55 Years Later: Revisiting The Who’s Quirky & Loose Second LP ‘A Quick One’

A progression readily apparent with fifty years of retrospect, The Who’s second album, A Quick One, (released 12/9/66) represents a quantum leap in style. Titled Happy Jack in the United States due to its hit single status as well as the record label’s apprehension about the innuendo in the original title, the quartet’s music here as often as not evinces a purity that belies their earlier reliance on R&B such as the Motown tune here, “Heat Wave.” The inclusion of that Martha & The Vandellas cover, however, only highlights how far the Who had come in defining a readily-recognizable style that’s come to be known as ‘power pop:’ by this time, the foursome had mastered its combination of emotional urgency and visceral instrumental impact heightened by the prominence of harmony vocals integral to the arrangements.

Certain of the Who’s peers, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was not that much further along in their own development at this point (and certainly not so wholly prescient as this band with artist Alan Aldridge’s precursor to Yellow Submarine-style psychedelic cover images). But the latter two groups enjoyed far greater commercial success, allowing for more experimentation in the studio than appeared in mere flashes on A Quick One. As former co-manager Chris Stamp shares in his essay in the 1995 reissue, each member was encouraged to write material (if only to take advantage of newly-negotiated terms on song publishing), a point Pete Townshend reaffirms in his autobiography Who I Am.

Meantime, while the eventual titular leader of the Who may have dismissed his prowess on the electric guitar at this time, the touch of dissonance coursing through his solo on “Run Run Run” now sounds like a foreshadowing of the effects that were so redolent on the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first album Are You Experienced?. And a feedback-drenched “My Generation”/”Land of Hope and Glory” (appearing on the aforementioned expanded re-release) presaged latter-day live versions of the Mod icons’ original anthem. Instead of concentrating on his instrumental skill, Townshend was instead forging an idiosyncratic approach to songwriting. 

For instance, the sly take on role-playing in the single “Substitute” predates, but is of a piece with “Disguises.” Rather than relegated to single and EP releases, both might better have found a better place on this LP juxtaposed with “So Sad About Us,” but the songwriting assignments for this sophomore work yielded some admirable results: bassist John Entwistle’s eccentric “Boris The Spider” is one of his best-known originals, though he borrows too much from Townshend for “Whiskey Man.” Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey’s “See My Way” is more of a piece with this album’s streamlined, kinetic highlights, but Keith Moon’s “I Need You” is an object lesson in rookie composition. 

Still, the scope of Townshend’s writing for the quartet on this album (and beyond) would not have evolved so dramatically without the input of the group’s first manager Kit Lambert. He encouraged the guitarist/songwriter to think big and compose bigger and it’s from such a nurturing dynamic that arose the iconic group’s first extended piece as the culmination of the string of otherwise pop-oriented songs on A Quick One.

Its narrative was altogether flimsy, the multi-structured layout contained its own inherent drama as performed with Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle all taking turns at lead vocals. Hearkening in that sense to the reflection of the individual personae in the Who as a major underpinning of Quadrophenia, the tone of this nine-minute ten-second piece is near terminal tongue-in-cheek, perhaps because it was created in part to fill out the playing time of the album, not conceived as a magnum opus like the 1973 masterwork.

With its roots in British music hall tradition as much (or more than) the pop and rock of its day, the absurd storyline unfolds to recount the ribald story of an unforeseen liaison, notably similar to a plotline in the early going of the rock opera Tommy. “A Quick One While He’s Away” turned out to be a watershed for the Who in more ways than one, most significantly as its inclusion in the band’s live sets compelled more and greater self-discipline than the quartet had been exerting prior to that point (see the faultless rendition on the Rolling Stones Rock n’ roll Circus from 1968).

Besides documenting the group’s growth,  A Quick One/Happy Jack in its twenty-track form (with an acoustic version of the latter title song) also suggests how much time and energy the Who may well have wasted in their early days. The title song of the latter in an acoustic arrangement suggest otherwise, but other bonus tracks hardly intimate how the four were about to progress: a swift take on the theme from the Batman television program betrays a fondness for kitsch in keeping with their pop-art leaning, but drummer Keith Moon’s preference for surf music results not only in the choice of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” but another similarly-style nugget, “Bucket T.”

On the plus side, “Cobwebs And Strange” foretold the self-composed commercials that formed the basis for the next Who album Sell Out: the group’s thought patterns proved logical despite the band’s lack of creative self-confidence. And while the quartet collectively conjured up an even more sustained example of ingenuity on that long-player, the shared (sic) artistic vision of the Who shrank as Pete Townshend became simultaneously more prolific and more ambitious with the germination of his story about the deaf, dumb and blind boy. 

In fact, select melodic motifs of Townshend’s introduced what turned out to be major themes in that very work that ultimately brought mass acceptance to the Who. Listening to their early, fitful evolution here with over half-century hindsight, their success on multiple levels in the interim seems almost but not quite inevitable.

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