By any metric, Pete Townshend is one of the masters of the rock guitar. From ‘I Can’t Explain’ to Leeds to ‘Rough Boys,’ he has little to prove with six-strings. But he is all too often forgotten for his meritorious compositional and experimental skills. His output of the past 25 years (one solo album, one poorly-received Who album and a klatch of re-issues) points to a fundamental and frustrating flaw in Townshend’s game: he gets bogged down in big ideas. Lifehouse, the ill-fated Tommy follow-up, marked Townshend, altering him from pop songwriter (at which he had quite the chops) to rock’s grand Opus generator (ehh, mixed results).
Only Townshend knows how many projects are staggered in his vaults (the phrase “deformed, unfinished” comes to mind, I don’t know why). This week, Deep Cuts looks at some of Townshend’s rarest creations, from dusty-manger Who templates to moth-balled home studio work. The ten chosen tracks illustrate that while Pete has maintained virtual silence since 1993, he has never stopped creating.
1. ‘Greyhound Girl’
A Lifehouse relic, ‘Greyhound Girl’ is Townshend’s ‘Blind WIllie McTell’: A song so good he never found room for it on any album. It was casually dressed as a b-side for ‘Let My Love Open the Door’ which gave the song some sort of audience. Still, as Pete says in the following clip, the song never factored into Who setlists. Which beggars the questions: WHY NOT?
2. ‘Who Are You (Gateway Remix)’
Less an update than a remoulding of, perhaps, his most signature tune. (Certainly to anyone born after the C.S.I. franchise began). There is a Blade Runner vibe here, a dystopian torment, paranoia-fed desperation, and a searing vocal by Pete. Philosophical ennui made pop? Well, fuck me. Made available on the CD Lifehouse:Elements, an essential companion to Pete’s own discography and The Who catalogue.
3. ‘Lonely Words’
A treasure from the Scoop series, a country-tinged raver most likely recorded for an abandoned project in the middle ‘80s. This has radio hit written all over it and yet … it’s about as obscure as Fijian film reference.
4. ‘Face Dances Part Two’
Originally written for The Who, this song was scrapped but the title was used for the band’s first post-Moon album. In 1982, Pete recorded his own version for the underrated All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. Too personal for anyone else to sing, the chorus is self-damning in a way pop music so rarely is. A catchy number, yes, but at its heart is a reservoir of pain. Surely Roger Daltrey would have balked at playing this to a crowd who wanted 20 minutes of ‘Magic Bus’?
5. ‘Now and Then’
From Townshend’s most recent (21-years, but who’s counting?) solo album, the underwhelming Psychoderelict, comes arguably the loveliest ballad Pete has ever written.
6. ‘Save It For Later’
An odd song to get obsessed with but that’s what happened in the mid-80s. The tune was originally performed by The Beat (The English Beat in North America). Pete’s recorded version is more somber, cast against a luminous piano (by Rabbit Bundrick) and bass backing, Pete’s frantic acoustic a rousing counterpart. The song was a live staple for a while. An outtake from the White City album, it was later re-issued as a bonus track.
7. ‘Things Have Changed’
An early, early Who demo. No idea why the lads never cut this number. Would have fit snug on any of the first three albums, or made a better single than ‘Dogs’ at least.
8. ‘You Better You Bet’
A long practitioner of the demo, Pete used his early fortunes to invest in home studio gear and wiring, enabling his Who mates to put flesh to his already muscular works. The practice continued post-Who. Over the years, these demos became fodder for collectors. This one shows how markedly different a familiar Roger-sung number can sound when voiced by Pete. For me, this is the version that should have made it onto Face Dances.
9. ‘Holly Like Ivy’
Here’s a free MP3 download of ‘Holly Like Ivy’
One of the highlights from Scoop series is this track … an off-the-cuff hotel demo no less.
10. ‘How Can I Help You Sir?’
From the abandoned The Boy Who Heard Music project. Was it an album? a movie? a play? a book? an interactive game? Whatever its intent, it became a nightmare and The Boy was put down still in his jumper. Some of the material would resurface on Endless Wire, The Who’s 2006 return, or through downloads on Townshend’s website. This number shows that as he has aged and dignified, so to has his songwriting.