Album: Hollywood Dream
. . .
So the story goes that John “Speedy” Keen was both the flatmate of and driver for Pete Townshend, while playing drums and singing with quite a few bands as well. Which of course, makes sense: if you lived in London in the mid-1960s, it was mandated by law that you had to be in a band.
That said, Townshend liked Keen’s songwriting so much, he commissioned Future Certain Song “Armenia City in the Sky,” which ended up being the opening salvo of the immortal The Who Sell Out, about which much much much more when we get there.
To return the favor, Townshend and Who manager Kit Lambert put Keen together with guitarist — and future Wings member — Jimmy McCulloch and keyboardist Andy Newman, and they called the whole thing Thunderclap Newman. As you do.
Their first single, with Townshend producing, arranging and playing the bass was the immortal hippy-dippy adjacent “Something in The Air,” a gloriously weird song which opened with McCullough’s low key acoustic guitar and Keen’s falsetto rasp over a beat that is slower than it strictly needs to be.
Call out the instigators
Because there’s something in the air
We got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution’s here
And you know it’s right
It’s at this point where “Something in the Air” pulls out one of the most gorgeous chord sequences ever recorded. Just a short lovely tumble of notes rolling over itself over which Keen continues.
And you know that it’s right
We have got to get it together
We have got to get it together now
I call “Something in the Air” hippy-dippy adjacent, because Keen doesn’t seem very excited for the revolution, at least vocally. The lyrics might say “and you know that it’s right” but the vocals agree way more with “we have got to to get it together,” and leave open the very real possibility that we are never going to get it together. That tension is what gives “Something in the Air” both its beauty and its edge.
What gives it its weirdness is the instrumental break after the second verse, a barrelhouse piano break featuring Newman and some handclaps (!) in a completely different key from the rest of the song. It makes no sense whatsoever. Which is why it’s kinda awesome, especially because it goes on longer than you might expect until Townshend’s string arrangement pulls it back into the rest of the song, which then floats away on its strings until the end.
While “Something in the Air” was a modest hit in the U.S., peaking at #37, but in the U.K., it was a sensation, almost instantly topping the charts — the only time any single associated with Pete Townshend did that as even “My Generation” stalled at #2 — and leading to a second single, which was a bust, and, 1970, an album called Hollywood Dream, which I’ve never heard, but seems to be pretty well-regarded. After that, Thunderclap Newman broke up, with Keen doing a couple of solo albums, and McCullough joining Wings.
That said, “Something in the Air” never left popular culture, almost instantly and continually showing up in films and TV shows starting with The Magic Christian in 1969 and most recently in the second season of Doom Patrol in 2020. And of course, it’s been covered a zillion times. Most notably, it was one of the new tracks on the original Greatest Hits album by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — which means you’ve heard it — but it didn’t chart nearly as well as the other new track, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
“Something in the Air”
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