“A Quick One, While He’s Away” is a 1966 song in six movements written by Pete Townshend and recorded by the Who for their second album A Quick One. The song also appears on the album BBC Sessions. In the performance on their Live at Leeds album Townshend calls the nine-minute “epic” track a “mini-opera” and introduces it as “Tommy‘s parents”.
The song tells the story of an unnamed girl whose lover has been gone “for nearly a year”. Her friends inform her that they “have a remedy”; the remedy comes in the form of Ivor the Engine Driver. When the lover returns, the girl confesses her infidelity, and she is ultimately forgiven.
The song has six distinct movements. The brief harmonised a cappella intro is titled “Her Man’s Been Gone”. The “Crying Town” section is sung by Roger Daltrey in an atypical low register. Daltrey also sings “We Have a Remedy” in his more usual voice. John Entwistle plays “Ivor the Engine Driver” in that section. Then comes “Soon Be Home”, another harmonised section. Finally, “You Are Forgiven” is sung by Pete Townshend – his only lead vocal on the album (except, on most versions of the album, a small part of “Heat Wave”). The Who wanted cellos at the final “mini”-movement, “You Are Forgiven”, but producer and manager Kit Lambert could not afford it so they ended up saying “Cello, cello, cello”.
This song is the Who’s first publicised venture into the rock opera genre (although the songs “I’m a Boy” and “Disguises” were the result of Townshend’s first delve into rock opera, entitled “Quads”), and a precursor to their later, more ambitious project Tommy. In addition to the studio recording on the A Quick One album, a live recording appears on Live at Leeds. When the song was performed live, instead of “girl”, Townshend and Daltrey would make a point to sing “Girl Guide“. A performance filmed for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968 can be seen on that film (released in 1996) and on the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright. It also appears on both films’ soundtrack albums. Another version recorded live at the Monterey Pop Festival can be found on the Monterey Pop Festival four-disk set and on another Who film, Thirty Years of Maximum R&B Live. A mixed studio and live version can be found on The Who’s four disk set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B.
Another version of this song is available on the DVD, At Kilburn 1977 + Live at the Coliseum, with Townshend’s long explanation of the song and constant humorous comments by Keith Moon. However, because of problems with the cameras, part of the performance is lost, and was replaced by stylised footage.
The Live at Leeds version of the song was used in the soundtrack of the movie Rushmore (though the Rock and Roll Circus version, specifically “You Are Forgiven”, was used in the film). According to the commentary for the film, the Circus recording is owned as part of the package of Rolling Stones songs, and it was prohibitively expensive to include on the soundtrack album (which is, similarly, missing the Stones’ song “I Am Waiting,” used in the film).
A short tease of the final section, “You Are Forgiven”, was used to end a concert at the Wembley Arena on 16 November 2000. That was the first time any part of the song was played live by The Who since 1970, until it was resumed in its entirety for the 2014 The Who Hits 50! tour. Pete Townshend played the song in its entirety on several dates of his 1993 PSYCHODERELICT solo tour.