Growing up, I always thought The Who were the greatest band of all time, mostly because of the sheer amount of energy put into their music. As a young drummer, Keith Moon’s acrobatic style of playing was as much of an aerobic workout as it was a form of musical catharsis. I paid little attention to the actual content of the lyrics – sure, there was that song about pinball and the one about teenage wastelands, but what did I care? I liked it because it was loud. I liked it because Pete Townshend regularly smashed his guitar onstage. I liked it because songs like “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” had a punk sensibility to it.
But once I finally listened closely, I was surprised when I picked up on all of the spiritual undertones (and overtones) in Townshend’s lyrics. Perhaps surprised isn’t the right word – shocked, maybe? My relationship with The Who will always be one rooted in nostalgia, occasionally paying a visit to fourteen-year-old me, pounding away behind my drum kit. It is my relationship with Pete Townshend’s songwriting that has come out on top. Once I finally subjected his work to the same level of scrutiny I had done with other musicians, I loved what I found.
After a near-death experience on an airplane while tripping on acid in 1967, Townshend became a staunch opponent of drug use, devoting himself to the teachings of Persian mystic Meher Baba. Baba himself is an interesting guy, a self-proclaimed messenger of God, but he never expressed an interest in starting a new religion. Throughout his public career, which began in the 1920’s, he sought to present a uniting philosophy for people of all backgrounds: Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, agnostic, or atheist. His message of universal peace, love, and understanding found a new audience with the burgeoning hippie movement in the late 1960’s. There was one caveat – Baba was very anti-drug. In his essay “God In A Pill,” he wrote, “If God can be found through the medium of any drug, God is not worthy of being God.”
Baba’s spirituality was a major inspiration for Townshend, who credited Baba as a spiritual avatar in the liner notes for the original Tommy album. He also served as a partial namesake for The Who’s song “Baba O’Riley.” Townshend thought of music as potential medium that could evoke mass harmony and unity among people of all backgrounds. This theme dominated his aborted rock opera Lifehouse, which was cut down and turned into The Who’s 1971 smash, Who’s Next. While The Who got to keep the heavier songs from the Lifehouse project, Townshend kept some of the more philosophical numbers for his solo debut Who Came First.
Playing every instrument on the album, Townshend presents an alternate universe of what his band (and yes, I’m saying The Who were and are Pete Townshend’s band – feel free to comment below) could have sounded like in any other form. Gone are the bombastic drums of Keith Moon, replaced instead by a steady, laid-back style of playing that is much better suited for the subject matter. Gone, but similarly not necessarily missing, is Roger Daltrey’s vocals. Roger is great at belting out the heavier tunes, but on the more delicate numbers his singing can be a bit overpowering. Instead, we have Pete’s gentle, welcoming tenor.
“Pure And Easy,” which opens the album, was meant to be the thematic showcase for Lifehouse, a plea for humanity to end its destructive ways. He urges us to “realize the simple secret / of the note / in us all,” pointing to our underlying common “note” as a means to bring about peace. If this all sounds too preachy, the song itself is one of Townshend’s most comforting and majestic melodies.
Though credited as a Townshend solo effort, Side A actually features two songs by two of Townshend’s close friends. The first of these is “Evolution,” a Dylanesque folk tune about reincarnation by Ronnie Lane, who played bass with The Faces, and an occasional Townshend collaborator. The second is “Forever’s No Time At All,” written and performed by Townshend’s friend Billy Nicholls. It’s a joyous celebration of love, one completely in step with the attitude of the time. Nicholls later had some success with the song “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which was a hit for Leo Sayer, Phil Collins, and Keith Urban.
After these two (welcome) detours, we’re back to Pete, doing “Let’s See Action,” which The Who had released as a single the previous year. This version is more relaxed, credited as “Nothing Is Everything (Let’s See Action),” and with Townshend singing it is much more fitting, documenting his own search for truth in one’s lifetime: past, present, and future.
Side B opens with “Time Is Passing,” which relates to Townshend’s oft-stated claim that certain notes and tones were capable of having a profound effect on him, even in his childhood. He sings, “It’s only by the music I’ll be free,” hinting at a religious connection between the man and the music. The following track is an interesting choice, recorded because it was one of Baba’s favorites, a cover of Jim Reeves’ country ballad “There’s A Heartache Following Me.” As odd as it may seem that the same guy who declared “I hope I die before I get old” would cover a song like this, it is a wonderful end result, one clearly done in earnest. Townshend’s “Sheraton Gibson” is somewhat out of place, being a bittersweet nod to life on the road, but it amplifies the themes of isolation from the previous two cuts.
The final two songs are the ones most immersed in spirituality. “Content” is adapted from a poem written by Maud Kennedy; unfortunately, an Internet search of that name is clouded by the fact that there is a French adult actress with the same name. The poem is written in the first person, presented by Townshend as being like a morning prayer, accompanied only by piano. The closing track is by far the most overtly religious, Meher Baba’s universal prayer “Parvardigar.” Townshend goes through the densely-worded devotional like it’s his own words, gaining momentum over the course of six minutes. It makes for a powerful – if slightly sanctimonious – ending to a beautiful record.
I always turn to this album, regardless of my mood. At times, it’s a much needed source of calm and relaxation, like meditating. Other times, it’s happy background music for an already perfect day. From a historical perspective, I think it’s a much more valid statement towards how humanity can continue to better itself without getting too lofty. Regardless, it is a versatile collection of songs from a songwriter whose spiritual side is often overlooked in favor of the sight of seeing the man smash his guitar to splinters onstage.