45 Years Ago: Pete Townshend Steps Out Solo on ‘Who Came First’
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As countless individuals were trying to find themselves in the late ’60s, many turned toward religion, both the Eastern and Western varieties. With the Beatles‘ adventures with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a catalyst, people were seeking ‘the answers to life’ and looking everywhere. Pete Townshend had realized early on that drugs were not a solution.
“I was using drugs since I was 17,” Townshend said in a 1972 interview. “I later became obsessed by the use, obsessed by the fact that I felt my consciousness was expanding. I felt I knew a lot more about my own consciousness, and perhaps even about my soul consciousness than did the average man in the street.”
Townshend found an alternate path via Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who died in 1969 at age 74. For the last 44 years of his life, he did not speak a word, communicating by written word and hand gestures. He dedicated his life to helping people and in the process, developed a following of disciples. By the mid-’60s, Meher Baba became concerned over the Western world’s immersion into drugs, particularly LSD. In 1966, he wrote a piece titled “God in a Pill?” in which he concluded that the mind-altering drug was “harmful physically, mentally and spiritually,” warning that “the continued use of LSD leads to madness or death.” This would all play into Townshend’s own self-realizing and turning away from drugs.
“There’s a spiritual wave in the world at the moment, the use of drugs, the desperation, the over-population, everything points to the fact that people are being hit the hardest spiritually,” said Townshend. “I started to question my own philosophy of life because I started to feel that I’d played a game with myself.” The 1970 Who single, “The Seeker,” addressed this idea succinctly and that perspective played heavily into Townshend’s first proper solo album, Who Came First. Pete had already issued two albums in tribute to Baba, 1970’s Happy Birthday and I Am in early 1972 (which included the original demo of “Baba O’Riley”), both released in very small quantities and never widely distributed.
Released in the fall of 1972, Who Came First gave Townshend a chance to explore and expand his own musical territory as well as his insight into his own life. The material was culled from recordings done at Townshend’s home studio, some specifically for the album others that lingered from the aborted Lifehouse project. Townshend plays most of the instruments on the album, but gets some help from the Faces‘ Ronnie Lane, singer/songwriter Billy Nicholls and studio musician Caleb Quaye (later of Elton John‘s band).
Songs which figured into the Who catalog show up here in different form. “Pure and Easy” was melded into “The Song Is Over” from Who’s Next. A full band version of the song would later show up on the Odds and Sods collection. “Let’s See Action” first appeared as a U.K. single in 1971. Both these were sprung from Lifehouse. Like most of his demos, Pete’s solo versions of these songs have a distinctly different feel from the Who versions.
“Sheraton Gibson” and “Time Is Passing” are prime Townshend, while “Evolution,” Ronnie Lane’s contribution, gives the album a jolt. Another song, “Forever’s No Time at All,” is a shimmering pop song written and sung by Billy Nicholls. In addition to working with Townshend numerous times over the years, Nicholls made a wonderful Beach Boys inspired album, Would You Believe?, in 1968 for the Immediate label, home of the Small Faces.
Though he gets a hand from these fine folks, this is Pete’s show, and Baba’s influence runs throughout, including the lyric of “Parvardigar,” which stemmed from his writings. The album was dedicated to him as well. It is a grab-bag sort of collection, and in most circles, seems all but forgotten, with many assuming 1980’s Empty Glass to be Pete’s first solo effort, but Who Came First is more than just a curiosity, it documents a significant time in Townshend’s life both musically and spiritually.
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