Behind the Song: “Love Ain’t For Keeping” by The Who

Who’s Next was one of the great albums of the classic rock era, and it’s generally best-known for singles like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley.” But there’s a real gem on this album that is often ignored, the Pete Townshend composition “Love Ain’t For Keeping.” It’s one of the best songs ever written about domestic bliss, and is an often-overlooked gem in Townshend’s catalog, which is understandable in this massive catalog of songs that helped define the musical tastes of generations worldwide.

“Love Ain’t For Keeping” clocks in at a meager 2:10, and that includes Townshend’s acoustic guitar solo. But it’s a masterful 2:10. A song about happily living the domestic life in a working-class English town (though it could just as easily apply to Ohio or Kansas), this song is a great example of creating strong imagery, and even some suggestive innuendo, that stick. It’s also a great example of saying a lot and telling a complete story with only a few words; this song wouldn’t work with any more than the 70 words it has. The song only has two verses, but they’re so strong and descriptive that a third verse might just ruin things:

Layin’ on my back
In the newly mown grass
Rain is coming down
But I know the clouds will pass
You bring me tea
Say “the babe’s a-sleepin’”
Lay down beside me
Love ain’t for keeping

Black ash from the foundry
Hangs like a hood
But the air is perfumed
By the burning firewood
The seeds are bursting
The spring is a-seeping
Lay down my darling

Love ain’t for keeping

The hook is repeated twice after the end of the second verse, concluding with an acoustic flourish by Townshend.

True Who aficionados, though, know the rest of the story where this song is concerned, and are often just as fond of the original version of the song, which the Who’s Next version wasn’t. The song was originally recorded several months prior to Who’s Next, as a four-minute electric version with Townshend singing lead and playing rhythm guitar, and the lead solos performed by Leslie West, the guitarist for New York power trio Mountain (“Mississippi Queen”). The Who (apparently without Roger Daltrey) was recording at the Record Plant in New York, and Townshend reportedly didn’t want to spend time on overdubs, so West was called in to play on the track. This power-chord version of “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” which is a good 25 BPM faster than the acoustic Who’s Next version, finally surfaced as an additional track on the 1998 remaster of the album Odds & Sods.

And if you need yet another version, Townshend’s original demo of the song appears on the six-disc Lifehouse Chronicles, songs from Townshend’s never fully-completed Lifehouse rock opera (though a version of it was eventually performed on stage). This demo clocks in at 1:31, with no solo and Townshend taking advantage of the then-novel oscillator bank on his Arp synthesizer.

The Who’s Next version of “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” although not as well-known as the classic rock radio hits from the album, is still the one people are the most familiar with, the best-produced with multi-tracked guitars and background vocals. But all three versions of the song are thoroughly enjoyable, for one reason: no matter who sings it, or whether it’s electric or acoustic, it’s a superbly written song.

On October 30th The Who, which has consisted of only Townshend and Daltrey since 2002, will release a new version of last year’s album Who with at least one new remix by Townshend, and a CD of acoustic tracks from the band’s only live shows of 2020.

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