their own.

Just listen to it. Moonie seems to take flight about halfway through, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he actually did. Daltrey’s voice is as commanding as any lead singer's has ever been. The Ox gets to do his playful on the chorus, yet gives the song a spine made of pure steel. And Townshend’s work on those little staccato fills between the verses is simply stunning. Not to mention the high harmonies, the inimitable power chords and, lest we forget, maybe the most shocking, turn-on-a-dime key change I have ever heard (at the 2:25 mark).

I’m not exactly the Who fanatic today I was from, say, 1981 to 1985. That would be impossible. But there’s a reason I loved them so and always will admire them. And there’s a reason they belong on the shortest of short lists of the Greatest Rock-n-Roll Bands ever.

“Summertime Blues,” which had been done to sheer perfection a decade earlier by Eddie Cochran yet somehow they seized for their own, explains why.

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought "My Generation" was the first punk classic ever.