Pete Townsend and the Genius That is ‘Empty Glass’

pete townsend empty glassby Keith Lennox, All-len-All –

Back in the late 1970s and very early 80s when rock music still breathed life, there came an album from a very familiar source that so fulfilled my need for superior music that I play it to this day and still garner as much joy from it now as I did all of those 35 years ago.  The album was called Empty Glass and the man behind this masterpiece was Pete Townsend of The Who fame. The breadth and beauty of this rock gem cannot be overstated.  It is an opus of such brilliance that, to this day, there are moments on it that still brings goose bumps to my skin….

1980 was about to be the last great yelp for rock music for a while….. disco was finally put out of ‘our’ misery and buried in a shallow grave in an abandoned field of memories but techno-pop was about to take over the reigns (not that all techno-pop was bad ….. just suffice it to say that most of it was mind numbing in its simplicity and mostly unlistenable).  While bands such as The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Clash and, to a degree, U2 staked a claim for British rock and kept it on life support, Townsend’s Empty Glass was the last of its kind for a while…. a true classic rock album that spanned a range of emotions that has rarely been achieved since.

Townsend worked on the album over a two-year period while at the same time he fervently worked on The Who’s Face Dances and has been quoted as saying that Empty Glass saved him from spiraling to an early grave due to his ever-growing alcohol and heroin use and the break down of his marriage….. and indeed at times you can hear it…. the abject pain in the lyrics and the forlorn notes that effortlessly accompany them throughout.

The album opens with a song as terse and as cutting edge as The Who had ever done, Rough Boys, and lets it be immediately known that Pete had definitely staked his claim as a great solo artist…. he had arrived in a morphed form…. a leaner, angrier man.  “Tough boy, I’m gonna carry you home, You got pretty pissed, dear.”

From that to I Am an Animal, in which he sings the chorus in falsetto to a point that as a listener you can only believe it is a plea needed by the singer to be heard…. a man who is so pained that his only recourse is to beg for an audience… an audience who understands pain and is willing to take some of his agony away so he can have at least a short respite from it.

The homo-erotic And I Moved is followed by the FM radio mainstay Let My Love Open the Door.  The staccato, Jools and Jim, rams down your throat the hypocrisy of the fourth estate…. the speciousness of those among us who try to make the news rather than report it.  And then Townsend dials it back and favors us with a ditty that would please a listener the age of 6 as much as it would his adult counterpart….. “I was digging in the yard today, When a letter came from Southampton way”

The album wraps up with three songs that drive home the fact of just what a talent Pete Townsend was and is… a true rock and roll star who had hit his ultimate stride.  We only wish he had graced us with a couple of more tunes…. wish that the album was 50 minutes long, not 39…. wish that it would never end.  A Little is Enough is, arguably, one of the most poignant rock love songs ever written.  It isn’t a pop love song which is so much easier to pen…it is a true rock song… no soft edges… no spot on rhythmic melodies…. just a ragged tune with full-throated cries of a love that is so profound, so utterly deep that no other emotion has even near rivaled it.  It is song that is played for only that person in one’s life that fills them with a sense of profound, unfathomable, and unending adoration.

Empty Glass, the title song, drives home a rock song and again spatters in it Pete’s falsetto voice at just the right time and for just long enough.

The finale, Gonna Get Ya, brings the album full circle…. a splintered, driving, angry, and pulsating end to what is a genius composition…. an album so diverse in its musical stylings…. so layered in emotion and angst…. so perfectly strung together that seldom has such a work of genius been bestowed upon a listener.

This album alone, even without the scores of brilliant Who songs penned by Townsend, lets us all know that we should be humbled that we were witness to a musical legend…. a man who made our lives better for knowing him… a man whose talent is so deep and universal that we should consider ourselves blessed if we ever see his likes again.

All-len-All, Pete, a job bloody well done.





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