Retrospective: Baba O’Riley

Over the next month I will be writing rock-song retrospectives. Some are famous, some infamous, and others less familiar. This is an exercise for me, as I find music rather difficult to review (unlike literature and film which comes easy), so hopefully I’ll become better through the process. I plan on covering 19 songs, the earliest from 1971, the latest from 2018.

Today’s feature, “Baba O’Riley” (The Who, 1971), is known by everyone and their mother, and cherished by about as many. On the surface the song is about a farmer in the fields, but it’s really addressing the cultural wasteland at the dawn of the seventies: the desolation of teenagers after Woodstock (1969) and the second Isle of Wight festival (1970), where everyone was half-baked on acid. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend said he was trying to capture the idea of a new generation running toward that ’60s culture and its vain promises of redemption. I was only three years old at the time; far too young for this stuff. Part of me wishes I had come of age in the ’70s. It was a confused decade, but a groovy one that saw a lot of transgressive creativity, especially in music. “Baba O’Riley” is much about that burgeoning artistry.

But it’s also about something else, something more esoteric: Townshend’s infatuations with two particular figures. The first is Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who claimed that he was an Avatar, or an incarnation of God. Baba had his religious awakening at age nineteen (in 1913), and began teaching that reality was an illusion — a bunch of misguided beliefs and perceptions formed by weak minds. The Universe is imagination, he said, and each human soul is really God passing through imagination to realize his divinity on an individual basis. The second figure is Terry Riley, a minimalist composer and musician in the ’60s who used tape loops and delay systems to make musical patterns. Now, Townshend somehow got it in his head that when musical patterns like Riley’s were played simultaneously, they would overlap and interlock to make a harmonious whole — a single giant chord capturing the harmony of the universe envisioned by Meher Baba. The song “Baba O’Riley”, explains Townshend, is basically what would happen if the spirit of Meher Baba was fed into a computer and transformed into music.

Maybe Townshend himself was on acid when he came up with that explanation. But I appreciate what drove him. There’s something about music that makes it — in my opinion — the purest art form. Purer than literature, film, and painting, which is probably why I find it hard to review. The power of music is elusive, and it’s easy to see the work of the divine when something resists analysis. And yet music works on a level so simple — more simple than writing, film making, or drawing — that you hardly need pay attention. You can lose yourself in music while doing other things. There’s power in something that infectious.

I can’t recall when I first heard “Baba O’Riley”, and I was never a fan of The Who, but it’s their one piece that has had this sort of divine effect on me. The opening keyboard is frenetic but stately, promising something grand. The middle guitar solo a seamless bridge. And Daltrey’s raging vocals an earworm that still burrows after 49 years. Whenever I hear it, I think of desolate landscapes, broken dreams, and a burning will to obtain something better, despite it all. Maybe that’s the fire we need during Covid-19.

Even before the pandemic outbreak, however, lead singer Roger Daltrey was insisting on the song’s relevance for the millennial generation. “Teenage wasteland” points a finger at the youths of social media as it did to those of Woodstock and Isle of Wight. Says Daltrey: “The main advice I give youngsters is to be very aware of what you are getting into on social media. Because life is not looking down at screens, it is looking up. We are heading for catastrophe with the addiction that is going on in the younger generation. Your life will disappear if you are not careful. You are being controlled, and that is terrible.” There’s probably more practical wisdom there than in Townshend’s fantasies about God being born through repetitive loops of music.

Whatever the song means exactly, there’s no denying its timelessness. “Baba O’Riley” has been recycled shamelessly in films, TV series, trailers, sports games, the Olympics — it’s practically the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony of rock ‘n’ roll. And like that symphony, I could listen to it any day of the week.


Listen here and sing:


Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living

I don’t need to fight
To prove I’m right
I don’t need to be forgiven

Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland

Sally take my hand
We’ll travel south cross land
Put out the fire, and don’t look past my shoulder

The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let’s get together, before we get much older

Teenage wasteland
It’s only teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland
Oh yeah, teenage wasteland
They’re all wasted


From the album Who’s Next?, 1971.

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