Today is the 69th birthday of Pete Townshend, the songwriting and guitar-playing force behind The Who. For a time—1971-72—Townshend was my main man in the rock world. Frankly, Mick was always a bit too much of a showboat and mostly just about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, and Zep was too sledge-hammer in their effects. The Beatles had undermined their credibility by breaking up—all you need is love and good lawyer when the love’s over. Neil Young was fine but got more interesting later, and Dylan was out to lunch—“alias anything you please.” Townshend wrote Tommy, and, what with the Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera craze I was experiencing, that 1969 album had to become a “work” to explore. But that’s later, in my lifeline. In 1971, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was on the radio. And I was turning 12. And there was nothing else like it.
So I got interested in Townshend, who was having a very fertile time of it just then. His next big concept album thing, Lifehouse, didn’t get staged, really, and not recorded as intended, but some of its songs turned up on Who’s Next (1971), the best Who album and one of the best of its time. With the tracks added on as bonus with the CD, we maybe get a better idea of the project, but bonus tracks never feel integral. The B Side “I Don’t Even Know Myself” is good to have though. I had it on the 45 of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Townshend has released Lifehouse Chronicles which gives us more of the bits, though it seems (I haven’t heard it) to be still lacking the cohesiveness he had trouble giving it right from the start. Pete was trying hard to be a visionary in those days.
Some of that vision gets extended to his first solo album, Who Came First (1972) which to me, when I got it back then, was the personal companion piece to Who’s Next. Again, it wasn’t quite as fully achieved as it might have been but, in time, that became one of its strengths. It’s like noodling around in Pete’s sidetracks and demos (which he’s been releasing quite a bit this century), and it gave a better sense than The Who albums did of his Meher Baba-inspired mysticism. That bit—which was swiftly becoming the rage with rockers who decided that rock wasn’t “the answer” when you were already sitting on a heap of money and had had love and sex and drugs and booze to enervating degrees—I tended to look askance at, even though it led some into interesting avenues that got channeled into the work. Mahavishnu? Gurdjieff? Buddha? Carlos Castaneda? Hermann Hesse? Whatever, man, bring it on.
Today’s song takes its title from Meher Baba, Townshend’s guru of choice, combined, with that cheekiness for which we all dug Pete, with the name of Terry Riley, the musical avant-gardist whose collaboration with John Cale, The Church of Anthrax (1970), is all I really know by him. In any case, the combination of names suggest that our Pete was going in search of inspirations beyond the usual pop song. Which you can tell by that looping synthesizer intro, the shape of things to come, then those big piano chords, just waiting for The Who to jump in, via Keith Moon’s cymbal-happy bashing.
The song is one of the staples of classic rock, as you no doubt know if you’ve ever left the radio tuned to such a station. It sounded “classic” enough when it first came out, though somewhat oddly sectioned for a rock radio song. Rock, though, by then, was showing just how pliable it was. You could do what this song does, you could do what Yes does, you could do what ELP does, and you could still rock out like, say, “Smoke on the Water.” Townshend always understood the beauty of the riff and was pretty damn good at giving them to us. Listen to the opening salvo of this song and if it doesn’t get your blood racing then you might be in need of life support.
And those opening lines, delivered with gut-wrenching, soaring force by the brashest throat in rock at the time (not counting Heavy Metal where they overdo it), “Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living / I don’t need to fight / To prove I’m right / I don’t need to be forgiven.” Well alright. I’ll never go to bleeding Confession again. Whack that guitar, Pete, and drive the point home, and drive us out through the “teenage wasteland.”
Townshend’s plaintive vocals take over with the “Don’t cry” part to “teenage wasteland”—a great phrase for what was the main factor of the Seventies. It was a teenage wasteland, alright. And when Daltrey takes that up and starts rocking it, the phrase starts to become a badge of honor, even if his “They’re all wasted!” sounds a bit dismissive. It’s like, yah, fucking A, dude. Take a hit when he gets to that part and then hold it for as much of the violin solo/coda as you can. When it starts racing so will your heart and when you release, well, maybe you’ll see that Nirvana or Promised Land to come.
This is the lead-off song of the album and it’s an album that is more than the sum of its parts, and it has some landmark parts—“The Song is Over,” “Getting in Tune,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and one of my favorites of all time, “Bargain,” as well as John Entwhistle’s best, “My Wife.” Townshend’s discovery of the Moog synthesizer was taking his songwriting in new directions and one of the general directions of the time was into a kind of “future shock” mode of trying to see what would happen to our decadent culture after its destruction through war or after its embrace of futuristic technologies that would transform life as we know it. The usual sci-fi, dystopian, utopian dodge, and that was some of the energies fueling Lifehouse. Townshend took on Pop messianism with Tommy (as well as the post-war lives of post-war kids like him), and now was looking to see where we should be led to—“the exodus is here,” away from the teenage wasteland. The story he eventually got to tell, in Quadrophenia, was just about the band and where they came from, but it’s an intense coming-of-age tale, a sort of rock opera 400 Blows meets Karel Reisz or Lindsay Anderson.
I have to admit I stopped listening to The Who after Keith Moon died. To me, the way Led Zep did it—disbanding after drummer John Bonham died—was the only thing to do. Though I suppose The Who were already considering replacing Moon since he really wasn’t up to snuff anymore, or at least bringing in a second drummer, I suppose, so it’s not quite the same. Still, it all ends for me with Who Are You (1978) and Pete’s great solo LP, Empty Glass (1980), the one-two punch that bookends Who’s Next and Who Came First.
I’d like to dedicate today’s song to the graduating class of 2014 at Yale, particularly the Yale School of Drama.
Let’s get together / Before we get much older.
|Entwhistle, Daltry, Moon, Townshend|