Is that what it’s really about? The Who’s I’m a Boy

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.

Well, would you credit it? Just last week, Brian Mathews gave me an excuse to talk about the Who’s less-than-subtle ‘Pictures of Lily’, leading to a comment about the fact that I’d have another piece to write when they got round to playing the band’s ‘I’m a Boy’, a number 2 in Britain earlier the same year, and it’s only the penultimate track on today’s programme.

Like ‘Pictures of Lily’ and to an even greater extent, this song is even less of a double meaning. It only goes and sets things up in its first verse in a way that only the deliberately naive could mistake. There are these four little girls, you see, called respectively Jane Marie, Felicity, Sally Joy and Bill.

And this little girl is not the tomboy kind who runs around in dungarees, Wilhemina who’ll only answer to Bill. No, this is the real thing. The other (little girl) is me – and I’m a boy.

And a very confused little girl, sorry, boy, is Bill (I’m a headcase) as his mother practices making up on his face (just how little a girl is he supposed to be?), dressing him up in skirts and filling his hair with hairpins. But Bill’s insistent that he’s a boy, and it’s just because his mother refuses to accept that she has given birth to a child made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails, and insists on him living the life of the one that’s made of sugar and spice and everything nice (yeah, right, has anyone here ever had a younger sister?)

At least Bill has a clear image of his natural, as opposed to his enforced gender and wants to spend his time doing manly – sorry, boyly – things: cricket on the green, riding bikes across the stream, cutting himself and seeing his blood, getting muddy. But instead, whilst the other little girls are putting on frocks, plait their hair, painting their face, he’s being forced to wear a wig.

It’s all very cheerful and upfront and in that sense jokey, so that people don’t really stop to recognise that Townsend is writing about enforced transvesticism, the abusive enforcement of an unnatural gender identity upon a child, with the inevitable long-terms psychological effects, and that’s not necessarily a laughing matter, or even a sing along with the chorus one, come to that.

But the ultimate joke might be that Townsend is burying a genuine issue beneath this seemingly absurd setting. For we only have Bill’s word for the fact that he’s a boy and not a girl all the time, a girl perhaps suffering from body dismorphia and desperately seeking to escape from her own physical form into a fantasy of being a boy, or potentially being transgender.

So what does lie beneath the superficial surface of this song? And what more serious issues might lie beneath the superficial surface below the surface? Some songs are never as simple as they sound.

Is that what it’s really about? The Who’s Pictures of Lily

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.