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Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 3: Pete Townshend - Psychoderelict

Pete Townshend, frustrated author or genius musician?  We asked that same question about Roger Waters but if anyone deserves that title, it’s actually Townshend.  He’s been part of the literary community for almost as long as he’s been a rock star.  He’s produced articles, short stories, plays and novels.  The only thing I can’t seem to find is Townshend writing a comic book but don’t put that past him.  He’s still very active.

For those who don’t know, Pete Townshend was(and occasionally still is) the main songwriter for The Who, a massively successful band that many consider third in line behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the contest for Greatest British Invasion Band of All-Time.
Townshend single-handedly brought the concept album into the rock and roll world when he penned The Who’s Tommy album.  It was the very first “rock opera”, telling a narrative story about a young blind, deaf and dumb boy who becomes a messianic figure thanks to his amazing pinball skills.  When you read it like that, it sounds stupid.  Actually, in reality it is kind of stupid but the music is fantastic and the album spawned a Broadway play and a hit movie. 

He repeated the magic with Quadrophenia, another concept album that tells the story of a young man in 1970’s Britain trying to find his purpose in life.  My point is, Townshend knows his way around a story and how to link scenes together musically in a way that appeals to music aficionados as well as casual fans.

Townshend has had the concept album bug for his entire career.  Aside from the two albums mentioned above, he also penned four more concept albums.  Two are noble failures, one is just forgettable and the other… well that’s what we’re here to talk about.  Let’s take a quick moment though to talk about those near misses first.
The most famous is probably Lifehouse, a science fiction themed effort that fell apart before it was completed.  In order to salvage things, Townshend cherry-picked the best songs and came up with what many consider The Who’s best album, Who’s Next.  That single disc spawned the songs “Baba O’Reilly”, “Bargain”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (the song whose ringing A-chord on Pete’s electric guitar literally pulled a ten-year-old Cary Christopher by the ear into the world of rock music).

The second failed but still great attempt at a concept album came in the late 1980’s.  The album was Townshend’s solo effort, White City.  The story was supposed to be semi-autobiographical about Townshend’s upbringing in the White City housing project but was also supposed to address themes about sexuality, gender, race and violence.  It proved too hard to pull off and the resulting album doesn’t hold together narratively.  However, once again the album is saved by great songs like “Give Blood”, “Face the Face” and “Second Hand Love”.  All three are highlights of Townshend’s solo career and the rest of the album is very good, even if the story doesn’t translate.
Here’s where the slide begins. 
In 1989, Townshend tried to adapt the children’s story, The Iron Man, into a concept album and musical play.  He recruited a great cast of singers including John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone as well as The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey.  He even used the opportunity to reunite The Who and launch their first tour in almost a decade.  Unfortunately, there is not one memorable song on the album, not even The Who’s contributions (a Townshend original called “Dig” and a cover of Arthur Brown’s “Fire”).  The whole thing plays as background music and without good songs, the story itself falls flat. 

Still, while the album didn’t sell well, the reunion of The Who breathed new life into Townshend and for the next few years, the band toured off and on.  That one misstep didn’t deter fans from wanting new music, so in 1993, when Pete Townshend announced a new concept album called Psychoderelict, the music world took notice.

Psychoderelict tells the story of a reclusive washed up English rock star.   His manager conspires with a journalist to goad him into making an unwanted comeback.  On the surface it's not a bad concept except that the journalist poses as a 14-year-old girl who wants to make it in the music industry.  If the story had stopped there, I probably wouldn’t be writing about Psychoderelict, but unfortunately for all of us, Townshend decided to make this part of the story rather “icky”.  Our journalist  trades letters and pornographic photos with the aging star to inspire him to work again.  Remember, she’s posing as a 14-year-old girl. 


That’s not the legal age of consent even in Kentucky!

Ultimately, the plan works and our “hero” (who has now shown pedophilic tendencies and is incredibly hard to root for) writes the comeback album his business managers had hoped for.  Everything works out perfectly and no one was hurt.

But our aging, newly invigorated rocker is still a step away from “stranger with candy in a white van” territory.

Granted, you can tell by my tirade that the 14-year-old thing bothers me.  It should.  I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and the last thing I want is some 50-year-old creep sniffing around her.  Here’s where I tell you that the age thing wasn’t what killed the album.  

Psychoderelict (in its initial release version) is annoying as hell.  Townshend decided to actually record actors with dialogue in scenes that helped string together the story.  As a result, listening to the album is like listening to one long audio play with a bit more music than usual.  For music fans, it was a horrible listen.  Voices step on the intros and outros to every song.  It made it impossible for fans to dial up their favorite tune from the album without first hearing people talking over everything leading up to Townshend’s vocal. 

When sales of the album tanked, the studio rushed out a "non-dialogue" version but the damage was done.  Psychoderelict marks the last release of newly recorded solo material from Townshend, proving that a bad concept album can even bring down the best of them.

Adding to the ickiness of the story, almost ten years after the release of Psychoderelict, Townshend was caught up in the web of a UK sting on child pornography.  His name was dragged through the British press, even though he literally had nothing to do with child porn.  He had visited an adult porn site whose records had been used when rounding up perpetrators.   All charges were dropped when the investigation proved him completely innocent, but having this album in his catalog didn’t help things.

Unfortunately, I could not find a link to the entire Psychoderelict album with dialogue included.  It's as if the internet is trying to erase it from existence.  However, you can go on YouTube and find playlists with most of the songs, sans actors speaking.

One final note:  Pete Townshend, together with Roger Daltrey, put together a final album by The Who called Endless Wire.  While the album itself does not play as a concept album, this is Pete Townshend we’re talking about here.  I only mention it because after the album’s release and the subsequent  tour, he took the songs and reworked them… into a play.  It premiered at Vassar College in 2007.


Lisanne Harrington said...

Okay, so I've heard of Pete Townshend and The Who. I can hear the song TOMMY in my head. But that ick factor you talked about really creeps me out. I had completely forgotten about the porn charges.

Never really cared much for The Who, and this doesn't endear me to them any more than their music.

Always preferred Rolling Stones for my British fix...

Cary said...

I'm willing to give Townshend the benefit of the doubt overall that he made a horrible narrative choice with Psychoderelict. To his credit, the songs aren't graphic. It's just something that stood out on top of all the dialogue issues, etc. Also, I tried very hard to make sure I was clear that he was exonerated completely on all charges. He didn't buy his way out either. The investigation proceeded and they found that the initial investigating officer saw his name on the master list and leaked it to the press. That's a pretty awful thing.

That said, I'm a fan of The Who but not a huge one. There are songs of theirs that will always be favorites of mine. "Won't Get Fooled Again" literally was the first time I ever heard a loud, distorted electric guitar and I still remember the effect it had on me. I WANTED to make that sound!

As for the Rolling Stones, I'm a bigger Stones fan than a Who fan for sure. In fact, I'm currently working my way through all of the Stones studio albums in order just for fun. That's how much of a music dork I am.

Tom said...

I'm glad I waited til the end of the day to read this. Great read. As soon as you started in with Psychoderelict's subject matter, though, I immediately thought of the child porn charges. Which will always bug me to no end. Even though nothing came of it (rightfully), it still has tainted just tiny bit the legacy of Townsend and by extension, The Who. A band who while I'm not a massive fan, pulled off what I believe is probably the greatest moment in the Rock history with their performance of See Me Feel Me at Woodstock.

Cary said...

I'm with you. While I was never a huge Who fan, I always had a soft spot for Townshend but those charges tainted that for sure. On the Facebook post, Jason Steffe commented about how Townshend seems to be working out issues other than just sexual orientation in his albums. I think this is pretty obviously true. Even Tommy had a song about an uncle who molests the main character. Townshend has said he was molested as a child and it obviously affected him. So when the porn charges surfaced, I wasn't surprised to be honest. I'm glad he was exonerated because I like his music and don't want that specter hanging over every song, but you're right. It comes to mind anytime I hear his name.