Top 10 Underrated Pete Townshend Songs
Pete Townshend is inching toward his seventh decade on planet Earth, which guarantees he will be old when he dies. The co-founder of the Who will first and foremost be known for his work with that band, while his solo career has been marked by a very non-linear journey — one marked by a search for some kind of spiritual redemption and fulfillment. Those themes clearly made their way into the Who’s music too, though some found a fuller expression in his solo work. That’s why we’ve collected a mix of songs penned for both the Who and Townshend’s own albums to complete this list of Top 10 Underrated Pete Townshend songs.
A ’60s-era rock star finding spirituality in an Indian mystic and adopting the teaching philosophy of said mystic is almost a stereotype. However, Townshend has never wavered in his admiration of Meher Baba (The Baba in ‘Baba O’Riley’). While Townshend’s drug use was at odds with Baba’s views, he never tossed out his beliefs throughout the decades. Indeed, his more overtly religious songs were usually tempered with narratives that involved child abuse and salvation (‘Tommy’), Mod culture (‘Quadrophenia’), or an early version of the Internet as connecting people to more authentic experiences (‘Lifehouse’ and ‘Psychoderelict’). However, one song members of the Who were most likely never exposed to during band meetings was ‘Parvardigar’ — a prayer Baba asked his devotees to say every day. Townshend set the prayer to music, and the result is this rather heartfelt and beautiful song.
‘A Friend Is A Friend’
No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Underrated Pete Townshend Songs is from ‘The Iron Man,’ which is based on a 1968 children’s story of the same name published by Ted Hughes. Townshend may have glommed onto the story for its sophisticated look at the way people react to differences in society, and thought it might make for a nifty solo project. He certainly had grand plans for the record with a stage musical, but that fell apart when the Who reunited that year. Critics panned the album, but the single did well at in the U.S., peaking at No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock chart. While very few radio stations play this song anymore, there’s a certain sweetness about how two unlikely souls become fast friends.
‘And I Moved’
Originally written for Bette Midler, the song showed up on Pete’s first real solo album, ‘Empty Glass.’ Many took the lyrics literally and thought it was Pete expressing his homosexuality or bisexuality, but considering he was writing the song for Midler. Lyrics like, ‘As he laid me back just like an empty dress’ are less about gender preferences than a kind of surrender to a complicated lover. The galloping piano riff that dominates the song keeps the tempo upbeat, but the way Townshend sings the verses have a more ethereal quality that gives the song a dream-like feel.
‘Now and Then’
‘Psychoderelict’ tells the story of Ray High, an aging, reclusive rock star who enters into a correspondence with a young girl eager to start her music career. ‘Psychoderelict’ received mixed reviews, but Townshend penned some incredibly melodic songs for the album. ‘Now and Then’ is based on Townshend’s rocky friendship with Liz Geier, which paralleled Ray High’s relationship with Rosalyn Nathan on the record. And as he wrote in ‘Who I Am,’ ‘Now and Then’ is “a real love song … one of the few I’d ever written, and it was about a frustrated affair.’ The lyrics are open, honest, and unfiltered in Townshend’s affections for someone who he perceived as skeptical of him and his talents.
‘Life to Life’
Bob and Harvey Weinstein were concert promoters back in the ’70s before becoming celebrated film distributors. According to ‘Who I Am,’ Townshend befriended Harvey Weinstein in Buffalo, N. Y. during their first concert following the Cincinnati tragedy at Riverfront Coliseum where 11 people died before a Who concert. In the mid-’80s, Harvey was making his directorial debut on a film he wrote with his brother, entitled ‘Playing for Keeps’ and Townshend wrote the song specifically for the project. ‘Life to Life’ has a similar synthesizer sound to the one Townshend uses on ‘Uniform’ from 1982, but this time it’s much more pronounced and used with more emotional effect. While the song did better than the film (it peaked at No. 39 on the Mainstream Rock charts), it’s one of those gems from Townshend’s ‘80s output that often gets overlooked.
‘White City Fighting’
‘White City: A Novel’ is an ill-conceived concept record that attempted to weave in autobiographical elements from Townshend’s life the way Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ did. Individually, the songs are all fairly well-crafted, but they don’t work well when taken together as part of a narrative. ‘White City Fighting,’ though, is a solid song with a forlorn guitar intro that builds into a more explosive mid-tempo beat. We follow a protagonist who both wanted out of White City (which was, for a time, a government housing project in London), but looks back fondly on all the fights he got into and how it formed the person he is today. It’s not the most elegantly told story by Townshend, but it’s still strong enough for the No. 5 spot on our list of the Top 10 Underrated Pete Townshend Songs.
‘Stardom in Acton’
‘All The Best Cowboys’ barely registers in Townshend’s autobiography, but it’s full of redemptive themes, and was released on the heels of Townshend’s own recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Lyrically, ‘Stardom in Acton’ is replete with allusions to the dual nature of drug use and overcoming them with lines like ‘Now I know the power rests in me.’ The song, though, really does rock and tempers the 12-step lyrics with more rugged, gritty music.
‘Empty Glass’ (Demo Version)
A song that became the title track of Townshend’s 1980 album, though a demo version was recorded with Keith Moon and John Entwistle in 1978. While the fully realized — and less nihilistic — version Townshend recorded for his solo album was polished, there are more interesting elements going on in the demo. Most notably, Entwistle’s bass harmonics add a counterpoint to Townshend’s chicken-scratch guitar work. Moon’s drumming has always been a mad-genius mess, but by 1978, his ability to lock in and deliver the goods was waning. Most of his fills on ‘Empty Glass’ are uninspired, but they do hint at how, with a little coaching, Moon could have pushed ‘Empty Glass’ into the stratosphere with Roger Daltrey on vocals.
‘The Sea Refuses No River’
By 1982, Townshend’s chemically fueled downward spiral found him searching for redemption in this meditation on the sea’s acceptance of both the good and the bad without condition. Some critics panned Townshend for such self-indulgent lyrics. However, it’s a richly poetic song, with a powerful metaphor that reveals the state of Townshend’s soul at the time.
“Every year is the same / And I feel it again / I’m a loser / No chance to win.” Sure, one could say: “Oh boo-hoo. Get over yourself.” But Townshend really captures the sullenness of teen angst in ‘I’m One.’ Those years are difficult (ask the protagonist in ‘Quadrophenia,’ Jimmy) when one is trying to find an identity in the various cliques young people fall in and out of. While ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ stands as the crowning achievement when talking about Townshend’s recurring theme of redemption, ‘I’m One’ is a compact, but no less powerful testament to overcoming one’s demons, and tops our list of the Top 10 Pete Townshend Underrated Songs.