The WHO – ” The Home Demo’s “

Posted: March 6, 2020 in MUSIC
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The Who’s incendiary 1968 performance on “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” TV special. That article was all about the incredible power of the Who, and Townshend in particular, as live performers.

Pete Townshend’s stage antics were unparalleled (the leaps, the windmill, the guitar smashing), as was the sheer speed and energy of his playing. As another example, check out one of my all-time favorite Townshend live performances, him doing Quadrophenia’s “Drowned” by himself on acoustic guitar at the 1979 Secret Policeman’s Ball.

The entire performance is spellbinding, but the guitar flurry he unleashes at the 2:00 mark just blows me away every time. That technical dexterity combined with primal energy, top-notch songwriting, and heartbreaking pathos encapsulates the amazing creative mixture that was Pete Townshend.

Yet there’s a quieter, more private side of Pete Townshend that’s just as noteworthy. Beginning in the late 1960s, Townshend was on the forefront of the development of home studios. In a world before ProTools and GarageBand, the idea of having a recording studio in your own home was quite extraordinary, but Townshend took to it immediately and started producing amazingly rich demo recordings on which he sang and played every instrument (including drums and bass). For tracks that later found their way onto Who albums, these demos provided a template for the other members of the Who to flesh out with their individual parts, adding their own flourishes and touches.

It’s incredible, however, how fully Townshend had already worked out the arrangements of these future Who classics. In many respects he’d figured everything out ahead of time, and it was just up to The Who to lay it down in a professional studio, bringing to it the animal electricity that only The Who could.

The first album for which Townshend did extensive home demoing was 1969’s “Tommy”, and his demo of “Pinball Wizard” is a perfect example of his arranging genius, as his home recording maps out the song pretty much exactly in line with the Who version that would sweep the world by storm:

Despite the fact that Townshend could play every instrument and write every part, he never felt like he didn’t need the band. He heard in these demos exactly what we hear today—that Keith Moon’s manic drumming, John Entwhistle’s muscular bass, and Roger Daltrey’s guttural fury launch these songs to a whole other level.

It was in preparing for the Who’s next album—which started as the multimedia Lifehouse project but wound up as the Who’s Next collection released in 1971—that Townshend began producing stunningly complex and beautiful home demos, cuts that really demonstrate his multi-instrumental talent and sonic adventurousness. One of the most impressive tracks is “Baba O’Riley,” which is both like and quite unlike the eventually released Who version:

Townshend’s synthesizer part is mind-blowing in and of itself, revolutionary at the time and still impressive today. In fact, the part heard on this home demo is the very one the Who wound up using on the official recording (though they did muck around with it a bit once in a professional studio). “Baba O’Riley” gives a fascinating window into Townshend’s creative process. All the basic parts of the Who version are here, but this demo goes on for longer, and includes little passages here and there that eventually got cut from the Who’s Next arrangement. In this recording we get to hear all the ideas Townshend throws at the wall, and by comparing it to the released version he can hear what eventually stuck (though Townshend was reportedly unhappy with the released version of “Baba O’Riley,” feeling that he’d allowed too much material to be cut; he’s wrong, though, since The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is pretty much perfect).

Another Who’s Next classic worth pointing out here is “Behind Blue Eyes.” Again, the demo mostly mirrors the Who version, but in this case it has an entirely different feel. Whereas the Who’s version is for the most part loud and bombastic, Townshend’s demo version is gentle, dark, and plaintive,  (Daltrey’s over-the-top vocals on this track have always bothered me):

These demos provide the listener a view into an alternate reality where Townshend rather than Daltrey is The Who’s primary vocalist. I mean, listen, for much of the Who’s material, Daltrey was the man for the job, and in certain instances, he laid down some of the best rock vocals ever, period. The first and last example anyone would need in that regard is “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from Who’s Next, aka “The Scream”:

Pete Townshend could never pull off that scream, nor could anyone else. But on some of the Who’s more gentle material, Daltrey’s approach can feel a little ham-fisted, so hearing Townshend sing some of these songs in demo form is a real treat. The song that stands out in this regard for me is one of my Who’s Next favorites, “Getting in Tune.” With Townshend at the mic, the song’s delicacy and fragility come to the front, causing my heart to break a little bit each time I hear it:

Speaking of Townshend’s gentle side, not all of his home demos were done with the Who in mind. Since the late 1960s Townshend had been a loyal disciple of the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, and a good portion of his home recordings were intended for release on Baba tribute and fund-raising albums, produced and released under the name “Pete Townshend” rather than “the Who.” This gave Townshend the chance to work out material not appropriate for the Who as a band, and which might confuse or anger the Who’s trill-seeking, head-banging audience.

Many of these tracks were very hard to track down until released on Townshend’s first solo album, 1972’s Who Came First, in their original demo form. The gentle yet bouncy “Mary Jane” is a great example of the type of material Townshend worked on without thinking of the Who eventually performing the song in a stadium setting:

While Townshend continued to produce home demos throughout the rest of the 1970s, I’ll end here with two choice cuts from the Who’s last significant record, 1973’s Quadrophenia. Breaking from the pattern of these home demos being very close in arrangement and spirit to the eventually released Who versions, “The Real Me” demo is vastly different. Whereas the Who version is a driving punch in the face—for my money one of the best things they ever recorded—Townshend’s home demo is a slower, funkier, almost dancey take. I don’t think it holds a candle to the Quadrophenia version, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless:

Another standout from the Quadrophenia double album was “Bell Boy”; as with “The Real Me,” the Who’s version of “Bell Boy” is a prolonged punch in the face, a monumental wave of sound and energy. Townshend’s home demo follows the same structure, but overall it’s quieter and gentler, especially with him on lead vocals for the entire song instead of drummer Keith Moon, whose vocal cameo on the album version is hilarious, intense, and unforgettable. In the home demo setting, you can here just how complex and lovely the song’s arrangement really is, having stripped away all the Who’s (admittedly great) rock and roll bombast:

And that’s just it—the Who as a band could melt your face, but obviously Pete Townshend’s vision and talent went beyond such histrionics, and it’s in these home demos that we hear him stretching out in all sorts of different directions. They’re certainly a mixed bag—sometimes these sketches are better than the eventual Who versions, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they allow us to hear material never performed or recorded by the Who or Townshend in any other arena, but they’re always revelatory, giving us a more intimate glimpse of the creative process of a man who could both windmill the shit out of a guitar but also play every instrument in the band and arrange complex rock operas while his tea steeped in the kitchen down the hall.

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