Tuesday, November 17, 2009



Mid-points in any journey or experience are a curious place at which to arrive. You can look over your shoulder and cringe at some of the things you have said/done, over-analyzing just about every step that carried you to your present destination. At the same time, the wisdom gained along the way will (hopefully) prepare you for the second leg of the journey.

Would you like the rest of that mid-life crisis packed up to go?

Pete Townshend has never been shy about laundering his thoughts and hanging them out to dry in full view of the general public. All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes followed a spectacular crash and rehabilitation period that caught him with his feet straddling two very different sides of the artistic fence. One had him writing songs for the group that he had been a part of since the early sixties, while the other was pointed toward an exit from said situation. The sticking point with the Who was a need to tailor the lyrics so that they would sit well with frontman/interpreter Roger Daltrey. Townshend needed to express himself as freely as possible, which is why his solo work sat so uncomfortably in juxtaposition with the Who LPs of the early 80s.

Writing from the gut, his inner treasures/turmoils could be voiced by no one other than himself.

"I've now decided that there is one kind of writing for the band and one kind for me."

Sporting the then- trendy "New Wave" coiffure, he retired the past to the closet in favor of the synthisizer-driven leanings that were beginning to grab the ear of the masses. Never one to reduce his work to faddish, inconsequential bullshit, he infused the tunes with enough imagination to escape the gravity imposed by the universal time/date stamp. Production was handled by Chris Thomas, who saw that the artist's vision was delivered in an immaculately wrapped aural package. Supporting players hit their marks with clean precision, with special mention going to the percussive wizardry that Simon Phillips brought to the table.

Pretension creeps in (not for the first time), but I ask one question: Would you rather put up with a great artist erring toward pomposity in an attempt to reach a bit higher or sit and listen to homogeneously produced banality until someone plunges knitting needles through both of your eardrums in an act of mercy?

Effectively, the problems that plagued Townshend from his earliest days were always, by alchemic process, filtered into wonderful songs. This isn't to say that he sat around the house, interminably unhappy, writing self-pitying slabs of desiderata. He could have, considering that his marriage was failing, old friends were meeting untimely ends and the clock was winding down on his membership in the Who, soon to embark on a "Farewell Tour". Drink had always been a factor, though he had long since forsworn drug use, only to take it up again with a vengeance following several monumental personal losses.

"Somebody saved me, from a fate worse than Heaven"

He sought treatment for his addictions, escaping having his name carved into rock's obituary section prematurely. Putting a group together, he wrote material specifically for them to perform ("The Sea Refuses No River", "Slit Skirts") and started into pre-production rehearsals. Townshend's continued maturation as a writer is the main draw here, although no attempt is made to sketch out an album length conceptual piece. Some of the music was written originally for the Who ("Somebody Saved Me"), while other selections touch on recovery period in California ("Exquisitely Bored"). Ultimately, the songs are stronger because he lends his own voice to them, with emotions emerging undiluted as they amy have been if placed in the hands of a surrogate vocalist.

" 'Comunication' is a song about people pretending to relate to one another when they're actually not."

Spoken word interludes come into play, as they do in the brilliant "Stop Hurting People", easing some poetry into the mix, which may be the root cause of some fans intense dislike of this record. Poppier synth tones probably drove off those who yearned for the guitars to be pummeled with windmilling fury.

Had no one taken notice of the Who's transition from 'rock' to 'pop' band? Certainly shouldn't have been a huge shock, given the haircuts and the complete sonic overhaul that was previewed on Face Dances.

Interestingly enough, the album title spawned a sequel-song/bizarre video called "Face Dances Part 2". Somewhat amusing now, these videos only serve to point out just how unnecessary they were.

Melodic, overwrought at times, with slight shades of Andrew Lloyd-Webber-itis, he still manages to mingle deeply personal revelation with more universal statements. Balancing his synthesizer orchestrations with driving bed-tracks, steps are also taken not to completely submerge guitars or stray down the dangerous path of complete self absorption. It's ultimately a very satisfying listen.

Feeling no great urge to lean on the heavier side of his multi-faceted musical gifts, Townshend put a great deal of care into arrangements, not making any concessions to past triumphs by merely recycling them in the guise of new work. The best track is saved for the end and "Slit Skirts" burns with barely veiled themes that reveal the insecurities so many feel when approaching the changes wrought by middle age.

"Can't pretend that growing older never hurts"


Perplexio said...

Simon Phillips is not only an exceptional drummer but he's a solid mixer and producer too. Most of the production on Toto's final album, Falling in Between was done by Phillips. I also like that Toto picked him to replace Jeff Porcaro. They knew that no one could ever truly replace Jeff so instead of getting a drummer who sounded like Jeff. They went in a completely different direction with Phillips. He was already established and already had a style all his own. That's quite a tribute and an honor to both Phillips talents and to Porcaro's memory.

I also like Phillips work with the Downes/Payne incarnation of Asia and of course his work with the Who in the eighties was/is quite enjoyable.

Great review of Townshend. BTW. But after your very comprehensive review of the Beatles albums you've kind of got me hooked! I hope you don't mind I linked to your blog on my Review Revue blog.

Sean Coleman said...

I don't mind at all. I'll set up a link for your site here as well.

Simon Phillips wears a few hats (not just "high-hats") and is exceptional in all roles.

He wasn't even 20 when he played on Sin After Sin (Judas Priest) and sounded pro even at that tender age.

rockandrollguru said...

I absolutely love Pete Townshend and this is a wonderfully insightful post, Sean.

Sean Coleman said...

Thank you, Joe. Pete is definitely deserving of the genius tag.

Perplexio said...

Jeff Porcaro was only 16 when he was doing sessions with Steely Dan. There's a really interesting interview with former Toto bassist, David Hungate, who first met Jeff at a Steely Dan session back in the early-mid 70s over on Inside Musicast where Hungate discusses those earlyt days with Jeff Porcaro if you're interested.

I'm disappointed that they haven't yet interwied "SiPhi" but I'm glad I got to see Toto live once before they called it quits. Phillips drumming was a highlight of that show for me!

Isorski said...

I think this is Pete's last truly great album. White City was good and I have a soft spot for the broadway play-ness of Psychoderelict, but Chinese Eyes has his last true classics - Sea Refuses No River, Somebody Saved Me and Slit Skirts. I just love this album.

Hey great blog, by the way. I am putting it on my blog roll. Thanks for posting mine as well - I just saw that!

Sean Coleman said...

Isorski- Many thanks, sir.

This LP has been in my collection since it first came out. I had a friend who was a drop-dead Who fan that told me to get this record. I had Face Dances and Tommy at that time along with Live at Leeds on cassette. "Chinese Eyes" took some time to get into but it became my favorite Townshend solo record next to Empty Glass.

I really like your blog as well. Them Crooked Vultures must have been a fantastic show.