January 30, 2017

The Deep End of Pete Townshend's Genius

Pete Townshend was always too ambitious for rock ‘n’ roll. 

Not so much with the early hits he wrote for The Who, songs like “Can’t Explain” and “Substitute,” which were in essence point-and-click snapshots of the lives Townshend observed around him—songs that in turn gave the band’s youthful audience a collective voice and culture of its own. More so, rather, with the emergence of Tommy in 1969, when Townshend broadened his creative sweep into the realm of a rock opera, crafting songs with narrative themes and psychologically complex characters that when presented together achieved even more prescient significance. 

Evolving from a singles-oriented band to one which makes long-form albums was not a particularly innovative shift in and of itself, of course. By the same year as Tommy’s soundtrack release, the Rolling Stones had likewise moved on from casting such succinct aspersions of British society as “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Get Off My Cloud” to pursue grander (and darker) subject matter on such LPs as Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed

What Townshend as the prime songwriting conduit in The Who was doing by this point, however, signified more than a mere intention to broaden a musical idea or even to render an album as some sort of cohesive piece of work. Townshend composed character sketches and thematic motifs, implemented plot devices and narrative constructions like a novelist or playwright, his lyrics laying the foundation that he and his bandmates—bassist John Entwistle, drummer Keith Moon, and vocalist Roger Daltrey—would then galvanize into song. 

Townshend could be obsessive about his art, but who could blame him? The expectations he unwittingly created—the benchmarks he and the band set in the studio, the mythologized behemoth The Who became on the concert stage—became a lot to live up to, with Townshend’s reputation as a songwriter dictating ever more genius with each new piece of music.  

In the throes of composing his most aspirational project yet, Lifehouse, Townshend grew increasingly overwhelmed and disillusioned, his intended magnum opus crumbling under his own madcap perfectionism. Scrapping all but the script, so to speak, the band’s producer Glyn Johns salvaged what he deemed the project’s strongest songs, culminating with the 1971 LP Who’s Next. An unmitigated classic, the album—which included a veritable haul of ageless warhorses like “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—offered perhaps the most ironic affirmation of Townshend’s artistic prowess. 

Only two years later Townshend redeemed himself with Quadrophenia, yet the specter of the Lifehouse debacle loomed over his head for decades to come. In fact, he didn’t put Lifehouse to bed for good until 1999 with the sprawling, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink box set, Lifehouse Chronicles—which, conspicuously, was credited not to The Who but to Pete Townshend.

And therein lies the crux of Townshend’s songcraft. For all the democratization that often makes a band better than the sum of its individual parts, Townshend’s best ideas came out of working alone. Sure, his initial ideas were then retooled and rearranged and implemented by one of the most ferocious rock bands on the planet. But the most crucial atoms of those classic Who anthems originated out of Townshend’s imagination.

Without the concerted collaboration of his band to shape his musical ideas, Townshend’s solo work (which he experimented with in the ‘70s before taking far more seriously in the ‘80s with albums like 1980’s Empty Glass and 1982’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes) seemed to be an endeavor wholly distinct from The Who.

Which is why, when on January 29, 1986, Townshend and a big-band ensemble dubbed the Deep End rolled into Cannes for a performance for the popular German television series Rockpalast in support of his solo album from the year before, White City: A Novel, the overriding impression—as witnessed on the Blu-ray and CD  Pete Townshend’s Deep End: Face The Face—is one of liberation. 

Boasting a five-piece brass cotillion and five backing vocalists, along with The Who’s stalwart keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on lead guitar, the fast-paced set is chock full of raw R&B energy, yielding solo highlights like “Slit Skirts” and “Second Hand Love” alongside a few Who favorites (“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Behind Blue Eyes”) for good measure. Oddly, Gilmour assumes more challenging and audience-thrilling passages on the axe than does Townshend, who seems to revel more in his role as entertainer—some rather awkward dance steps prove that point to a fault—than as a guitar god.

But perhaps that was the fundamental object of the exercise. Townshend had already, even by this point 31 years ago, composed one of the most enduring and imposing catalogs in all of rock history—he would return to The Who in periods of both ambivalence and urgency in the three decades to come—and he knew full well that the benchmark he helped set could never be eclipsed, much less by his own effort.

Townshend would never make a solo album without it garnering comparison to his most definitive work with The Who—take 1993’s Psychoderelict, for instance—but as a solo artist he has carved out a space wherein his genius can thrive with abandon.