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Monday, October 06, 2003
Hillary had suggested I check out the new Who DVD, The Kids Are Alright, and whilst in Virgin on Saturday night, I did so. And I liked it a lot. Specifically, I sat in on the Rock 'n' Roll Circus footage, and seeing Keith just toss out his low tom between songs before going absolutely nuts in the next one was really, really cool. And Pete's guitar tone on chords is just mind-blowing; it's so wonderfully big and loud. I want to know what setup he's using.

However, I realized that I'm not really the kind of person who watches DVDs very often (due to various life situations as well as a general personal preference) so I decided, instead, to pick up the My Generation - The Very Best Of disc. And it's pretty good. But as a whole, it's nowhere as good as the song. Namely, "Baba O'Riley."

I feel like nobody talks about this much, maybe because it's on classic-rock radio so much, but I've actually been obsessed with it for a while, at least a year and a half at this point. And I've long thought that it's one of the greatest electronic songs of all time. It doesn't even matter that Townshend was constructing the keyboard part on one of the earliest modular patch-cord synths--it's still better than almost every other hook belched out during the 80's. Maybe this makes me rockist, but fuck it. The keys get overwhelmed by the guitar, but they're always there, the driving, major-key appegiations sitting under the song like a firm hand guiding it along. And of course, the guitar and the drums kill, too, but the way the keys come back out in the tempo-shift / breakdown that starts around 4:00, and the way they play around the violin--it's a lovely little bit of arranging, a preemptive fusion of new wave and post-rock (which, as those familiar with my music can attest, is something of an interest of mine).

The moment I want to talk about in "Baba" is obvious, I know, but I want to talk about it anyway, because it's what makes the song so perfect. Coming in at 2:15, everything cuts out except the keys, and Daltry sings those words that so often get confused for the title: "Don't cry, don't raise your eyes / It's only teenage wasteland..." The latter phrase, which could be considered a hidden bit of fundamental grammar behind all the "yeahs" and "babys" that populate the vocabulary of popular music, always struck me as the logical precursor for Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" more than anything else. But despite the punkish, pro-youth / anti-authority feel to the words, and the song in general, it's way more celebratory than angry, in the same way the SY song is, and in contrast to the model that would spring up with punk. So in contrast to the angry words / resigned music thing that Radiohead, for instance, does, we have sort of depressive lyrics with this absolutely ecstatic guitar (see, again, the coda) and crazily energetic drum fill at the end of the bit. And also, it's not "teenage wasteland, boo hiss, everything sucks" they're saying, instead, "it's only teenage wasteland." That "only" is extremely important; it is the viewpoint of older men with the perspective to know that you can and will escape all the tribulations of adolescence, and it's lines like this that go a long way toward explaining why pop is old people making music for young people.

But what makes that part truly perfect are two things. Number one is the chord change, which given that the synth is still the only instrument and thus the only thing carrying the change, and given too that the synth line had basically been vamping on the same chord at any other point we hear it, it absolutely makes me catch my breath when I'm listening close, and when the vocal line rises with it, it's stunning what one simple change can do. But number two is the fact that Daltry can't actually sing the part. Listen to it: he's clearly reaching to hit that top note, and even the rest of them are difficult steps along the way. They've even put delay on his voice for just that point to mask it. But it comes through, and it's wonderful that in this clearly very carefully-constructed song, that exposed bit of imperfection can shine through, especially in what's undeniably the song's centerpoint. (It's also evidenced in the final key change in "Livin' on a Prayer," but that's a whole other post...)