The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” is often cited as the antecedent for so-called “rock operas” – logically enough, since Pete Townshend himself is often given credit for being one of the first writers to try to tell a story over the course of an entire album (he isn’t, necessarily). But along with full-fledged “rock operas” and their slightly more vague dreaded ’70s cousin the “concept album,” “A Quick One…” led more directly to several songs that were more like medleys or mini-operettas. Probably the best-known of these descendants is, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (I’m pretty sure everyone knows that song, so I’m not bothering to link to it)…but here are a few others.
The song that started me off on this little tangent was Mott the Hoople’s “Marionette.” It’s less medley-like than most of these, since it’s still built of repeating sections, but each section is very long, nearly 60 bars, and the logic of its components’ repetition is complicated. The result feels as if there are more different sections than there are.
“A Quick One…” has clear antecedents in both British music hall and the American musical, so it’s unsurprising that those influences might show up in ’70s rock by way of covers from those sources, such as Mick Ronson’s version of the ballet-within-a-musical “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” which was a moderately popular hit for Ronson and had earlier been a hit for the Shadows…which explains why Electric Light Orchestra’s “Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre)” is so suspiciously similar to that song.
And then there’s yr obvious homage to “A Quick One…”: early ’90s Milwaukee band the Blow Pops closed out their debut album with a ten-minute, four-part track called “Under the Big Top” which might as well have been called “Another Quick One While He’s Away Again.” The song’s clearly a loving tribute to the Who song (although it’s a bit more plotless lyrically).
Mott the Hoople “Marionette” (The Hoople, 1974)
Mick Ronson “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” (Slaughter on 10th Avenue, 1974)
Electric Light Orchestra “Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre)” (No Answer, 1971)
The Blow Pops “Under the Big Top” (Charmed I’m Sure, 1993)
(Trivia discovered in the course of writing this entry: who knew that Mick Ronson was a Mormon?)