Monday, October 13, 2008

Pete Townshend 1: Who Came First

Pete’s fascination with guru Meher Baba had surfaced as early as Tommy, and even before “The Seeker” was released he had spearheaded a charity tribute album featuring performances by some of his fellow Baba-lovers. Happy Birthday included six Townshend tracks—pulled from various hours of home demos he’d already amassed—plus his accompaniment on others, with some experimental poetry in between. It was followed a year later by I Am, which had less overt Pete involvement, save the ten-minute instrumental of “Baba O’Riley” ending one side and his “Parvardigar” prayer ending the other.
Naturally, the two albums were bootlegged, gypping the record companies and the charity. The idea was put forth to make them more widely available, but Pete chose instead to compile a hodgepodge of some of his Baba tracks with other demos, winkingly titled Who Came First.
“Pure And Easy”, an edit of the Lifehouse demo (and the centerpiece of the story), left fans clamoring for an official Who version having heard it on stage throughout the previous year. Ronnie Lane’s “Evolution” is followed by “Forever’s No Time At All”, which had zero Pete input. “Nothing Is Everything” is Pete’s demo of “Let’s See Action”, which had been a Who single the previous year in the UK. This is longer, with an extra lyric on the bridge.
“Time Is Passing” celebrates the joy of music with a wonderful arrangement that brings a Mideastern quality to the ear. “There’s A Heartache Following Me” is a Jim Reeves song Baba loved, and “Sheraton Gibson” was famously written in a fit of songwriting influenced by (according to Pete) by Dylan’s Self Portrait. (That album wasn’t conceived that way, but the point is that if you wait long enough, you can write a song.) “Content”, a poem Pete set to music, sounds like a prayer, while “Parvardigar” really is one.
Who Came First may be a hodgepodge, but it makes for exciting yet pleasant listening, a nice compromise between leftover Lifehouse songs and the Baba albums. It fell out of view for many years until Rykodisc, then at the height of their respectability as a reissue label, gave it proper exposure, boosting the content with the bulk of the Pete tracks from the Baba albums (including a third, 1976’s With Love). Along with the demo of “The Seeker”, “Day Of Silence” and “The Love Man” (one of his hidden gems) come from Happy Birthday and are a showcase for his sensitivity. The three With Love tracks are especially illuminating: “His Hands” is instrumental with piano, guitar and mandolin trilling along not unlike Pete’s other mid-‘70s work; “Sleeping Dog” is a pleasant fireside ditty; and “Lantern Cabin” closes the set with a fairly accurate prediction of George Winston’s style.
When Pete’s catalog was overhauled in the new century, Who Came First was supplemented by the two other Pete tracks from Happy Birthday (Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine”, which was Baba’s other favorite song, also included on Pete’s 1987 demos collection Another Scoop, and the anti-pot “Mary Jane”) plus the Mose Allison pastiche “I Always Say”, released for the first time.
Of course, anything worth reissuing twice can be done three times, so Who Came First received the double-disc treatment for its 45th anniversary, with most of the bonuses from 1992 and 2006 put onto a second disc, along with other demos of the era. A few of the bonuses are in different mixes or edits, but there is also a fascinating alternate of “Day Of Silence”, a less effective, earlier “Parvardigar”, and a live version of “Evolution” from 2004’s Ronnie Lane memorial concert. “There’s A Fortune In Those Hills” finally appears after decades of speculation, and the instrumental “Baba O’Riley” rightfully adds value. The law also states that revision causes omission, so even with all the extras, “Lantern Cabin” was left off. Still, we shouldn’t complain, especially when we’re acknowledged by name in the booklet.
(Footnote: the three Baba tribute albums were reissued by Pete’s Eel Pie label, first as the limited-edition Avatar box set, then as the simpler Jai Baba package. They’re interesting to hear in context from time to time, but have been mostly rendered unnecessary.)

Pete Townshend Who Came First (1972)—4
1992 Rykodisc: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks
2006 Hip-O: same as 1992, plus 3 extra tracks>
2018 45th Anniversary Expanded Edition: same as 1972, plus 17 extra tracks

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