Pete Townshend is kind of doing a lot of things right now. He’s blogging a novel, called The Boy Who Heard Music, visiting his ladyfriend Rachel Fuller’s In the Attic Show (broadcast, of course, on Who TV), working on his memoirs, and, allegedly, writing material for a new Who album. The last activity is the source of never ending rumors among Who fans, and if he wouldn’t put out a new song once a year or so (“Old Red Wine” and “Real Good Looking Boy” in 2004, and a rough demo of “In the Ether” recently), we could probably all get on with our lives. The one thing that we do know is that Townshend isn’t putting a new full-length out any time soon.
So, in order to keep up with the Who’s reputation as the world’s most overpackaged band, he’s got a new two-disc compilation out, part of Universal’s series of Gold collections. It’s essentially a re-doing of the UK Anthology, with just the addition of “Let’s See Action”. He now has more compilations and live albums released than studio albums (11 to seven is my best estimation). The primary question becomes, then, not “How good is this music?” but “How necessary is this set?” The answer is as hard to arrive at as an accurate count of Townshend/Who releases.
Since the two discs offer nothing in the way of rare or unreleased material, the sound quality here is key. Fortunately, the remastering on these tracks (done by longtime colleague Jon Astley) sounds great. Even having listened to many of these songs too many times to admit, I’m still discovering new elements: a piano clink here, a bassline here. It’s not just subtleties working their way up. The song selection itself never falters. Townshend’s got an imperfect record, and that’s reflected here, as well, but the compiling by Matt Kent shows intelligent selection. All anthologies have to leave something off, but only the most hardcore Townshend fan would find anything to complain about. Oddly, though, the song’s appear to be randomly sequenced, or, if not randomly, then hastily. With no chronological, thematic, or musical line to follow, we can’t rely on our ears to get the music.
The packaging, which follows a straight chronology and contains photos seemingly shot in one session, disappoints. Kent writes solid notes (although, not surprisingly the Townshend quotations don’t always correspond with related comments elsewhere), but Townshend’s own blurbs are ridiculously brief. For 1996’s The Best of Pete Townshend (produced by Astley), the artist gave us a paragraph per song; here he confuses being concise with being glib, and his thoughts are little more than half-formed notes jotted down for his own memory.
That’s a shame, because it’s that earlier best-of that this set competes against. That first compilation provided a quick, one-disc overview for the novitiate; this one is for someone who knows they want the works. The problem, which is unavoidable, is that it targets people who want more than a little Townshend, but not enough to require buying the actual albums. The Best of Pete Townshend at least gave us an unreleased track from Psychoderelict and a new, beautiful “e.cola mix” of “Let My Love My Open the Door”.
And all of that information just brings us back to the music, because how do you know if you’re someone who wants that middle amount of Townshend music? Well, take the Who’s most raucous music at one end, and total softie guru music on the other, and put Townshend solo in the middle of that line, reaching out in both directions. Increase the total amount of synths and jack the introspection way up. Now, if you’re getting old enough to find much of rock juvenile, but you still like the sound of it, then Townshend’s your man. Songs like “Slit Skirts” make for as effective a mature rock music as any out there, and Townshend’s spiritual pursuits, when not heavy-handed, tend to be rewarding, especially when couched in more pedestrian terms, as with “Let My Love Open the Door” (which is a particularly underrated pop masterpiece).
As he did with the Who, Townshend continued to write albums around concepts or plots throughout his solo career. For that reason, some of the songs on his compilations lose a little something when taken out of context, but most of them are strong enough to stand alone. The Iron Man‘s “A Friend Is a Friend” sounds a little ludicrous on its own, but it comes from an album you probably won’t spin much anyway. Likewise the songs from Psychoderelict lose some meaning away from their plot, but make up for it in accessibility [sidenote: I’m apparently one of the only people in the world who prefer the full version of that album to the music-only, so maybe you can’t trust me at all]. So if you want the best of the music, with half the fuss, here it is.
With plans in place to remaster the solo catalog, we can hope that soon Townshend’s albums will sound as good as the music on this collection. Right now, it’s probably the best way to have as much Townshend as the average music fan needs (but only by a bit over the one-disc collection), but if it truly satisfies you, you’ll need at least a few more of the albums, particularly Empty Glass (the only one to approach the caliber of the Who albums). In which case, this set will become unnecessary, except for the fact that it satifies you. (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I’m a Townshend fan.) And with Townshend busy doing everything except making new music, it might be as good a time as any to start exploring his old work.