| Books that lay out their intent at the outset and follow it to the letter are all well and good, but they're never nearly as much fun as the ones that are really secret excuses to talk about something else. "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy: The Who" (part of the Schirmer Classic Rock Albums series) looks like a track-by-track analysis of the 1971 LP that brought the Who's early singles together in one place. And essentially, it is: Perry, a professional musician himself (he was the guitarist for the influential late '70s band the Only Ones, and he toured the states with the Who in 1980) has the rare ability to explain songs in technical terms without draining the magic out of them. If anything, he's devoted to keeping the magic intact. He's knowledgeable without being a know-it-all, a breed apart from those tiresome rock writers who fling random spaghetti strands of trivia against the wall in the hopes that a few of them will actually stick.
But what makes "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" a lovely book instead of merely a solid one is the way Perry uses the album in question as a backdrop for two separate but intertwining histories: the Who's and his own. "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" (the album) is itself a history of sorts. Released two years after "Tommy" (the LP that broke the Who in the United States), it was the first most Americans had ever heard of songs like "My Generation" and "Pictures of Lily" -- records that had trotted straight up the charts in Britain upon their release but had barely made a dent in the U.S. market. Burrowing deep into the heart of the early material, Perry builds a persuasive argument that the Who were really two bands: from the mid- to late-'60s, a brilliant pop band with an incredible run of perfect or near-perfect singles, and from 1969 on, an arena-rock band specializing in well-crafted but sometimes belabored high-concept rock -- among the best of their lot, but lacking the offhand electricity that sparked their early work.
He's not just being willfully idiosyncratic. Perry, who was a young teenager in the mid-'60s, was lucky enough to have seen the Who's early, magnificent shows, and he's not afraid to admit that he plumb fell in love. He's chosen his details carefully, and they slip into the current of his narrative like silvery minnows. He describes the paucity of girls at an early Who show: "'My Generation' signaled the end of the show (rather like an alternate National Anthem), and as the smoke cleared and the DJ played something they liked, girls started appearing from the darkened corners of the room. Slowly the dance floor filled with piles of handbags, around which little knots of girls danced in simple formations, relief evident on almost every face now that the dreadful, incomprehensible noise had stopped."
A passage explaining how frustrating it was, in 1966, to be a kid trying to crack the deceptive simplicity of the opening chord sequence of "Substitute" also works as a snapshot of adolescent anxiety played out across a row of frets: "If you'd ventured behind the bicycle sheds of any English school during the spring and summer terms of 1966, you'd have found small groups of boys with guitars, and intense disagreements raging." (Perry also explains how to get it right, for anyone who's still trying to work it out after 32 years.) Without ever spelling it out, Perry cuts straight to the idea that for some of us, pop music -- supposedly disposable -- works a kind of mystical voodoo on the shape and texture of our lives. No matter how much time you spend behind the metaphorical bicycle shed, you're not likely to ever figure it out.