Sharps & Flats

"BBC Sessions" captures the tension and drive of the Who's unlikely marriage of pop smarts and rock violence.

Published February 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"People try to put us d-d-d-down -- talking 'bout my favourite station/Just because we're n-new in town -- talking 'bout my favourite station/The BBC was dead and cold -- talking 'bout my favourite station/But our new approach is fresh and bold -- talking 'bout my favourite station."

The Who
Nov. 10, 1967
Station I.D. for BBC Radio 1

Whether, like Pete Townshend, you believe that the Who's essence lies in their singles or you share Roger Daltrey's view that the band's true home is onstage, this album is for you. The "BBC Sessions" are a collection of recordings made between 1965 and 1973, with the emphasis heavily on '65 to '67, when the Who were not so much a rock band as a bright, articulate pop group whose live shows blew their rivals clean off the boards.

The Who were the most aggressive, most competent live band on the circuit. Only the tightness of their ensemble playing kept the unlikely marriage of pretty, melodic pop songs and sudden crescendos of unimaginable violence from flying off into complete chaos. The tension between the two produced a drive that has never been matched -- a quality that's captured on the "BBC Sessions."

The majority of the tracks are live "first takes," performed -- it's true -- without an audience, but also without any edits, overdubs or multitracked cosmetic surgery. If you'd wandered into any club or ballroom gig in the days before "Tommy," this is pretty much the Who you'd have heard.

The Who's career is conventionally misrepresented as the progress of four Shepherds Bush mods who wrote a rock opera, made good in the States and invented stadium rock. In reality, their evolution was a great deal more complex, as shown by these 26 tracks, nicely packaged in chronological order and accompanied by accurate liner notes listing the date and location of each recording.

The 1965 sessions comprise the Daltrey-led maximum R&B of "Just You and Me" and "Leaving Here" and Townshend's first-album originals "The Good's Gone" and "La La La Lies." By 1966, Townshend had "stopped blustering" and found his voice as a songwriter. Two versions of "Substitute" and takes of "I'm a Boy," "Happy Jack" and "Pictures of Lily" represent the Who's high point as a witty power-pop group, capable of slipping songs about gender confusion, feminization and masturbation past uptight censors and into the Top 3.

The omission of "So Sad About Us" -- as Andy Neil tactfully phrases it in the liner notes -- is a shame. It's one of Townshend's finest songs, and (as the outtake shows) the occasional flat-pitched vocal is more than compensated for by Keith Moon's joyful, octopus-like flailing at the drums. A further caveat: American buyers should note that the most interesting of the cover versions -- a furious assault on the Everly Brothers' "Man With Money" -- is included only on the U.K. release (its omission from the U.S. release owes more to fiscal than to aesthetic considerations).

The years 1968 and 1969, when the band was busy breaking America, are bypassed (though the last thing anyone needs is more live "Tommy"), and the story resumes in 1970 with "The Seeker" (a better version than the single, for which poor Keith Moon was in shock from a car accident). From here it's downhill, into the lumpen hard rock of "Shakin' All Over" and the gradual loss of spontaneity and humor that produced the plodding "Long Live Rock."

These tapes exist only because of the peculiarities of the British radio system. England had no commercial radio, no Top 40 stations, no FM radio. All broadcasting was in the hands of a single organization, the BBC, which was severely limited in the number of records it could play per week by the "needle-time agreement" (a Musicians Union initiative to keep elderly dance-band musicians in work).

The BBC's workaround was to tape its own recordings of current hits and broadcast them in place of the singles. Almost by accident, the BBC archive grew to contain over 7,000 recordings, including sets by Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and every notable artist from the mid-'60s to date.

Performing live, in primitive studio conditions, quickly distinguished the bands that could really play from the lightweights whose records needed propping up by session men. Those who could play frequently preferred the greater spontaneity of the BBC versions to their official records (Daltrey prefers the BBC takes of "Happy Jack" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" to the Who's official releases).

The Who's second single, "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," is a good example. The Decca 45 uses several layers of overdubbed guitars to create the explosive, atonal finale and is held together by pianist Nicky Hopkins, who smooths the trickier transitions and keeps the song moving through its odd, asymmetric structure. By contrast, the BBC version (just drums, bass, one guitar and a singer) forces the 20-year-old Townshend to reproduce the dive-bombing, Morse code and glissandi effects of four guitars in a single live take. What's more, he succeeds.

Eventually the Who refused to work on the antiquated, mono BBC soundboards and, in defiance of union guidelines, moved into regular multitrack commercial studios. The change from the rough-and-ready live performance of "See My Way" to the professional De Lane Lea production of "Pictures of Lily" couldn't be clearer. All the later recordings -- "The Seeker," "I'm Free," "Relay" and "Long Live Rock" -- have the polish and separation you'd expect from multitrack recordings, but little of the excitement or sense of fun that is the hallmark of the Who's best work.

The central irony of Townshend's career is that his most durable work emerged from that most disposable medium, the 7-inch single. When he aimed at high art (in the form of rock opera) the work was often overwrought; with his sights set firmly on low pop he produced timeless music. The "BBC Sessions" give us his low pop at its roughest and most ready.

By John Perry

John Perry is an English musician and author. A founding member of the Only Ones, he has played with Robert Palmer, Robert Hunter, Evan Dando, The Sisters of Mercy, Marianne Faithfull, Michael Nyman and Johnny Thunders.

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