The Orchestral: The Who, “Sparks” (1969)

Orchestra 2
It’s odd to think of a hundred people in formal wear as a finger-crooking hooker, but I’m afraid the chance to play with an orchestra has led many a poor rocker astray.  The edge, the drive, the naked accountability of rock can’t survive the oversized committee treatment, awash in strings, pulled under in a tidal version of rhythm.

Why would a rocker want to mess with an orchestra?  Because it’s BIG.  But not for the sake of big sound.  Thanks to amps and effects, a single rock guitarist already gets the biggest sound ever heard.  What’s wanted is a big gesture.  Now I admit there is something impressive in the cultural status-grabbing gesture of assembling the most expensive kind of ensemble and joining a centuries-long, prestigious tradition of music-making, though I doubt whether this is age- or attitude-appropriate for rockers (except as a prank).  But I contend that a more important big gesture is available inside the design of orchestral music.

As a popular commodity, rock is usually subject to the contradiction that its rebellions and adventures must resolve into a few verses and choruses and maybe a bridge, all clocking in between two and five minutes.  Its wildest gestures—screams, lyrical nonsequiturs, cymbal crashes, reverb-crazed guitar licks—are, in that way, tightly circumscribed.  So how can we really blast off when we always know exactly when and how our journey will shortly end?

This is where orchestral music as we know it has a decisive advantage, especially since the Romantics loosened the bonds of Classical style.  It can take whatever time it wants to go anywhere and do anything.  I know that “orchestral” normally means including a lot of voices and parts to make a full-seeming arrangement.  I’ll call this “orchestral-1.”  But I want to talk about an associated quality I’ll call “orchestral-2”:  the open future of the music we let our big orchestras play.

Pete Townshend seems to me the preeminent orchestral-2 genius of rock, because as a player and composer he was driven to make the biggest possible gesture in this longitudinal dimension of going —  anywhere, somewhere perhaps distant and surprising, but without sacrificing any rock qualities at all.  His rock orchestra is just the power trio of guitar, bass, and drums.  His rock opus is never less hook-filled and radio-friendly than the 2:30 ditties in the hit parade.

The Who, Hamburg 1972Townsend gained fame with The Who for big gestures in playing his guitar, windmilling his right arm on power chords and smashing the guitar afterwards.  Behavioral hooks!  At the same time he was making big compositional gestures like writing a “rock opera,” Tommy, that took The Who an hour and fifteen minutes to play at one go (roughly the length of an entire act of a traditional opera).  Tommy is not merely a double-album’s worth of songs.  It is a journey, both in the sense that Tommy’s story unfolds through an arc and in the sense that the music launches out for parts unknown.  I can put my finger on at least one place in Tommy where the music does this immediately, as a primal rock hook.  It’s in the instrumental section called “Sparks.”  “Sparks” can be heard as a component of the Tommy whole, or as a free-floating portion of instrumental bridge music that could carry you from wherever to wherever.[1]  But I hear it as the setting of a tremendous event.

The “Sparks” hook exploits a kind of dialogue between guitar chords and timpani-like drum licks that had already been heard all over the hit single “I Can See For Miles” (1967).  That a rock drum part can be moved so far away from its backbeat responsibility and into dramatic fanfare—that, in germ, is the Townshendian formula for an orchestral-2 rock that is fully compelling in each four-beat unit but invitational and suspenseful at the same time, making us feel like seeing for miles.

In this orchestration, the dynamics of the drums are more exposed, hence more significant.  They can say particular things, responding and anticipating, while never ceasing to whip us forward.  In comparison, the power chords of the guitar are often more for force and less for interest, in fact more like a conventional drum part; but often they too are provocatively unbound.

The “Sparks” hook arrives around 5:30 in the Live at Leeds performance of “Amazing Journey/Sparks.”  (I refer to the Live at Leeds version by the power trio, rather than the studio version which actually uses timpani—a bit of an “orchestral” touch in the more literal sense, and more questionable by rock standards.)[2]  Townshend has been cycling through the lovely chords of “Amazing Journey,” getting a slightly unmoored effect—this is a mini-journey through chord progression possibilities, not exactly Tristan und Isolde but not ordinary rock riffing either—and has just unleashed the urgent section that goes in variations on this pattern:

Guitar: Bum! bum!…………………………..Bum!  bum bum bum bum bum

Drums: ……………..Badabadabadabum!

Then, in the prime orchestral-2 hook between 5:30 and 5:40, Townshend’s chords start stabbing upward freely, unpredictably, polytonally (implying different keys that make a tangy juxtaposition with the home key).  There are lots of descending notes and drops in intensity to make a drama out of this reaching, and a pathos:  can we do this, will this take us somewhere?  There’s no telling!  At least we know we’re along for a bigger ride than a finite pop song provides, even though, conveniently enough, we’re being given just a pop song-sized segment of the ride (the studio “Sparks” is a 2:43 track) and the whole effect is packed into this hook-moment.

[1] Indeed it floated into “Sparks” from “Rael 2” on The Who Sell Out.

[2] In an interview available at, Townshend said he resisted using a real orchestra for Tommy.  —The “Sparks” hook arrives in the studio version at around 2:37 (“Remastered” edition) or 1:34 (“Deluxe”).


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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