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Bill's Pete Townshend Pages › Who Came First Liner Notes

Who Came First Liner Notes

As spiritual epiphanies go, Pete Townshend's public acknowledgment of his personal rebirth was made with remarkable understatement for a major celebrity. The guitarist was well known (indeed, deservedly famous for) his ability to display the strongest emotions - which, in his songs up to that point, had been frustration, alienation and consequent anger - in extremely demonstrative fashion. The explosive violence of ripping guitar chords, Keith Moon's cymbal slashes, John Entwistle's thundering bass swoops and Roger Daltrey's roaring voice was the key to the Who's unparalleled rock power, and Townshend bottled up a young man's blues like a master brewer. So it was no trifling matter that he chose to announce the abrupt change in the direction of his life - a topic of major obsession for Who freaks - in 8-point type. Only those truly concerned by the minutiae of the band's iconography were likely to even notice the enigmatic credit line discreetly inscribed on the back cover of Tommy: an unfamiliar word followed by an unfamiliar name.

Avatar (Hindu for the earthly incarnation of a deity) Meher Baba was born Merwan S. Irani in Poona, India on 24 February 1894. Although he maintained a vow of silence for the last forty-four years of his life, Baba communicated in writings that included such characteristic epigrams as "Don't worry - be happy."

Townshend was introduced to the teachings of Meher Baba in late 1967 by underground artist Mike Mclnnerney, who would later paint the surreal artwork for Tommy. "It all happened in the space of two months," Townshend marveled. "One minute I was freaked out on acid and the into Baba."

It was an auspicious time for new influences to reach the 22-year-old rocker. Sgt. Peppers and the Summer of Love had drawn a line in the rock'n'roll sand, demarking the moderate past from a more radical future. A bad trip on the flight home from the Monterey Pop Festival in June had soured Pete on hallucinatory drugs. His band had recorded its first pivotal longgplayer: released in the autumn, The Who Sell Out satire and a masterpiece of psychedelicized art- Who's image as a singles band. But such essential career developments were incidental to the long-range ramifications of Townshend's new faith.

Although the Who spent the better part of the next twenty months on he road, Townshend - inspired by Meher Baba, who died ("dropped the body" in disciples' parlance) at the beginning of 1969 - managed to conceive  and write Tommy, the two-disc rock opera that turned the Who into a household name. (Even if some neophytes did think the group was called "Tommy the Who.")

While this accomplished artistic expression of Townshend's epiphany attracted a vast new audience, that same force precipitated a subtle but unmistakable gulf of faith between the group and its adherents. An endless stream of you're-the-only-person-who-really-understands-me-what-should-l-do with-the-rest-of-my-life? letters arrived at Pete's easily obtainable address in the London suburb of Twickenham, sent by sensitive, alienated teens who could identify with the angry characters in his songs and the insightful intelligence he regularly expressed through the media. (Many received patient, considerate replies from their idol.) But most fans had to find Townshend's embrace of Meher Baba too personal and profound a path to follow.

Wisely, Townshend's lyrics within the Who remained reasonably universal, expressing Baba's principles - love, surrender, sacrifice, devotion - in language that excluded nobody, even those disinclined towards messiahs. Despite their spiritual underpinnings, songs like "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "The Seeker" ironically discouraged idolatry and left layers of meaning open to individual interpretation. Rather than use his position to proselytize, Townshend prudently reserved his most explicit expressions of faith for the converted.

A creative technique Townshend had used for years provided him with the means to explore artistic areas too singular for the Who. Armed with a home studio and skill on a variety of instruments, from drums to keyboards, Townshend routinely recorded demo versions of his songs, using those solo acetates to introduce new material to his bandmates. Pete's demos occasionally leaked into the Who-freak underground, where fans seized upon them for the treat of hearing him sing a song otherwise voiced by Daltrey, and for the charm of production sound far lighter and more delicate than the Who's.

But the utilitarian value of Townshend's homework as sonic shorthand was nowhere near as crucial as the part it played in facilitating his musical development. I had been sobered by the astonishing genius of Jimi Hendrix," he recalls, "and I wanted to get away from trying to be a pyrotechnic electric guitar player and develop a more personal style. I achieved this by jumping off from the strummed acoustic style of Magic Bus.' Piano I developed because I needed a writing tool and harmonic inspiration. I turned to synthesizers for inspiration, not compositional control. The latter came later."

At a time when few musicians had the imagination to need them, Townshend constructed various private studios (the liner notes to 1983's Scoop, a compilation of these solo recordings, contain a detailed chronology) which afforded him the unobserved artistic freedom required to turn a great pop tunesmith into a genuine rock visionary. From the mid-'60s on, he made countless demos, tinkered with various acoustic instruments and synthesizers initially outside the Who's ken, recorded devotional music in tribute to his messiah and unselfconsciously tested the stylistic frontiers of his talents without concern for the consequences.

To an expansively ambitious artist like Townshend, a seeker challenged rather than sated by his successes, Tommy's triumph laid down a majorleague gauntlet. British rock journalist Chris Charlesworth may have overheated things a bit in his 1984 biography of Townshend when he described Pete quaking in his Doc Martens at the prospect of following Tommy." In his book, Before I Get Old, Dave Marsh quotes Townshend "looking for the natural thing to do after Tommy."

The Who's supercharged career clearly required an adequate and appropriate follow-up to the deaf, dumb and blind boy. And for rock's most conscientious philosopher, a performer whose overriding sense of responsibility - to himself, to his art, to his family, to his Avatar, to his audience - could be an onerous burden, there was much more at stake than sales figures. A reluctant idol whose every onstage gesture or insightful media comment brought wider acclaim, Townshend was becoming to his followers exactly what Baba had become to him. (Or the other way around.) That dichotomy, a basic conundrum of fame that often haunts reflective rock stars, mirrored the pivotal conflict for Tommy, an unwitting pop messiah ultimately destroyed by those who worship him. Like his creation - indeed, largely because of his creation - Townshend was at a critical juncture in his life and his career. Could he reconcile art with commerce and remain a serious artist advancing, not simply recycling, the form and discourse of popular music? Townshend had dreams about narrowing the gap between performer and audience, about elevating pop music to spiritual realms. At the dawn of the decade, global rock stardom - a trick straitjacket of seductive luxury and idiotic obligations - threatened to drown out his creative voice while amplifying his external existence to deafening proportions.

Townshend had always been the band's most voluble and articulate spokesman, but the flood of interviews and profiles that attended Tommy underscored its composer's unchallenged preeminence in the band's hierarchy. Daltrey became the personification of Tommy, but Townshend became the Who.

The two year period between Tommy, which was released in June 1969, and the Who's next studio album ( Who's Next, August 1971 hardly seems long by contemporary superstar standards, but in the career of a major band back then it was as noticeable a gap as Dylan's post-accident sabbatical.

Rather than vanish during the period of artistic turmoil that gripped the band that year and well into the next, the Who hid in plain sight, spending 1970 carting Tommy across the stages of Britain, the continent and America. They were hardly marking time: the Who were by then the world's most exciting live rock 'n' roll experience. The beat-trio-plus -singer model taken to it's wildest realization, the Who were an unnatural, uncontrollable force created of personal conviction and Hiwatt stacks. Cream had elevated the blues and lead guitar into an entirely new art form; the Who took pop music and power chords and did the same thing.

Now devoted to- and identified with- a way of life that his bandmates did not share, Townshend confronted his changing role in the rock world with the distinct vision of a Baba lover. While maintaining his Who-superstar-rock responsibilities, he needed ways to channel his faith outside the group. He sought out and spent time with other Baba disciples. He performed, with acoustic guitar, at private meetings of the faithful. He began planning a London center devoted to Baba. But the pivotal extracurricular project he undertook in the wake of Tommy was an album of devotional music to coincide with and celebrate the seventy-sixth anniversary (February 1970) of Baba's birth.

Happy Birthday was produced and released in a tiny quantity (2,500 to start; official repressings were similarly modest) by the Universal Spiritual League in London; the Meher Baba Information office in Berkeley, California sold copies by mail for $5.00. An unlabeled disc and a 28-page black-and- white booklet slipped inside a hand-stapled sleeve, with a beatific portrait of Baba on the front cover and a blurry photograph of his easy chair on the back, Happy Birthday reached Who fans - for whom it was clearly not intended - as a bewildering but marvelous jewel.

Townshend contributed a half-dozen mostly acoustic solo recordings: "Content," "Day of Silence," "Mary Jane," "The Love Man," a demo of "The Seeker" (the Who's version, released as a UK single that same month, was the group's first studio issue since Tommy), and "Begin the Beguine," a 1935 Cole Porter composition for the musical Jubilee. With Townshend adding some acoustic guitar, Ronnie Lane - the Small Faces-cum-Faces bassist and Baba disciple - re-recorded "Stone" from the Faces' 1970 album, First Step. retitling it 'Evolution'." (Three years later, Lane recut the song for his first solo LP.) In addition, the album contained devotional poetry, an instrumental by Pink Floyd associate Ron Geesin and several lecture excerpts. To the lucky few who heard it, Happy Birthday ably demonstrated that Townshend could scale his rock dynamism down to communicate on an intimate, personal level. The stylistic shift took a bit of getting used to, but the loveliness of the music - irrespective of the lyrics, which were hard for nonbelievers to accept - made the record irresistible.

Although it was obvious that love for Baba had humbled him, Townshend remained a rocker at heart. "Content" or not, he wasn't ready to shake off the values and vision of a musical Ubermensch who could rivet a nation of mud-caked teenagers sprawled across Yasgur's farm. Instead, he turned towards another spiritual manifestation, an undertaking of such scope and ambition that it would easily dwarf Tommy's schematic structure.

, which Dave Marsh describes as "a watershed between the Who as a band of idealists and the Who as a band of professionals, between the concept of a rock band as an experimental troupe and the idea that it was a profit-generating, creative business," was nothing less than an attempt to use Baba's teachings as a catalyst for an expansive art project (ultimately intended to yield a film) that would somehow investigate the myriad mysteries of life - or at least resolve some of the mounting frustrations its author was facing. As Marsh succinctly puts it, LifeHouse was about everything that was on Peter Townshend's mind from the autumn of 1970 through the spring of 1971."

Although the idea went through numerous conceptual stages in wildly divergent directions - interviews from this period describe complex, involved ideas and plans that evidently evaporated upon explication (although all of Townshend's remarks on LifeHouse need to be reconsidered in light of the songs that were later salvaged from it) - the essence of it is a character called Bobby who inhabits a dysfunctional future. What appears to have been a vast, extravagant fantasy involves high technology, spiritual crisis, political repression, popular enlightenment and rebellion. But what made the sketchy reports fascinating was Townshend's audacious role for the Who. The foursome would take over a London theater (the Young Vic, on the South Bank) and invite a captive audience to join them. As Townshend told Chris Charlesworth in Melody Maker, "The idea was to get two thousand people, and keep them for six months in a theatre with us. The group would play and characters would emerge from them; eventually the group would play a very minor role. Maybe five hundred of the original two thousand would stay during the six months, and we would have filmed all that happened."

In February 1971, the group actually did play several shows at the Young Vic, but the results were disastrous, and that, for a number of reasons, was pretty much the end of LifeHouse. While Townshend had a nervous breakdown, the Who somehow pulled together an album from the three dozen songs he had created for the project. Released in August, Who's Next proved to be one of rock history's most successful salvages.

Entwistle stepped out of the group's shadow in May with an impressive album of his own, the excellent Smash Your Head Against the Wall.

Charlesworth asked Townshend about his solo plans. "I get so much stuff of mine put out through the Who that it's not worth it. If I made a solo album it would be songs which weren't good enough for the Who and wouldn't be very good." But, he continued, "I would like to put out an album of demos which I have done, but they are very much like the finished product and would probably only be of interest to real Who freaks."

As the Who picked up the pieces and resumed their inexorable march towards arena rock supremacy, Townshend-whose dedication to Baba had moved him in January 1972 to make a solitary pilgrimage to the Avatar's Indian birthplace, where the living disciples are gathered-participated in a second Baba album, I Am, which was released with a 48-page broadsheet, Wallpaper, of photographs, poetry, lyrics and credits) in early 1972 through the same set up as Happy Birthday.

Townshend took a less prominent role this time, contributing only "Parvardigar" and a hypnotically elongated synthesizer sketch for "Baba O'Riley," a LifeHouse leftover (and Who's Next hit) titled in tribute to avant-garde composer Terry Riley, Additionally, he played synthesizer on a piece by Dave Hastilow. guitar and drums behind poet Mike Da Costa on "Affirmation" (its title notwithstanding, Da Costa's whimsical "How to Transcend Duality and Influence People" is delightfully representative of Baba's dada sensibility) and synthesized flute on "This Song Is Green," one of two numbers written and sung by Billy Nicholls.

Nicholls, a British singer/songwriter whose 1968 debut single on Immediate was co-produced by Ronnie Lane, is "one of my best family friends," says Pete, They met through Baba work in the early '70s and discovered that their fathers had played in a band together: Nicholls subsequently joined the Who's extended family, singing on the Tommy film soundtrack, pennng a 1980 hit for Roger Daltrey and serving as musical director for both Townshend's Deep End ensemble and the backing band on the Who's 1989 tour.

Decca Records, the Who's American label, allegedly got wind that the two Baba LPs were being widely bootlegged and approached Townshend about reissuing them commercially. (The claim is dubious, At the time, both records - as any self-respecting Who freak knew - could still be ordered by mail from the original source.) A cynic might remark on the perceived potential of a silo record by the creative leader of a bond with three consecutive gold albums, not to mention lawyerly concern over a prominent artist under exclusive contract having a sizable hand in unsanctioned records, But Decca approached the matter sensibly, and wisely promised to divert some of the proceeds to relevant charities.

Townshend later explained the project's genesis, "[Decca/MCA] merely encouraged me to put out the album through normal channels, They wanted 25.000 copies to distribute and offered me a dollar an album to give to Baba. a very generous royalty. I decided that if I was going to do it on this scale, I might as well do a completely fresh album.

"I was not thinking of this as a solo album at all. This remained a devotional project. I wanted to include more material by other artists, but eventually I had to stick to the most professional-sounding tracks."

The two items by other artists that made the final cut on Who Came First were "Forever's No Time at All," an l Am item written by Billy Nicholls and Katie Mclnnerney and played by Caleb Quaye (a Baba lover who had backed up Elton John and was then leading a band called Hookfoot), and Ronnie Lane's "Evolution," cut down from Happy Birthday, where it clocks in at more than six minutes. Previewing the album in Sounds, Townshend explained, "Before I edited out all the important verses, Ronnie's song covered all the major states of consciousness that we go through to reach the glorious state of human-ness. Stone. Metal. Vegetable. Worm, Fish. Animal, then, unfortunately, man".

Track Records, the Who's own label, released Who Came First - a handsome gatefold production with photos of Baba and a poster by Mike Mclnnerney - in Great Britain in September 1972. The album arrived in America the following month, on Decca/MCA. Whether intending an ironic gesture or not, Track put out a 45 of "Forever's No Time at All" b/w I Am's "This Song Is Green," two Billy Nicholls songs in which Townshend had little or no hand.

Who Came First made Townshend's love of Baba most explicit on two songs that began as devotional poems. Happy Birthday's "Content" is a tender prayer of spiritual security by Baba lover Maud Kennedy which Townshend set to music. It's simply about being content that you have found out about God," he told Sounds. "Happy to know that whatever goes down, he's still there, holding the tickets."

Townshend recounted an intriguing story about the writing of "Parvardigar," which first appeared on I Am. "My wife and I were on holiday on Osea island in the Blackwater Estuary [on England's east coast]. One afternoon I tuned my guitar to a chord and picked out a very carefully constructed melody a Ia Bert Jansch or John Renbourne. Somewhere in the back of my head I gave it to Baba.

"Simultaneously. had been working on Meher Baba's prayer, 'The Master's Prayer.' was rewriting it so the meter scanned common time, with a few rhymes here and there, so could put the prayer to music. When had finished, it suddenly struck me that the guitar piece I had dedicated to Meher Baba might make a good melodic basis. They fit like a glove. At that time I felt almost as if I had nothing to do with the writing process at all. If this doesn't sound completely like me. maybe it ain't."

Pete's short-title rendition of "There's a Heartache Following Me," an American country song written by Ray Robert Baker and a huge UK hit for Jim Reeves shortly after his death in 1964. was a different Sort of tribute. Baba had named the song, along with Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," as a personal favorite. "Baba said that Jim Reeves' voice was full of spiritual power and love," noted Townshend. "I listened to him sing this song and had to agree." As David Silver quipped in a rave review of Who Came First in Rolling Stone, "Even an avatar gets the cowboy blues sometimes." (Across the pond, Charlesworth's tepid Melody Maker review ran under the funny headline "Pete in the Baba's Chair.")

The lyrics to "Sheraton Gibson" make it an anomaly for Who Came First; Pete acknowledged in Sounds that it was "included for musical value rather than content. I wrote this two years back after a really good barbecue with the James Gang, their managers and families outside Cleveland. I had a good, good day. The next day in Pittsburgh [the titular hotel was actually in Cincinnati], I was not only missing home as usual, but also Cleveland. This was the first time I ever used synthesizer.

I had just listened to Self Portrait by Bob Dylan, sat down and wrote ten simple songs directly into the tape machine without stopping. This was one. Others I remember were 'Love Ain't for Keeping' and 'Classified'."

The poetic lyrics to "Time Is Passing" are indicative of an awareness of nature that now informed Townshend's writing and would peak several years later on Quadrophenla. The themes of liberation via music and renouncement of false leaders (Don't listen to people talk. Don't listen to 'em selling souls. Don't listen to me or words from men above.) are straight out of LifeHouse, although the song apparently isn't.

Most of the material on Who Came First could be classified as demos, but only two of the numbers actually became Who records. "Nothing Is Everything," named after a book of Baba teachings entitled The Everything and the Nothing, was a rousing LifeHouse element which the Who had released - as "Let's See Action" - on a 1971 UK single. "It's about the people who act in a revolution and the people that sit back," Pete noted. "I thought it also said a lot about the way we forget our souls most the time."

Written as the theme song of LifeHouse, "Pure and Easy" - which opens Who Came First ("I put it first because I like it the best") - is one of Tow shend's superb creations. Although the band version, a Who's Next outtake, remained unreleased until 1974 (when it was gathered on Odds & Sods), the song was a fan favorite even before its appearance on Who Came First. The Who made it a concert staple in 1971, tying it to the of "The Song Is Over," which quotes its first line. With lyrics of sublime spiritual beauty, "Pure and Easy" conflates the metaphysical power of m with the transcendence of love, underscoring an achingly pretty melody an uplifting ascending chord progression. There once was a note, pure easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by. The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me. Forever we blend is forever we die.

Daltrey's cousin, Graham Hughes, photographed the who-came-first? star-and-egg cover. "The idea and title came from a brainstorm Graham,' recalls Townshend. "They were real eggs and, so they wouldn't break, I was hung in a Peter Pan truss. I was so distorted by this that photo had to be retouched in any case, so it could have been done equally well with a cut-up."

In a loquacious print ad that ran in American magazines. Townshend (in part). "My own last ten years have been pretty far out. I took a dope, played at Monterey, played at Woodstock, met Dylan, had tea with Jagger, jammed once with Hendrix, saw the WHO come to a greater height of personal unity than I ever thought possible; I also heard about Meher Baba, and stopped using dope.

Since the band began I have written songs at home in my studio and served them up to the group as completed single tracks, with all instruments either played already, or at least indicated. For the musician that can't read music - can't really communicate anyway - the only way to get across what you want is to play it. That's what I've been doing. I'm getting to be pretty good at a whole range of instruments, even the violin! I also can manage to run an eight-track and all the associated hardware. Electricians don't confuse me any more. Control knobs don't scare me any more.

"These tracks are all tracks that I've recorded at home. I play on all of them except "Forever's No Time at All" - that, along with the rest of the album, I engineered. Ronnie Lane and I got drunk one night and recorded his "Evolution" song, and apart from these two exceptions, all the music is from my own head. On this album, in this context, it is dedicated to Baba. Not for him to listen to, his ears aren't around, but so that he will be around whenever it's played."

Townshend estimates that Who Came First ultimately raised $150,000 in the USA, "most of which went towards making a film about [Sufi leader and Baba disciple] Murshida Duce's life. In the rest of the world, around £ 40,000 (then $96,000) was raised and went mainly to the Avatar Meher Baba Trust in India. More is being raised for the Trust with this re-release.

It will be used to support the dispensary, school, hospital and pilgrimage center facilities in Meherabad near Ahmednagar."

The bonus tracks on this CD, all drawn from the three Meher Baba tribute albums, have never been commercially released before. The demo of "The Seeker" contains one verse (I asked questions of my idols...) omitted from the Who version. Pete wrote in a 1971 article, reprinted by Rolling Stone, It suffered from being the first thing we did after Tommy... It sounded great in the mosquito-ridden swamp I made it up in - Florida at three in the morning, drunk out of my mind. But that's where the trouble always starts, in the swamp."

Also from Happy Birthday are "The Love Man" - a lovely song of praise filled with subtle shifts in tone, rhythm and, in the bridge, a perplexing change of perspective - and "Day of Silence," written on my Marshall and Rose English mahogany upright piano.. .on July 10th, which is the day followers of Meher Baba choose to spend without speaking. I wrote the lyrics the day after so that I wouldn't break my silence."

"His Hands" and "Lantern Cabin," the latter proving what an accomplished pianist the guitarist had become, are both from With Love, the third Baba album, which was released in March 1976. As is "Sleeping Dog," an amusingly irreverent (if abject) tribute to the master.

Pete Townshend, 1992. "I am still a disciple of Meher Baba. However, in the middle of my life with him I had a serious collapse. I tend to keep my mouth shut about my spiritual life now - who knows what might happen NEXT?"

Ira Robbins, with thanks to Wayne King
New York City
August 1992

WDK 2008

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