The recent death of Ronnie James Dio and Alex Chilton gave rise to an explosion of lamentation from rock journalists, musicians and fans for whom their music was a source of inspiration and admiration. For me, however, when Pete Townshend leaves this veil of tears, it will leave me quite sad. And even though he would no longer be among us, his work will certainly live on and provide inspiration, solace, and balls to the wall rock and roll for others to enjoy. The work he’s done with the Who will always be what he’s most noted for, but I’ve always gravitated toward his solo work for repeated listens — which could be because Townshend’s solo career was getting a second life around the time I was eagerly discovering music that I could call “mine.” It was 1980, and somehow I got a copy of Empty Glass and played it quite often, but it wasn’t until 1982’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes that I became fascinated by Townshend’s songs of mid-life crises, drug use, love lost, and eventually redemption. I stuck with him with each new album release, and through it all, it was clear that Townshend (for all his status as a rock icon of rebellion) is a guy in search of spiritual redemption.
Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle, “Empty Glass” (Download)
This song made it to Empty Glass, but with the re-release of Who Are You in 1996, an early demo version was included as a bonus track. I was struck by the way in which Entwistle added some inspired bass harmonics on the intro (something that’s omitted on Townshend’s solo version on Empty Glass). However, Moon’s drumming at this time was a shadow of his former glory, so the fills he supplies on the toms were kind of out of place. And despite Townshend’s own thin vocals (which crack toward the end) I think the song is much more raw and powerful than what appeared on his solo album.
Pete Townshend, “Secondhand Love” (Download)
One of my cousins used to live in White City in London, and while it’s generally regarded as a shithole, it served as inspiration for Townshend’s “Novel” about some of the residents who lived there. This album has some great songs that did well for Townshend on North American radio (“Face the Face” “Give Blood” and the song featured here), but the concept of the album was half-baked and it wasn’t clear what Townshend was trying to say. The release of a film and book really didn’t help clarify much. Still, even though Townshend fell short of telling a coherent story, it did have many songs that were strong stand alones.
Pete Townshend, “Stardom in Acton” (Download)
Maybe you were like me and thought this song was “Stardom in Action” and not Acton. I know for years I was singing “action” in the lyrics and could have sworn that’s what was printed on the album cover. But it’s really Acton my friend — which is the part of London where three out of the four members of the Who were from. The song itself is certainly a reference to the early days of the Who (and was most likely written for Face Dances) but for whatever reason, it was rejected and ended up on Pete’s solo album.
Pete Townshend, “Parvardigar” (Download)
Since the late ’60s Townshend has been a follower of Meher Baba (The “Baba” in “Baba O’Reilly”) and has on more than one occasion penned overtly religious songs that clearly make the other members of the Who rather uncomfortable — but not so much that they completely boycotted the material when presented. One song I’m sure Townshend never bothered to record with the Who was “Parvardigar” a prayer Baba asked his devotees to say every day. Being the musician he is, Townshend set the prayer to music, and the result is this rather heartfelt and beautiful song.
Pete Townshend, “A Friend is a Friend” (Download)
Adapted from a Ted Hughes story from the late ’60s, Townshend created a musical version of the story about a giant metal robot from outer space who initially starts destroying parts of the earth until he is befriended by a boy. A film was made in the late ’90s that was called The Iron Giant that I took my daughter to see. I had forgotten about Townshend’s album and throughout the movie I kept thinking, “Why do I know the plot of this film?” It wasn’t until the end credits (where Townshend was listed as an Executive Producer) that it all clicked. As an album, it was ambitious, but the end product was uneven — maybe because the official release left off many songs that furthered the story in a more coherent way.
Pete Townshend, “English Boy” (Download)
I don’t know why Psychoderelict really didn’t take off. The story centered on a burnt out, aging rock star and his effort to help a rising talent make it in the music biz. Throw in a slimy manager, a rock journalist who hates the protagonist and a whole bunch of ’60s themes that where unrealized and you have a recipe for a very compelling story. When the album was released, I saw a live version (with actors) preformed on PBS, and it was really quite good. Again, I don’t know why this album didn’t get more traction than the tepid response it received, but it’s one of my favorites in Townhend’s solo oeuvre.