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Article Archive › The Quest For Strange, Wild, Blissful Music (1990)
The Quest For Strange, Wild, Blissful Music
By John Atkins
Sparks, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Summer 1990
A surprising precedent in Pete Townshend's career was established with the release of The Iron Man: Pete based a collection of original songs on a concept and framework already created by another artist, namely British poet Ted Hughes. Throughout his career Townshend has masterminded a succession of original works that have attempted to present rock songs in a meaningful way : Rael, Tommy, Lifehouse, Rock Is Dead: Long Live Rock, Quadrophenia, Siege, White City, - some are successful and famous, some seem abandoned and forgotten. But The Iron Man was the first concept adopted by Townshend ready-made. This suggests that Pete lacked ideas or preferred to "play it safe" after the lukewarm reception of White City.
Whatever criticism this implies regarding Pete's ability to rely upon his own ideas, the musicial and lyrical contents of the songs are as original and fresh as anything Townshend has written in the last few years and reflect a substantial amount of work. Pete clearly saw themes he could develop and elaborate on within the story of The Iron Man. For most listeners, the album is simply a collection of new material (bar one cover version). For fans, the work contains as much of Townshend's inspiration as Hughes'. Pete has said that he prefers to write songs for a predetermined overall concept because it generally produces a better standard of individual composition. This time he decided to use someone else's concept.
Ted Hughes' The Iron Man was published in 1968 by Faber & Faber as a "story in five nights" for children. In America it was retitled The Iron Giant and published by Harper, again in 1968. Although obviously a fantasy for children, the work attracted much attention on account of Hughes' reputation as a poet. In Britain alone the book sold over 150,000 copies and has remained in print. Clearly, the depth and significance of thie short story goes far beyond its surface value and The Iron Man is often discussed in academic and critical studies of Hughes' mainstream poetry.
Townshend discovered the book through Eel Pie Publishing in 1976. The intent when Eel Pie was formed was that it would publish both rock books and childrens literature. One editor introduced The Iron Man to Pete as an example of the type of work they should aspire to. Townshend thought the book had merit but did not grasp the universal signifiance of the story until he was looking for a project for Daltrey to follow-up on the success with the single "After The Fire." Subsequently he decided it would make a better solo project.
Most of Hughes' work has been concerned with the deep natural urges and cycles of mankind, the tragedies implicit in modern life and the mythological and psychological undercurrents that motivate man and animal alike. The Iron Man, although addressed to children, involves many of Hughes' poetic concerns and is capable of many levels of interpretation and meaning. All Hughes' preoccupations with the First World War, its influence of death and destruction and mankind's obsessive development of weapons are close to the surface. This is all heady stuff for children but Hughes never forgets the need to provide a simple development of action and he utilizes two symbolic characters of great clarity and vividness: the giant built of iron scrap and the space-bat-angel-dragon of unimaginable size.
The Iron Man is a symbol of man-made technology and machinery that should be controllable by man but which has become too dangerous and threatening because of the weapons and armaments it produces. This technology has reached a point beyond man's immediate control which signifies potential doom. The Iron Man is at large in the world and once created (like the atom bomb) cannot be destroyed. His temporary destruction after falling from the cliff signifies the disarmament treaties that prevailed after the First World war. These limits finally brought about an even greater conflict twenty years later. The Iron Man may disappear from view under the sea or under the earth, but his threat is always there waiting to rise from under the surface and create havoc. Only when the Iron Man is channelled and harnessed (as in the scrap yard) can mankind be safe.
The physical appearance of the Iron Man is significant, and has slowly changed since the book first appeared. The first edition featured illustrations by George Adamson whose drawings of the Iron Man reflected the weapon technology of the 1914-1918 war, specifically the tanks, battleships, and artillery pieces of the conflict. In the text, Hughes mentions that the Iron Man's body "gleamed blue, like a new gun barrel". Another World War One image is the barbed wire that the Iron Man eats. Adamson's drawings are definitive evocation of the Iron Man's appearance. Recent editions of the book, however, have featured new illustrations. Here the influence of Transformers or any of the post- Star Wars robots automations can be detected. Townshend also refers to the Iron Man as a "robot programmed to destroy any machinery", which is vastly different to Hughes' idea. In fact, the First World War connections are almost lost by Pete apart from two referenced: the title and chorus of "Over The Top" (trench warfare) and the line in "Dig" -"We old ones have seen two wars".
The space-bat-angel-dragon is a much more ethereal threat, a mythological and spiritual concept of doom with connotations of the devil and hell. The force is ultimately more dangerous than the Iron Man and cannot be directly influenced or controlled by mankind. The battle between the two characters, who each represent a different kind of threat, is the central issue of the book.
Rather than engage in direct battle with each other they hold a psychological competition to prove superiority, which is rare in children's literature where a symbol of good usually destroys a symbol of evil. Overall, neither of the characters represent "good" or "evil", although one reading of the text would suggest that because of the Iron Man's triumph over the space-dragon function to condemn mankind's proclivity for war and the making of arms. This is handled differently by Hughes and Townshend, though the outcome in both involves the banished space-dragon singing the music of the spheres which brings a peacefulness and contentment to the world. Townshend's previous concerns in Lifehouse and many other songs have related to the idea of music's ability to restore harmony and peace and act as a rejuvenating force. Many fans will recognize a familiar theme at the end of Hughes' book when the people of the world want "to have peace to enjoy this strange, wild, beautiful music from the giant singer in space."
In interpreting The Iron Man for the musicial stage Townshend has taken it out of the realm of a story for children by modifying Hughes' story in several ways. The characters Hogarth, the Iron Man, the space-dragon, and Hogarth's father have been more developed. This was accomplished by using the first-person for all lyrics and attributing most lyrics to specific characters. Extra characters, the Crow, the Jay, the Frog, the Owl and the Badger, collectively called "a chorus of Woodland Creatures", have been added. These creatures are detached observers who comment on the issues at hand. Some lyrics such as the discourse between Hogarth and the Woodland Creatures in "All Shall Be Well" are superfluous to the essentials of the tale.
Hughes' "fox" has become Townshend's "Vixen". Hogarth's interaction with The Vixen is entirely different than his encounter with the fox that he attempts to trap in the book. Townshend's lyrics "I was naked and screaming....take me I'm yours" sung by Hogarth and the Vixen in "All Shall Be Well" have an erotic undercurrent that is convincingly mature. The Iron Man Story is told from Hogarth's point of view, which clearly does not equate with the sophisticated concepts at hand.
Townshend has changed the gender of the space-bat-angel-dragon from male to female, which makes the interaction between the characters more interesting (Hogarth can fall in love with it) but also connects with a traditional mythology of female signifying evil (stemming from Eve in the Garden of Eden). Townshend shortens the name to "space-dragon", where Hughes' original inclusion of "bat" (evil/hell) and "angel" (good/heavenly) created a strange ambivalence. This subtle touch is important because the space-bat-angel-dragon does not turn out to be as bad as initially thought, and in Townshend's version switches from being a "beautiful girl" to being "awful on the outside".
Some details of Hughes' book have been omitted from Townshend's songs, espically the wonderfully funny scene of the family picnic being interupted by the Iron Man's hand reaching upward through the ground. This has great symbolic power as the notion of respectable middle class conformity on the surface is shattered by the brooding, deadly menace erupting just beneath them.
The Iron Man album is subtitled "Twelve songs from the musical". This suggests it may not be intended to function as an album in its own right, but that instead it is preparing its audience for a definitive version of the story to be presented on the musical stage. It remains to be seen whether this will occur.
Personally I think the musical as a form is essentially lightweight and frivolous entertainment that continues to be debased and exploited for many non-artistic reasons. However, Townshend is aware of the dire quality of the contemporary musical and hopes to provide something different with The Iron Man. My feeling is his efforts in this area will need to overcome the fact that rock music has no place on the musical stage and, in essence, The Iron Man is pure rock music. It certainly sounds little different from most Townshend solo albums despite the use of guest vocalists. The production is a very lush and detailed and Pete's work here is faultless and listening to it is particularly delightful since Pete so rarely produces his own work.
One thing that immediatly emerges is the quality of guitar playing by Pete which is uniformly brilliant - the power-chord solos in "Dig" and "I Won't Run Anymore" will please all the die-hard Who fans and some may be impressed by the blusy soloing during "Over The Top" which is more akin to Knofler or Clapton. "I Eat Heavy Metal" offers listeners a high-tech blues riff. The R&B bounce to "Fast Food" is a departure for Townshend but it does feature some of the improvised guitar noise we all know and love so well. What The Iron Man lacks, suprisingly, is any quantity of acoustic guitar playing, but The Who tour made up for this.
The fact that the album contains Who reunion songs has been played down, and perhaps with good reason. "Dig" is a solid, catchy rock song well-suited to Daltrey's voice but "Fire" is a great disappointment. The song is an acknowledged classic, but The Who treatment seems to lack any feel or passion. It sounds technically dynamic, but ironically cold and clinical. I feel Entwistle's bass playing is muted on both numbers although one can still admire his skill.
"Dig" may be considered by some to be enough evidence that The Who can still cut it in the studio. It would take more to convince me. "Dig" is as good as the best material on It's Hard and perhaps I better leave it at that.
The use of multiple voices is a new approach of Townshend on record (apart from various re-recordings of Tommy) and it certainly adds a variety of styles to the album. Townshend as Hogarth sings well throughout and, in general, all the singers give clear, precise, intonation to the lyrics with the exception of John Lee Hooker, whose style is more laid back. The chorus of Woodland Creatures (Chyna, Billy Nichols, Simon Townshend, Cleveland Watkiss and Nicola Emmanuel) were chosen well.
John Lee Hooker is an odd choise, however, for the Iron Man. His two numbers give loose, matter-of-fact impression, as if he had been stuck in the recording booth and told to sing lyrics he had only half-learned. Perhaps this was the desired effect but he sounds too easy-going for the role the Iron Man. Then there is Nina Simone who is perfect for the part of the space-dragon and sings with enthusiasm that borders on hysteria which is quite appropriate for the chatacter.
The characters play an important part in The Iron Man since the lyrics contain no objective narration. The songs themselves give little indication of the progress of a plot and could easily exist in their own right outside of the whole concept. If the listener chooses not to follow the lyric book, then The Iron Man concept as a unifying story diminishes considerably but the only way we can currently judge Townshend's work is through the songs. Songs such as "I Won't Run Anymore", "A Friend Is A Friend", "Was There Life" and "A Fool Says" could exist entirely withough the concept since they have no overt relationship to it. Obviously, this is the case with "Fire" which was not written for the musical but it does fit in with the other material.
Quite how the musical would be staged is unclear -- the record, as released, gives no indication of how the story would be dramatized. A musical version would have to be longer and include additional songs. Townshend already has some of the additional songs completed and he prepared the recitative sections before he began composing the songs that have been released.
As a supplement a video has been prepared by Betelgeuse Productions which dramatizes the story mixing live action with animation. This seems to be the medium best suited to the work, as fantasy elements can be better dealt with using animation. The countryside and the people in the video look somewhat American and Hogarth himself looks like he is a character out of a Mark Twain book. Although this makes the work more accessible the British feel of the original setting is lost. The animated Iron Man eating cars and pylons is splendid but overall looks a little too sleek and modern. In this sense the video adheres more to the latest illustrations of the Iron Man.
Additional material currently available includes a longer version of "Man Machines" and a song not on the album called "Can You Really Dance?". Both were included on the B side of the "A Friend Is A Friend" EP. There is also a song called "Penny Drop" that was included in the Timothy White interview called The Iron Age. Different mixes of some songs already available have appeared on various radio interviews.
Most of Townshend's material since Tommy has adopted a philosophical view of life in terms of spiritual fulfillment and the compatibility of achieving this in society at large. His songs have expressed this by directly conveying personal experienced that have influenced Townshend (such as "How Many Friends", "Who Are You", and "Slit Skirts") or adopted a "voice" to comment on issues in general (such as "I've Known No War" and "How Can You Do It Alone") The material on The Iron Man generally fits into the latter category and Pete's broadly humanist viewpoint compliments that of Hughes. The meaning of The Iron Man lies somewhere between the anti-war fable of the original and the optimistic life-embracing viewpoint of the songs. It still remains as so all of the best fables - capable of a multiplicity of interpretations and meanings.
As a solo album, The Iron Man stands up well in the tradition of Empty Glass, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, and White City. Unfortunately, these records increasingly require a small-scale but committed audience and Townshend is still thinking in "big" Who terms. It is no longer necessary to be commercially successful in order to be artistically valid (unlike the 1960's and early 70's) and these records' modest sales (in the UK especially) should not detract from their value. I think The Iron Man has been pitched on too grand a scale and has a tendency to be overblown. The musical style of the original Who could make such material very powerful and translate grandiosity into excitement. Townshend on his own cannot do this in the same way. The record contains no "big" show-stopping songs comparable to "See Me, Feel Me", "Won't Get Fooled Again", "Love Reign O'er Me" or "5:15". It is more modest and minor in tone. It could be argued that any dynamic musical needs such big numbers, and therefore in terms of the "musical" The Iron Man fails. But in themselves the songs are good.
They represent a cross section of Townshend's current writing, but form a cohesive group. "Was There Life" and "A Fool Says" are pleasant reflective ballads; "I Won't Run Anymore" and "New Life" start and finish the work as uptempo rockers; "Man Machines" is a short, captivating piece that could well have stood the extended treatment offered on the EP; "A Friend Is A Friend" is an insidious song and the lyrics approximate the feeling of a ten year old boy. I find the clever chord changes and feel of "I Eat Heavy Metal" a little too contrived, although the song is more appropriate for John Lee Hooker's voice than "Over The Top, which has little substance apart from a glorious chorus.
"All Shall Be Well" is the strongest song on the record. The wonderful duets between Townshend, Deborah Conway and Chyna give it a charged passion that is compelling. The chorus is also strong and the song works as a universal prayer to the greater good similar to "See Me, Feel Me". It is entirely appropriate that the work finishes on the high inspirational note of this chorus even though it is not the "strange, wild, blissful music" produced by the space-dragon, that terrified but now inspired the world and gives it a spiritual enrichment and an awareness of its own capability for destruction, for surely no such music exists. This is the Lost Chord that can never be achieved but for which mankind should never stop searching. This echoes the concept of Lifehouse. Maybe the secret of spiritual harmony lies in extraterrestrial music beyond our comprehension, or maybe it lies in the sound of two bits of metal being struck and ringing out a note to remind us of our origins within the earth. Townshend and Hughes ask us to use our imaginations and all else will follow.