Thursday, 13 January 2011
PETE TOWNSHEND - Who Came First
In the mid 1960’s, beat groups and rhythm ‘n’ blues changed lives, and with their bombast, The Who had become one of the era’s most popular bands. Pop music had constantly re-invented itself and psychedelia had pushed pop’s boundaries even further. As part of The Who’s second album (1966’s ‘A Quick One’) Pete Townshend contributed a theatrical piece, ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, which suggested there was more to the band than their previous work may have suggested. But things were going to get bigger. Much bigger.
As the lead track from Mark Wirtz’s ‘A Teenage Opera’, Keith West scored a hit single in the summer of 1967 with ‘Excerpt from “A Teenage Opera” (Grocer Jack)’. EMI pulled the plug on the release of the complete ‘Teenage Opera’, but between Wirtz’s grand musical vision and the rock musical ‘Hair’ making its off Broadway debut at the end of the year, some important musical seeds had been sown. Via experiments with psychedelia, The Who released their career defining rock opera, ‘Tommy’, in May 1969.
This was not only a career defining moment for The Who, but for rock music in general. After an appearance playing ‘Tommy’ at Woodstock and the release of their seminal ‘Live at Leeds’ album, Pete Townshend (alongside a few famous chums, including Small Faces man Ronnie Lane) recorded ‘Happy Birthday’, an album of music inspired by the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba. The Who returned in 1970 with a re-recording of a track from this release, ‘The Seeker’, which became a UK top ten hit. Pete Townsend intended The Who’s next album to be an ambitious concept piece called ‘Lifehouse’, though the project was abandoned in favour of a more conventional album release. In 1971, The Who released ‘Who’s Next’, an album containing a solid collection of rock tunes (some of which were intended for ‘Lifehouse’. ‘Who’s Next’ is rightly regarded as a masterpiece; one of its many stand-out moments is ‘Baba O’Riley, a track which would also appear in extended instrumental form on a second collection of spiritual material, once again dedicated to Meher Baba.
After live shows for ‘Who’s Next’ wound down, many musicians would’ve taken the time to step back from such an extraordinarily busy schedule. But not Townshend. He returned to the studio to record a second album of songs inspired by Meher Baba, ‘I Am’, and ‘Who Came First’, an album of personal material; a collection of songs which is widely regarded as his first official solo release.
As expected, the album showcases Townshend’s skill as a songwriter, but also highlights his talents as a studio hand. With the opportunity to have the final say with regard to this project, Townshend not only takes on vocal and guitar duties, in addition to playing various keyboard parts, but also becomes producer, engineer and mixer too. Where The Who had previously enlisted either Kit Lambert or Glyn Johns to produce, ‘Who Came First’ was Townshend’s opportunity to oversee all technical aspects of the project in an almost Orson Welles like fashion.
He’s not so arrogant as to not enlist other musicians where necessary though (even letting them take the musical reigns on occasion). Old friend Ronnie Lane contributes vocals and guitars, Caleb Quaye (best known for his work on Elton John’s albums from a similar period) is enlisted as bassist, drummer and sometime guitarist, and Billy Nicholls adds guitars and vocals. As for the material itself, it’s very much a rag-bag of stuff; some which is instantly enjoyable and some which requires work on the listener’s part to get to grips with.
The album opens with one of its most familiar numbers. Originally intended as part of ‘Lifehouse’, ‘Pure & Easy’ made its debut here as a Pete Townshend solo recording, but was re-recorded by The Who a short time later (eventually appearing on their 1974 compilation of rarities, ‘Odds & Sods’). In the hands of The Who, the song features some great harmony vocal moments in addition to Daltrey’s commanding lead. Townshend’s original take is weak in comparison. The harmonies are all but absent, and Townshend’s vocal during the opening verse is almost painful to listen to, as he hits notes which are far too high for him. Thankfully, he settles down by the pre-chorus, and the song finds its stride. Despite Townshend’s vocal shortcomings in various places ‘Pure & Easy’ is a great song and his band is solid throughout (if never remarkable). Since the song features some great moments but never quite reaches its potential, it makes sense that The Who re-recorded it so quickly, improving it a great deal in the process.
‘Evolution’ presents one of the album’s best numbers. Here Ronnie Lane takes the helm in an acoustic reworking of ’Stone’, an old Faces number. Lane’s vocal is easy and natural, the perfect fit for the rootsy, blues-folk hybrid of the music. The main acoustic part is fairly basic, but a few complicated runs and some fantastic soloing really bring style to the number. Having long been peers by this point in their careers, there’s a mutual respect between Lane and Townshend and the space each performer affords the other on this recording highlights that. [Lane and Townshend would work together five years later on a completely collaborative album, ‘Rough Mix’].
‘Sheraton Gibson’ tells a tale of life on the road and of how it takes its toll upon the artist. Townshend’s gentle vocal is full of aching and longing and set against a beautiful plucked acoustic arrangement, it’s certainly one of his best performances. A few electric guitar overdubs during the chorus flesh things out unnecessarily – as if to remind us of Pete’s usual background – but essentially, this solo performance (without bass or drums) has an air of fragility - of feeling lost. Whether the home he refers to is literal, or whether home refers to the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba is unclear.
‘Time Is Passing’ is a rumbling pop-rock number, which has echoes of The Who, only without any of the power. The guitar parts are somewhat understated, but there’s some great organ accompaniment. Townshend’s vocal style makes this number sound far more twee than it ought to be, but the end result still has more in keeping with The Who than most of the numbers present on ‘Who Came First’. Townshend may be star of his own show, but it’s Caleb Quaye’s bass and drum work which is this number’s strongest feature. Granted, his drumming might not carry the breezeblock subtlety of Keith Moon, but it’s powerful enough; his bass style is very upfront, giving this track an anchor.
‘Forever’s No Time At All’, written by Billy Nicholls sounds like filler material. It has a similar-ish vibe to ‘Time Is Passing’ (clearly that kind of rock-pop was Townshend’s band’s forte) and Townshend’s multi-tracked guitar parts are fabulous (lending themselves to a great use of stereo). Sadly, his great contributions are almost eclipsed by handclaps which are far too loud in the mix. Since it was his number, Billy Nicholls takes lead vocal and his high tone kills any enjoyment this song may have had.
‘Heartache’ is an acoustic cover of the Jim Reeves number ‘There’s a Heartache Following Me’. Hearing Townshend lumber his way through this old, crooning number is just bizarre. Recorded just after the most inventive part of The Who’s career, it seems so out of step with Townshend at his best. However, with ‘Who Came First’s main focus being on more introspective and personal material, it almost fits here. Why did Townshend choose to include it, when the sessions included better cuts which were originally left behind (such as the basic blues workout ‘I Always Say’ or the wonderful film-score-like piano instrumental ‘Lantern Cabin’)? The answer is simple: it was one of Baba Meher’s favourite songs.
Released as a single by The Who the previous year, ‘Let’s See Action’ appears on ‘Who Came First’ as alternate recording made by Townshend and his band. Having Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon on hand may have improved ‘Pure & Easy’ but interestingly The Who’s rendition of ‘Let’s See Action’ isn’t as good as Townsend’s solo take. With Townshend up front, this rolling bar-room rocker feels more natural; his softer vocal appears far more understanding with regards to its mid-tempo, mid-volume arrangement. The Who’s single version appears to drag in places, despite only a four minute duration; by contrast, this six minute extended arrangement stays the course, with Caleb Quay’s rhythm work carrying just enough punch to keep it flowing.
‘Content’ is an interesting choice, particularly for a rock star of Townshend’s usual posturing and bravado. For this track, he uses a poem by Maud Kennedy as a lyric, which he then sings rather gently over a simple piano arrangement. The piano chords are played slowly and very clearly defined in an unfussy style. There’s almost not quite enough happening to make the music gel, so an overdub of Townshend’s buzzing guitar strings is used to add extra musical depth. Again, it’s a world away from the then most recent Who album (‘Who’s Next’), but what is a solo album for, if not to release pieces of music which have no suitable home for a main project? The idea of including poetry just wouldn’t sit right with The Who, although it is very much in keeping with the hippie ethos of the early seventies [See also the old woman reading poetry at the end of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bare Trees’ LP].
‘Parvardigar’ is a reworking of a track from the second album for Meher Baba. The lyrics are based upon one of his prayers, but it’s the music which is of greatest interest. Multiple ringing acoustic guitars make up the core of the main tune, but it’s not always gentle. There are moments where Townshend just cannot resist throwing out huge ‘Pinball Wizard’ style chords and during the moments where the band provides complete support, it sounds like a Who demo. Even Caleb Quaye’s drum fills are a nod to Keith Moon (albeit played with far more subtlety). While I don’t care especially for the spiritual aspects of the lyrics, or the general praise lavished upon Meher by Townshend, it would have been great to hear Daltrey at his peak absolutely belting his way through this tune.
‘Who Came First’ only achieved limited commercial success at the time of release, spending just two weeks on the UK album chart, its highest position just #30. Over the years, the album has been re-appraised and is often seen as one of the best Who-related solo ventures.
While I find ‘Who Came First’ features some good songs, I feel Townshend’s vocal approach doesn’t always bring out their best qualities. Over the years Daltrey breathed a great amount of power and presence into Townshend’s songs and, in comparison, Townshend’s high voiced (although more than competent) style is often unremarkable. While some people have heaped praise upon ‘Who Came First’, for me, it’s more of an interesting curio than an essential album.
[An expanded version of ‘Who Came First’ features most of Townshend’s main contributions to the Meher Baba albums as bonus tracks, as well as a few other choice cuts].