Joel Goldenberg: Magic Bus: The Who On Tour

The 2019 version of The Who's "Magic Bus."

In my nearly 40 years of album purchasing, there was an ongoing trend that irked me no end: the exploitation release.

At my earliest favourite record store, Discus, that took the form of low-priced 2-LP UK imports of songs by the Bee Gees. Except the albums did not contain such hits as Staying Alive, To Love Somebody or How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.

Instead, the Pickwick sets contained the group's pre-international fame recordings that were pretty much only previously heard in Australia, where they lived prior to 1967. Some of those recordings weren't too bad, but many were kind of primitive musically, the packaging of the Pickwick albums themselves were tacky and the songs were presented in fake stereo. Only Spicks and Specks resembled, in any way, what the Bee Gees would sound like starting with New York Mining Disaster 1941.

I encountered many other exploitation recordings over the years, including pre-fame recordings by Hall and Oates, Steely Dan and especially Jimi Hendrix.

The other bad trend by record companies were time-gap releases with badly chosen track listings. For instance, instead of giving the Beach Boys' masterpiece Pet Sounds a chance to gain chart momentum, Capitol Records  released a greatest hits collection with one mindboggling inclusion — the band's cover of the Kingsmen hit Louie, Louie.

Capitol Records, the next year, released a second best of with mostly great tracks, except for the goofy novelty live song Long Tall Texan. A third best of included Frosty the Snowman.

Who was in charge of compiling these releases?

Another trend, also related to time-gaps between regular record releases, was location-related. For instance, Capitol Records' U.S. Beatles albums were released more frequently than the U.K. originals. The good news was that North Americans were first to hear such songs as Day Tripper and Long Tall Sally in true stereo, and Bad Boy exclusively for several months. The bad news was that the track sequences were not as the Beatles intended.

And finally, there were the time-gap albums for which record companies allegedly did not have access to newly recorded or archival unreleased tracks, and issued albums with songs repeated from previous releases. The most famous of these was the Flowers album by the Rolling Stones, which repeated songs from the Aftermath and Between the Buttons albums as released in the U.S. But it also contained songs previously only heard on the U.K. versions of those two albums, and some exclusive to Flowers. So it was somewhat of a valuable release.

And then we have Magic Bus: The Who On Tour.

This was released in 1968 and was meant to fill time between the wonderful The Who Sell Out concept album and the Tommy rock opera. And it could have been executed a whole lot better.

First, the positives, and they are few — the first album releases of the singles Magic Bus (in stereo) and Pictures of Lily (in fake stereo).

And now, the negatives.

The title was misleading, as it implied that this was a live album. And when I heard the clattery bad sound of track 1, Disguises, I thought the album was indeed live and recorded in an echoey venue. Wrong.

There were other songs that had only been available as non-LP B-sides, which in itself was a positive. But they sounded horrible, and in fake stereo, they were even worse. Later, some of those songs were issued on deluxe editions of Who albums, with some improvement and in some cases, an upgrade to stereo.

And finally, there were some great sounding songs on the album — the ones that were released on previous albums!

What a mess.

Here's my track by track take:

Disguises: This is actually a pretty good song, with a primitive form of psychedelic sound. But the clatter kind of ruins the listening experience. This was originally on the Ready Steady Who UK extended play release from 1966 and later released in stereo on the Maximum R 'n B box set.

Run Run Run - the hardest rocking track from the A Quick One album, where it should have stayed.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Another poorly recorded song made worse in fake stereo. Too bad, because this, one of bassist John Entwistle's many macabre songs — is considered to be a tribute to madcap drummer Keith Moon, and is quite clever and fun. However, the UK single version, better recorded and with some demented whoops, is superior. This has never been issued in stereo.

I Can't Reach You and Our Love Was, Is: Beautiful tracks from The Who Sell Out.

Call Me Lightning: This is notable as perhaps one of the first songs Who guitarist Pete Townshend wrote. But this is, again, badly recorded and quite primitively performed.

Magic Bus: A classic single, and possibly the best sounding version of this song ever released on any album.

Someone's Coming: Another John Entwistle song, mostly distinguished by its horn arrangement and the fact it was partially recorded at country music producer Owen Bradley's studio in the States, which makes the bad sound surprising. Except when it was reissued in stereo, the improvement was massive.

Doctor, Doctor: John Entwistle yet again, singing in a very high about hypochondria. Very cleverly written, and badly recorded. Never in stereo.

Bucket T: A cover of a goofy Jan and Dean song, very primitively performed and sounding horrible on Magic Bus. This song, originally on the Ready, Steady Who EP, was reissued in better sound.

Pictures of Lily: A wonderful, and somewhat risqué, Who single about unrequited love with a dead beauty.

This album could have been a great deal better — as deluxe reissues of Who albums prove, there were many good songs that had not been released that could have replaced the repeat tracks.

Next time: The Rolling Stones' Metamorphosis.

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