I CAN SEE FOR MILES
The Who were an English rock band of the 1960’s. It would be an understatement to simply say they were influential in the world of rock music. They were huge. Their original lineup consisted of singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townsend, bass guitarist John Entwhistle, and drummer Keith Moon. The band sold well over a hundred million albums, and their music continues to sell even now. They rightly regarded themselves as bridging the gap between rock music and pop art. Their music is true classic rock.
The Who were pioneers in a number of areas—the use of synthesizers (still a new phenomenon is the 1960’s), their use of gigantic PA systems in concert (which caused a substantial hearing loss for Daltrey), and their attraction to auto-destructive art—destroying their instruments onstage at the conclusion of concerts—garnered attention all over the world.
There were many who regarded The Who’s nihilistic indulging in “auto-destructive art” as childish and pointless—especially if its real intent (as PeteTownsend characterized it) was to convey a revulsion for society’s previously-held beliefs which only led to war and death (the Vietnam War was in full swing). Probably not many in their audiences would have picked up on that. It was their music that counted, and of course, it is their music that will endure.
I CAN SEE FOR MILES
The last half of the 60’s, in particular, was The Who’s time in the sun. Their songs I Can’t Explain, My Generation, Substitute, Happy Jack, and Won’t Get Fooled Again were all well received in both the U.K. They were a featured act at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival. I Can See For Miles, from 1967, was their first really big hit in the U.S.
It was a song I was attracted to for reasons that, at the time, I marveled at. The Who’s use of harmony, simple as it was, was—and is—something I love, and it is also something I was surprised to hear coming from a rock band. In the accompanying clip, you’ll hear at 0:25 five harmonies in succession, the first four of which include dissonances that resolve only in the fifth. They do this again at 1:14, 1:58, and 2:44. The structure of the song moves—finally—from a minor I chord to a major IV chord at 3:00, a relief the listener is unconsciously anticipating. And then, at 3:30, they repeat the series of dissonance-containing harmonies, this time extending the suspense by having SEVEN chords which only finally resolve in an eighth.
As is so often the case—in all music—it is the simple things, performed well, that make the difference in a work of music.
I don’t remember what suddenly—urgently—moved me, one Sunday afternoon in my first year of living in New York—to race to the subway from where I lived on the upper west side and go to SAM GOODY’S down near Carnegie Hall to buy The Who’s rock opera Tommy.
Sam Goody’s was, in those pre-Tower Records days and well before our digital age, THE place to buy LP’s in New York. One immediately scoured the Sunday Times every week to find the Sam Goody’s ad and see what their deals of the week were, whether in classical or pop music. Three LP’s for 6.99 was a good price. I bought at least a hundred LP’s there. I suppose it was probably their Sunday ad for Tommy that drew me to their store that afternoon.
Tommy was all innovation—a ROCK OPERA! And, it was not a parody of an opera. It had a story to relate—it tells the story about a “deaf, dumb and blind” boy, including his experiences with life and his relationship with his family—it had musical variety, it was lengthy (2 LPs), and mostly, and it was, throughout, well-written. It was NOT simply a group of songs, loosely collated together with the hopes that one of its song would be a breakout single.
It DID happen to have one of those, however! Pinball Wizard became the most respected—and at Who concerts, the most anticipated—song the group would ever play. It was played at every Who concert. Even in their semi-retirement, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend, continuing to tour, please their audiences with Pinball Wizard.
I’m certainly not the first to have been astounded by the drama in the music of Pinball Wizard. From the urgency of Townsend’s initial guitar chords which is suddenly followed by a “fuzz” guitar intrusion–to Daltrey’s high tenor voice–to Entwhistle’s hyper-active bass, bouncing back and forth with octave-sized jumps–to Moon’s locomotive-drumming—to say nothing of the lyrics about the deaf, dumb, and blind boy—Pinball Wizard had it all.