Graded on a Curve:
Pete Townshend,
Who Came First

When it comes to grandiosity, Pete Townshend takes the cake. He’s always had huge ambitions, as his numerous concept albums—both with The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia, the abandoned Lifehouse, and The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether–wait, that one was by The Alan Parsons Project) and on his own—demonstrate. And I suppose I always took it he had an ego as big as his ambitions. But what is one to make of his 1972 debut solo album, Who Came First, on which he turns things over on two of the LPs nine tracks to other people? And performs a third song he didn’t even write? Certainly that’s an act of humility, if not abject self-abasement.

And Who Came First isn’t particularly ambitious, either: he throws on a song that would later appear on The Who’s Odds and Sods, along with a prayer set to music for his spiritual guru Meher Baba, and so on. But there’s something becoming about Pete’s laid-back approach on Who Came First—he’s not trying to conquer the world for once, just to be content in it. And the LP includes a cool bunch of tunes that you’re guaranteed to love, even if “Parvardigar” (his salute to Meher Baba) isn’t one of them.

Pete isn’t entirely without ego. While he admirably declined to fill the studio with a star-studded cast of ringers, he went too far in the other direction, recording almost the entire LP all by his lonesome. The great Small Faces/Faces bassist and singer Ronnie Lane makes a cameo, as do musical gadfly Billy Nicholls and percussionist Caleb Quaye, best known for his work with Elton John and Hall & Oates, and that’s it. Townshend even plays the drums, adequately if not inspired, and who knew? I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he also took charge of mopping the studio WC.

Opener “Pure and Easy” is real pretty, lovely actually, but it doesn’t measure up to The Who version on Odds and Sods, with its powerhouse closing and great drumming by Keith Moon. But Pete’s take is still quite nice, and well worth a listen, for his guitar solo, his equally cool keyboards, and the song’s takeout, which features some nice drumming and Townshend repeating, “There once was a note, listen,” which may be cooler on The Who version, but still packs a punch here. Next up is Ronnie Lane’s homespun “Evolution,” on which Townshend contributes guitar. It’s not one of Lane’s best songs, but the guitar work is stellar, and you can’t beat Lane’s great vocals (and the enthusiasm he demonstrates) with a stick. The two always worked well together, and I can’t help but think a duet would have been sweet.

Billy Nicholls’ “Forever’s No Time At All” follows, and opens with a funky beat, complete with Townshend’s drumming and handclaps. Nicholls sings in a high voice, the tune sounds like great AM radio, and no way would anyone anywhere identify this baby as a Townshend song. And no wonder, as he hardly lifts a finger. “Nothing Is Everything (Let’s See Action)” is a great tune that The Who would later release as a single. It has great propulsion, and makes you want to dance, and Townshend’s impassioned vocals and nice guitar solo work their magic until the song’s midsection, when things slow down long enough for Pete to admit that he doesn’t know where he’s going, but that’s all right with him. Then he practically goes Beach Boys on your ass, before the song takes off again, Pete backing himself on vocals, singing “Nothing is” before following himself with an echoing “Everything.” Nice. Nicer even, in my opinion, than The Who’s piano-dominated version, although the vocals on the latter are more top of the pops.

“Content” was co-written by Townshend and Maud Kennedy (another Baba acolyte) and features some lovely piano and Townshend at his most tender and devout. A quiet song with great guitars and Townshend’s voice dissolving into an echo, it’s over before you know it, and while I don’t particularly like the content (I have a low threshold for spiritual claptrap) I’m happy if he’s happy, and I just do my best not to listen to the words. Pete’s cover of Ray Baker’s country tune “There’s a Heartache Following Me” is divine, with its keyboard and guitars and Pete’s vocals sounding as delicate as cut glass. I love the instrumental interlude, and I’d love to know who joins him on the second half of the song, but the album credits are taking the Fifth. Pete’s choice of a country cover might seem odd, but he proved he could work in the idiom on collaboration with Ronnie Lane on “When the Rivers All Run Dry” on 1977’s Rough Mix. “Sheraton Gibson” is a natty up-tempo tune with Pete sitting in the Cleveland Sheraton playing his Gibson and wishing he was home, and he does some cool stuff on the synthesizer and if it’s not a great song it’s a damn good one.

“Time Is Passing” is a bouncy domestic idyll with a catchy melody and a great bridge, some very delicate keyboards, and nice lyrics, and it all builds to a climax in which he declares it’s only through his music that he’ll be free. Which brings us to the mawkish closer “Parvardigar,” a Baba Meher prayer set to music. It’s a nice enough tune, a bit on the repetitive side, and almost sucks me in when Pete gets all passionate about his God’s attributes. Then he sings, “Before you we cower” and I turn my ears off, because there’s nothing that irks me, a devout agnostic, like a vindictive God. I have to handle it to Pete, though; the song builds to several nice climaxes, and they come close (but not close enough) to reconcile me to what amounts to a sermon set to music.

Several subsequent versions have emerged with bonus tracks, but none of them move me. He performs a version of “The Seeker” that is decidedly inferior to The Who version, and as with “There’s a Heartache Following Me” I’d love to know who’s singing along with Townshend on the song. And the Who Came First version also demonstrates the supernatural talents of the late Keith Moon; without him, the song lacks whump and urgency, and who wants that?

Pete Townshend is one of the immortals—I’d grant him that status based on “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” alone—and it’s nice to hear him in a more relaxed mode. Well, sort of nice. I’ve always put him in the same category as Bob Dylan; to wit, they’re both artists who have done their best when they were discontented, scornful, lost, you name it. A happy Pete Townshend is a good thing for Pete Townshend, but not particularly for the rest of us. In the gutter looking at the stars; to use Oscar Wilde’s words, that’s where Townshend has always done his best work. He’s the seeker, and his contentment is, alas, our loss.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text