Sunday, November 28, 2010

Unsung: A Little is Enough

Unsung is a new feature in which I take a look at a pop culture phenomenon (be it music, TV, literary, whatever) that has been forgotten or underappreciated. In this first installment, I discuss Pete Townshend's solo work, specifically from 1980-1985.

There are rock legends, and then there's Pete Townshend. Beloved for his work as the driving force behind The Who, Townshend has been a rock icon for more than 40 years. Despite the deaths of original members Keith Moon and John Entwhistle, The Who continues to live on, playing the last Super Bowl halftime show in February 2010 and performing its Quadrophenia album in concert in March. There are tentative plans for another tour in 2011, but Townshend's ongoing problems with tinnitus has everything up in the air.

But one area that Townshend seems to have lost interest in is his solo career, which by the mid-1980s had him entrenched as one of the top contemporary rock artists of the time. His three albums--Empty Glass (1980), All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982) and White City:
A Novel (1985)--were critically and for the most part, commercially well-received. He had escaped the Who's shadow, something bandmates Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle were unable to do despite many attempts. The Who had disbanded after its 1982 "Schlitz Rocks America" farewell tour and Townshend was staking his place as a vital and modern artist. But after White City, he was unable to keep the momentum going.

Townshend originally released solo material in the early 1970s, encapsulated in three albums that were devoted to Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba. He also collaborated on a 1975 album with Ronnie Laine of the Faces. But it wasn't until 1980, two years after Moon's death, that Townshend released Empty Glass, considered by many to be his first real solo album. Today, the album is best remembered for the hit single "Let My Love Open the Door," which reached #9 on the U.S. singles chart and has been used in countless movies and TV shows. It's a light, synth-laden pop number that sounded absolutely unlike any Who song that had come before it. But the album is much more than that. Townshend explores the homoerotic overtones of the punk scene in "Rough Boys," a song he partially dedicated to the Sex Pistols. Daltrey was reported angry that Pete didn't save the song for The Who, but I can't picture Daltrey singing it:

"And I Moved" was originally written for Bette Midler and Townshend didn't change the gender of the person the narrator is longing for, which again probably tweaked a few Who fans who were wondering exactly what Townshend was saying here. Townshend also references his substance abuse problems on songs like "A Little is Enough," which equates his lover with heroin and/or booze, and "Empty Glass," which features the refrain "My life's a mess I wait for you to pass/I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass."

The following year, 1981, saw the release of the first Who album since Moon's death, Face Dances. Featuring Kenney Jones on drums, the album hit #4 on the U.S. charts and had FM radio hits with "You Better You Bet" (also one of the first videos ever played on MTV, which launched in August of that year) and "Another Tricky Day." I had it on vinyl and played the hell out of it, but it didn't have that familiar Who roar. It struck me as a continuation of the territory staked out by Empty Glass, which isn't a bad thing, but to this 13-year-old hard rock enthusiast, it didn't rock to the appropriate degree.

Townshend released All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes in June 1982. This record was tougher for rock radio to pin down, as it featured even more synth musings than its predecessor as well as spoken word sections. As a result, I didn't hear much of it until I ordered the album from the Columbia House record club. The song that best combines Townshend's old and new personas is "Slit Skirts," which is an autobiographical sounding, piano-heavy song that also builds up to rocking crescendos:

"The Sea Refuses No River" is a majestic tale of Townshend overcoming his heroin addiction, filled with religious allusions, while "Somebody Saved Me" and "Exquisitely Bored" also deal with the fallout from his drug problems. "Communication" is an uptempo, almost New Wavey take on, well, communication. "Stop Hurting People" works in some of that pesky spoken word. And of course, there's that ridiculous album title. It all added up to the album being a commercial failure (it hit #26 on the Billboard album chart) and drifting off into the ether. But there are some great songs on this record.

A few months after Chinese Eyes was released, the Who's final album, It's Hard, came out. This was less successful than Face Dances and continued the sound of that album. On the whole, the album was pretty unimpressive, although "Eminence Front" is a truly terrific song. The Who made the tour for this album its "final" jaunt, taking the Clash out as its opening act as sort of a passing of the torch. Sadly, the Clash didn't last much longer than the Who and never reformed.

It was a few years before Townshend was heard from again, but he returned with a vengeance. In November 1985, he released White City: A Novel, a concept album that focused on a London housing project similar to the one he grew up in. The album was accompanied by a short film based on the story; here's the first 10 minutes:

Townshend even went on Letterman to talk about it, although he didn't want to play that night:

Right from the start, the album's first single was a complete change. "Face to Face" was a punchy big band tune with Pete as carnival barker/bandleader, a horn section and backing vocalists and was about as different from a Who song as you can get. And it was terrific:

The rollicking live video was a hit on the MTV and the song was all over the radio. But Townshend didn't totally turn his back on rock. The album opener "Give Blood" featured David Gilmour on guitar and is as rocking as anything Townshend had done in the last 10 years; it also featured the murky bass noodlings of Pino Palladino, who would step in to fill the bass slot in the Who when Entwhistle died while on tour in 2002.

The bluesy "Secondhand Love" features some terrific Townshend guitar work and also had a great video to accompany it:

Townshend originally wrote "White City Fighting" for David Gilmour's album About Face, but it ended up fitting better on White City instead. "Come to Mama" closes out the album on a driving note, as the couple featured on the album finishes at odds with each other.

White City ended up going gold, even though its highest chart position was 26, the same as Chinese Eyes. "Face the Face" actually spawned a few dance remixes, and the popularity of the live big band videos led to a follow-up live album called Deep End: Live, which featured several Who songs and a great cover of English Beat's "Save It for Later":

So after the success and brilliance of White City, Townshend was poised for even greater things. Or so I believed, anyway. Alas, his only solo releases since then were 1989's The Iron Man, which was based on the children's story, and 1993's Psychoderelict, another concept album that revisits Townshend's old Lifehouse story (which was begun and then aborted in favor of the classic Who's Next album). It's a mish-mash of spoken word and a radio play that doesn't quite work. In between these projects, Townshend's been organizing various and sundry
Who reunions. But unfortunately, we never got a true follow-up to White City. Which is too bad, because it would have been neat to see where he would have gone next.

After all he's contributed to rock over the decades, Townshend certainly doesn't owe anybody anything. He's given us more timeless music than nearly any other rock artist. But it is interesting to wonder what he could have done if he'd continued on the solo path he'd forged in the 1980s.

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