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Pete Townshend

Album Guide

Ross Halfin

    Who Came First (Hip-O, 1972)
   Rough Mix (MCA, 1977)
    Empty Glass (Atco, 1980)
   All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (Atco, 1982)
     Scoop (Atco, 1983)
    White City: A Novel (Atco, 1985)
     Pete Townshend's Deep End Live! (Atco, 1986)
     Another Scoop (Atco, 1987)
  The Iron Man: A Musical (Atlantic, 1989)
  Psychoderelict (Atlantic, 1993)
   Lifehouse Elements (Eel Pie, 2000)
    Scoop 3 (Hip-O, 2001)
    Gold (Hip-O, 2005)

Pete Townshend once told Rolling Stone that being in the Who was "a mistake... I think it wasn't really what I was destined to do." They were the band he ended up with—a grand, powerful thing—but apparently not the band he would've chosen. His solo career is marked, and sometimes marred, by his attraction/repulsion relationship with the Who's sound and legacy, and by his three-decade obsession with Lifehouse," the conceptually fuzzy rock opera whose initial incarnation was pared down into 1971's Who's Next.

Townshend's first widely released solo album, Who Came First, features a couple of stellar Lifehouse castoffs, "Pure & Easy" and "Nothing Is Everything" (which had also recently been released by the Who as "Let's See Action") as well as a cluster of songs relating to Townshend's late guru Meher Baba, the man who initially popularized the phrase "don't worry, be happy." It's a tender, devotional record, egoless enough that he turns over a couple of tracks to other followers of Baba: "Evolution" is written and sung by another devotee, the Faces' Ronnie Lane. Townshend and Lane are co-credited with the subdued Rough Mix, which has the stink of "side project" all over it, despite a couple of pleasant throwaways (try "My Baby Gives It Away").

Empty Glass is a painful but occasionally bracing record: an evocation of crushing spiritual crisis whose one moment of relief, a synth-pop quickie called "Let My Love Open the Door," became Townshend's biggest solo hit. "Rough Boys," dedicated to Townshend's daughters and the Sex Pistols, is the most overtly homoerotic song in his catalogue; "Jools and Jim" is a venomous attack on music journalists.

The title of All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes signals its incoherent bombast. It came out only a few months before the Who's It's Hard, but these songs wouldn't have worked with Roger Daltrey singing them—prolix, emotionally stunted and self-pitying, they don't really work at all, aside from the new-wave-inspired single "Face Dances Part Two." Townshend clearly believes he has something important to say, but it's not clear if even he knows what it is.

White City, subtitled "A Novel"—lest anybody confuse it with a mere collection of songs—has another ill-defined concept (it seems to be about a British council estate), but as a mere collection of songs it's got its moments: the indignant blues "Secondhand Love," the weird big-beat bopper "Face the Face," a torrential rocker called "Give Blood" that's only slightly scarred by lines like "parade your pallor in iniquity." Pink Floyd's David Gilmour plays lead guitar, and also turns up on the surprisingly fab follow-up quickie Deep End Live!, which eschews White City altogether in favor of rearranged Who nuggets, "After the Fire" (a song Townshend wrote for a Roger Daltrey solo album), and a handful of casual covers, most notably a smashing take on the English Beat's "Save It For Later."

Having not quite conquered the realms of opera and novel, Townshend fell on his legendary nose with his "musical," The Iron Man. Based on a Ted Hughes story, it was a promising idea gone disastrously wrong. Townshend's songs are tedious, the production is an instant headache, and guest vocalists John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone and Roger Daltrey all project an air of "why did I agree to this?" Psychoderelict is even worse, a brittle, slapdash radio-drama-plus-songs about an aging rock star who's still obsessed with a project he failed to realize decades earlier (do you get it? huh? ) and is betrayed by an evil journalist (take that!). When it flopped, it was re-released without spoken dialogue, which didn't help.

A lot of Townshend's most rewarding solo recordings, unsurprisingly, are the ones where he's not straining so hard to prove his genius. His home demos are bootleggers' favorites; the first double-LP collection of them to see official release, Scoop, is a total delight, the sound of a brilliant, protean songwriter having a whole lot of fun for a change. Some of these songs ("So Sad About Us," "Behind Blue Eyes") assumed very different forms in the Who's hands. Others, like the Motown pastiche "Politician" and the frantic rockabilly number "Dirty Water," suggest paths Townshend might have taken if he hadn't made his great "mistake." Scoop worked out so nicely that it's been followed by Another Scoop (almost as good, with more rough versions of early and late Who singles, plus a couple of orchestral curiosities like "Football Fugue") and Scoop 3 (on which diminishing returns start to set in, featuring instrumentals of more recent vintage and a couple of solid Quadrophenia demos).

In 2000, Townshend finally got Lifehouse out of his system with Lifehouse Chronicles, a six-CD box collecting old and new versions of its associated songs, a two-hour radio play, and some classical and quasi-classical music. That was boiled down to the single-disc Lifehouse Elements, which is a mildly interesting footnote to Who's Next if you can make it past the ten-minute orchestral rendition of "Baba O'Riley."

A career as spotty but as intermittently delightful as Townshend's is badly in need of a well-curated greatest-hits, and the two-disc Gold isn't it—it skips over the Scoop series, Lifehouse Chronicles and the various live recordings he's released over the years, and its scrambled chronology makes him sound more inconsistent than versatile.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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