It was Keen who wrote the only UK No. 1 single of which Pete Townshend has been a part, Thunderclap Newman’s inspiringly idealistic 1969 anthem ‘Something In The Air.’ He also remains the only outside songwriter ever to contribute an original track to a Who album, of which more later. “Speedy” was born in Ealing, west London, on 29 March 1945.
Sadly, John left us at a mere 56 years old, in March 2002, but his distinguished and often underrated career also saw him conduct some notable production work at the dawn of punk, and to produce the first, self-titled album from 1977 by Motörhead.
‘Something In The Air’ was produced by Townshend, who also played the notable bass part on the track and did the stirring orchestral arrangement that helped give it such character. As often at the time, contractual reasons prompted the adoption of a false name as a credit, so Pete put his tongue firmly in his cheek and called himself Bijou Drains.
“The name didn’t really mean anything,” said Townshend in the 1983 book The Guitar Greats, by John Tobler and Stuart Grundy. “But what was most interesting about that was that I played the bass while engineering the record, going from two track Revox to two track Revox. ‘Speedy’ Keen was the drummer and writer, and I was very much his mentor, in the same way that Kit Lambert was my mentor.”
The song, released on Lambert and Chris Stamp’s Track Records, was one of those recordings in which everyone was doing something memorable. Andy Newman played piano, notably the glorious, extended solo; lead and rhythm guitars were by the trio’s prodigious talent Jimmy McCulloch, then just 16 years old and later a key member of Wings, before his untimely death at a mere 26, in 1979.
After working as a lorry driver, Keen had served his apprenticeship as a drummer in such mid-1960s beat bands as the Krewsaders and the Second Thoughts. He wrote a late single b-side for the Swinging Blue Jeans, 1967’s ‘Something’s Coming Along,’ and by the time of Thunderclap Newman’s chart-topping glory at the end of the decade, he was an established figure in The Who’s circle.
Townshend, in his autobiography Life, described “Speedy” as his aide-de-camp, and welcomed the contribution of Keen’s song ‘Armenia City In The Sky’ for 1967’s The Who Sell Out. “This was the first time an outsider had contributed an original song to a Who album,” wrote Pete, “and it never happened again.”
Thunderclap Newman made only one album together, 1970’s Hollywood Dream, before splitting the following year. Keen went on to make two highly listenable solo albums, 1973’s Previous Convictions and the 1975 set Y’Know Wot I Mean?
In 1977, the same year that he co-produced the Motörhead album, he was the co-producer of American punk flagbearers Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ only studio album, L.A.M.F.
“Speedy” Keen deserves far more attention as a key British artist and producer, even if he was somewhat uncomfortable with the massive success of his 1969 signature song. “When I drove my tipper trucks and when I was a drummer, I knew where I was,” he told the NME in 1975.
“When I was a singer and songwriter, I didn’t I got very affected by having to go out and play to people, and I started thinking that I wasn’t good enough for them to pay their four quid a ticket because they’d come to see a number one band.”
The Thunderclap Newman album Hollywood Dream can be bought here.
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