Kronomyth 2.0: THE RAINBOW CONNECTION. You know the story, so I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say that Clapton finally came out to play, and Townshend comes out smelling like a rose. The original Rainbow concerts consisted of two shows (both on January 13, 1973), billed as Eric Clapton and The Palpitations, and you could rightfully expect some with the likes of Clapton, Townshend, Steve Winwood, Ron Wood and supporting members of Blind Faith and Traffic sharing the same stage. Despite conditions that were ripe for failure (Clapton’s heroin habit, a scant ten days of rehearsal), the concerts were an unqualified success and showed that Clapton had lost little of his edge and ability. The resulting elpee, unfortunately, was a heavily abridged version of the concerts reduced to six tracks including one by Traffic (“Pearly Queen”) and a little-known Derek & the Dominos b-side, “Roll It Over.” If you bought that elpee, you got rolled indeed. The 14-track remaster is an act of atonement that draws from both shows to present something much closer to the actual concert experience, in chronological order with only two tracks missing (“Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”). If you see the original elpee in a used record store somewhere, punch it for me. Then go buy this expanded remaster, because there’s a shortage of miracles in the world and this is surely 1 of them; 2 bad it took 22 years to roll around. I’d rank this as the most essential of Clapton’s live records, and then I’d tell you confidentially that live records aren’t really made to be listened to over and over; they’re reference documents, like a thesaurus. As you slough through some of Clapton’s mediocre studio albums and wonder why people bothered showing up at all, return to the Rainbow and your faith in the man’s star presence will be renewed.
Kronomyth 4.0: A PAIR GIFTED. I would tell you that this collaboration between Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend is a happy accident except, of course, there are no accidents. What we see as chance and happenstance is the will of God moving (or choosing not to move) invisibly in our lives. Thus, you could see Rough Mix as a gift from God. I don’t say that lightly. Music is an articulation of spirit. It plays a vital role in our communication with and worship of God. And because God has foreknowledge of everything, he knew the words and lyrics to “Annie” and “Heart To Hang Onto” from the beginning of time. Our familiarity with these songs is considerably shorter but, once heard, the music of Rough Mix isn’t quickly forgotten. What began as a Ronnie Lane solo album became a half album each from Lane and Pete Townshend, who was originally tapped by Lane to produce the album. The material from Lane is some of the best of his career, likeable rockers and acoustic numbers reminiscent of The Faces that include “Annie” (one of the sweetest songs you’ll ever hear), “Nowhere To Run” and “April Fool.” Lane has a gruff voice, but its working-class sensibilities can be disarming in the best way. The material from Townshend is also some of the best of his solo career, which came as a surprise to me. “Heart To Hang Onto,” “My Baby Gives It Away,” “Street In The City” and “Misunderstood” should be considered essential additions to any proper Who collection. Maybe the labels didn’t know what they had with Rough Mix, but the whole thing was packaged and marketed like some incidental side project. Had it been given the herald of Empty Glass, “Annie,” “Heart To Hang Onto” and “My Baby Gives It Away” might have become classics. The radio running in our heads is the only important one, though. If you haven’t tuned into this music yet, now is your (not) chance. In 2006, Hip-O added a few bonus tracks to the mix, including Lane’s old-tymey “Only You,” which is a treat to hear.
The songs that Pete Townshend wrote in the wake of Keith Moon’s death didn’t appear on any album by The Who; rather, they were released on Pete’s first “serious” solo album, Empty Glass. Fans and radio stations were hungry for some musical statement from the spokesman of his generation in the post-Moon landscape, and what they got sounded very much like The Who. While the album has its share of quieter confessional songs that recall The Who By Numbers, the record also featured a number of rockers that mixed Pete’s patented fire with a more contemporary sound. It was these that captured listeners’ limited imaginations: “Rough Boys,” “Gonna Get Ya” and “Let My Love Open the Door.” (In fairness, “A Little Is Enough,” which is one of Pete’s prettiest songs, did break the US Top 100.) The rest of the record is intelligent filler, although it has since come to light from various interviews that some of these songs allude to the artist’s own confused sexual identity, which pretty much sucks the fun out of them. Elsewhere, the title track and “I Am an Animal” join a long line of self-deprecating songs that strip away the gloss from the singer’s star image. The backing band may lack the fire of The Who in their heyday, but they’re not far removed from the post-Moon incarnation of the band; in fact, drummer Kenney Jones even plays on one track (“Rough Boys”). Unfortunately, Townshend’s solo career has since been bogged down by big ideas, and his songwriting has generally suffered for it. Empty Glass remains the best bet from his solo catalog to please fans of The Who, though there are some who still can’t reconcile that band’s spirit of invincibility with Pete’s own vulnerabilities.
This is to many the most popular song in Pete’s personal catalog, and his only solo Top 10 single to date. “Let My Love Open The Door” deals with the teachings of Meher Baba if memory serves. The US flip side, “And I Moved,” is purportedly about Pete’s own homoerotic conflict (let my love open the backdoor, I suppose). This is why I generally don’t do a lot of digging into the composer’s intent (well, that and laziness). The UK single featured two nonalbum tracks. Probably the less you know about “Greyhound Girl,” the better.
I’ve had the odd fortune to run into some real ramblers in my day, but even they didn’t talk my ear off the way All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes does. The Who were a band of action, but Pete Townshend on his own overanalyzes, overscrutinizes and overstates his emotions, overshooting his audience in the process. It’s too bad that this album numbs the listener so early, because isolated moments on here are brilliant, from “The Sea Refuses No River” to “Somebody Saved Me.” Given time, the more subtle arrangements manage to weave their magic, but who had the time? Radio stations salvaged “Slit Skirts” from the bookshelf and let the rest burn. If it’s not his best album (and it’s not), Chinese Eyes is a valiant effort: the insecure poet debilitated by his own failings but finding hope in the light at the end of the tunnel. Not surprisingly, the album sounds a lot like It’s Hard, released by The Who three months later. And while some of The Who connections are obvious (“Face Dances Part Two,” “Stardom In Acton” re-cast as “I’ve Known No War”), Pete’s clearly trying to be himself on this album. The trouble is, a lot of Who fans didn’t want to watch their hero pick at his own wounds; self-deprecation is one thing, self-immolation quite another. And yet I find myself oddly captivated by Chinese Eyes’ flip-flopping between optimism and cynicism, like an internal dialogue being played out in a troubled but conscientious mind. It’s a thoughtful record, and some of the thoughts are dark, and some are deep. Fans who appreciate Townshend for who he is, and not who he was, will enjoy this in a different way than Empty Glass, but they will enjoy it.
The Final Cut was made, the battle was over, but a new war was brewing: Pink vs. Floyd. Waters’ Hitchhiking had more cons than pros, all of the acerbic intellect of Cut but none of its musical charm. In a grab for the same brass ring Pink was last seen holding, Gilmour enlisted an epic storyteller (Pete Townshend) and their epic producer (Bob Ezrin), beating Waters to market with About Face. More ambitious than his first solo album, this was the great grab for solo credibility, enlisting a wide cast of players (Michael Kamen, Steve Winwood, Jon Lord) and even The National Philharmonic Orchestra (Ezrin never did anything by halves). The result is closer to the Pink Floyd lite that fans could reasonably expect (e.g., “Near The End,” the instrumental “Let’s Get Metaphysical”) and in fact received when Gilmour won the right to re-form the band. With the emphasis on songs rather than instrumentals, Face yields more memorable moments than its predecessor: “Love On The Air,” “Cruise,” “Murder.” Nothing on here will change your world, and despite the presence of Ezrin it’s not a concept album, but it’s nice to see Gilmour step out of the shadows and get the star treatment he deserves. Yes, the tart guitar licks are still there, but the guitarist is more interested in establishing himself as a singer and songwriter on About Face since, if there was to be life after Pink, a solo career of endless soloing wouldn’t cut it. Fortunately, we’ll never know if Gilmour could have sustained a solo career. Fans went to Waters first for inspiration, but Hitchhiking was a momentary lapse of judgment and, by the time radio stations warmed to KAOS, A Momentary Lapse of Reason had re-captured the imagination of Pink Floyd fans. Thus About Face serves as a sign of what might have been, and truth be told it wasn’t as interesting as the convoluted Waters or the reconstituted Floyd. If the space between The Final Cut and Reason represents a void in your life, About Face and Radio KAOS should fill the gap nicely. Otherwise, embrace the space and use the opportunity to discover a new band, like Porcupine Tree or Mostly Autumn.
White City had the misfortune of being allied with the inscrutable short film of the same name, though outside of that context it’s a stirring album of top-notch material. Forgetting the movie for a moment (handily done), these songs represent the most polished rock tunes to come from Pete’s pen in some time. “Give Blood,” “Brilliant Blues,” “Hiding Out,” “Secondhand Love” and “White City Fighting” belong with his best: rousing, resilient rock songs that treat self-assessment as a contact sport. In fact, you could make the case that White City is his best solo album, song-for-song perhaps his strongest collection since Who Are You. The tracks are well laid out, alternating between impassioned rockers and more melodic pieces, enabling songs drawn from the same well to develop different tastes. It’s a less wordy affair than All the Best Cowboys, returning to the guitar-driven energy of Empty Glass, which should delight fans of that album. What it all means, though, is anybody’s guess. The references to soul-searching at a critical point in life seem obvious, peace is made with the world, and the narrator returns re-charged to his home (finding his purpose in the process). At least, that was my take on White City until I saw the film, which just kind of follows some guy around in his home town, devoid of much action or interest. Townshend’s desire to again fuse music and theatre into an epic whole has been his unscratchable itch in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The efforts, long in the making and generally uneven, have marginalized his impact in popular music. Yet, as an album of music, White City is a towering success.
One of those “an intimate evening with the artist” affairs that eschews the expected for the unexpected. It’s unlikely anyone showed up in Brixton expecting live versions of “I Put A Spell On You,” “Barefootin’,” “Eyesight To The Blind” or The Beat’s “Save It For Later.” (For the record, Townshend’s acoustic reading of The Beat’s greatest hit sucks the charm right out a song that I could have sworn didn’t have a blowhole to suck from.) Originally released as a concert video, the elpee’s release appears to be an afterthought, “by popular demand” as the back cover claims. Maybe the video captures the scaled-back setting to better effect, but as an audio-only experience Deep End Live! doesn’t earn the exclamation point. There are some pleasant moments on here, including a warm reading of “I’m The One” and the unsinkable “Little Is Enough.” But “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Pinball Wizard” should kill in concert; they don’t here. As his first solo live album, even in its semi-official status, Pete Townshend’s Deep End Live! should have been a celebration of his solo music with a smattering of Who classics for good effect. Instead, Townshend takes the opportunity to step back from himself and deliver occasionally hot covers of R&B oldies. “I Put A Spell On You” is nearly spellbinding, “Barefootin’” kind of fizzles. If you find Townshend fascinating in any context, dive into Deep End without reservation. For my part, I find this an extracurricular indulgence I could live without, like those live performances for the Policeman’s Ball.
Okay, Who fans, you’ll want to have your programs out for this one. Pete Townshend is a ten-year-old boy (Hogarth) who befriends a large robot (The Iron Man, John Lee Hooker). Hogarth has a conscience (The Vixen, played by Deborah Conway) and a cadre of friendly woodland creatures (including Brother Simon as The Owl) to guide him. The Iron Man is first pursued by angry locals (led by Hogarth’s father, Roger Daltrey) and finally challenges a giant space dragon (don’t ask) to a duel, which frees Hogarth’s beloved. The message here is, well, I have no idea what the message is. A Freudian might have a field day with a giant space dragon that harbors a beautiful young girl or a conscience called The Vixen. A Freudian with a lot of free time, anyway. This musical is based on Ted Hughes’ story “The Iron Man,” which I believe was adapted for an animated film here in the States. It’s wonderfully packaged, tastefully produced, intelligent, ambitious and, ultimately, baffling. White City excelled as an album of new music and failed as a film. Psychoderelict tried to do both in the audio format and failed at both. The Iron Man stands somewhere in the middle. The songs lack the portability of White City but are infinitely easier to excise from the story than Psychoderelict. “I Won’t Run Anymore,” “Dig” (one of two tracks to feature John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey) and “A Friend Is A Friend” are what you would expect from a new Pete Townshend album. Despite criticism to the contrary, I think the songs are strong. But hearing them sung by John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone separates them from Pete’s previous body of work. Some day, if Pete decides to tackle an “I Eat Heavy Metal” or “Over The Top” on his own, I’ll bet you it turns out pretty spiffy. On a lot of fronts, The Iron Man (The Musical) was doomed to failure before it took its first steps, but Townshend remains determined to elevate the musical medium. It’s a fitting occupation for a living legend, a holy grail worthy of the grey knight. If you’ve come this far in the adventure, don’t stop now.
It hit me when the 18th individual track rolled around, a stretch of talking called “Dialogue Introduction to Now And Then (Reprise),” how unnecessarily complicated this all was. If you thought Radio K.A.O.S. was work, it’ll feel like a vacation next to this. In light of Pete’s recent travails (which appear to be unfortunate for everyone involved), I’ll leave discussion of the principal action—an aging rock star apparently corresponds with a 15-year-old girl—for another, brighter day. Psychoderelict is ambitious, telling the story of a ‘70s rock star who tries to revive his career with a live performance on the Grid (something of an evolution on the Internet that allows people to escape their own realities) while simultaneously being manipulated via a smear campaign architected by a rock critic whom he falls in love with. Complicated, I know, but luckily there’s the lyric sheet to follow—except that half of the lyrics are printed upside down (this was a group conspiracy). The dialogue from the trio of unsympathetic characters (Ray Hines, his manager and bitchy Rosalyn) covers the listener in a greasy, uneasy feeling much of the way; even when Ray redeems himself with the revelation that leads to “Fake It,” it’s hard to feel good about any of this. In fact, it seems like a weak whitewashing of events after all the dark ugliness that has been squeezed from the story. By album’s end, Townshend’s concept acknowledges its own inability to deliver a better world, once again saving his most scathing remarks for himself. Salvaging songs from this convoluted concept is probably fool’s work, but here goes: “English Boy” is nearly as fun as “Face the Face,” the combination of “Meher Baba m4 (Signal Box)” and “Early Morning Dreams” is strangely transcendent, and “Outlive the Dinosaur” has a quiet intensity to it. Still (and I never thought I’d say this about any work of art that features gratuitous spanking) I don’t like Psychoderelict. Note that the album was also released in versions with the dialogue edited and the dialogue removed, which results in less talk but not more action.