This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.
This one’s a bit of a cheat. Hell, it’s a lot of a cheat, because we’re not here talking about something that, suddenly, strikes you as being not entirely what it seems on the surface, because ‘Pictures of Lily’ has always been what it seems on the surface, and those lyrics have never been what you would call seemingly innocent.
Still, I’m sure it must have fooled some people at the time it came out, and it must have fooled the BBC – which has always been more than a bit naive when it comes to pop lyrics: how on Earth did ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ get through? – otherwise it would never have gotten on the air in the first place.
“I used to wake up in the morning/I used to feel so bad” sings Daltrey, introducing the topic in an initially innocuous fashion. “I got so sick of having sleepless nights” he complains. What ails the poor lad? Is he in need of Alka Seltzer to settle an upset stomach? Should he try a feather pillow in place of a flock? What can dear old Dad do to help his unfortunate child cope with this tricky attack of insomnia and, incidentally, just why are The Who singing a pop/rock song about insomnia in the first place?
But this is not a song about a medical disorder, although the world is pop is full of songs about lovestruck fellows unable to sleep because their baby don’t love them any more. No, wise old Pop immediately diagnoses both disease and cure. Dad sticks something on the wall, and sonny boy is instantly cured. Just what is this miraculous remedy? (No, it’s not Medicinal Compound).
They are, in fact, the titular Pictures of Lily. They make the lad’s life so wonderful, they help him sleep at night, they solve his childhood problems, and, best of all, they make him feel alright. And how do these undescribed photos perform this tremendous feat? They make his nights not “quite so lonely”.
Can you guess what it’s all about yet? Because if you can’t, you’re really not trying. I apologise for being so brutal about it but what Daddy has done to relieve his firstborn’s nocturnal deficiencies is to provide him with at least quasi-pornographic photos so that he can wank himself to sleep. Yes, that is what it’s really about.
Unfortunately, these pictures of Lily end up causing more problems than they, er, relieve, since the poor semen-splattered kid only goes and falls in love with this lust object. Still, he is not without ambition because, despite his youth, the lad wants to meet this fully grown, no doubt fully developed lady, and this is where Townsend pulls his nasty little switch, because Lily is no longer with us, indeed she’s actually been dead since 1929, that is, thirty-seven years before her pictures came in so handy.
Which leads us to the inevitable, although unwelcome speculation about just how the lad is going to fare if his sexual drive has been so fundamentally linked to the styles, tastes, body-shapes and furtive porn of the mid-Twenties, or even earlier. Even though this song seems to be a single-entendre schoolboy gag, instead it contains hidden psychosexual depths, and would appear instead to be a tragedy. We shouldn’t laugh. And we really shouldn’t wonder just what those pictures of Lily really looked like.