An album a week #4: Empty Glass by Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend is one of the major figures in ‘rock’ music, writer of a clutch of songs that have become part of the fabric of our world — in Australia we had a panel show called ‘Talkin’ ’bout your generation’ (or something like that), which had a theme tune that was clearly meant to evoke ‘My Generation’ but not to alert it’s copyright holders… I have heard ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ quoted by people who don’t know where it comes from (I’m not 100% sure it’s original with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, I suppose).
That was all done with The Who, the most erratic of the ‘great’ bands of the 60s and 70s, capable of the sublime and the ridiculous, often consecutively or even simultaneously. Townshend has a history of taking himself and rock ‘too seriously’, and yet would not have left the legacy he has without doing so. Irony is fashionable and a useful defence mechanism, but it takes courage to say ‘these ideas are important to me and I’m going to try to do something meaningful’. And in a field as ephemeral and commercial as popular music, that’s no easy credo, and one open to ridicule.
Add to that his personal travails, implied by the abused little boy at the centre of ‘Tommy’ and the angular stories in Horse’s Neck‘, and then approached gamely in Who I Am, and add the legal trouble over his access of illicit material on the web (which, when viewed against the background of the abuse he suffered and the charity work he had been engaged in since long before the incident was clearly an exercise in idealism and foolishness rather than anything else) and Townshend is a complicated, conflicted and contradictory figure. The dissolute rocker who remains naïve, the conscious artist who works in the most commercial of spheres, the lauded guitarist who hates performing.
By the late 1970s, the Who had run its course; the band was to make two more albums before turning into a nostalgia show, but Keith Moon had finally killed himself, Townshend was in a drink, drug and self-disgust induced pit (in the liner notes he thanks ‘Remy Martin Cognac for saving my life by making the bloody stuff so expensive’) and Roger Daltrey was looking at more and more outside projects. The writing was on the wall.
Townshend, like many artists, fed off the discord. He was angry over the treatment in the press of Moon’s death and channelled it into ‘Jools and Jim’. He was angry in general and gave us ‘Empty Glass‘ itself, a track that begins ‘Why was I born today? Life is useless like Ecclesiastes say’, which sounds kind of self-pitying except its delivered in a yell that says I’m gonna do something about it or die trying. He knew the drugs were damaging himself and his ability to do what he ought for those around him, but they were so beguiling he could not help himself — and we have ‘A Little is Enough’, one of the absolute stand-out tracks on the album, and something the Who could not have recorded without turning into nothing more than Townshend’s backing band. And perhaps the nonsense made the moments of tranquillity dearer, seen with greater appreciation, and we have ‘Let My Love Open the Door’ (which seems to have become popular with move soundtrack collators) and ‘Keep on Working’, a loping track that begins ‘I was digging in the yard today…’
I find the sound of the record, even on CD, tinny. ‘Gonna Get Ya’ would be better at half the length, and I like ‘I am an Animal’ except some of the lyrics are pretty naff. Having said that, the sonic breadth is impressive, if tilted towards the early-80s electronic, with some big guitars, some acoustic guitars, some syth stuff and everything in between.
I bought this record years ago second hand on vinyl; I don’t think I was old enough to grasp a lot of the meaning. The CD copy I have has four ‘bonus’ tracks that are reworkings of tracks on the album, and while interesting they add little. They don’t need to add much; this is one of the most important composers in popular music operating at the top of his game. If the production was not so redolent of 1980 I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who likes thoughtful, if rather personal/confessional, popular music. As it is, I still recommend it but I would suggest listening to a few tracks if possible first. The sound feels trebly, too ‘bright’; if ears were eyes you’d be squinting at times listening to this record.