To Be Perfectly Frank…Helping The Who To Hit 50!
The recent triumvirate of Who gigs at the 02 and Royal Albert Hall under The Who Hits 50! banner have featured rare and outstanding live performances of fan favourites such as Pictures of Lily, I Can See For Miles, A Quick One and So Sad About Us. Key to both song selection and onstage performance is the Who’s Musical Director Frank Simes. A chance meeting with the affable Frank over breakfast in Marylebone the day after the first 02 gig resulted in a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the current Who touring party.
Frank’s musical career started straight from college in Los Angeles with prog rockers Claritas, followed by The Whizz Kids and then a gig as guitarist and co-songwriter with Martha Davis of The Motels followed by 20 years with Don Henley. During this time he also played with with Warren Zevon, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Nicks. “I have been a fan of the Who since Tommy and Live at Leeds, when I was barely a teenager. I played See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You and Summertime Blues in one of my first bands. The Woodstock movie was what riveted me.”
Frank has been connected with the Who since 2003. “Roger had fired a guitar player, and then another, for his charity band that played two shows in LA. Two of his bandmates recommended me. After playing with him for five minutes, he said “that’ll do!” and I was in. After our first gig, he asked me “What do you think about putting a quartet together and going on the road? How would you fancy that?” Three years later he asked me to be his musical director and to help him form a band for his solo endeavors. I met Pete Townshend in England at a rehearsal for the world tour of Tommy with Roger, and we were joking and exchanging stories with ease. Two years later, Pete Townshend and the Who’s management team asked me to work on the music sequence for their performance at the 2012 Olympics. Pete and Roger made me the musical director for the most recent Quadrophenia tour, and now The Who Hits 50! tour.”
So what does a Musical Director actually do? “I scored all the horns, strings, synthesizer, backing vocals, and some of the keyboard parts. That is, once according to the studio recordings, and once according to past live performances. I made hundreds of mixes of the individual songs, emphasizing different instruments, primarily for the horn players and keyboardists to pick off their parts. I made lead sheets for all 16 Quadrophenia songs, that is, charts containing the chords, melody, and lyrics. I made non-linear click tracks for six of the songs, as these needed to be synchronized with the visuals. “Non-linear click tracks” means that the tempo would change, speed up and slow down, as The Who’s music, particularly the songs of Quadrophenia, is very much like orchestral music, accelerating and decelerating according to the “emotional dynamics” of a given piece. Unlike other acts that play to a lot of recorded vocals and instruments, we played everything live, and the click was used only for synchronization with the visuals on six of the pieces. I made executive decisions about how to edit John Entwistles’ bass solo from 8 minutes to 2 minutes, 30 seconds.”
“For the current tour I generated 1,600 pages of sheet music, lead sheets, vocal scores, extracted vocal parts, and lyrics. I also created 50 audio tracks for rehearsal purposes, and created new performance audio tracks for 20 songs.”
“The preparations for the Quadrophenia tour required three-and-a-half months of working 10-14 hour days. The Who Hits 50! tour required about five months, working at the same pace. Roger, the three keyboardists (John Coury, Loren Gold, and me), the horn players (J.G. Miller and Reggie Grisham), and I rehearsed in LA for about five days, and then we rehearsed for another four days in Florida with Pete and the rest of the band members. In London, we rehearsed at the British Grove Studios for about two weeks, followed by three or four days of full production rehearsals at Shepperton Studios.”
With such an enormous back catalogue how on earth do you decide what to play each night? “We amassed 70 songs, from which we first chose the obviously iconic, the patent hits, the lesser hits, the older hits, and so on, placing the songs in categories and in a semi-hierarchical fashion. Creating the sounds and building arrangements was part of my job. I also had to generate rehearsal tracks in a way that we could hear Pete’s vocals and guitars for the LA rehearsals when he wasn’t present. And similarly, I had to embed Roger’s vocals in those audio tracks for the preliminary rehearsals, so that the rest of the members could play along with his lead vocals when Roger wasn’t present. The backline musicians, including Simon Townshend, did play through all 70 songs at one point. When Pete and Roger got into the mix, we began segregating the songs that weren’t working from the ones we would keep.” The wishes of hardcore fans were part of the selection process (so how did they miss out Dogs?) “For The Who Hits 50! tour we did refer to fan websites, and The Who site blogs written by hardcore fans. At the top of lists devised by hardcore fans included such songs as A Quick One, While He’s Away, Slip Kid, The Song is Over, Relay, and Happy Jack. We do play A Quick One and Slip Kid, we have played Relay, but we discarded The Song is Over and Happy Jack. My favorite lesser known tunes are Cry If You Want and Slip Kid.” The latter was played on the first night of the 02 only, with Townshend commenting it had sounded better in rehearsals!
How would you describe the difference between this line-up of the Who and its predecessors? “The great thing about the current line-up is that, now, we have four additional singers apart from Pete and Roger, so we can handle the four-, five-, and six-part vocal harmonies that were impossible for previous incarnations of The Who. A song like I Can See for Miles requires five singers to represent all the original parts. Behind Blue Eyes requires six parts. Join Together has five parts. A Quick One has six parts. With three keyboardists, we can handle organ, piano, synths, strings, and horns simultaneously. This way we can reproduce all the instrumental parts accurately in a live setting. In addition, I play mandolin on The Seeker, banjo on Squeeze Box, percussion on Slip Kid. John Coury plays harmonica on Join Together, Loren Gold plays the jaw harp on Join Together, and all three keyboardists can handle the three claves on Magic Bus. Representing the original sounds and instruments and backing vocals makes the overall effect much richer and truer. Previous line-ups would compensate for the lack of all those sounds and instruments by playing parts that never existed on the original recordings in order to fill up the gaps, so to speak. It was more of a rock ‘n’ roll circus approach to the live setting.”
So it’s all peace and love in the Who these days? “What’s The Who without tensions flaring to the point of blows (almost)? At the second O2 show, Roger said to Pete on stage “you talk too much”. Pete replied “no, I don’t”, followed by a series “yes you dos” and “no, I don’ts” and some tense retorts and fighting words. That was the closest I’ve seen them come to blows. It’s safe to say that the air was thick with the possibility…”