Thursday, February 21, 2008

A QUICK ONE - The First Rock Opera

The term "rock opera" was first coined by Pete Townshend, guitar player & primary composer for The Who. In 1966 The Who released a lengthy song titled "A Quick One While He's Away" from the album A Quick One, and it's this song that was termed "a mini-opera" or "a rock opera" by the songwriter. Though Townshend meant it tongue-in-cheek, the name stuck and came to define an entire genre of theatre. Read more, and see the song performed by The Who, after the jump!

This multi-part composition was a humorous tale of infidelity and forgiveness, about a girl whose man has been gone "for nigh on a year" and who finds herself in the arms of Ivor, an engine driver (that's a railroad engineer to us Yanks). The boyfriend returns, and, happily, he forgives her. The song is broken into six distinct sections - "Her Man's Been Gone," "Crying Town," "We Have A Remedy," "Ivor the Engine Driver," "Soon Be Home" and "You Are Forgiven." The bit where the band repeats "cello" over and over is a joke - record producer Kit Lambert vetoed the inclusion of string players because of cost.

Pete's first excursion into long-form song cycles (what would come to be known as "concept albums") was a project called Quads, a tale of a future society where parents can choose the sex of their children. The project was abandoned, but not before yielding the hit single "I'm A Boy" (1966). Of course, the real flourishing of Townshend's ambitions came with 1969's double album Tommy, which told the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball. After Tommy came Lifehouse (also abandoned, but many of the songs were used on 1971's Who's Next) and Quadrophenia (1973). I'll be looking at Tommy, and the vogue for rock opera concept records that followed in its wake, at a later date. In the meantime, enjoy "A Quick One While He's Away."

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