Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Little Billy's Doing Fine

I chose this live version of "Little Billy" (see vid, below) over the studio version because here Pete, in his intro to the song, gives a relatively good and factual explanation of its genesis. Peter Townshend, incidentally, was pretty well-known for his elaborate, fanciful and sometimes even rococo intros to songs back in the day; some of what he would say was true; some could be utter bullshit; it was all entertaining to listen to. His claim, in this intro, that "Little Billy" would soon be a released as a single and you'd hear it being played on the radio? Outright bullshit, and Pete probably knew it. "Little Billy" wasn't released until 1974, as a track on Odds and Sods ("a compilation album of studio outtakes and rarities by The Who released by Track/Polydor in the United Kingdom and Track and MCA in the United States in 1974"), even though it was recorded in 1968, which is also when this live version (below) was recorded.

The background vocals on the live version are a bit shaky, though — unusual for the Who, who were a pretty reliably fantastic live act — so if you want to hear a more sonically pleasing version, click this here studio version link. (On second listen, the background vocals aren't bad so much as they are mixed too far forward and poorly blended. But that was the state of the art of live recording back in 1968.)

In the intro, Pete alludes to "Odorono", which was a song on The Who's (at the time) latest album, The Who Sell Out. The idea behind that album was to reproduce the experience of listening to "pirate radio", which Pete loved and that the British government had just legislated out of existence. Pirate stations were actual ships that broadcasted good, current rock 'n' roll music into Britain from just outside British waters, i.e., in technically international waters. This was necessary because BBC radio — the only "legal" alternative in England at the time — restricted the broadcasting of rock music to an hour a week or something absurd like that. (There was a movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Boat That Rocked, aka Pirate Radio — which no one saw — that told the fictionalized story of one pirate radio station, Radio London.)

In any case, The Who Sell Out was an album of "pirate" music (all Who songs, of course) that included commercials recorded by The Who (Whomercials, if you will ... or even if you won't, because fuck you! You're not the boss of me!) for actual products like Heinz Baked Beans; it also included station promo jingles ("It's smooooooth sailing/ With the highly successful sound/ Of Wonderfulllll Radioooooo Londonnnnnnn!") and other miscellaneous stuff. "Odorono" was a song that was a "commercial" for a product that didn't exist; the young lady in the song misses her big chance at becoming a Big Time Singer when her unfortunate body odor offends an important impresario (concluding lines: "Her deodorant had let let down/ She should have used Odorono").
Yeah, Roger got pneumonia after this photo shoot. And Pete became a Famous Rock Star because LOOK! He didn't forget to use Odorono, unlike the poor girl of the song.

The Who Sell Out includes what many, including Pete, consider to be the Ultimate Great Who Song: "I Can See For Miles". It was released as a single; Pete was sure it would go straight to number one, but it stalled at like #10 in both the US and Britain. This crushed Pete; he considered it a flop — even though "ICSfM" charted the highest of any Who single ever. Pete threatened to make the next Who album a collection of all the Who's under-performing singles and he was going to call it The Who's Greatest Flops. After "ICSfM" stiffed (at least, as far as Pete was concerned), Pete wrote a string of ... let's just say ... "less than commercial, borderline-novelty songs", because he was seemingly somewhat doubtful of his ability to write a commercially viable song.

"Little Billy" was one of those songs.

The American Cancer Society, somehow made aware that The Who had written commercial ("commercial" in the sense of "advertisement"; not the sense of "number-1-on-the-charts-with-a-bullet") songs, asked them to write and perform an anti-smoking song. And they agreed.

It's not hard to see why the American Cancer Society declined to use "Little Billy". The song's a bit cavalier in its attitude toward cancer, obesity and even revenge: Ha ha ha ha - fuck you, dead smokers! Fat Billy's got your KIDS now and he's got his revenge for the way you treated him as a kid! I'd rather be fat, a misfit and alive than cool and DEAD! And so should you, Kids of America! Don't SMOKE! It has a definite anti-smoking vibe, but it's not exactly uplifting. Message: If you don't smoke, you'll be fat but you will outlive your smoking classmates and even though living well is the best revenge, living longer is ... well ... revenge, anyway ... of a sort ... even if you are saddled with 25 kids who are not even your own.

The song's a bit macabre, you might say. Flippant too, you might say.

I still like it.

Ha Ha Ha Ha!

Interesting side note: It appears that in this live version, the verse beginning "Now Billy and his classmates are middle-aged" is sung by Roger, even though Pete clearly sings it in the studio version.

Little Billy was the fattest kid in his class
Always the last in line
All the other little kids would laugh at him
Said he'd die before his time

Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha
Little Billy didn't mind

Most of the kids smoke cigarettes
Just to prove that they were cool
The teacher didn't know about the children's games
And Billy always followed the rules

Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha
Little Billy didn't mind

Billy was big on the outside
But there's an even bigger man inside
Ten million cigarettes burning every day
And Billy's still doing fine

Now Billy and his classmates are middle-aged
With children of their own
Their smoking games are reality now
And cancer's seed is sown

Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha
Little Billy's didn't mind

Most of them smoke maybe 40 a day
A habit Billy doesn't share
One by one they're passing away
Leaving orphans to Billy's care

Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha
Little Billy doesn't mind

Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha
Little Billy's doing fine

1 comment:

  1. Great post on the Who and the song. Are you writing this from notes or is it all stuffed into your brain?