- Jul 17, 2014
In 1969, Townshend created the band to showcase songs written by the former Who chauffeur, drummer/singer/guitarist Speedy Keen. Keen wrote the opening track on The Who Sell Out album, "Armenia City in the Sky". Keen, Newman and McCulloch met each other for the first time in December 1968 or January 1969 at Townshend's home studio to record "Something in the Air". Townshend produced the single, played its bass guitar under the pseudonym Bijou Drains and hired GPO engineer and Dixieland jazz pianist "Thunderclap" Newman (born Andrew Laurence Newman, 21 November 1942, Hounslow, Middlesex, died 29 March 2016) and the fifteen-year-old Glaswegian guitarist Jimmy McCulloch. Before then, Townshend had planned to work on projects for each of the musicians, but Kit Lambert prevailed upon Townshend, who was working on what became the rock-opera Tommy, to save time by coalescing the three musicians into the collective project that became Thunderclap Newman.
"Something in the Air", which Keen wrote, was number one on the UK Singles Chart for three weeks, replacing the Beatles' "Ballad of John and Yoko" and holding off Elvis Presley. Originally titled "Revolution", but later renamed because the Beatles had released a song of that name in 1968 (the B-side of "Hey Jude"), "Something in the Air" captured post-flower power rebellion, marrying McCulloch's electric rhythm and lead guitars, Keen's drumming and falsetto, Newman's piano solo and Townshend's (uncredited) electric bass. By December 1969, the single was awarded a gold disc for world sales of more than a million.
"Something in the Air" appeared on the soundtracks of the films The Magic Christian (1969) and The Strawberry Statement (1970), the latter having helped the single reach number 25 in the United States. In the UK and US, a follow-up single, "Accidents", came out in May 1970 and charted at No. 44 for only a week, but not charting at all in the US. "Something in the Air" was also in the film Kingpin (1996) and is used on the soundtrack. It was also used in Almost Famous (2000) and is on the soundtrack. It was also used in a 2008 television episode of My Name Is Earl.
The critic Nathan Morley described "Accidents" as the band's masterpiece. "One would", he wrote, "have to listen to Wagner in a funeral parlour for something even more morbid than Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Accidents’, which chronicles the deaths of various hapless children who all meet a very nasty end – Poor Mary falls in a river whilst waiting for the Queen to sail by and little Johnny is killed by a speeding car. That said, the song, orchestration and performance are simply brilliant. It is captivating and without doubt their best recording."
Thunderclap Newman had not planned to undertake live performances, but the band relented when, to their collective surprise, "Something in the Air" became a chart success. The trio, augmented by Jim Pitman-Avery (bass guitar) and McCulloch's elder brother Jack (drums), undertook a 26-date tour of England and Scotland in support of Deep Purple from July 1969 to August 1969. Thunderclap Newman's live setlist then typically included the following songs: "Lady Madonna", by the Beatles; a twelve-bar jam; "Wilhelmina"; Water music, by Andy Newman; and "Something in the Air". On 8 August, Pitman-Avery and McCulloch announced their intention to leave the band. Within weeks, they had formed the country-rock band Wild Country with Terry Keyworth (guitar) and Stuart Whitcombe (keyboards). That year, the band appeared in television programmes in Britain (How Late It Is, Top of the Pops) and Germany (Beat-Club).