This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song(s) #394: “Baba O’Riley”/”Behind Blue Eyes”/”Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
If you know The Who at all then, you are probably familiar with all three of the songs listed at the top of this post. “Baba O’ Riley”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” have been staples of live Who shows and of Classic Rock radio since their debut in 1970 from the album Who’s Next. Normally, I would pick one song and talk about it because most songwriters create individualized songs that stand alone to act as their outlet for creative expression. But, truth be told, all three Who songs mentioned above are inextricably linked and spring from a common foundation of inspiration and, as such, the story of one of these songs is, in fact, the story of all three of these songs. So, let’s unravel the mystery of the album Who’s Next which was never meant to be an album at all.
In the 1960s, the UK was home to three of the greatest rock bands of all time: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. The Who consisted of lead singer, Roger Daltry, Lead guitarist/singer, Pete Townsend, Bassist, John Entwhistle and legendary drummer, Keith Moon. While The Beatles were creating Blues-based Pop perfection and The Rolling Sones were producing Blues-based rock, The Who were taking the time-honoured tradition of the concept album to its logical extension by creating a rock opera known as Tommy. Pete Townsend, who was the principal songwriter for the band, was not writing songs in small independent chunks like most bands. Instead, his vision for storytelling was to tell grand stories on an epic scale. In order to follow up on the success of Tommy, Townsend began writing songs for a new rock opera called Lifehouse. As the 1960 drew to a close, all three of the top UK rock bands began to explore their spirituality by following mystics from India. In the case of The Who, Pete Townsend fell under the influence of a man named Meher Baba. Baba (which is where the song title “Baba O’Riley” comes from) believed that all humans gave off a cosmic signature that was unique to them. He called this signature a vibration. Since music is built upon a foundation of sound vibrations, Baba felt that the path toward nirvana for individuals was to come together collectively through music. He postulated that when perfect harmony had been achieved, a universal chord would be struck and we would collectively experience a rapture-like uplifting and fulfillment of our minds and souls.
As The Who toured in support of Tommy, Townsend began watching the reactions of their fans and started formulating plans for a new rock opera based upon Baba’s teachings and his own experiences playing for adoring crowds. The new rock opera was called Lifehouse. The plot summary for Lifehouse is, as follows:
It was set in a time when London had become so polluted that everyone was forced inside. The Government had created a system of providing for the complete needs of everyone as long as they stayed indoors. But, by staying indoors, they people became captives and their minds became stupefied, as if they were drugged. The only resistance came from freedom fighters who manned pirate radio stations that transmitted the spirit of Rock music to those still capable of free thought. The path to selfactualization then comes through music (just as Baba taught). The three songs listed above all play significant roles in the musical.
“Baba O’Riley” opens the play. It is sung by a pair of Scottish farmers who have learned that their teenage daughter has answered the siren song of the pirate radio broadcasters and has left the safety of their pollution-free Scottish farm to attend a rebel concert at a place called Lifehouse. The lyrics open with the farmers singing, “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals, I put my back into my living.” The song ends with the husband saying to his wife, “Sally, take my hand. We’ll travel south across the land. Put out the fire and don’t look past my shoulder. The exodus is here.”….which is when the parents decide to go off and rescue/keep their daughter safe. ***A bit of trivia here, the opening synthesizer notes that give the song such a distinctive sound were meant to symbolize the incorporation of the audience’s unique cosmic signatures directly into the structure of the song so that the band, the song and the audience could achieve singularity.
“Behind Blue Eyes” closes the first act of the play. It is sung by the villain in the play…a character called Jumbo. Jumbo is in charge of the world the Scottish daughter has run toward. He feels wrongfully characterized as a villain and expresses his frustration at being misunderstood. “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes. No one knows what it’s like to be hated, to be fated, to telling only lies.”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the closing song in the musical. In that scene, the main character has died, leaving the Government and the Army to face off. This leads to the famous line of the “new boss being the same as the old boss“. The play ended with the message that putting your faith in revolution is misguided and is not the way forward. The spirituality obtained via togetherness and music is the true Light.
Initially, Townsend’s idea for bringing the Lifehouse Project to fruition involved creating a communal experience inside of a theatre in which the audience and band would live together for as long as it took for the essence of their being to harmonize. Audience members would become incorporated into the music in ways that suited their cosmic signatures and all would become as one (as John Lennon once famously said). However, the logistics of pulling this off proved too daunting and eventually, the project had to be abandoned. Pete Townsend suffered a nervous breakdown. The songs from the play were salvaged and cobbled together in the form of a traditional album which became known as Who’s Next. And the rest, as they say, became history.
As much as some of what Townsend was trying to achieve sounded wishy-washy, the concept of a Government-lead, captive/stupefied population trying to be saved by renegades sounds to me a bit like the concept behind The Matrix trilogy (not to mention, the conspiracy theory behind many of today’s anti-maskers/anti-vaxxers). Furthermore, the idea of melding the individual traits, desires, like and dislikes of a society and creating something new and universal at the conclusion sounds to me to be a lot like how the Internet works today. If you substitute cosmic signature for algorithms you basically have the same outcome. I have often maintained that there is a thin line that separates genius from madness. While Pete Townsend eventually suffered a mental breakdown from the Lifehouse Project, the grand scope of his vision has left us musical treasures that remain important and popular half a century later. Below, you will find the videos for “Baba O’ Riley”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, too. Three individual songs linked together from a common foundation that was forged in the belief that the path to salvation for us all was through music. Enjoy.
A link to a website devoted to the band, The Who, can be found here.
Thanks to Rolling Stone Magazine for helping to inspire the creation of this post. A link to their terrific website can be found here.
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