(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Most music fans of a certain vintage know Pete Townshend’s story: bullied geek grows up to become one of rock’s greatest (and conflicted) visionaries. He gifted the world with such songs and albums as “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and “Who Are You?” (“are you, are you, are you, are you…”), and, in 2012, published the most literate of all the rock memoirs to date, Who I Am.
Music fans of a younger vintage, however, likely know his work from the CSI franchise and TV commercials, where some of the Who’s greatest songs sell cars and whatnot, and possibly from their straight-ahead 2010 Super Bowl halftime performance.
Some critics (and fans, too) believe that the Who died in 1978 with wild man-drummer Keith Moon, but that’s a topic for another day. (I think that’s a silly argument, however.) Instead, I’m stepping through the time portal to November 1985 and Townshend’s under-appreciated White City: A Novel album. Yes, a solo album – his fourth or fifth, depending upon whether one includes his 1977 album with Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix.
At the time of its release, aside from an appearance at Live Aid with his former (and future) Who mates, Townshend had been out of the public eye (in the U.S., at least) since what was billed as the “final” Who tour in 1982. He’d taken a day job at the Faber and Faber publishing house in London, oversaw the release of music-related tomes and, in May 1985, published his own short story collection, Horse’s Neck. (You can read what Record’s Jon Bowermaster thought of it to the left; the review ran in the November 1985 issue.)
Of White City, Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum called it “his best work since Empty Glass.” But, despite the acclaim, radio play and MTV videos aplenty, sales lagged – just as they had for its predecessor, 1982’s spotty All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. Each made it to only No. 26 on Billboard’s album chart. (Empty Glass, by comparison, cracked the Top 5.) There are quite a few reasons for that, but the primary reason: the generational tide was turning – out with the old, in with the new, etc.
Anyway, the nine-song White City: A Novel is not, despite its subtitle, a novel set to music, but a series of stories set in the same milieu – West London circa the 1960s. The result is an incisive series of interlocking songs, beginning with the opening track, “Give Blood.”
Another highlight and known song is “Face the Face.” Here’s a live performance from 1986:
And here’s a related memory from sometime in spring of ’86:
After a weekend home with the folks, I tumbled into my 1979 Chevette and set out for the Penn State mothership on a glorious, Day-Glo Sunday morning. It was a journey that could take anywhere from three hours (my personal best) to, due to traffic, upwards of five, and one I often made with passengers. This time, however, it was just me.
That was the era of albums and cassettes, of course, and tape decks that automatically flipped the cassette when a side came to an end. As the Chevette chugged up a mountain – which one, I forget – the tape flipped from Side One to Side Two; it wasn’t the first time I heard it, obviously, but it’s the first time I understood it. “Crashing by Design” first filled the cabin and, for the next 16 or 17 minutes I was, as is the narrator in that song, “a child lost in time.”
The side flows as if an orchestral piece accented by electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, layered rhythms and incisive, insightful lyrics that appear confessional though, often, are simply well-honed portraits. In “I Am Secure,” for instance, he peers through the eyes of a housewife who’s “grow(ing) old by inches” with her man. And “White City Fighting,” which began life as a Dave Gilmour tune that Townshend put lyrics to, is a collaborative work of genius, the narrator looking back with relish and regret at the “black violent place” of his youth over a melody that’s one step short of rapturous. (And, yes, that’s Gilmour on guitar.)
The piece’s final movement, “Come to Mama,” cuts to the core that the prior songs, including those on Side One, danced about: the downside of unfettered pride, which is often nothing more than an unconscious defense mechanism.
- Give Blood
- Brilliant Blues
- Face the Face
- Hiding Out
- Secondhand Love
- Crashing by Design
- I Am Secure
- White City Fighting
- Come to Mama
And, finally, here is the album in full: