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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Meep said...

Jeez man, love these posts. I tried getting into their work a few times. Always found Live At Leeds too loud and too much of Hard Rock for my taste. However, I'm completely blown away by the Lifehouse Chronicles. I'm going to have to go back and get Who's Next and give it another listen.

On another hand, I've been listening to a lot of Sixto Rodriguez. What do you make of his work? Here's Sugar Man

spaceman said...

Thanks for the comment. Lifehouse Chronicles is definitely worth tracking down. It's floating around online at various places.

I do like Sixto Rodriguez. Enjoyed the documentary a lot. Would be nice to catch him live!

Meep said...

Its summer dude... I'd like some nice music. Whatcha listening to? You should do a weekly thing - "What's Joy listening to"