A track-by-track commentary on 20 of the band's most explosive tracks
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: In The City (Moon, Entwistle)
Released: August 1966
Highest UK chart position: 2
The first inklings of Townshend’s loftier ambitions as a composer became visible with this, statistically The Who’s joint most successful UK hit alongside “My Generation”. “I’m A Boy” had arisen from a proposed musical, “Quads”: an Aldous Huxley-inspired sci-fi yarn set in 2000 where children are delivered to order. When a mother requests four girls, she is accidentally supplied with three daughters and a son by mistake. Thus “I’m A Boy” is the aggrieved protestation of the male baby whose blinkered parents still insist on raising as a female.
Such a preposterous concept was lost on the public at large, to whom “I’m A Boy” would have arrived as a curious and deliciously subversive comment on gender identity. Yet however ludicrous, it was undoubtedly one of the most compelling 45s of their career thanks to the unreserved fury of their combined musicianship. Entwistle’s French horn (more prominent still on an alternate take featured on 1971’s Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy compilation) and Townshend’s baroque middle-eight – revived on “Pinball Wizard” three years later – provided a mischievous lacquer of mock-highbrow theatrics.
Moreover, those in any doubt as to the genius of Keith Moon needed look no further than his percussive earthquake here, which lays siege to the entire tune. Ironic, then, that “I’m A Boy” should have been kept off the No 1 spot by Jim Reeves’ “Distant Drums”.
Daltrey: “It seemed to me as though Pete was being guided into these big ideas about rock operas by Kit Lambert because Kit’s father was Constance Lambert, the founder of Sadler’s Wells and a very famous English composer. Kit was very aware that music didn’t have to be a three-minute single. He was very respectful of the importance of the three-minute single but he was determined to make it expand from that, that rock and pop was a much bigger thing than just three minutes. On ‘I’m A Boy’, I tried to sing it like a really, really young kid, like an eight-year-old. Not the voice of an eight-year-old but the sentiment – and I think that came across.”
Happy Jack (Townshend)
Producer: Kit Lambert
B-side: I’ve Been Away (Entwistle)
Released: December 1966
Highest UK chart position: 3
Another ridiculous lyric, this time about a tinker on the Isle Of Man and his torment at the hands of local children, “Happy Jack” continued The Who’s unbroken Top 10 chart assault despite the lyrical absurdity and corresponding musical irregularity (fractured, once more, by two furious instrumental spasms commandeered by the mercurial Moon).
That the band had, for the time being at least, overcome any differences in personality showed in its high-spirited execution and Townshend’s giddy parting cry of “I saw ya!” The remark was directed at Moon, who had been banned from the track’s vocal overdubs since his tones were far from dulcet. After destroying the concentration of his bandmates by pulling faces from the control booth, the impish drummer was ordered to lie still on the floor so they could sing their three-part harmony without distraction. Just as the track finished, Moon raised his hand, visible above the dividing glass, instigating Townshend’s now infamous aside, which stayed on the master cut as a teasing in-joke.
It was also unusual that a single as idiosyncratically English as “Happy Jack” would spearhead The Who’s long-overdue campaign in the US charts, becoming their first to successfully enter the American Top 30.
Daltrey: “I remember when I first heard ‘Happy Jack’, I thought, ‘What the fuck do I do with this? It’s like a German oompah song!’ I had a picture in my head that this was the kind of song that Burl Ives would sing, so ‘Happy Jack’ was my imitation of Burl Ives!
“But listen to Moon on that track – in those days he was so distinctive. Even from the very first night he played with us. We got Keith, this kid we didn’t know out of the audience, on the drums and it was like this fucking jet engine starting. I was like, ‘What the fuck’s THIS?!’ It was such instant chemistry. Really, we couldn’t have had any other drummer. He was incredible.
“The funny thing about Keith, though, he was a total Beach Boys nut. Even in the ’70s, if The Beach Boys had asked Keith to join them and leave The Who, he’d have left us. He was an absolute fanatic. That first night he joined us his hair was bright ginger ’cos he’d gone out and bought a bottle of peroxide to become a Californian bleach blond – but with his jet black hair and the peroxide he’d gone like a bloody carrot.”