Thursday, October 22, 2009

This Day in Rock Music History (Record Exec Blows Chance to Sign The Who)

October 22, 1964—Even the best of us blow it sometimes—just ask umpire Tim McClelland about those calls he wishes he had back the other night in the Yankees-Angels game.

That’s the only way I can see why ace record producer John Burgess of EMI Records would fail to see the potential in a group auditioning at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios. The youngsters were known at the time as the High Numbers. You and I know them better today as The Who.

I’m half-tempted to break into song over EMI’s head-scratcher. You know the tune I mean: “I Can’t Explain,” the single that the group released less than three months after their audition—the same song that wound up #8 on the UK charts and sent them on the road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Some years ago, Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf came out with The Experts Speak, a collection of quotes from would-be soothsayers who proved spectacularly wrong (e.g., Irving Thalberg to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, on box-office prospects for Gone With the Wind: “Forget it, Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel").

I never got around to perusing what sounds like an amusing book, but Burgess’ quote about the group he’d just heard would probably take pride of place in it. He wrote one of the foursome’s two managers, Kit Lambert, that he wasn’t sure if the High Numbers “have anything to offer.”


Let’s get that laughter at Burgess’ expense out of our system right now…

Okay? Settled down? Let’s see if Burgess was the utter nincompoop his quote might lead us to suspect, or if The Who were really that good at the time.

The second question is easier to answer: Burgess was not a dunce. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was considered a pretty savvy producer at EMI—finding talent for the label, digging up material for groups, helping to coordinate recording sessions. Among his successes: working with John Barry on the “James Bond Theme.” When Beatles producer George Martin departed EMI in 1965, he took Burgess along, which he most emphatically would not have done if Burgess had been lackluster.

Now, what about The Who?

Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon were in transition at this point, including new management, a new name, new songs, and new elements in their live act that would make them a concert must-see. Let’s take all of this in order—which, as it happens, turns out to be pretty neatly chronological:

* New management: Pete Meaden had taken them over only five months before the audition. He was a devout Mod, a London youth movement at the time which today means little to people like my niece and nephews, except maybe that it provided grist for one of the most memorable bits of dialogue in the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night (recalled in a prior post of mine). The Mods went in for flashy clothes, scooters, pills, and rock ‘n’ roll. Meaden’s time with the group was short (we’ll get to that), but he engineered a change in their style that made them musical spokesmen of a sort for his movement.

* New name: The Who started life in 1962 as The Detours before becoming The Who. It wasn’t until 1964 that the group in its most familiar form coalesced, as they recruited wildman Keith Moon as their drummer. When Meaden took over, he got the group to change its name from The Who to the High Numbers—evidently, “Numbers” was the preferred form of address when Mods met each other, and “High” referred the meds consumed so they could carouse all weekend. Whatever. Guess you had to be there at the time.

* New songs: The British quartet had already hit on their full-throttle playing style—“Maximum R&B,” they called it. But, like innumerable other up-and-coming British bands, they began by performing cover versions of others’ hits. Meaden took it on himself to write the group’s first single, “I’m the Face/Zoot Suit.” It got nowhere. Lambert and his partner, Chris Stamp, swooped down and paid Meaden 150 pounds to make himself scarce.

* New elements in their live act: The band had already developed a cadre of fervent followers, but in the month before their audition they created, through serendipity, the form of theatrical destruction that would make them famous. At the Railway Hotel in Harrow, Townshend accidentally smashed his guitar, then became so enraged that he went the whole hog and pulverized it. The following week, Moon, to demonstrate his fellowship, kicked over his drum-set. The fans loved it (even though the group at this point could ill afford to pay for the broken equipment).

One happy result of the encounter with EMI: The record company wanted to see more original material from the band, which gave Lambert and Stamp the leverage they needed to get Townshend to start composing.

November represented a change and upturn in the group’s fortunes. They changed back to The Who, and began a 16-week residency at London’s Marquee Club that soon became a smash. By this time they were also signed with Orbit Music, where producer Shel Talmy would take them under his wing in molding “I Can’t Explain.”

In later years, The Who would not forget their rejection, and made sure they had the last laugh over it. Buyers of their LP Live at Leeds found in the left pocket of the gatefold a whole cache of memorabilia associated with the band. Among the items: Burgess’ letter to Lambert.

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