“They call me the seeker, I’ve been searchin’ low and high, I won’t get to get what I’m after, til the day I die…” – “The Seeker” by the Who, written by Pete Townshend
A momentous event happened in the United Kingdom last Saturday, May 19th. The event wasn’t really contained to the UK, it was something the entire world celebrated. Lead guitarist, 2nd vocalist, and main composer of the Who, Pete Townshend had his 73rd birthday this last Saturday. Oh, yeah, and some other young “Royal” couple got married over in the UK too… I forget their names. I thought I would celebrate by focusing a little attention on his first solo album, Who Came First which was recently released in a “Deluxe Edition,” with some additional music. It seems Pete’s first solo album is a lot like the Who’s album Odds and Sods, which seems to get longer and longer with each release. When I first bought Odds and Sods it was because I loved the songs “Long Live Rock” and “Naked Eye,” (and I bought it on vinyl), and it was only 11 songs long. I recently repurchased it in a digital format and it has 23 songs now.
When a member of an established act, especially an act the magnitude of the Who, releases a solo album it can be fraught with all sorts of expectations and drama. It really shouldn’t be surrounded with all that bullshit, typically an artist just wants to change it up a bit. Working with the same musicians can probably get boring. The usual fear when someone releases a solo album is, will the group he’s in break up? Often it can definitely be a sign a band is breaking up. When Sting released his first solo album it spelled the end for all of us hoping the Police would get back together. Typically you don’t even see a solo album from somebody until well after their main group has broken up. The Beatles all found different sorts of drama facing each of their early solo releases. They all reacted in different ways – Paul went literally solo and recorded a quiet little record at home all by himself while George Harrison put out an epic three album long mini-box set. Even more evidence those guys were all headed in different directions.
Somehow, it seems, in 1972 Pete Townshend didn’t face any of that drama. The Who were coming off their greatest commercial success, 1971’s Who’s Next, and nobody seems to have freaked out about Pete doing a solo album. In fact, if I’d been asked as late as college, what Pete Townshend’s first solo album was, I’d have answered with the complete conviction of a religious convert that it was 1980’s superb Empty Glass. I bought that album on cassette so I could listen to it in my car. It remains to this day one of my favorite albums. “Rough Boys,” “Let My Love Open The Door,” (which was a song about God), and “Gonna Get Ya” were all given heavy rotation on local radio. Each of those songs are amongst Townshend’s best. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, probably at the used record store, that there’d been this earlier record.
As evidenced by one of the Who’s earliest songs, quoted above, “The Seeker,” Pete Townshend was a spiritual searcher of sorts. He eventually discovered Meher Baba, a guru from India. The 60s were an interesting time. Everybody was looking for a spiritual leader. LSD and other hallucinative drugs were opening everybody’s mind. Even the Beatles famously traveled to India to spend time with the Maharishi… although it seems that stuff only stuck with George. Meher Baba, ironically was the first spiritual teacher in the 60s who thought psychedelic drugs were bad. Townshend was a big convert… You might recognize Baba’s last name as it’s part of the title of one of the Who’s biggest songs, “Baba O’Riley” named for Meher and Tim Riley, a minimalist conductor Townshend admired… and to think for years we all thought that song was named “Teenage Wasteland.” Another early convert was Ronnie Lane, bass player for my beloved Faces and he and Townshend became very good friends.
In honor of Meher, Townshend had recorded a few small, barely released albums as gifts to Baba. Neither was circulated widely, but they were being bootlegged. The record company finally came to Townshend and asked if he would put them together for official release. These recordings, which were never meant to be for widespread consumption are homespun affairs. They’re mostly acoustic, although most are fully realized songs, these aren’t demos. Years later, Townshend acolyte Eddie Vedder would site Who Came First as his template for his first solo album, the soundtrack for Into the Wild. I had never really heard much of this album except songs that were later released on greatest hits packages. One of my favorites was “Sheraton Gibson” a song about being a musician on the road… in Cleveland no less. I’d also heard Townshend’s early version of “Lets See Action,” but I do like the Who’s fully realized version more. I’d also heard the superb “Parvardigar” which was just a beautiful song.
When I saw that there was this new deluxe version of Who Came First I finally, belatedly, sat down with this record. As I said, it’s a quiet little acoustic album, but what I really liked is that it’s a spiritual statement. Well, it’s certainly Pete’s spiritual statement. If we’re going to celebrate Dylan’s “Christian Period” (Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘Trouble No More: Bootleg Series Vol 13, (Deluxe Edition)) why not celebrate Townshend’s Baba period. The original album is full of songs about contentment (which is a lovely statement of purpose here), “Content” and spiritual joy, “Parvardigar.” “Time Is Passing” is probably my favorite song here. It’s a brilliant track. “Pure And Easy” which the Who finally got around to doing, is here in an early form, but the Who tracks aren’t the best ones. The only weird tune is a country cover, “There’s a Heartache Following Me” recorded because it was a favorite of Baba’s. Ronnie Lane even shows up and redoes “Stone” from the Faces’ first album as “Evolution.”
The deluxe edition brings some early and alternative versions of songs from the original, but it also has other, what I would deem critical tracks. “His Hands” and “Meher In Italy” are both beautiful acoustic instrumentals. There’s an acoustic version of the Who’s “The Seeker” that rivals the original. “Day of Silence” is driven by a cool harmonica. “I Always Say” is a nice bluesy change of pace. “Begin the Beguine” has a loungey vibe. I really liked “The Love Man” and “There’s a Fortune In Those Hills.” There’s an early version of “Baba O’Riley” as an instrumental that clocks in at almost 10 minutes. I think it’s getting the most attention, but it’s a nice to have song, if you’re a completist, but it’s certainly not essential. Townshend even does his old friend Lane a solid and adds a live version of him doing Lane’s “Evolution” at a tribute show for Ronnie Lane.
While this album is probably only for completist and Who or Pete Townshend nuts like me, I was really taken with this album. The deluxe material is definitely worth investigating even if you’re one of the few who have the original. I just wish Townshend felt this moved today and put out something new.