Song 119: The Who, “Baba O’Riley” (1971)


When people have the Beatles vs. Stones debate, all I can think is: The Who. Not because I want to be contrarian, and not because The Who is better than those two bands (they’re not), but because when I need a shot of adrenaline, it’s them I want to hear. And usually this song.

The Who was a funny mixture of personalities. Pete Townshend took himself very seriously, Keith Moon didn’t take himself seriously at all, and Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle always just seemed focused on getting the job done. But they all worked incredibly hard, and unlike the Beatles and Stones, it showed. Not that this is a bad thing: they let it show, to engage us.

My favorite Who song is “Baba O’Riley,” that three-chord warhorse that, despite endless radio play and everyone calling it “Teenage Wasteland,” has lost none of its power after 42 years. The original title was, in fact, “Teenage Wasteland,” and it was part of Townshend’s Lifehouse project, a long-in-development rock opera/concept album/film that never got off the ground. Much of Who’s Next ended up using Lifehouse castoffs, which explains why “Baba O’Riley” refers to a character named Sally. In the abandoned story, Sally is married to a farmer named Ray (hence the song’s opening line, “out here in the fields, I fight for my meals,” though some sources say the last word is “farm”), and they go to London (“we’ll travel south cross land”).

Townshend has said that the chorus was inspired by watching the audience while playing at Woodstock: the drugged-out crowd was reveling in its obliviousness. I don’t know how that fits with the verses, but for some reason, it doesn’t bother me. To say that this song works is an understatement. Like so many of the songs I’ve written about, it works in spite of (or maybe because of) its simplicity.


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