Monday, September 19, 2011

You Can't Play That On The BBC part 1: The Who: "I'm a Boy"

Away from the pastoral sweep of The Beach Boys, now, and back to the UK, where something was most definitely happening, though for just now there are only glints of it on the pop charts. That something is the division between pop and rock, easily seen by the differences between album and singles charts. For now they remain more or less the same, but this state will only last for a couple more years, at best. The word 'art' comes back naturally with The Who, lead by the self-consciously audacious Pete Townsend, who wanted more- more than just regular pop songs as provided by everyone else. Other groups did too, of course (the Rolling Stones always being hip to trends, and The Beatles personified restlessness) but Townsend's sincerity makes this song (from an abandoned project about a world of gender-selected babies called "Quads") stand out.

There is no overt menace here, just a refusal (because she wanted another daughter) of a mother to accept that she has a son, which makes Bill into a "headcase" - dying to escape from the world of femininity to one of cricket, mud and bicycles and blood - but who "gets it" if he does. This goes beyond the Stones' dressing up in women's clothing for "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows" (a different way of defying norms and testing of their audience; the song stalled at #5).

"I'm a Boy" wins out because it seems to be leading the listener into something, something different and interesting, unless you are a light programme devotee and songs about gender differences and incipient madness make you...uncomfortable. The song is full of harmonies (influenced by Pet Sounds, I'd guess) and sung as prettily as possible, as well, by both Townsend and Daltrey. It is nearly weightless (anticipating "I Can See For Miles") and the anger comes out in Moon's drumming as usual, but the two harmonize at the end, lamenting and asserting the boy's point of view, one that can't be denied forever... is a good point to ponder the role of pirate radio at this time, mainly because it would play what the BBC would not - songs such as the ones mentioned here. The pirates - from what I can tell - created the utterly free climate for bands and songwriters to do whatever they wanted, within reason, and then to see just how much they could get away with. Would they have been as daring without the pirates? Just how closely did people then listen to lyrics? Part of pop - or rock, if you will - is to push limits, to say the previously unsayable, to give the outcasts and freaks and geeks a voice - a voice that was needed and at present able to be heard, though by now objections to pirate radio were getting louder and louder, much like the music itself.

Townsend would eventually write longer and longer pieces about confusion and alienation and the search for some kind of resolution; this song is the start towards Tommy and Quadrophenia as well, rock as art (as opposed to art rock, which this blog will reach in time). In the meantime a whole new crop of bands would appear, blowing the minds of some listeners and driving others (more timid ones, perhaps) to the more standard fare of love songs and cheery uptempo toe tappers. Pop is the girl and rock is the boy? If only it were as simple as that; but once the door is open then anything can happen, and the idea that a song has to be anything will be tested during this time, until something breaks.

The promise of this song is that the boy can sing at all (unlike Tommy he's not dumb) and he will go on singing, even to himself. Another singer/songwriter heard this and was perhaps encouraged to write his own song, one that would be too much for even pirate radio. Something was happening, indeed.

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