I sing the song to the wide open spaces
This is the second in a series of posts that will feature detailed analyses of some of my all-time favorite albums.
Pete Townshend was a nerd, an outcast, a strange little kid who nonetheless had a remarkable ability with music, despite a lack of any formal training.
He plays guitar, most famously, but he is also adept at piano, synthesizer, banjo, accordion, harmonica, ukulele, mandolin, bass and drums. Perhaps even more notable is his songwriting prowess — he has written well over 200 songs in his 50+ years as a recording artist with his band, The Who, and as a solo attraction.
In my opinion, The Who’s extraordinary rock opera “Tommy” and the brilliant 1971 LP “Who’s Next” rank among the finest albums ever made, and I might be inclined to include the 1973 opus “Quadrophenia” as well. But that would be excessive, I think.
Let’s just say that I think Townshend is a wunderkind, a man who has written and recorded some of the best rock songs ever conceived, from early gems like 1964’s “My Generation” and 1967’s “I Can See For Miles” to 1978’s “Guitar and Pen” and 1982’s “Eminence Front.”
But it is the period from 1969 to 1973 when Townshend — and The Who — did their very best work.
Townshend joined up with singer Roger Daltrey and bass player John Entwistle in the early ’60s in a band called The Detours, playing pop and jazz covers. One night, when Townshend was heading out for a night of clubbing, his hard-of-hearing grandmother asked him where he was going. When he told her the name of the group he was going to see, she asked him, “You’re going to see the WHO??” The thought clicked, and he convinced The Detours that they should rename themselves The Who.
For four years, The Who struggled as a brash rock band that had their share of hit singles in England (“I Can’t Explain,” “Substitute,” “Magic Bus”), but received almost no attention in the US, not until their explosive performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Even then, they didn’t sell many records here.
That all changed in 1969 when Townshend wrote, and The Who recorded, what is recognized as the first “rock opera,” the exemplary double album “Tommy.” The plot of the story is almost beside the point, but it involves a boy who watches as his mother and her lover murder his father, then shudders as his mother tries to convince him he didn’t see nor hear the dastardly deed. He became deaf, dumb and blind…but it turns out he was awesome at pinball.
Sure enough, the single “Pinball Wizard” got the lion’s share of attention with the mainstream public, but the full four sides of music rivaled anything that came out in that watershed year of 1969. It reached #4 on the US charts, far better than anything they’d released previously. The incredible “Amazing Journey,” the spacey instrumental acid trip “Underture,” the great rock songs “Christmas” and “Go to the Mirror,” the brilliant denouement “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with includes the single “See Me, Feel Me” — it all came together majestically, with unparalleled performances by Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon.
I was 14 when that record was released, and it thrilled me in 2000 when it became one of the pivotal records the young protagonist latched on to in the wonderful film “Almost Famous” when his older sister left her albums behind upon leaving home. She attached a note that said, “Listen to ‘Tommy’ with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.” Yep. That’s pretty damn accurate.
Townshend’s masterwork went on to become a movie and a Broadway show, neither of which were all that great compared to the original LP, but they served to elevate Townshend’s (and The Who’s) stature as kingpins in the rock ‘n roll pantheon.
Sadly, though, the reverence accorded to “Tommy” also did a disservice to Townshend and The Who. How to top it? The band grew tired of performing it in its entirety in concert, but audiences weren’t happy with snippets of it. Still worse, Townshend struggled to come up with a follow-up album that could come close to matching the excellence of “Tommy.”
But try he did, and mightily. He had written a screenplay and a great deal of music for another rock opera known as “Lifehouse,” designed to be a multi-media project and double album that symbolized the relationship between a musician and his audience, in search of “the universal chord.” It just might have been a worthy successor to the deaf-dumb-and-blind-kid opus.
But his compatriot Kit Lambert, manager/producer for much of the band’s career thus far, was in dire straits, falling into heroin addiction and no longer able to be Townshend’s Man Friday. The “Lifehouse” project stalled, even falling off the tracks, and the composer was disconsolate about it. Indeed, he suffered a nervous breakdown over it, and felt like throwing in the towel.
But Daltrey and producer Glyn Johns stepped in, firmly maintaining that the music Townshend had written and The Who had recorded thus far was well worth releasing as a single album. Townshend resisted at first, because he would have preferred that the full “Lifehouse” project be released as a complete story instead of in aborted form.
The album, a nine-song collection entitled “Who’s Next,” is widely praised and rightly regarded as The Who’s finest LP. Townshend was the first rock musician to fully incorporate the Moog synthesizer into the arrangements of most of the album, especially its thunderous opener, “Baba O’Riley” (known by many as “Teenage Wasteland”), and the anthemic closer, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Johns’ astonishing production captured Daltrey’s very best singing, Moon’s most mind-blowing drum work, and Entwistle’s most inventive bass playing. And Townshend? He completely nails it.
For me, the pinnacle, the very best moment of The Who’s catalog, is “The Song is Over,” which features guest pianist Nicky Hopkins and Daltrey singing a gorgeous melody at the top of his lungs.
It’s too bad that the crucial piece from the “Lifehouse” puzzle, the fantastic “Pure and Easy,” was left off “Who’s Next” and didn’t see the light of day until the ragtag collection “Odds and Sods” in 1974. (Its key line — “There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by” — survived as the closing line of “The Song is Over.”)
Thanks to the singles “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes” — and, to a less commercial extent, “Baba O’Riley” — “Who’s Next” became a monumentally popular album, peaking at #4 on the US charts, and cemented The Who’s reputation as THE “album band” of their era, and a ferocious live band as well.
In between “Tommy” and “Who’s Next” there was 1970’s “Live at Leeds,” often considered the best live rock album ever released. I liked it fine, but would never rate it ahead of, say, The Allman Brothers Band’s “Live at Fillmore East.”
But as I said, from the majestic peak of “Tommy,” through “Live at Leeds” to the unprecedented wonders of “Who’s Next,” and into the remarkable brilliance of 1973’s “Quadrophenia,” there was no band as hot as The Who during this period. Some people like to claim The Rolling Stones, with their triumvirate of “Let It Bleed,” “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” and “Sticky Fingers,” may have been just as good, but I’ll take The Who any day of the week.