In which I do a lot of air-drumming
You know how any given McCartney composition has little cues and clues that let you know it’s a McCartney? I guess those tend to be musical more than lyrical. Anyway, in a like manner, Pete Townshend has a collection of what I call ‘la la la songs,’ which feature either main lyrics or backing vocals that say just that (we have a remedy / falala-la-laa-lala).
It’s a funny move, a delicate syllable juxtaposed against a tough sound. But that’s one irresistible thing about the Who, their singular blend of savagery and sensitivity.
Of this subcategory, my favorite is “Happy Jack,” released as a single in December 1966 in the UK and March 1967 in the US. (’67? They were on to “Pictures of Lily” by then. Pick up the pace, boys. Or, as another Lily—the one on Modern Family—would say, “TODAY, LADIES.”) This may be my favorite Who song, period (McCartney agrees). It’s the tale of a village idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Pete was reportedly inspired by a local character he saw on family holidays to the Isle of Man. Thus, as the portrait opens, “Happy Jack wasn’t old, but he was a man”—with cognitive abilities lagging behind his physical appearance.
Before learning about this inspiration, I took the line to mean the opposite: that he was a child forced to mature too quickly through cruel treatment by his peers. Don’t you just love how open to interpretation pop lyrics can be?
In any event, no songwriter has been so preoccupied with the collision of childhood and adulthood since, well, Brian Wilson! I could go on and on about the creative parallels between them. But I won’t, because I am trying this thing where I focus on one thing at a time. Ask me how that’s going in my career. I dare you.
Okay, what about the la la la’s? These ones switch it up with each repetition, endearingly childlike all the while. Notes a major-third interval apart, Pete taking the low and John taking the high. Eighth notes on the latter half of the first verse (sounds like singing), eighth notes plus a little sixteenth skip on the second verse (sounds like dancing), quarter notes on the last verse (nearly sounds like lap-lap-lap-lap in a gentle, rhythmic demonstration of the “waters lapping”). The first time evokes the kids singing, an activity in which Jack is othered for his inability to stay in tune: but the subsequent la’s represent him and his determination to keep a positive attitude despite his tormentors’ efforts. A reclamation of sorts.
Pete claims they no longer play this song live because they don’t remember how. I don’t know if I believe that, but I can think of another reason they would avoid it—that no one, not even Zak Starkey, can replicate what Moony did. That’s two minutes of the most joyous, uninhibited drumming I’ve ever heard. I play along every time. It’s one aspect that made the song one of the handful that sent me down the rabbit-hole. Another is the 5/4-to-4/4 time signature hiccup in each line of verse, emphasizing Jack’s quirks. Another is the harmonies on the chorus, almost classical in the way they start out dissonant and then resolve with the descent of the lowest line. I hadn’t really known the Who for their harmonies. I was charmed.
Also, the rhyme of “wrong key/donkey.” Fantastic.
And the promo is kind of Monkees-esque! Although I do feel a bit sad for Roger being on his own, as was often the case IRL at the time because he wasn’t into the drugs the way the others were.
In short, this song makes me feel like no one can prevent me from being happy. It won’t surprise you that they didn’t do it when they came to Berlin. And they didn’t need to. But boy, would I have loved it if they had.
Image: the UK single, featuring 3 different Entwistle tracks on the B-side, Reaction/Decca