When Pete Townshend Embraced ‘Pretentiousness’ on ‘The Iron Man’
“I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea of pretentiousness; it seems to me that’s what art most aggressively is about,” Pete Townshend said to the Associated Press in reference to his musical The Iron Man, which was released on June 27, 1989.
The idea for the musical came when Townshend worked as an editor at the publishing house, Faber and Faber, in the '80s. He became acquainted with Ted Hughes, Britain's Poet Laureate who wrote the teen novel, The Iron Man, that Townshend had been entranced with since the mid-‘70s.
The story of a giant made entirely of iron that appears in a bucolic English town -- where he eats farm equipment, angers the townsfolk, becomes friends with a young boy and battles a space dragon -- tackles very complex themes to which Townshend was attracted. In his book, Who I Am, Townshend wrote, “Ted’s book connected with me at many levels. It was a post-war book, attending to the futility of the nuclear age: when a single bomb can wipe out an entire country [...] By putting a young boy at the center of his tale, I was always working with the system I knew best: The problems of growing into manhood at such a time.”
After meeting Hughes, and expressing his interest in developing his story into a musical, Townshend started roughing out lyrics and music for "I Eat Heavy Metal," "A Friend Is a Friend," "Over the Top," and even "Fake It" -- which would end up on his 1993 solo album, ‘Psychoderelict.’
The news that Townshend was working on a new musical resurrected the thought of the Who reforming and recording The Iron Man. Townshend knew better, though. “The music I’d composed so far was definitely not suitable for the Who, and I knew Roger [Daltrey] would hate it.” Despite the urging of the band’s manager Bill Curbishley, Townshend mostly stuck to his original idea of having a variety of voices sing the songs in the musical.
However, perhaps caving to his manager’s request, the Who did regroup to record a cover of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's “Fire” and “Dig” – the latter being the most Who-like song on the record with vocal phrasing that fit with Roger Daltrey’s singing style. Also, in a bit of casting genius, John Lee Hooker was the voice of the Iron Man who deftly handled lyrics like: “I eat heavy metal and gargle premium gas / I drink heavy water and nitro-demitasse / I eat heavy metal and chew up a limousine / I munch barbed wire in my submarine.”
Listen to Pete Townshend's 'A Friend Is a Friend'
Despite all the work that went into The Iron Man, some critics were unimpressed with Townshend’s foray into a Broadway-like musical. Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic wrote that the album “suffers from a lack of songs,” and was “an overwrought, ambitious failure.” David Fricke from Rolling Stone was kind in his review saying that it’s a “captivating album about children, for children, and for anyone who isn’t too cool to share their fantasies.” But Fricke also added, “It’s not lightweight art pop; nor is it the great Townshend record we’ve all been waiting for since Empty Glass.”
At that point in his career, however, Townshend wasn’t interested in follow-ups, and was less sanguine about playing with the Who to celebrate their 25th anniversary. But the realization that a tour with his old band would make him very, very rich was too tempting to overlook. With the tour plans getting underway, The Iron Man languished in terms of airplay. Both “A Friend Is a Friend” and “I Won’t Run Anymore” failed to chart in the U.K. and the U.S., and the album suffered the same fate.
Even Townshend knew that he basically let The Iron Man project die. In a journal entry in December 1989, Townshend lamented, “I approach the year with mixed feelings…I let Iron Man sink so I could do the Who tour. But the tour was a triumph in many ways.” Perhaps with his financial house secure and the added success of the Broadway version of Tommy, Townshend felt that the time was right to bring The Iron Man to the stage. In 1993, he was able to debut the musical in London at the Young Vic Theatre to generally savage reviews, but a good amount of popular interest in the musical. The box office success of the stage version of The Iron Man piqued the interest of Hollywood, and in 1999, the story was made into the film, The Iron Giant – with Townshend as one of the executive producers.
While the songs on The Iron Man lack the power chords and soaring choruses that Townshend’s work is known for, the album is clearly in the tradition of Townshend’s love of big ideas and the transformative power of music. But even with his grandiose ideas behind the musical, he even admitted that his effort fell short. Writing in Who I Am about his thoughts on the music he created for The Iron Man, Townshend said, “I’d overworked the songs so they sometimes came across without enough edge, and seemed almost lightweight.” For those raised on Album Oriented Rock radio, the lukewarm reception to The Iron Man confirmed for many what Rob Dickins at Warner Bros. said to Townshend, “You’ve gone all whiter than white and squeaky clean. Your fans don’t know who you are any more.”