What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.
An old joke, though one that’s usually intended for the rock and pop world rather than jazz, where the drummer has a more creative role in a trio on a regular basis.
It’s not a joke that could ever be applied to Keith Moon, late of the Who. The Mad Moon, Moon the Loon, the explosive force at the centre of the ‘Oo, the ‘Oo, the ‘orrible ‘Oo.
Moon is, for me at any rate, the best rock drummer I have ever heard. he is loud, explosive but also brilliantly controlled, a master of his kit. He’s certainly the only drummer whose style I can recognise, without prompting, and though there are many, myriad examples of his talents spread around the Infinite Jukebox, the best of these, for me, is ‘I can see for miles’.
As a record, it marks a point of transition. The Who had been mods, they had been art rock, they had been pure energy burning on wax, but in their leader, Pete Townsend, they had a writer of imagination and ambition.
Townsend had already driven the Who towards more complex compositions. Their second album, A Quick One Whilst He’s Away was named after the title track, a ten minute quasi-rock opera, telling a story via a succession of half a dozen segued mini-songs. Townsend had repeated the exercise in miniature on The Who Sell Out on the two part album closer, ‘Rael’.
‘I can see for miles’ is the hinge, the moment of transition between the early, simple Who and the sprawling epic of Tommy. And it’s Moon’s song from, start to finish.
There’s no orthodox beat, no orthodox tune. You couldn’t in any way dance to it. Daltrey croons, showing the first hint of the hard-throated rocking style he would develop in the Seventies, Townsend slices chords into spikes and bursts of sound, and Moon, out in front, hammers his drums into explosions of percussion, driving on a song of paranoia.
There are love songs about love gone bad, but this was a more paranoid version than any that had gone before. in a way, it’s a foreshadowing of Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’, because Daltrey is watching his woman, only he can watch from wherever he is, he doesn’t need to stalk, he can see for miles. He can see anything and everything.
Daltrey makes it plain from the start. He knows she’s deceived him, and the surprise is on her, because he knows that she has because he’s got magic in his eyes. He can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles, he sings, with Townsend and Entwistle echoing him, and there’s a final, solitary ‘Oh yeah’, half triumphant, half defiant, wholly adolescent (the echo of ‘so there’ is inescapable).
It’s not just magic, it’s positively superhuman, Daltrey claims. On clear days he can see the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, so what has he actually seen his errant girlfriend doing? He’s seen her holding lots of other guys, and now she’s got the nerve to say that she still wants him! that’s as may be, but she’s gotta stand trial, because of how far he can see.
Let’s hold on to that thought for a moment. She’s ‘holding’ lots of guys, but what is out context here, what is the detail? What exactly does this holding entail? Dancing? handjobs? Full-blown kneetremblers? Is this reticence Sixties’ sweetness and innocence that has to express itself through code words, or is it adolescent flailing, mere paranoia unable to imagine itself into anything more detailed? He’s not about to reject her out of hand, despite what he ‘knows’, but she’s got to go on trial before he’ll decide whether to keep her (and is she really sure she wants to be kept, upon such terms?)
There is no end, no resolution, just like there is no tune, as such. The music churns and boils, the guitars clash, Moon pulses, in highly staccato bursts, heartbeats rising and falling, the rhythm of Daltrey’s paranoia that, ultimately, we will never understand fully whether it is real and justified, or merely the feverish fears of an overactive, overimagination.
But we suspect. Oh how we suspect, and Moon’s seemingly erratic drums pound that suspicion into us with every colossal beat.
This is the band playing the song. It’s no coincidence that, in defiance of every convention there is, the drummer is out in front: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ppU_XBruB4