Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 29 Jun 11 08:42
"Baba O'Riley" almost certainly would have been the first song, sort of a grandstanding curtain-riser, to "Lifehouse" in both its album and film versions. Townshend explained the lyrics to Circus in late 1971 as specifically about the farmer, out in the fields, a 50-year-old man, whose kids have run away. Hes saying that the whole of youth is wasted. Wherever he looks, all he sees is wasted teenagers. To more fully explain its position in the story, it's necessary to briefly explain the plot, though the plot was never fully understood by anyone other than Townshend, who seemed to change his explanations of the narrative as the project proceeded. Basically, "Lifehouse" would have taken place in the future, which at the time it was conceived was 30 years after 1970 (around 2000). By that time, pollution and environmental devastation have become so bad that people don "experience suits" to survive, isolating them from both each other and the world at large. The experience suits supply their material needs, but aren't so good at fulfilling their emotional ones. The information and "experiences" people get are controlled by a fascist government of sorts. In resistance to the regime, some people manage to scrape by through living in remote rural areas, like the "farmer" of "Baba O'Riley." Some citizens disenchanted with the way things have gone organize a rock concert in resistance, at which people will spontaneously come together to watch musicians (who almost certainly would have been/included the Who) express themselves, with an audience-listener interaction that elevates everyone to a new plateau of experience. This in turn almost certainly would have involved a search for a lost or pure note, as reflected in the song that launched the whole project, "Pure and Easy." A subplot of sorts would have involved the farmer's daughter, Mary, running away from the remote farm (probably in Scotland) to meet up with her boyfriend for the great communal concert (probably in London). That probably means the farmer who serves as the narrator of "Baba ORiley" is the father in pursuit of a runaway named "Mary," the subject of one of the best songs in "Lifehouse" that the Who did not release at the time (or, apparently, even record). Both the father and daughter figure in a few other "Lifehouse" songs.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 29 Jun 11 08:55
Also, it's still a mystery to many fans to this day as to why the song is called "Baba O'Riley," though as noted earlier Baba is Townshend's guru Meher Baba, and Riley is composer Terry Riley. What's Riley's influence on the song? His works, which helped pioneer minimalism, often involved repeated patterns that overlapped each other and subtly changed over time. You can definitely hear the influence of Riley compositions such as "A Rainbow in Curved Air" on the patterns introducing and weaving through both "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." When I interviewed Riley for the book, he told me, "I used to stay with The Whos lighting man when I was in London in the early 70s, and he told me that he and Pete took psychedelics and listened to 'A Rainbow In Curved Air' for hours. So I was aware that he knew about my 60s albums on CBS. I called him a few times in the 70s and we discussed music things, and he expressed being deeply affected by my music. It was mutual. In a phone conversation once with Pete, he mentioned to me that he owned something like thirty copies of A Rainbow In Curved Air. We finally met about five years ago when he invited me to a show The Who did near Sacramento." Townshend was probably also familiar with another of Rileys most famous works, the 1964 composition 'In C,' in which musicians are asked to play 53 phrases, but starting at different times. Riley told me, "The kinetic repetitive bright major mode opening of 'Baba ORiley' is reminiscent of 'In C' and is one of the most brilliant intros in pop music. It would be a good candidate for one of its sources of inspiration. Clearly 'Baba ORiley' is inspired on many levels, and seems a brilliant fusion of the rivers of thought flowing through classical and pop music at the time. Pete made it clear from the beginning that it was a kind of homage to his guru Meher Baba and my humble self. I still have kids come up to me after my concerts asking me if I am the Baba ORiley...Now that I am in my mid-seventies, I guess I am."
Gail (gail) Wed 29 Jun 11 09:43
Scott Underwood (esau) Wed 29 Jun 11 11:03
That's great. Were there other classical or contemporary composed music influences on Pete? Did he actually study operas for ideas on writing repeated motifs, overtures, and so on? Did Pete ever consider wiriting music outside the rock band framework?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 29 Jun 11 13:36
While Townshend's classical or contemporary compositional influences usually weren't as apparent as they were on "Baba O'Riley," he had them going way back to the mid-1960s. This was in large part due to the influence of the Who's co-manager, Kit Lambert (their other manager was Chris Stamp, brother of the actor Terence Stamp). Lambert, though he was an aspiring filmmaker when he first saw the Who (he and Stamp came across them as they were looking for a group to feature in a short about an up-and-coming British pop band), was very aware of classical music and opera, as he was the son of classical conductor and composer Constant Lambert. Townshend even credited the suspended chords of early Who songs like "The Kids Are Alright" to the influence of baroque music Lambert had played him, especially on an album of works by 17th century composer Henry Purcell. While it's hard to say how much Townshend studied specific operas, and he most likely didn't rigorously or methodically look at scores or study theory, certainly he would have absorbed some ideas about repeated motifs and overtures in opera, whether through Lambert or other sources. This didn't start with "Tommy," but can be heard in some shorter or somewhat aborted conceptual works predating 1969. "Rael," the five-minute-or-so song that closes the 1967 album "The Who Sell Out," was supposed to be a twenty-scene work written for a full orchestra. You can get an idea of the more symphonic notions he had in mind by listening to an eight-minute solo demo he did of "Rael" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIgVFh9sLnI, particularly in the opening instrumental section, and a grandiose organ passage at about the five-and-a-half-minute mark. It's still little known, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Townshend did some composition (and instrumentation) for obscure film soundtracks of underground/art films by friends of his. These use some rock instrumentation, but also some electronics and avant-garde ideas that would have been hard to fit into the Who, at least in an unfiltered form. I haven't been able to hear much of that work (some of it's been bootlegged) and what has surfaced is rather erratic, and more interesting than enjoyable. But it's interesting to hear him testing out ideas that are more experimental than those he could have used in Who records. Also that work was probably very much an influence on his ambitions to make "Lifehouse" a film as well as an album, and perhaps the film, had it been made, would have included some non-Who Townshend compositions/instrumentation that were more in the overtly operatic/cinematic mode than you heard on Who records. Townshend partially fulfilled ambitions to do soundtrack music with some of his synthesizer work on the soundtrack to the "Tommy" film, though in my opinion neither the film nor Townshend's soundtrack work were as brilliant as what you might expect given the merits of the "Tommy" album on which they were based.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 29 Jun 11 13:43
To backtrack a bit to "Baba O'Riley" and Terry Riley's influence, an interesting aspect to the Who's work at this juncture is how avant-garde it was in certain (if limited) respects. "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" have been so overplayed, especially by classic rock radio, that it's hard to think of them as being avant-garde in any fashion. "Won't Get Fooled Again" was even a hit single; both were played by what was left of the Who at the 2010 Super Bowl; and at the Giants stadium and other sports events, you sometimes hear soundbites from both tracks (especially the opening "Baba O'Riley" instrumental pattern and Roger Daltrey's yell in "Won't Get Fooled Again"). So how can such mainstream staples be avant-garde? Well, both use patterns, at the beginning of the songs and then underlying much of the subsequent tracks, that, as noted a few posts earlier, are very rooted in the work of minimalist composers such as Terry Riley. And although the synthesizer was becoming more frequently used in rock music by the early 1970s (and would eventually become overused), it was still somewhat exotic and daring to use the instrument in rock and pop to the extent that Townshend was in the early 1970s, on both "Who's Next" and "Quadrophenia." Townshend played the instrument -- big bulky things that were hard to set up and use back then, not the relatively easy and portable ones of today -- himself, and I think with more taste and subtlety than anyone else working in rock. In "Quadrophenia" in particular, it also gave him the chance to inject some of his more symphonic classical-influenced arrangements and melodic ideas.
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Wed 29 Jun 11 17:57
I've been humming Baba O'Riley to myself a lot the last few days, and about half the time I realize I'm humming Eminence Front instead. They were written a decade apart, but at some level there is a deep similarity that keeps tripping the connections in my brain.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 29 Jun 11 19:29
Just chiming in with a midpoint shout-out: we're a week into this two-week conversation: big thanks to Richie, and to Kevin and John for the excellent exchanges so far. For those of you who are reading this but are not members of the WELL, a reminder that you can participate, too, by sending your comments and questions to inkwell at well.com. Onward!
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Thu 30 Jun 11 06:11
Thanks, Jon. Richie makes an important point in #55.
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Thu 30 Jun 11 06:13
What are your thoughts, Richie, on Townshend's revisits to the "Lifehouse" material over the years? Do the radio plays, the compilations and concerts help to refine the concept to where it works better with decades of distance? Or is it still a bit of a muddle?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Thu 30 Jun 11 07:58
This isn't going to be a very popular opinion with some Who and Townshend fans, but I don't like his attempts to revisit and rework "Lifehouse" material. There have only been a couple major such attempts: a couple of solo concerts (the basis of the "Music from Lifehouse" DVD) in London in February 2000), and the BBC radio play. The concerts, like so many reunion/revival shows, lacked the edge of the original performances and interpretations, even setting aside the obvious observation that the Who weren't involved, as they would have been back in the early 1970s. The radio play, again like some revisitations, was unbecomingly sentimental in places, and not nearly as interesting to hear in real time as it was to imagine what "Lifehouse" might have been in your head. Also, both interpretations (it's hard to call them reinterpretations since "Lifehouse" was never finished or presented in the 1970s) took some liberties with the original concept. The live shows almost certainly used some songs that wouldn't have been part of "Lifehouse" as originally conceived. The radio play did not follow the original story, or what was known to be in the original story, to the point of not including a couple of key characters that were mentioned in Townshend's early "Lifehouse" summarizations, "Bobby" (who would have been the protagonist) and the villain (variously named "Jumbo" and "Brick") was gone. Instead it focused on the story of the problems within a family, using the character of a couple's runaway daughter, "Mary," the subject of one of the songs in the original "Lifehouse" that didn't make "Who's Next." There was also some additional material relating to "Lifehouse" included in Townshend's six-CD "Lifehouse Chronicles" box set (issued in 2000 through his website, and no longer available). This was invaluable for the inclusion of two CDs of Townshend solo "Lifehouse" demos (though some of these were almost certainly recorded after the Who had abandoned the "Lifehouse" project. But elsewhere on the set, the reworkings of "Lifehouse" material and classical arrangements of pieces by Townshend and classical composers were inconsequential. The box also included, on two CDs, the BBC radio play. It spoke volumes that the two CDs with demos were far more interesting than the other discs, towered over them in fact. More than being a failure to do something exciting, I think these revisitations demonstrated how hard, and probably impossible, it is to recapture or complete something decades after the bout of original inspiration. In another controversial opinion, I feel similarly about Brian Wilson's recreation of the Beach Boys' unfinished 1960s album "Smile" in the 2000s, though that was better than what Townshend tried to do with recreating/revisiting "Lifehouse."
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 30 Jun 11 12:03
What did you think about All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Thu 30 Jun 11 12:10
I didn't like it. I like Pete Townshend's solo material from the 1970s, in part because it gave him the opportunity to do some songs, usually on the low-key side, that weren't like the usual ones he wrote for the Who. Some of these seemed more personal than the ones he wrote for the Who, and certainly they often had a more spiritual flavor, sometimes reflecting his involvement with Meher Baba, though in a humble and approachable way. I also like his voice. It was too high and thin to be as commercial a fit for much of the Who's work as Daltrey's was, but like some other classic British rock guitarists who didn't sing too often in their main groups (George Harrison, Keith Richards, Dave Davies), it had a winsome everyman sincerity you don't hear all that often in rock. But...I frankly find Townshend's post-1970s work disappointing. The songs aren't as good, the production often inappropriately glossy, and the concept albums, while still ambitious, not as interesting as the Who's.
Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 30 Jun 11 13:19
I guess you're including "Empty Glass" (1980), which I think is a brilliant album. "Chinese Eyes" I like for its ambition -- his unapologetic use of spoken-word interludes and synth-y textures -- even if I think it's not entirely successful. Here's a video for "Communicate," which has the best and worst qualities of the album: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELgwdyBdqwQ> On the other hand, "The Sea Refuses No River" is a very strong, classically Pete song.
Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 30 Jun 11 13:23
Many years ago, I saw a DVD of "Psychoderelict," which I remember liking much more than I expected. Again, I think I admired Pete's ambition in presenting the story, even if I don't remember any of the music. Reading the Wikipedia entry on it, I see it seems to be a kind of comment on his own life, with the main character working on a music project called Gridlife, with obvious parallels to Lifehouse.
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Thu 30 Jun 11 21:32
I have always liked this piece http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paiQWninQoI&feature=related And it is now firmly embedded in this video which is from when I was 21 and rapidly growing older as I think Pete always was. I must say that no less part of the thrill of this video are the bkgd. singers, but my dating life at 21 is neither here nor there.
From welohr, Off-Well (captward) Fri 1 Jul 11 00:31
If you were a teenager in the American suburban wasteland in the early seventies, there is a good chance much of your music listening would have taken place in a car, where the rhythm section was competing with roar and rumble of the engine and chassis bouncing on the street. Music had to cut through a lot of noise and "Who's Next " excelled in a way "Quadrophenia" didn't. "Quadophenia" came across dense and murky; it fused with the noise and got lost ( a similar set of noise parameters exist for hearing music at parties.) In order to appreciate, Quadrophenia one had to spend the time listening to it in your bedroom, possibly with headphones. So while "Who's Next "was about being out on the road on a journey; "Quadrophenia" was a dark introspective album, a claustrophobic story about urban tribal warfare.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 1 Jul 11 07:34
Hi Ed, I agree that "Who's Next" was a lot more radio-ready than "Quadrophenia," not just because of the nature of the production, but also because the songs had more hooks and could stand (or at least make playlists) more easily as individual tracks. In a way, that wasn't always a good thing, as it helped define the "classic rock" format, which favored production values that were in some ways slick and bombastic. To this day, "Who's Next" gets tons of classic rock airplay (and tons more than "Quadrophenia"), and that's how it will always remain. Michael Tearson, who in the early 1970s was a young DJ on the Philadelphia FM rock station WMMR (and remains active on Sirius and other outlets), also pointed this out when I interviewed him for the book: For FM radio, the album was incredibly deep. We could play every single song. Nothing on the LP was second-rate. It had anthems. It rocked. It was one of the first albums that felt arena-sized from the first note. It compromised nothing! It was rebellious, swaggering, young. Just what we DJs wanted to feel we were saying, back in a day when we each programmed our shows all by ourselves, without consultants, without the computer program Selector to give you the preselected show.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 1 Jul 11 07:50
As Ed and I both brought up how the album benefited from being heard on headphones, it's a good time to note how important the sound effects on the album are. Also, how the way they complemented the music (both during the tracks and as links between tracks) made it something that needed to be heard in its entirety to be fully appreciated, and so might have hindered airplay of individual tracks. I don't think there's any other rock album in which sound effects are as important, though some people might argue for "Dark Side of the Moon." They fill in the narrative and plot of what isn't the easiest story to follow, help maintain momentum where it might have flagged, and almost creative the sense of a movie-on-record (and not a mere background soundtrack). The constant roar of the ocean waves, the chants of concert crowds and striking workers, the train whistles, crunching steps on pavement and the beach, a BBC news bulletin on mod vs. rockers, a Salvation Army-type band, the eerie whistle of a boiling keetle, even the distant sound of the Who themselves playing in the distance (taken from their actual recording of "The Kids Are Alright") -- all are used purposefully and deftly. One of the most interesting parts of my research was asking a couple of engineers about the recording and production of the sound effects, which no one else to my knowledge had tried to document. The fake BBC radio news report, for instance, was actually recorded off the real radio, after Townshend bribed a real-life announcer to read the false bulletin on the 6pm news. One of the train whistles was recorded when one of the engineers actually went on the tracks to get the train engineer to blast the horn to get him out of the way, as there was no other way to get close enough to make it sound good. When they went to record ocean waves, the day was so unexpectedly calm that they had to turn the mics so far up that it picked up the sound of a dog barking almost a mile away.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 1 Jul 11 07:57
It was also interesting to find how challenging it was to mix the sound effects into the recording with 1973 technology. Engineer Ron Nevison told me, "We were on 16 tracks. Can you imagine, with all the synthesizer, all the vocals, all the effects, and everything? We didnt have room to put everything onto the 16-track. So Pete got hold of a couple of these cartridge players that they used in radio stations for commercials. We had two machines he had one and I had one and we would load the sound effects. In other words, youd click a button, and it goes off, and then the next one comes up, and then you hit the button again and the next one goes off, like commercials. So wed load them in in the order that we had in the mix. Hed have like three or four on one side, and Id have three or four on the other side. And when we wanted thunder, or we wanted a train whistle, wed just like hit the button, and sound effects would come out. And that was how we achieved all the sound effects, because we didnt have room for them on the recording." He also told me that subsequent mixes for CD dont "have some of the qualities that we put in there, because we had scattered all that stuff on cartridge machines. The train whistle is gone from '5:15,' even though I think I was very careful to archive all of the sound effects on quarter-inch tape. They probably should have been stored with the mixes and everything else. But because stuff wasnt on the 16-track, they would have lost some. "Then once the whole thing was mixed, the next thing was cross-fading from one song to another, which was a tricky thing. Each side of [the] four sides of this record had like 100 edits in it. One time I was spooling through one side of the record and the edit came apart, and the whole thing went on the floor. Luckily, nothing was injured. We were freaked out, but a splice had come apart, so we just carefully picked it back up, and certainly it was cool. But the whole [thing] was just Pete and I, the two of us, mixing. I dont even think there was an assistant there, just the two of us did it. For maybe three weeks we were there." According to Rod Houison, who built the studio in which this was done, "We had upward of maybe 12, 13, sometimes 15 machines running in the room at the time on the mix. There were endless amounts of effects running. Setting up the room used to take forever." Incidentally, the transcript of my interview with Ron Nevison can be read on my website, at http://www.richieunterberger.com/nevison.html.
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Fri 1 Jul 11 11:24
Wow. I'm looking forward to getting to that point in the book. Those of us who grew up with records like this felt completely comfortable using these kinds of effects in recordings. Even entitled to use them. It still wasn't always easy but part of the reward was finding a way.
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Mon 4 Jul 11 16:13
I am listening to Who Are You for probably the first time since 1980 and I still don't really care for much of it. By 1978 the transformation I was in the middle of in 1973 was complete. But I still like 905, which could have been the ultimate # on Quadrophenia, not only for the words but for the synthesizer rhythm. I don't recall if the following came out in 78, 79, 80 or a little later but I have managed to remember the chorus(I was born #17 romeo delta 59 system 605 unit 91) for all these years and the 2 are certainly of a piece, place and time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sqSUd7Iddo
John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Tue 5 Jul 11 06:07
I'm now starting to see Townshend's career in terms of the tension between his ability to write great rock songs and his desires to be an artist who writes the long-form rock operas.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Tue 5 Jul 11 08:45
With "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia," I think he was pretty much able to do both. Obviously there are some tracks on these that are "link" tracks where much of the purpose is to be there to move the story along, especially on some of "Tommy"'s shorter songs, like "Do You Think It's Alright" and (as enjoyable as it is) "Tommy's Holiday Camp." Yet "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" both have songs that would have stood well on their own without ever being identified with an opera, like "Pinball Wizard," "Sensation," "I'm Free," "The Real Me," "Love Reign O'er Me," and "5:15." "Lifehouse" had perhaps a greater percentage of these. Almost all of the eight "Lifehouse" songs on "Who's Next" have received massive radio airplay; a couple of them ("Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Behind Blue Eyes") were hits; and many radio DJs and listeners have probably never been aware that they were intended for a rock opera. That might have even been a subtle factor influencing the failure of "Lifehouse" to be completed. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I feel there's a big gap between "Lifehouse"'s better songs and its lesser songs -- a bigger gap than you find between the better and lesser songs in "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia." That might have made it relatively easy for engineer/co-producer Glyn Johns to suggest abandoning the opera and cutting the length from a double album to a single album, focusing on the strongest standalone songs. Some of the songs on "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" are instrumentals that would have no obvious place on a non-concept record, like "Underture" from "Tommy," and "The Rock" from "Quadrophenia." Far from being filler, though, I think these enhance the atmosphere of the albums considerably, and also gave Townshend a chance to stretch out as an instrumental classical-type composer in a way that conventional pop/rock songs couldn't have. In an interview with Zoo World, he even called "The Rock" "one of the finest tracks that Ive ever been involved in, in any music ... theres the four themes representing each facet joined into one, and this really the symbolic sort of thing where the boys quadrophenia is, if you like, resolved, because he suddenly realizes a kind of a point to life, and symbolically the four pieces of music all join together into one theme."
David Julian Gray (djg) Tue 5 Jul 11 08:47
I missed quadraphenia when it was released, and have only become familiar with one track in the intervening decades - so my experience of learning it as part of this discussion must be completely different from the experience upon its release - above and beyond the fact that I am now in ... um... late middle age ... to me it sounds like a follow on to Who's Next - of a piece with Townsends musical preoccupations and production ideas ... If it was not told the story - I'm not sure I would "hear" the story ... Also - psychoderelict made no sense at all as a "concept" to me when released and now I see it as straight autobiography ... the Story of Lifehouse - which I had no idea about until the book ...
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