Thursday, April 26, 2012

Listening to Pete Townshend

When you play an instrument, there's always a sense of other players you try to emulate. It's natural, you start out with an instrument, especially when you're generally self-taught, as I am, and immediately start trying to play like the artists you most admire. You have no technical grasp of how to play that way, but you know what it generally sounds like. So you chase that, and fill in the technical aspects to try to get there.

Early on, for me, it was James Hetfield. I'm still in awe of his riffing and pick work. The man is a monster rhythm player, and when I started all I wanted to do was play rhythm guitar in a metal band. I can still do a pretty good approximation of his downstroke riffing, even if I no longer have anywhere near the speed that he can generate.

Often the players you want to emulate are just, well, out of reach. I love, and am astounded by, hyper-technical players like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Even as I played around with trying to learn some of their stuff, I knew that was not where I naturally sat as a musician.

As the years have passed, I have found myself in what I would generally call a "classic rock" style. What I do owes much to blues-based players like Jimmy Page and Slash, as well as strummers/songwriters like Bruce Springsteen. I'm comfortable there. It allows me the freedom to get heavy, a la Zeppelin, and also the space to get lyrical, like Springsteen. I'm also really, really into rhythm and groove, which sets me toward acts like King's X. Not to mention Rush (which is a deeply groove-oriented band, for all their progressive writing).

For absolute clarity, I am not even remotely as good as any of these artists, and do not, in any way claim to be. I simply am at a place where these are the players, and the sounds that I'm identifying and seeing in my own songwriting and playing. Even if all of the influences I've had over the years do, occasionally, erupt out of me.

Recently, I've been spending a lot of time with The Who, and specifically listening to Pete Townshend's playing. I'm finding a lot about how he approached using the guitar in composition to be very similar to what I hear in my head. Townshend was a master of "negative space," where the moments where the guitar is not playing are as important as when it is. A almost staccato approach to rhythm, and I hear it in my own work.

I think this is where a lot of my well-documented frustration with the drum machine stems from. I want to hear the drums do more than just keep time, but actually play off the other instruments. The good news on that front is that the current project is moving forward with trying to find a drummer. I have a jam set up for next month with Paul C. and a guy recommended to me. The bad news is, he's leaving town before the end of the summer. Even with that, I'm hoping he works out and we can get some stuff recorded before he leaves. *fingers crossed*

In either case, it's made me keenly aware that I need a new approach to working with drums. I expect my next large music equipment purchase will be some sort of electric kit for recording.  The idea of being able to organically play off of the rest of the music, even with my feeble percussion skills, is better than a glorified metronome.

Anyway, that's beside the point, for this discussion. I'm finding myself more and more drawn to Townshend's songwriting and playing. It's powerful, gut-level stuff, almost purely emotional, with just enough intellectual refinement to give it heft. As any reader of this blog should know by now, I really gravitate to art from the gut. I love how naked Townshend leaves himself in his songwriting, and how his playing seethes with rage. I'm reading a biography of the man, right now, Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend by Mark Wilkerson, and it comes up, time and again, that the shows where Pete would get well and truly enraged resulted in the most compelling performances.

Personally, I find the Townshend/Who albums of the 70's to be where he really came into his own as an artist. I've long held that "Baba O'Riley" is, simply, the greatest rock song ever written, and, as I've dug into the guitarist and band, that opinion has only strengthened.

Hell, Pete doesn't even touch the guitar until almost halfway through the song, and yet the whole thing literally drips with power and emotion. Which, of course, isn't just Townshend, but the whole band, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle and the great Keith Moon, just laying into the song. Wondrous.

The band, and Townshend, had a pretty rough go of the 80's. Even at that, I still think they produced some great tracks, "You Better, You Bet," and "Eminence Front" are quite good, if not up to their explosive earlier work. Pete's best work of that decade was on his solo disks, even as he struggled with alcoholism. You can't argue with "Rough Boys" or the amazing "Slit Skirts" (which Townshend has called an attempt to write in a "Springsteen style" - the wheel always comes around with me, it seems).

In the 90's and 2000's The Who started to regroup occasionally, and it seems clear that Townshend was rather ambivalent about these appearances. He's made comments that indicate many of these tours were to provide the high-living Entwistle with infusions of cash. However, at some point, he must've become inspired again.

There is footage available of The Who in the 2000's that, for a group forty years into a career, is stunning in it's energy and power (Rush is just about the only band close, and, lets be honest, they were never an "explosive" band like The Who). A friend pointed me to this DVD of their 2000 Royal Albert Hall appearance, and I was knocked out. I'd also recommend any footage you can find of their set at The Concert for New York, after 9/11. Pete, after a decade of rather sedate performances, often remaining on acoustic guitar, seemed to just embrace punishing the guitar again.

As it stands now, with Daltrey and Townshend the last remaining members, after Entwhistle's death in 2002, I doubt another Who tour is in the offing (although Daltrey keeps touring). Their Endless Wire album was actually quite good, even superb, but it was also a rather low-key affair. Definitely worth a spin, if you have interest, but don't expect another "Who Are You" or "Substitute."

I plan to continue to look into Pete's playing, and how I can work more of his style into my own.

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