Pete Townshend and The Who in the Early 80s
After the death of Keith Moon, The Who limped into retirement (the first of many) with two albums in the early 80s: Face Dances and It’s Hard. When considered alongside the band’s masterworks, these two releases aren’t often held in high regard by die-hard Who fans, despite the few songwriting gems of “Another Tricky Day” and “Eminence Front.” But I think one needs to consider the makeup of the band itself, as well as Townshend’s solo releases around the same time period, to get a full appreciation of just how strong Townsend’s songwriting continued to be into his late 30s, and how exemplary the final two Who albums could have been (I’m ignoring The Who’s 2006 release: Endless Wire).
Unlike other English bands that dominated much of the musical landscape starting in the 60s, The Who, while a tremendous ensemble of musicians when it came to arranging, were reliant on one man for their creative output: Pete Townshend. Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles all had a strong duo of songwriters with a supporting cast of part-time composers. The Who had one legitimate songwriter and a supporting cast of one (John Entwistle). Had they been a band of two or three songwriters, they might have continued to shine during the 80s.
As it was, Townshend managed to produce exceptional music at a surprisingly prolific rate in the 80s, but instead of reserving his output, he spread his creativity over four projects: two solo and two with The Who. The result was four decent albums instead of two gems. I gotta believe that when Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle heard “Rough Boys” for the first time in 1980, they were thinking, “Damn, that could have been one of ours.”
Consider these four releases:
- Empty Glass, by Pete Townshend, released April 21, 1980
- Face Dances, by the Who, released March 16, 1981
- All the Best Cowboys have Chinese Eyes, by Pete Townshend, released June 14, 1982
- It’s Hard, by the Who, released September 4, 1982
Four albums in two and a half years. Pretty impressive productivity. All four albums have their moments of brilliance, and while I’d argue that It’s Hard is the best of the lot, if you condense these releases into two Who albums, I think you’re looking at the best Who releases since Quadrophenia (which is, to me, their magnum opus). What if the final Who albums had the following track listings (or some variation of the following):
- Rough Boys
- You Better You Bet
- Cache Cache
- The Quiet One
- Let My Love Open the Door
- Empty Glass
- Cat’s in the Cupboard
- Gonna Get You
- Another Tricky Day
- Slit Skirts
- It’s Your Turn
- Stardom in Action
- Eminence Front
- I’ve Known No War
- The Sea Refuses No River
- North Country Girl
- Cry if You Want
Maybe you would substitute a particular song for another, but regardless, these two albums would have been at worst very, very good, and possibly even brilliant with the added contributions of Daltrey and Entwistle.
You could also argue that none of this would have mattered anyway – that once Keith Moon died, the energy of the band died too. But I think if taken as a whole, the creative output of Townshend in the early 80s was even more impressive than, say, The Rolling Stones, who managed to put out two good releases in the same time period (Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You). But unlike the Stones, Townshend’s gems were spread out over four albums, not two.
Either way, not too shabby. And for Townshend, his best solo effort was on the horizon: the brilliant White City.