Now that The Who have hit 50, the time is ripe for tossing together another Pete Townshend solo career compilation. The 1996 collection Coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking was only billed as The Best of Pete Townshend. We obviously need an upgrade! And that’s where Truancy steps in, to give us The Very Best of Pete Townshend. You’d think that the Very would make all the difference, but Truancy covers pretty much the same ground with just a few variations. Even the cover art of the two collections is similar.
For what it’s worth, Truancy runs chronologically and includes two exclusive tracks. Aside from that, it’s also a fifth or sixth chance to purchase “Let My Love Open the Door”. The choices from Townshend’s first solo album Who Came First, a sturdy work that came hot off the heals of The Who’s masterpiece Who’s Next, are obvious ones. “Pure and Easy” starts the album, followed by “Sheraton Gibson” and the rather tame and lengthy “(Nothing Is Everything) Let’s See Action”. For Townshend’s collaborative album with Faces member Ronnie Lane, Truancy trades out “Street in the City” and substitutes it with “My Baby Gives It Away”, “Keep Me Turning”, and “Heart to Hang Onto”. This juggling act reminds one that Rough Mix, though being pretty uneven in quality, had its moments that could really transcend the all-star gimmick that was at risk.
Empty Glass has long been considered the centerpiece to Pete Townshend’s solo career. Not only did it score a monster hit with “My Love Open the Door”, but it was also released during a spiritual turning point for Townshend. Who drummer Keith Moon had passed away and, after much self-destructive behavior, Pete Townshend had a bit of a come-to-Jesus/sobering up moment when assembling Empty Glass. So it’s weird that Truancy doesn’t set aside more than two slots for it. Obviously, one of those songs is Townshend’s personal panacea reserved for divine love. In the liner notes for Coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking, Townshend admitted that “Let My Love Open the Door” came out more frivolous sounding than he would have liked. I remember hearing it on the radio a long time ago, thinking it was kind of goofy sounding compared to The Who. The other non-surprise pick from the album is Townshend’s vicarious coming-out song “Rough Boys”. The follow-up to the triumphant Empty Glass has long been considered a more difficult album. Music writer Stephen Thomas Erlewine went so far as to describe All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes as “deliberately arty, awkwardly poetic bullshit.” “Slit Skirts” goes out the window, supplanted by the pseudo-new wave “Face Dances (Pt. 2)”. The wanting-to-be-larger-than-life “The Sea Refuses No River” stays put.
Arriving at the mid-’80s, two songs are plucked from White City. “Face the Face” is a predictable pick due to heavy radio airplay and the fact that Townshend slipped it into the set for The Who’s 1989 reunion tour. “White City Fighting”, on the other hand, I did not see coming. If classic rock radio ever championed another song from White City, it was probably “Give Blood”. There’s only one selection from Psychoderelict, the single “English Boy” that mercifully comes with no spoken word drama (Townshend’s songwriting be damned, I just could not get into that album and it’s distracting “story”). There are two odd eggs from unlikely releases, like “I Won’t Run Anymore” from the Iron Man musical and home demo for “You Came Back” from the first Scoop release.
The two bait, I mean, exclusive tracks are saved for last since they are new recordings. “Guantanamo” is a meager crack at 12-bar blues. It’s attempt to politically draw blood with swipes like “still waiting for the big cigars” make it all the more embarrassing. “How Can I Help You”, on the other hand, is serviceable. The neoclassical opening, which sounds like a knack held over from the symphonic adaptation of Quadrophenia, slips into Townshend-by-the-numbers. The lyrics are the you’ve-got-to-help-yourself-first sentiment. If Pete Townshend has another big project around the corner, then it’s easy to see why “Guantanamo” and “How Can I Help You” are tacked on the end of Truancy. By Townshend standards, they are generic. When it comes to compilations, products like Gold and Scooped make for more interesting listening.