Friday, August 22, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 234): "BARGAIN" (1971) The Who

Tomorrow is the birthday of The Who’s drummer, the irrepressible Keith Moon. Moony, who died in 1978, was a looney, but, for the most part it seems, a rather jovial loon. To see Moon play drums in the early days of The Who, as for instance in some of the footage preserved in the film The Kids Are Alright (1979), is to see a whirling dervish of a drummer, creating a kind of waterfall of percussion behind the sallies of John Entwhistle’s bass and the slashes of Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitar.

Today’s song features one of my favorites of Moon’s performances. At the time Who’s Next was released I only knew of The Who through “See Me Feel Me” and “Summertime Blues,” both of which had radio airplay in 1970. Nothing quite prepared me for how much I would love “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and then the album it’s from, in 1971. One of the pleasures of the album is how well recorded it is, particularly Moon’s drums. There’s a spaciousness to the sound, very uncluttered, very clean, but not slick. It’s great classic rock for that reason.

“Bargain” sounded like an instant classic and has become more so in the intervening years. The power chords are vintage Who and Who’s Next is the album where they developed a studio sound that was equal or better to what the Stones were achieving. And Townshend’s dabbling with the ARP synthesizer throughout the album made it sound startingly contemporary, even a tad futuristic. On “Bargain” the keyboard creates a sound both grand and mournful, perhaps elegiac.

The lift of the song is all about the effort to find a pure love. Townshend at the time was deeply under the influence of his guru Meher Baba, and the idea of a driving desire to find God fuels the song: “I’d gladly lose me to find you / I’d gladly give up all I had / To find you, I’d suffer anything and be glad.” The idea of the “bargain”—giving up everything to find “you,” suffering any deprivation—“I'd stand naked, stoned and stabbed” to prove one’s devotion—adds a humility to the lyrics that the song’s kick and charge over-ride. It’s the most boastful sounding surrender one could imagine. And that’s because the band has the song fully in hand, with lively guitar fills from Townshend and Moon’s cymbal-happy rolls that are always so musical.

The bridge, which Townshend sings in his straining vocal, is perhaps the most effective part of the song—particularly the way the music leads out of: “I know I’m worth nothing without you / In life one and one don’t make two / One and one make one / And I’m looking for that free ride to me / I’m looking for you”—back when I first encountered this song, that was a statement of prospective love that I could believe in: not two but one, and especially the idea that I could only know me, really, through “you.” During my first experience of actual love, years later, “Bargain” came back to me as a perfect expression of what is hoped for. For such, one is willing to strike a bargain, indeed. The ride back into the song proper is truly grand—Entwhistle’s bass lines working their magic, and Moon’s fill around 2:44.

The final coda of the song, from 3:55 or so, is where it truly attains greatness. The synthesizer sound creates something of a phantom trace that the band seems hell-bent to pursue, and the little pause punctuated by acoustic strums before Moon strikes up the chase again (4:18) kills me—then it’s just blissful playing until that final bit of Moon's tapping out (5:26) and descending pass that sounds so crisp and fixed. As if one just stepped onto dry land after a time in choppy seas.

I’d call that a bargain—the best I ever had

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