Pete Townshend, the Who and the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” were tied together for quite some time. “Tommy” was the cornerstone of their spectacular live performances. Surely Pete tired of reiterating the meaning of his “rock opera” to uninterested journos. At the end of the 60s musicians were now expected to be philosophers and seekers. Some stellar talents died and others became addicted to whatever was available as they tried to break on through to the other side. Townshend hitched his wagon to the teachings of Meher Baba, a spiritual master who had not spoken since 1925. Baba had complicated views on reincarnation and the process of God-realization. His philosophy had been reduced to “don’t worry, be happy”. That Pete was searching was no surprise but there was an earthiness, an anger and a sense of humour about the Who which did not fully convince me that the West Londoner was not still getting wasted on the way.
Musically the group did not make a wrong move in the new decade. Pete’s next concept was “Lifehouse” a more personal project. He worked and worked it but never got it to a place where he wanted to release it. He was to lick his wounds and retreat to his notebooks where surely the story of a fucked up Mod, “Quadrophenia”, must have already been waiting in embryonic form. If anyone was to chronicle this British tribe then it was the original “Modfather”. An interim LP “Live At Leeds” was a blues-rock approximation of a volcanic eruption. The new kids in town, Led Zeppelin, made a big noise but so did these old hands. The “Lifehouse” tapes were used as the basis of a studio album, “Who’s Next”, a collection of such quality few have equalled never mind bettered.
The Who were at the top of their game. They kept busy with “Quadrophenia” (1973) and another LP 2 years later. Pete handed “Tommy” to the idiosyncratic director, Ken Russell. Whatever your opinion of the movie it does have Ann Margret writhing around in beans and chocolate. I’ll repeat that, it does have Ann Margret…ah, you get me. Pete made a couple of records inspired and dedicated to Baba. It was 1977 before a record with his name on was commercially released.
“Rough Mix” was a collaboration with fellow Mod musician and Baba devotee, Ronnie Lane. I was lucky enough to meet Ronnie in the early 70s, he was a lovely friendly man. I should have told him how great his work with the Small Faces, and the Faces, was. I will never get that chance now. The LP is a fine mix of British rock. Pete hung up the power chords and plays more lead guitar. “My Baby” and “Keep Me Turning” are songs good enough to compare with the Who. The demos Pete had made of his hit songs always had a more acoustic feel. For over 10 years these tunes had been put through the Who process, muscles added to the skinny frame. On “Rough Mix” the songs did not suffer from a different approach. The album went down really well round our yard. The full thing is available on You Tube, if you have any interest in the Who it will be 41 minutes and 33 seconds well spent. It will probably not be the last time you listen to it.
The sad but perhaps inevitable death of Keith Moon in 1978 must have initiated a period of re-appraisal for the remaining three members of the Who. The four of them had shared the amazing journey. The chemistry between them made the music greater than the sum of the parts. The Who may continue but it would never be the same. Pete, having his own problems with alcohol, released a fine solo LP “Empty Glass” and in 1981 a new Who album “Face Dances” came around. I went to see the Who a month before this release. It was not some enormo-dome mega gig but in a South London cinema. My musical tastes had changed. I did not listen to the Who so much in those days. The band were absolutely spell binding. Kenny Jones, a fellow traveller of Ronnie Lane’s and John “Rabbit” Bundrick joined the original trio. They had a classic catalogue to select from. Every song was golden, the bond between Daltrey and Townshend astonishing. The intimacy of the relatively small venue allowed us to see Pete at work close up. So that’s how it is done ! It was a stunning gig and my ears rang for the next two days.
The clip I have chosen is from a tour in 1985. The song is a feature track on the 1982 solo LP “All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes” (rubbish title). When Pete toured he did it properly and he assembled an impressive band. Bundrick came along, Simon Phillips is a great drummer and David Gilmour helped out on guitar. It’s a terrific song with the dynamics of a Who anthem but without the windmill chords. A mature Townshend, undoubtedly, he had to strike the poses when he played with the Who but he was 40 now and probably, like all of us, no longer hoped he died before he got old. I selected the later clip because the live footage of the final song is not as excellent as the recorded version. This take on “The Sea Refuses No River” shows a happy and confident Pete with a fine band to showcase his song.
“Save It for Later” is a song by the Beat (known in the US as the English Beat). From Birmingham, they had hooked up with the Two-Tone bands, groups who were too young for punk and had their own take on pop and ska. I always liked the Beat, they had some good songs. My wife had worked on the design of the first LP sleeve and I spent a pleasant evening with two of them when they were in the band General Public. “Save It” was possibly their best song but there are other contenders. Pete had recorded cover versions before but mostly they were influential songs from his youth. In one instance he covered a favourite song of Meher Baba.
This song by Pete is, I think, little known yet when I listen to it I hear a hit record. He has kept the basic acoustic rhythm which first attracted him and added characteristic Townshend flourishes. It would not be him if he did not stretch his music towards anthemic. The killer touch in this version is the work of piano player Nicky Hopkins. He fills out the sound so beautifully as he had done for years on LPs by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones and a hundred other albums you like. A girlfriend once had to sort out a Japanese visa for Hopkins, on tour with Art Garfunkel. She told me she expected his C.V. the next day and I said she was in for a surprise. She was more than impressed when she saw his history.
I make no great claims for the continued relevance of Pete Townshend in his later years. He can play the Olympics or the Superbowl with his singer and it is songs from 40 years ago that the audience want to hear. From 1965 to 1975 he consistently produced songs that defined the times and that have survived the changing times. That is enough and I love this version of “Save It For Later”