Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Pete Townshend

Although I wouldn't say that I'm a terribly big fan of the Who, I have a fondness for their output in the 1965 to 1973 period, which is really mostly unimpeachable. After the Beatles, I think, Pete Townshend was really the first great songwriter in modern pop music. People say that the Who's double album Tommy (1969) was a kind of iconic moment, and maybe it was, but it's actually not terribly good. It's awfully produced and not all the songs really work. It's actually after Tommy, in the 1970-71 period, that the band hit this amazing peak, first with Live At Leeds (1970), which in my estimation is still the very best live album of all time and then with Who's Next (1971) a fantastic suite of top-notch songs. In 1970, the Who were, bar none, the best live band in the world. The three-piece punk rock combo of Townshend, Keith Moon (drums) and John Entwistle (bass) was just like a machine gun, an aural assault that could completely outplay Led Zeppelin, the Doors, heck, even the Stooges, who were the 100% epitome of kickass rock'n'roll at the time.

The Who's subsequent album, Who's Next, was an about turn from the controlled chaos of Live at Leeds. It was full of innovative studio flourishes, especially with the presence of a synthesizer. The songs on Who's Next, have, of course, been overplayed to death on Classic Rock radio in America.... but it's still possible to imagine how incredible it must have been to hear these songs for the first time. Full of muscle and aggression, tenderness and self-reflection, dynamic, bursting out with energy, yet sensitive to the core, this was the corporate brand of Classic Rock at its peak.

As some of you may know, Who's Next was actually cobbled together from a much more ambitious project known as Lifehouse which Pete Townshend considered his 'next' concept album after Tommy. A strange and often confusing science fiction story about the emancipatory power of music, with bits and pieces of a futuristic internet-like network framing the story, the album was deemed too ambitious by the band. As a result, most of the approximately 20+ songs on Lifehouse were left on the cutting room floor with only nine released on Who's Next.

Over the years, bits and pieces of Lifehouse have appeared on other compilations, bootlegs, and such. The most important in this regard was Pete Townshend's solo 6-CD release called Lifehouse Chronicles (2000) which, on its first two discs, collects all the demos made by Townshend during 1970-71 for Lifehouse. These demos are revelatory for several reasons. First, it's amazing how fully formed and produced they sound. He wrote the songs, played every instrument, and produced them in pristine sound quality, Any of these songs could have been released as fully produced songs by any artist at the time and be considered classics. Yet, Townshend made these songs not for public consumption but so the band (the Who) could learn them. Second, the songs are uniformly fantastic. This was Pete Townshend firing on all four cylinders, an artist at the peak of his powers. A songwriter as great at the time as Lennon/McCartney or Lou Reed or Jagger/Richards or Syd Barrett.

Because these are solo tracks rather than music from the Who, they lack the bombast of that band, in particular Keith Moon's explosive and counter-intuitive drumming. But the good thing is that Townshend is singing the demos instead of Who singer Roger Daltrey--who I have never really liked. I don't think Daltrey was really a good interpreter of Townshend's musical compositions; he basically growled his way through everything, not having any capacity for subtlety. Since Townshend is singing the demos, there is a lovely tenderness and vulnerability to these demos which makes the songs intensely personal rather than just big dumb classic rock anthems. They sound like something Big Star might have put out. In fact, at times, Townshend's voice sounds a bit like that of the late great Alex Chilton.

Anyway, I'm posting here a three songs from Lifehouse Chronicles. Enjoy the pop genius of Pete Townshend:



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Monday, May 05, 2014

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works, Volume II

I suddenly turn around and it's been 20 years--20 years!--since 1994. What does that mean in musical terms? Well, probably a lot of things. A lot of good music came out that year, but the one that completely blew my young impressionable mind was Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II (henceforth abbreviated as SAW2). I don't know how, but probably by accident, I picked up this double CD sometime soon after it came out completely unaware of its history, the man behind it, or what it even sounded like. Usually, I am way behind the curve on new music but there I was, in 1994, in a record store in Northampton, Massachusetts, buying this CD with my hard-earned money, which, to put it mildly was very miniscule at the time. It then proceeded to blow my mind.

So why is this album one of my favorite albums of ALL time? Mainly because no album before or since has opened up the possibilities of electronic music for me in the same way that SAW2 did. There's a been a few anniversary write-ups recently on the album, most notably on that website that shall not be named. A new book has also just come out on the album in the 33 1/3 book series, written by Marc Weidenbaum who did an astonishing amount of research trying to track down its gestation, its sound, and its meaning.

Naturally, given that pretty much every single person dabbling in electronic music since the mid-1990s has been influenced by SAW2, going back to listen to the original might evoke familiar sensations, like you've heard it all before. But that's the weird thing about the original album: it still feels just as weird and "out of time." It's ambient electronic music in the sense that the each track (which were all unnamed in the original release) was based on the seeming repetition of identical musical phrases. So you might get seven minutes of the same thing repeated but as you delve deeper you begin to notice the almost-microscopic changes occurring through each track, sometimes a minor change in beat or meter, sometimes in a single note introduced suddenly. There's a palpable sense of unease throughout the recording, designed to make you feel comfortable but not entirely comfortable. We hear very little percussion on the album so most of it just kind of floats by. When we do hear drums, it's jarring, like a tribe of extinct locusts marching to destroy a field of crops as in here:

Sometimes, it's the creepy resonance of floating tones as you enter a house that was once haunted but now remains in your imagination:

The person behind all this, one Richard D. James, is an odd character. An English musician who has almost no use for the trappings of modern fame, he basically keeps to himself and releases stuff occasionally, with no rhyme or reason or any attention to the winds of change in music. I don't really know much about him, which is fine. You've probably seen his face in the infamous "Windowlicker" video which I will not post here but is worth checking out if you are not at work.

Anyway, I'm listening to it right now. And honestly, it's still just as strange, beautiful, and ingenious as it sounded twenty years ago to me. I had been schooled in your basic guitar-bass-drum format for so many years that this album opened my eyes to an entirely new world out there. And so began a few more years trawling through all manner of techno/electronic music.