1966 was an epochal year for Britain. Not only did England win the World Cup, defeating Germany 4-2 in the final on 30 July, but the big four of British pop – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and mod icons The Who – each released albums that not only spurred their careers on, but pushed music ever further into uncharted territory.
The April ’66 release of Aftermath saw Mick, Keith and co rely less on the US R&B cuts that had long made up their repertoire to that point and start to really harness their own songwriting powers. Just four months later, in August, The Beatles released Rubber Soul, its sonic and visual experiments marking the latest in their increasingly pace-setting excursions. Meanwhile, Ray Davies’ evolving songwriting skills were the stuff of evolution in The Kinks’ kamp, as Face To Face, issued in October, positioned them as masters of the observational vignette.
Arguably, however, The Who made all these leaps and more throughout the year, ending on a high note with A Quick One: only their second album, but, in terms of ambition, several miles ahead of the mod milestone that was their debut salvo, My Generation. A Quick One hit the shelves on 9 December 1966, almost exactly a year after their debut LP emerged, but a series of singles that the group issued during their short-lived tenure on industry impresario Robert Stigwood’s Reaction label (collected on the 5CD box set Maximum As & Bs) clearly charts their progression throughout the year.
The Who burst out of the traps in March with the thunderous blast of ‘Substitute’, a song that has all the swagger of early Who recordings, but also trains a keen eye on class mores (“I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth”) and wittily nods to the group’s – and, by extension, much of the beat boom’s – early reliance on soul songs imported from the US (“I look all white but my dad was black”). It’s initial release, with ‘Circles’ on the B-side, was quickly withdrawn because of legal entanglements with the group’s previous label, the Shel Talmy-helmed Brunswick imprint, but the group soon reissued the pairing after renaming the B-side ‘Instant Party’. A third ‘Substitute’ release duly followed, with the instrumental ‘Waltz For A Pig’ on the flip. Credited to “The Who Orchestra”, it was actually recorded by the Graham Bond Organisation and helped introduc The Who’s fans to a jazzier – and, fittingly, given the direction the band were headed towards – more overtly theatrical approach to The Who’s music.
‘I’m A Boy’ upped the ante, presaging glam’s gleeful upturning of gender roles by half a decade while also placing Pete Townshend as a rival to Ray Davies as a king of British observational songwriting. Indeed, while the Stones – musically at least – still relied on the sounds spearheaded by their US blues heroes, and The Kinks and Beatles looked abroad for instruments to include in their increasingly textured arrangements, The Who arguably remained the most steadfastly British band from this period. From Keith Moon’s iconic red, white and blue mod “target” jumper, to Pete Townshend’s defiantly British Union Jack blazer, this was a group that flew the flag for homegrown rock’n’roll. Their November EP, Ready Steady Who, was named after Ready Steady Go! the British TV institution that had showcased the band; while it featured covers of the TV theme to Batman alongside takes on recent US surf hits ‘Bucket T’ and ‘Barbara Ann’ (among original material ‘Circles’ and ‘Disguises’), the raucous attack that The Who gave the material ensured that the songs were run through the British Invasion filter and handed back to the Americans bearing a new stamp of authority.
Everything was leading up to A Quick One. Released on 9 December, it not only featured John Entwistle showcase ‘Boris The Spider’, but also the nine-minute mini-opera that was ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’. Presaging the theatrical concepts that would govern both Tommy and Quadrophenia, the six-part song took the kitchen-sink drama of films and plays such as Look Back In Anger and A Taste Of Honey and brought them to the record-buying youth.
But there was also one final parting shot at the singles charts. Issued a week before A Quick One in the UK, ‘Happy Jack’, backed with ‘I’ve Been Away’, reached No.3 at home – a sufficient enough placing for the US market to lift the A-side for inclusion on their configuration of the A Quick One LP.
And with that, The Who closed out the year having made their greatest artistic strides yet, edging towards the grand visions of The Who Sell Out, Tommy and Quadrophenia.
The Who’s 5CD singles collection, Maximum As & Bs, can be ordered here.