Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Who: Blue Red and Grey

SONG Blue Red and Grey

WRITTEN BY Pete Townshend


APPEARS ON The Who By Numbers (1975), Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)

Fueled by Pete Townshend's high octane power chords and ambitious operatic album structures, The Who by 1975 were the most important and most artistically successful extant rock band. The Beatles had broken up five years earlier. The Stones were lost in a creative wilderness. Southern rock, led by the Allman Brothers, had introduced a new element of virtuosity to rock, but it never tackled grand themes with the force of The Who. So, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Townshend retrenched and delivered The Who By Numbers, a brief set of personal, nearly confessional songs that left critics scratching their heads.

Today, By Numbers stands as respected part of The Who's canon. It by no means reaches the heights of Who's Next and most of its predecessors, but it's also superior to anything that came after. One of its most enduring songs is "Blue Red and Grey," a simple, life-affirming number sung by Townshend and supported by an unlikely (for The Who) ukulele and haunting, muted trumpet. The rest of the band -- and, indeed, Townsend's electric guitar -- sits out while Pete sings this simple paean to love and how it can infuse every second of life with delight. There's no other Who song quite like "Blue Red and Grey," and I suppose that it's arguably a Pete Townsend solo tune inserted into a Who album.

And yet. Pete had already embarked on his solo career. Who Came First was three years old, and the brilliant Rough Mix was two-years imminent. There were other outlets for the song, so I prefer to think that he wanted it on a Who album for a reason. Maybe he wanted his listeners to look past the usual Townshend themes of angst, anger, and the fraught relationship between star and audience. Maybe he wanted to remind us of the simpler joys of living in a context that guaranteed a larger listenership than a solo album. Or maybe "Blue Red and Grey" is a simple leavening of the confessional tone that dominates so much of By Numbers. No matter, it's a terrific and sensitive song, an anomaly in The Who catalogue, perhaps, but also perhaps all the more likable for that.

Some people seem so obsessed with the morning
Get up early just to watch the sun rise
Some people like it more when there's fire in the sky
Worship the sun when it's high
Some people go for those sultry evenings
Sipping cocktails in the blue, red and grey
But I like every minute of the day

I like every second, so long as you are on my mind
Every moment has its special charm
It's all right when you're around, rain or shine
I know a crowd who only live after midnight
Their faces always seem so pale
And then there's friends of mine who must have sunlight
They say a suntan never fails
I know a man who works the night shift
He's lucky to get a job and some pay
And I like every minute of the day

I dig every second
I can laugh in the snow and rain
I get a buzz from being cold and wet
The pleasure seems to balance out the pain

And so you see that I'm completely crazy
I even shun the south of France
The people on the hill, they say I'm lazy
But when they sing, I sleep and dance
Some people have to have the sultry evenings
Cocktails in the blue, red and grey
But I like every minute of the day

I like every minute of the day

Here are four renditions of "Blue Red and Grey," beginning with the original album version and followed by solo performances from Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, then closed out by Eddie Vedder's cover. Note that all three live performers use a ukulele. I guess when you strike a perfect note, people are reluctant to change it.


  1. Wow, great article on a great song.

  2. Who and Pete Townshend fanatic that I am, I'd forgotten all about this song. Thanks, K!

    BTW, George Harrison was another one who had a thing for the ukulele. At the Concert for George tribute concert at the Albert Hall in 2002, Paul McCartney talked about how if you went to George's house the ukes were apt to come out after dinner. And Joe Brown closed out the concert with a uke-based version of "I'll See You In My Dreams", which apparently was George's favorite song.

    Hmmm... It must mean something that at least two of the world's greatest Rock guitarists loved the ukulele.

  3. Thanks, trrish. And BT&G is a wonderful song, one of my favorites by anybody. I don't know how someone with such a wavering high voice manages to sing so compellingly, but Pete pulls it off.

    Roy: George loved the uke! I don't know the name of the tune, but he used the uke prominently on a a song from his final album. Check out a guy named Melvern Taylor -- I think he's a Bostonian -- for a contemporary songwriter who deploys the uke extensively.

  4. Brian May was a uke fan, too. He plays one on Queen's "Bring back Leroy brown" from SHEER HEART ATTACK and "Good Company" from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!

    Seems Tiny Tim was an influence to 3 of the sexiest guitarists!

    P.S. My sweetie dis the best version on his USE IT OR LOSE IT tour! ;)

  5. Love the song! Great post! Happy New Year, cher!

  6. I'm thrilled that BR&G has resonated with all of you. Although atypical of Who songs, it is a longtime favorite of mine. It's been great to share it with people who appreciate it. Which is the point of this blog, after all!

    Sara, I could kick myself for not seeing your sweetie when he came through Seattle. A friend told me that his rendition of BR&G was a highlight, and that's actually what prompted me to dig it out and listen to it again.

  7. Great song, K, & a great uke song--that live version by Pete Townsend is amazing. One overlooked factor in a number of British invasion rockers liking the uke is the great George Formby of banjo uke fame, who was a big star of stage & screen in the UK from the 20s thru the 50s. The Beatles have acknowledged Formby as an influence. Another famous rocker from the following generation who was a uke player was the Clash's Joe Strummer.

  8. Johnny Cash liked Joe Strummer, personally anyway. Listen to their outstanding cover of "Redemption Song" here.

  9. Great post. Say, does anybody know what "The Blue Red and Grey" refers to? Maybe a dumb question, but my Google-fu has failed me...

  10. I read it as a painterly, impressionistic description of the gloaming -- the twilight hour.

  11. Lyrics correction: "The people on the hill, they say I'm lazy. But when they SLEEP, I sing and dance".

  12. I enjoyed reading your article. I was wondering what "blue red and gray" actually is? It's probably something English that I'm just not privy to. Isn't John's brass arrangement glorious?

  13. Thanks for checking in. You may have a point about the "something English." I figured that it is Pete's image for twilight. And you can't beat the brass!

  14. Thank you for above response. Did you know Roger and his band will be in Seattle in Oct. performing Tommy? We live in Spokane but will be headed to Portland for a smaller venue than Key Arena.

  15. From what I remember reading what Pete had said at the time that The Who By Numbers was released, was that the Blue, Red, & Grey was a local pub he used to visit.