The Who

I'm a Boy

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With "Substitute," Pete Townshend had demonstrated that he was moving beyond mod anthems and heated boy-girl situations into a more sophisticated lyrical arena. "I'm a Boy" took that development yet further, abandoning any reference to romance or mod culture for a very English character sketch of a boy being raised as a girl. That was quite an audacious, even outrageous, subject for a pop single in 1966, long before studies of gender identity and confusion had infiltrated the mainstream media. Flirting with cross-dressing, effeminate behavior, and such was somewhat more acceptable in the U.K. than in the U.S. in the mid-'60s (though still not exactly something you'd want to flaunt in England). That might be one reason that the single got to number two in the British charts -- an unbelievable feat, really -- while missing the American Top 100 entirely. Even more incredibly, it was reported that "I'm a Boy" would be part of an opera Townshend was writing, called "Quads," based around the premise of a time in the future when parents could choose the sex of their children. That opera never came to pass (although, is it possible that Townshend had his old title in mind when he came up with the title for Quadrophenia?). It perhaps gave Townshend some early practice in thinking along that direction, as he soon devised the mini-operas "A Quick One While He's Away" and "Rael" for Who albums, and finally made the full-length rock opera Tommy. To get back to "I'm a Boy," it was a commercial success in England not just because of the clever and titillating lyric, but also because it was a catchy pop song. There are few other Who songs in which their debt to the Beach Boys' high harmonies is so evident, particularly in the opening bars, where the harmonies could have come off a 1964 Beach Boys or Jan & Dean record. The point of view cleverly shifts from that of the mother dressing up her child as a girl to that of the boy adamantly protesting, culminating in the chorus, which is catchy in a singalong, almost nursery rhyme fashion very typical of British pop of the period. The instrumental break is surprisingly short of Townshend's guitar pyrotechnics and indeed drags along in a rather overlong fashion, in spite of some nice melancholy harmonies which might keep it out of the very top rank of Who classics. More than just a playful tease about a boy being raised as a girl, however, "I'm a Boy" -- like "Substitute" before it and like many Townshend songs after it -- is a deft observation on how reality and illusion can blur and intertwine.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
A Quick One 1966 MCA 0:00
Direct Hits 1968 Classic Records
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy 1971 MCA 3:41
No Image 1976
No Image 1982 MCA
The Who 1985 Grupo Laser Disc
Who's Missing 1985 MCA 2:38
Who's Better, Who's Best 1988 MCA 2:38
Thirty Years of Maximum R&B 1994 MCA 2:36
My Generation: The Very Best of the Who 1996 MCA 2:36
The Ultimate Collection 2002 Universal Distribution 3:20
The Singles 2003 Polydor 2:39
Then and Now: 1964-2004 2004 UMVD 2:37
First Singles Box 2004 Universal International 0:14
The Early Collection: Magic Bus/Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy/Who's Missing 2004 Griffin 3:41
I'm a Boy 2006 Universal Distribution
No Image 2008
Greatest Hits & More 2010 Polydor 2:42
The Who Hits 50! 2014 Geffen 2:41
Maximum A's & B's 2017 MCA / Polydor 2:41
No Image Hiwatt 2:36
Maximum BBC [Bootleg]