Graded on a Curve: Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix

Ronnie Lane is a hardly a household name, but he is one of my all-time favorite rockers. Whether with the Small Faces, the large Faces, or his own band Slim Chance, Lane’s lovely and wistful voice was always a pleasure, whether he was singing sublime ballads like The Faces’ “Debris” or “Oh La La” or knocking off a hard rocker like the hilarious Faces tune “You’re So Rude.” The world didn’t know what it lost when Lane died at 51 after suffering for 21 years from multiple sclerosis. But I can tell you what it lost; a soulful and sweet soul whose bass work and vocals had an integral impact on not just one, but two great rock’n’roll bands.

Lane was a frequent collaborator with the likes of Pete Townshend, Steve Marriott, and Ronnie Wood (the two of them recorded the soundtrack to the 1972 Canadian film Mahoney’s Last Stand, and it’s a tremendous series of rave-ups despite its almost total lack of vocals). He recorded four LPs between 1970 and 1977 with Townshend, but three of them are hard-to-find tributes to their spiritual mentor Meher Baba, who lent his name to the great “Baba O’Riley.” Their fourth collaboration was Rough Mix, which was released in 1977 and featured an all-star cast that included Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Ian Stewart, Charlie Watts, King Crimson’s Boz Burrell, the ubiquitous John “Rabbit Bundrick, and Medicine Head’s Peter Hope Evans. Why, even Townshend’s father-in-law, the noted British TV and movie soundtrack composer Edwin Astley, makes an appearance. Sly Stone is right; this one’s a family affair.

Lane and Townshend eschew rock for the most part, opting instead to mine the folk-rock vein, and it works. Lane wanted to collaborate on songs with Townshend but Townshend declined, and this collection of songs by two separate songwriters has a disparate feel, which is another way of saying it’s stylistically all over the map. But what holds it together is the passion both men pour into the songs, which stray from pure folk ballads to a pair of rave-ups to a handful of songs that defy easy definition, but show that both men showed up at the sessions—this despite the fact that Lane had just discovered he was ill—at the top of their game. No throwaways, in other words, or songs they didn’t think were good enough for their primary bands—they came to record great music, not just fuck around and jam.

One last thing and then I’ll shut up—several of the songs on Rough Mix are suffused with a spirituality that speaks well to the teachings of Meher Baba, whatever they are. Lane’s “April Fool” and “Annie” and Townshend’s “Keep Me Turning” and “Heart to Hang Onto” are all lovely testaments to music’s ability to send you, if not to Heaven, then to some other astral plane. But the pair record some playful tunes as well, and the album’s mix, if rough as its title implies, is a heady concoction that will leave you feeling better about your fucked-up place in this most fucked-up of all universes.

The title track is a raw and rambunctious instrumental that reminds me of The Faces’ “Bad’N’Ruin.” The only collaboration between Lane and Townshend, it’s a high-octane, hard-driving number dominated by Eric Clapton’s dobro and even more so by Rabbit Bundrick’s Fender Rhodes, and it never fails to make me happy. As for “Catmelody,” it’s a rollicking throwback to the early days of rock, with Lane on vocals, “Sixth Stone” Ian Stewart on Jerry Lee Lewis-school piano, and Charlie Watts on drums. It also features some cool saxophone work by Mel Collins, who throws in a great honking solo to take the song out. As for “Misunderstood,” it’s what Townshend wants to be, and sounds more like a Who song than any of his other contributions to the LP. A great harmonic solo by Hope Evans and some funky percussion by Julian Diggle both punctuate Townshend’s plaint about how he “wants to be feared” in his neighborhood, and wants people to cry when he “puts them down.” I like how the song’s volume picks up in the middle, and how he says, “Yeah” as the backing singers repeat the mantra, “Cool walking smooth talking straight smoking fire stoking” as the song nears its end.

Lane’s vocals on the folksy and midtempo “April Fool” are lovely, as is Clapton’s dobro work. Dave Markee plays a nice double bass, and this one is a strings extravaganza that ends with a long instrumental. But its Lane’s quiet and evocative vocals that win the day; he conveys emotion with his thick accent, and I’ll say it again; rock lost a treasure when it lost Lane. This becomes doubly obvious on the folk tune “Annie,” a song so plain and simple you’ll wonder why you’re crying. Benny Gallagher plays a sweet accordion, Charles Hart some touching violin, and it will break your heart, this one. Moving in a different way is Townshend’s “Keep Me Turning,” which is an expression of spiritual yearning expressed in the terms of the concrete. The chorus is achingly lovely, but it’s Townshend’s urgent vocals and excellent lyrics that win the day. “They saw the Messiah/But I guess I missed him again,” he sings, “That brings my score to 110.” And later, “I’ve got the ticket/Just gotta get past the picket/They say that the trick is to walking backwards like you’re walking out/I guess the Lord’s wearing glasses now,” and it sounds like he’s talking about Heaven, spiritual seeker that he is.

The duo’s cover of country singer Don Williams’ spiritual love song “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” is also lovely. John Entwistle and Billy Nicholls join Lane and Townshend on vocals on the choruses, and the combination of guitars and their voices are intensely moving. Townshend sings lead in a voice that is little more than a whisper, and I dare you not to join in on the chorus (“Till the rivers all run dry/Till the sun falls from the sky/Till life on earth is through/I’ll be needing you.”). I don’t know who plays the guitar solo—it’s Townshend, I think, although it could be Clapton—but it’s sublime, as is the song as a whole. “My Baby Gives It Away” is a perky rock shift from the sacred to the profane, as Townshend spends the song lamenting his status as a cuckold. His baby may be cheap—in fact she “gives it away for free”—but he loves her anyway. Charlie Watts fills in on drums, while Townshend’s guitar work is playful, and far from sounding down in the mouth about his girl’s easy-going attitude towards fidelity, he sounds matter of fact. She’s the way she is, and that’s all there is to it. I love the way he repeats “My baby” a good ten times at least before the guitar takes over, just as much as I love “Nowhere to Run,” which follows. A Lane tune, it features Bundrick on Fender Rhodes, but it’s Hope Evans on harmonica who really shines. Meanwhile Lane laments the fact that there’s nowhere to run, although it’s not altogether clear what he’s running from. Me, I’m not running, I’m just sitting back and reveling in his grainy vocals.

Townshend’s “Heart to Hang Onto” may be the LP’s most beautiful track. A plaintive cry, it opens with some lovely acoustic guitars and has Lane singing the verses and Townshend the choruses, which are lovely (“Give me a heart to hang onto/Give me a soul that’s tailored new/Give me a heart to hang onto”). The guitar work is extraordinary, Rabbit contributes some pretty and chiming keyboards, and the urgency is evident in both singers’ vocals. They sing about various sad personages, a drunk and a lonely woman, and at about the halfway mark the song kicks into overdrive, with some excellent guitar and Entwistle contributing on horns. Then the song returns to its midtempo pace, only to pick up pace towards the end, as both singers join together before Rabbit ends it with those magical keyboards of his.

The LP’s most ambitious track is Townshend’s “Street in the City,” which comes complete with orchestra and has a whimsical Townshend watching life in the city “on a working day” pass him by. Leaning against a wall, he imagines all sorts of scenarios, and obviously bored, waits for something, anything, to happen. “There’s a man upon that ledge/He’s only cleaning windows/What a shame/Who’s to blame/For the pain with his sin/Going to lean back on my wall/And wait for him to fall.” He creates a mystery out of a man walking into a bank, prays for a woman’s “knickers to fall,” and all the while Ashley’s orchestra is hard at work. The melody is lovely and I usually disdain orchestral flourishes in rock songs, but the song works because of Townshend’s perspective as an observer with a keen eye and a rich imagination.

Rough Mix is not the greatest LP ever made, but I’ve been listening to it for decades and have never tired of it. Its many different musical styles, rather than making it sound diffuse, enrich it, and neither Townshend nor Lane is just fooling around; the album has a spiritual resonance that will stick with you, one that goes from “Heart to Hang Onto” to “April Fool” to “Keep Me Turning.” And “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” is a song for the ages, and one of the most touching love songs I’ve ever heard. The musical world lost a great man in Ronnie Lane, a man touched by the spirit if there ever was one, and Townshend is at the top of his game, and a spiritual man as well, and the result is an album that will uplift you, and raise you on high, and that is no minor thing, but rather everything you can hope for from great music.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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