Classic Rock Review

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Pete Townshend Empty Glass (1980)


Since Who Came First was in reality a half-finished project, and Rough Mix was a collaboration with Ronnie Lane, it’s safe to regard this album as the true start of Pete’s solo career. Critics and fans alike usually call it a masterpiece, and while that seems a minor exaggeration to my ears, it is not bigger than, say, the overratedness of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. A lot of the hype comes from Pete’s brilliant timing: Empty Glass was released a year earlier than the Who’s far inferior Face Dances, so both albums share the fate of always being compared. This results in Face Dances being underappreciated (‘don’t you dare buying that post-Keith Moon Who stuff! It’s total crap, even Townshend’s solo albums were better!’) and Empty Glass being overhyped (‘wow, Pete was really on a high note at the time! His solo stuff was so much better than that post-Keith Moon garbage!’) Nevertheless, even with all my problems, this is a marvellous record, and a worthy successor to Who Are You.

For one thing, I greatly enjoy the album cover. Pete sitting at a bar with his bottle and his glass with two young ladies of uncertain purposes, with a gloriole around his head… hmm, might be considered sacrilegious, but what a funny allusion at the ‘sinner-saint’ motive! And probably very reflective of Pete’s inner self at the time. Still, the album is not so introspective as one might suspect. While there’s practically no reason to doubt Pete’s utter sincerity and true artistic impulses, one can clearly see how much Pete wanted this album not to miss the record stores as well. So all these songs can be divided in four groups: (a) personal confessions, oriented at Pete fans; (b) loud, dumb rockers, oriented at Who fans; (c) witty social commentary, oriented at post-punk fans; (d) sappy pop love songs, oriented at sappy pop love song fans. In other words, Mr Townshend tries to make the album acceptable for everybody – maybe that’s why everybody loves it so much.

My gripes mainly have to do with the first two categories. Actually, these confessionals bear a strong reminiscence to Pete’s confessional songs on Who By Numbers: clever, heartfelt lyrics, set to rudimentary melodies that were probably just deemed unnecessary. Such is the title track: except for the self-deprecating, mockery lyrics (‘Next time you switch on/You might see me… what a thrill for you’) and that beautiful, tear-inducing falsetto bridge where he compares his life to an empty glass, there’s little truly memorable about it. ‘I Am An Animal’ (what’s that, a nod to Eric Burdon?) also plods along like a dull dinosaur, an uninspired ballad with superb lyrical imagery – again, a clear case of melody sacrificed in favour of text. Much better is the obvious Meher Baba tribute ‘And I Moved’ – but if not for the stupendous rolling, tinkling piano lines of ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, it would be no better than your average disco anthem.

The rockers suffer likewise – the downside of recording solo is that you have no Roger Daltrey nearby to sing your ‘powerful’ stuff when you really need ‘im. Thus, the album closer ‘Gonna Get Ya’ might sound fun on a Who’s Next-type record; here, Pete just doesn’t seem to have that deep a throat to deal with the macho, bloodthirsty refrain. His guitar work on the song is impressive, though – on here and on the slightly inferior ‘Cat’s In The Cupboard’ Pete seems to fall in love with his trademark riffage style again, so you might even get over the lack of Daltrey.
Note that it was no accident that I made a point of Pete’s guitar playing on a song that happens not to be one of the melodical highlights of the album (whoah, that was a really intricate phrase construction). The problem is, there’s just not that much guitar otherwise: most of the record is propelled by synths, and Pete also starts employing disco rhythms and all that ‘modernistic crap’ that, for instance, ruined Roxy Music’s Manifesto only a few months before that. Luckily, Pete is a much more inventive and self-conscious guy than Bryan Ferry could ever hope to be, and there are no true embarrassments on the album – but it’s not always utterly pleasant to listen to…

But come on, really! I gave this album an 11 and all I do is scolding it? At that rate, I’ll have to go and change the rating! Forget it! This record features at least three absolute Townshend masterpieces, so what the hell? ‘Rough Boys’, a fast, pulsating, synth-rhythm-based anthem to gay life, might be Pete’s best song never included on a Who album – it’s catchy, speedy, tasty, and slightly dangerous: ‘I wanna bite and kiss you’, eh? Then there’s the sleazy pop ballad ‘A Little Is Enough’, with a groovy ‘space-synth’ line serving as the basis for the whole song. Yay, it’s been a long time since Pete wrote his last love song, isn’t it? Well, he’s still got it! ‘Your love’s so incredible, your body’s so edible, you give me an overdose of love – just a little is enough!’ Cooky. Finally, I’m a big fan of ‘Keep On Working’, with its weird multi-tracked backing vocals that keep repeating the refrain to create a paranoid atmosphere of a ‘gray busy day’ – this is Pete Townshend in his Ray Davies employ, and he shows he could have easily beaten ‘im if he only would.

And the other songs are okay, too. ‘Let My Love Open The Door’ is a bit cheesy, but not offensive; ‘Jools And Jim’ rocks and cusses, with venomous anti-press attacks, and… wait, that’s about it. Come to think of it, there’s not a single bad song on the whole album, just a couple yawnfests. If this is indeed the best that Pete could offer at the time, it’s not a big disappointment. And a must for every Who fan, even if, like I said, this doesn’t at all sound like your average Who album. Then again – it certainly sounds a lot more fresh than that post-Keith Moon crap.

April 11, 2013 Posted by | Pete Townshend Empty Glass | | Leave a comment