Sunday, June 25, 2017

Substituting for The Who

A while ago, I was talking to a friend who was regaling me with stories of seeing The Who in New York on their first American tour. He told me how knocked out he was by their set, how he later managed to sneak into their hotel, and ended up spending the evening hanging out and chatting with bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon along with a bunch of fawning groupies.

He mentioned how he used to have the original 45 rpm single of “Substitute,” which was extremely rare because of the B-side, “Waltz for a Pig,” a strange, plodding, horn driven instrumental which, as far as he remembered, was composed by Entwistle, and was never re-released. After losing the single in one move or another, he never heard the song ever again.

I had never heard the song, but I’d heard of it. However, I remembered hearing that it was done by a different band, The Graham Bond Organisation. I wasn’t sure how the arrangement came to be, but I’d always assumed that it was a case of two British bands on the same label doing some kind of double A-side arrangement to break into the new American market. Why he didn’t remember that the flip aide was by another band was strange to me.

Evidently, he wasn’t the only one. The song appeared on several bootlegs of rare Who tracks, most notably the Trademark of Quality double LP Who’s Zoo. How did nobody know that this song was by another band?

As I looked into it (first reading about it in Tony Fletcher’s wonderful biography of Keith Moon), I discovered that it was not merely confusion or faulty memories. It was part of a bizarre incident that came out of an all too common story of a band starting out, signing a bad contract, trying to break free, and then finding themselves being bitten in the ass by old associates.

Like so many other London bands in the early 60s, the members of The Who were just a bunch of teenagers who were hungry for a life that broke away from staid Britishness and had been intoxicated by the R&B and soul records coming over from America. They had no plan and no business sense. Their first manager, Helmut Gordon, was so hands-off that he has become no more than a footnote in the band’s bio. However, through Gordon the band became connected to publicist Pete Meadon, a pill-popping mod who occasionally made up for his lack of stability and business sense with vision. It was Meadon who helped to give the band direction and associate them with the mod subculture. It was not until the band’s management was taken over by aspiring filmmakers Kit Lambert and Christ Stamp that there would be true forward momentum. The pair had a keen sense of drama (something the young band had in spades) and boundless imagination.

Left to right: Townshend, Talmy, Moon
To make their first recordings under this new arrangement, they reached out to American-born producer Shel Talmy, who had produced all of The Kinks’ recordings up to that point. Guitarist Pete Townshend was a huge admirer of the songcraft of The Kinks’ leader, Ray Davies, and fashioned his song, “I Can’t Explain,” to appeal to Talmy. It worked. He would sign the band to his production company and produce “I Can’t Explain,” backed with the Talmy-penned “Bald Headed Woman” on the B-side (it was not uncommon at the time for producers to have acts record their compositions, or to attach their name to songwriting credits, in order to reap royalties). The single made it into the top ten in England. They were off.

Soon after, the band went into the studio to record their first LP, My Generation. It was a hodge-podge of Townshend originals padded out with the James Brown covers that front-man Roger Daltrey favored singing. While it only hints at what the band would become, it was a raw, aggressive outing, and one that truly stands the test of time. However, the band was unhappy, partly because Townshend had greater artistic ambitions than garage rock and soul covers, but mostly because the contract with Talmy was highly unfavorable for the band.

Inevitably, the band acrimoniously broke with Talmy. This began a strange period during which Who singles would appear in shops under different labels. The band would record their new tracks with co-manager Kit Lambert at the helm and, having struck a deal with impresario Robert Stigwood, they would release them on his new label, Reaction. Talmy, however, would continue to issue singles from the My Generation album sessions on Brunswick records, often with such timing as to suggest that he was deliberately attempting to sabotage the band’s new releases.

The first recording they made after their break from Talmy was their classic, “Substitute.”  It was a definite step forward for the band, which had previously merely replicated their live sound in the studio. With the oblique and witty lyrics (including the nearly impossible to sing “the north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south”) to the inclusion of acoustic guitar for added color, it was a far cry from the work they did with Talmy.

“Substitute” was released in England on March 4th, 1966, The B-side was a track called “Instant Party,” a re-recording  of a song that they had previously recorded with Talmy under the title “Circles.” The problem was that Talmy had been set to release “Circles” as the follow-up single to the band’s breakout hit, “My Generation.” (The B-side of that intended release was to be a bizarre doo-wop pastiche song called “Instant Party Mixture,” which evidently provided “Circles” with its new name. That track was ultimately shelved for the next several decades.) If the name change was intended to throw Talmy off the scent, it didn’t do a very good job. Talmy placed a legal injunction on the single, and to add insult to injury, issued the single, “A Legal Matter,” on March 7th. “Instant Party” was the B-side.

The classic lineup of the Graham Bond Organisation.
Bond, Heckstall-Smith, Bruce, Baker
Bruce would leave prior to "Waltz for a Pig."
In order to get “Substitute” back into stores, they needed a new B-side, and fast.

Enter the Graham Bond Organisation, the seminal British jazz/rhythm & blues combo. While never hugely successful commercially, the band was one of a handful of acts that instigated the blues/R&B boom in London in the early 60s, and the band’s alumni would later form some of the most venerable bands in the jazz/fusion and progressive rock genres.

The Organisation (British spelling), had played a number of dates with The Who (Stigwood was the booking manager for both bands), and apparently, due to this connection, were called upon to provide a triage recording to replace the contested “Circle/Instant Party” side. Within days, “Substitute” was re-released with “Waltz for a Pig” as the B-side, credited to “The Who Orchestra.” When released in America shortly thereafter, it would be credited to “The Who,” in spite of their complete lack of involvement. Discovering this, I could finally see that my friend, while technically incorrect, had not been wrong.
"Waltz for a Pig"
Credited to "The Who Orchestra"

The line-up that recorded “Waltz for a Pig” consisted of leader Graham bond (duh) on organ, Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax, Ginger Baker on drums, and Nigerian-born trumpet player Mike Falana, who joined the band after the departure of founding bass player Jack Bruce. (Bruce had left the previous year due to frequent, violent clashes with Baker. He vowed never to work with the brilliant, but notoriously unstable drummer ever again.)

The song itself is no masterpiece, but it was definitely a huge and delicious “fuck you” to Talmy (presumably the titular “Pig”). It’s an odd little instrumental, not even attempting to fashion itself in the style of The Who, but it does have an oddly arresting sound, with the horn section playing a dirge-like melody over the booming bass notes of Bond’s organ and Baker’s forceful beat. The writing credit was given as “Butcher,” but was in fact written by Baker (Get it? Butcher? Baker? Candlestick maker?). Though The Graham Bond Organisation did not receive an official credit at the time, it would eventually be released under the band’s name in 2012 on their retrospective box set, Wade in the Water: Classics, Origins & Oddities, long after the track had been forgotten by most Who fans.

The American pressing, credited to "The Who."
And after that? Well, The Who continued recording with Kit Lambert producing, their new output moving in a more inventive, pop-art direction, sharply contrasting with the “maximum R&B” of their early work. The legal battles between the band and Shel Talmy ended up hindering the band’s financial fortunes for the rest of the decade and lasted long enough to prevent a remastered CD version of the My Generation album from appearing until after the turn of the millennium.

Talmy’s output would soon slow down. He would continue to record The Kinks and other bands through 1966 and 1967, including the classic hit by The Easybeats, “Friday on my Mind.” However, by 1968, Ray Davies would take over production of The Kinks’ recordings. Sadly, changes in the music scene ultimately rendered his approach passé. It may be easy to vilify Talmy in this story, but it needs to be remembered that he helped bring The Who to prominence, and he did so by making records with such a rawness and immediacy that they would influence virtually every kid who would ever start a band thereafter.
Ginger Baker

The Graham Bond Organisation would break up not long after. Reed player Dick Heckstall-Smith would subsequently do a stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before forming the jazz/rock outfit, Colosseum, with drummer John Hiseman. Ginger Baker would grudgingly reunite with his old nemesis Jack Bruce at the insistence of Eric Clapton to form Cream. The pair would be thorns in each other’s sides until Bruce’s death in 2014. Little information was available about Nigerian-born trumpet player Mike Falana, apart from that he passed away in 1995. Bandleader Graham Bond never achieved the success that he arguably deserved. He died on May 8th, 1974, having either fallen or thrown himself in front of a train at Finsbury Park station in London. His growing obsession with the occult has some curious music fans speculating on the nature of his death to this day.

“Waltz for a Pig” faded into obscurity, and probably rightly so. It’s not a Who song. It’s barely even a good song. However, it served its purpose at the time: To get “Substitute” back on the shelves and help usher in the next phase of The Who, when they wanted to broaden their sound and extricate themselves from a creative and financial relationship that they believed was toxic. It’s a wonderful little curio, one of those little lost gems that sounds good in context of a broader story. It’s one of those tracks that obsessive weirdoes like me love.

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