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1966 - The Year That Built Rock: The Who

In 1966, The Who were a bunch of drinking, drugging, brawling rock stars-in-waiting. But Pete Townshend was about to shape the sound of the future.

In the summer of 1966 there was no better place to enjoy a night of outright debauchery than at Lionel Bart’s house. The composer of the West End musicals Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oliver! lived in a mansion, nicknamed The Fun Palace, in Fulham, West London.

Bart’s parties were famous for their extravagance and the calibre of his guests: Princess Margaret, The Beatles, Joan Collins and members of the World Cup-winning England football squad were among the guests who drank and danced the night away in 1966. Anyone so inclined could also make good use of the Fun Palace’s many well-appointed bedrooms, help themselves from a bowl of drugs kept in the hallway, or visit Lionel’s secret sauna accessed via a dummy wardrobe. 

Besides composing West End musicals, Bart was a pop music buff who’d written hits for Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. Through his friendship with The Who’s managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, he’d also became a regular whenever The Who played at London’s Marquee club. 

The Who in early 1966 were loud, violent and uncompromising. But the composer of Oliver! would unknowingly help Pete Townshend invent the rock opera.

That same summer, Townshend made a recording that changed The Who’s fortunes forever. He and his friend, music critic Ray Tolliday, created a joke birthday present for Kit Lambert in Townshend’s studio. It was a recording of a 10-minute Gilbert And Sullivan-style opera titled Gratis Amatis (Latin for ‘free love’). It was dedicated to Lambert and Lionel Bart.

Both men were enthusiastically homosexual at a time when it was still illegal in Britain. “Lionel was hanging around The Who because he liked the boys in the audience,” Townshend said in 2014. “Many of the mod boys – although they wouldn’t admit it – were trying to be gay. It was considered radical to take drugs, listen to R&B, dance on your own and then maybe go and shag Lionel Bart.”

Townshend recalled his first attempt at opera: “The opening line went: ‘Gratis amatis/I love Lionel Bart-is.’” Its grand finale was sung by Townshend and Tolliday in Goon Show-style squeaky voices, and was meant to convey Lionel reaching orgasm: “It went: ‘He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming… He’s c-o-m-e’ – breathe out,” said Townshend.

Pete presented Kit with his birthday present. But he didn’t laugh. Instead Lambert took Townshend for lunch. “He said: ‘This is great, these joined-up pieces of music, creating an opera using pop music.’” Lambert urged Townshend to do something similar with The Who.

Gratis Amatis marked the start of The Who’s first foray into rock opera, 1966’s A Quick One, While He’s Away. But there were several detours along the way.

To the outside world, The Who appeared untouchable. They’d just had their fourth Top 10 hit, Substitute. But behind the scenes they were deeply in debt, and embroiled in a legal dispute with their first producer, Shel Talmy. Relationships within the band were equally messy. Drummer Keith Moon was taking so many drugs he couldn’t remember recording Substitute, and vocalist Roger Daltrey was threatening to quit because he was sick of his bandmates taking drugs. 

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