Baba O’Riley: The Who; The Grateful Dead; Pearl Jam

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Baba O’Riley. This is a terrific hard-rock anthem by The Who. After discussing the original song, we will review covers from the Grateful Dead and by Pearl Jam.

The Who and Baba O’Riley:

The Who have been one of the most durable and influential rock bands of all time. Since their inception over 50 years ago, they have produced an exceptional body of work.  We have previously discussed The Who in our blog posts on their cover of the song Summertime Blues, and also the song Under My Thumb.

The rock opera Tommy and the Quadrophenia project represent milestones in creating rock music song cycles within an all-encompassing theme.  The band were also an inspiration for any number of hard-rock or punk-rock groups that followed them.

The Who evolved from a band, The Detours, originally organized in 1959 by Roger Daltrey. Three of the band members – lead guitarist Pete Townshend, lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, and bassist John Entwistle – had been classmates at Acton County Grammar School.

After a few early personnel changes, and a change of name to The Who, in spring 1964 the band settled on Keith Moon as their drummer. Daltrey concentrated on vocals, while Townshend moved to lead guitar and became the band’s songwriter. The group then began to establish themselves as a cutting-edge British Invasion ensemble.

Below is a photo of The Who from 1967. From L: Keith Moon; Pete Townshend; Roger Daltrey; John Entwistle.

Embed from Getty Images

The Who were one of the first rock groups I saw after I arrived in England as a graduate student in October 1965. The band made a vivid, lasting impression on me. It’s likely that the venue was the Marquee Club in Soho – all I can remember is that the club was pretty much a dump.

First off, the sheer volume of the music was ear-splitting. Second, the ferocity of their playing was unlike anything I had seen. One of my friends provided a succinct summary of the major British Invasion bands. “The Beatles,” he said, “are about love. The Stones are about sex. And The Who are about violence.”

When I saw The Who perform in early 1966, I easily grasped the superficial aspects of the band’s fame. The group’s showmanship was electrifying. John Entwistle was such a virtuoso bass guitar player that I gave up trying to master that instrument. Roger Daltrey would fling his microphone into the air, and whip the mic cord around.

But drummer Keith Moon and guitarist Pete Townshend were totally over the top. Moon always appeared to be nearly incapacitated, and his drumming technique seemed so awkward it was hard to imagine why his drumsticks didn’t go flying across the stage. However, his frenetic drum licks fit perfectly with Who songs.

In performance, Pete Townshend seemed to be experiencing an overdose of speed. He would fling himself about the stage – leaping in the air and kicking his legs apart; twisting his body around; and showcasing his legendary ‘windmill’ style which involved swinging his right arm in a giant circle, passing over the guitar at exactly the right instant to strike a power chord.

The freakishly high decibel levels left my ears ringing and my hearing impaired days after the concert. Friends told me stories of band members arguing with one another, even breaking into fights upon occasion.

And I had also heard stories of the band’s violence towards their instruments. I was a bit disappointed that at the concert I attended, Pete did not smash his guitar at the end of the set, nor did Keith destroy his drum kit.

The noise levels, the band’s manic behavior and their showmanship were obvious to any concert-goer. It was not until years later that I appreciated the technical innovations of The Who. The group more or less invented the Marshall stacks amplifier systems that transformed live rock music.

Furthermore, both Entwistle and Townshend were pioneers in using feedback and distortion for dramatic effect. In particular, Townshend would shake his guitar and stand directly in front of his amplifiers, in an attempt to maximize the feedback.

Although the distortion set my teeth on edge, it was actually an important aspect of heavy-metal music. Very shortly afterwards, Jimi Hendrix would come along and take these techniques to unheard-of levels.

After attending a Who concert, I thought I could accurately predict their future career. This was a bunch of crude, boorish louts, big on aggression and showy displays but short on talent. They were primarily a novelty act and would rapidly burn out.

Well, my prediction about The Who was totally incorrect. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are over 70 and still touring! And you could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that The Who had produced a rock opera.

In my own defense, Pete Townshend’s songs became much more complex and nuanced than one might have suspected from his earliest work. I also mistook Townshend’s intensity for immaturity.

Apparently Pete Townshend strives to produce a transcendent moment onstage. In live performance he is trying to break on through to the other side, to produce a spectacle that will transport him and his audience to a different dimension.

With the rock song Baba O’Riley, the result is really stunning. The lyrics of this tune describe the journey of a couple, Ron and Sally, from Scotland to London.

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.
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

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
Its only teenage wasteland
They’re all wasted!

Here is the audio of Baba O’Riley from the 1971 album, Who’s Next. The song is accompanied by a montage of photos, several of which are from the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where The Who were headliners.

What a mind-blowing song! Baba O’Riley originated after Pete Townshend had discovered synthesizers and decided to use them in a project called Lifehouse, which was intended as a successor to his 1969 rock opera, Tommy.

The Lifehouse rock opera would follow the adventures of a Scottish farmer, Ray, as he and his wife Sally and their two children carried out a journey to London. The Lifehouse project was eventually abandoned, although for their album Who’s Next Townshend incorporated eight songs that had originally been intended for Lifehouse.

The song Baba O’Riley is named after two major influences in Pete Townshend’s life. Meher Baba was Townshend’s spiritual guru, and Terry Riley was an American musician whose overdubbed electronic compositions inspired the synthesizer music in this piece.

To construct the song, Townshend
recorded a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ using its marimba repeat feature as the backing track. … “Baba O’Riley” was initially 30 minutes in length, but was edited down to the “high points” of the track for Who’s Next.

The piece begins with a Lowrey organ movement. After this, Nicky Hopkins comes in on piano. Townshend then chimes in with some guitar power chords, after which Roger Daltrey begins the vocals. Pete Townshend also contributes some vocals, with his higher, sweeter voice contrasting with Daltrey’s much more ragged vocals.

After the last of the lyrics, the song weaves into its conclusion. At the 4-minute mark, we begin an extended electric violin solo by Dave Arbus. The pace of Arbus’ playing steadily increases, the drumming becomes more insistent, and the song begins to resemble a rapid-paced march.

The song then proceeds to an explosive crescendo, with the synthesizer, violin, guitar, bass and drums all reaching an orgasmic finale. Holy crap, what an impressive song!

It is interesting that many people believe that the title of this song is Teenage Wasteland, a phrase that is featured in the chorus. It is also widely believed that the song celebrates drug use, from Roger Daltrey’s shout “We’re all wasted!”

This was exactly the opposite of Townshend’s intentions. Influenced by Meher Baba, Pete had stopped using drugs. He was appalled at the rampant drug use at Woodstock, and believed that the festival celebrated some truly destructive behavior.

The combination of synthesizers plus power chords, and the terrific production values, made Baba O’Riley an absolutely dazzling piece. As the first cut on the album Who’s Next, it simply blew me away.

Here is a live performance by The Who of Baba O’Riley. There are several other live videos of this piece, but this is the only one I found that takes place before drummer Keith Moon’s death in 1978.

The band is in great form here. The main difference from the album is that, instead of an electric violin solo at the end, Roger Daltrey contributes on harmonica. Pete Townshend is at his manic best in this video. He shows off his famous “windmill” technique on power chords, and also skips around while playing guitar licks.

Roger Daltrey shows off his trademark moves throwing and catching the microphone cable, and Keith Moon wreaks violence on his drum kit, while John Entwistle thumps away on bass guitar. Great stuff!

The Grateful Dead and Baba O’Riley:

We have previously covered the Grateful Dead in our blog post on their cover of the song Good Lovin’. We subsequently discussed their covers of the Bob Marley song Stir It Up, and also Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away. So here we will briefly review the history of the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead were a Bay Area band who eventually turned into a legendary group. In the mid-60s, the band materialized from a number of musicians who had played folk music with groups such as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.

Below is a photo of the Grateful Dead circa 1973. Back from L: Mickey Hart; Phil Lesh; Donna Godchaux; Jerry Garcia; Bob Weir; Phil Kreutzmann. Front: Keith Godchaux.

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In 1964, novelist Ken Kesey rounded up a like-minded group of adventurers called the Merry Pranksters. They bought a bus they named Furthur, and set out on a cross-country adventure. Below left we show a photo of the Furthur bus.

The psychedelic painted bus "Furthur," used by Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

The psychedelic painted bus “Furthur,” used by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

The purpose of the trip was to meet ‘normal’ Americans and attempt to expand their views of reality. To that end, they handed out large quantities of psychoactive drugs, and the Pranksters provided poetry readings and live music.

One of the groups traveling with the Merry Pranksters was the “house band,” The Warlocks. Shortly afterward The Warlocks changed their name to The Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead’s leader and frontman was lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who shared vocal duties with fellow founding member Bob Weir. Garcia was also an excellent banjo and steel guitar player, and from time to time in his early career moonlighted on those instruments with various West Coast folk and bluegrass combos.

However, Jerry was quick to point out that he was merely one member of the Dead ensemble. From their founding in 1965 until Garcia’s death in 1995, the Dead were more or less permanently touring.

Here is live video of the Grateful Dead performing the songs Baba O’Riley from The Who, and the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. This is from a concert in Las Vegas in March 1992, where the Dead are joined by guitarist Steve Miller.

This set might be thought of as a ‘Grateful Dead salute to the psychedelic era.’ The band begins with the start of Baba O’Riley. In contrast to the bombastic Who version, this is much more laid back.

Keyboardist Vince Welnick and Bob Weir share the lead vocals on this song. Then, just after the lyric “we’re all wasted!” the band abruptly switches to the Beatles’ song Tomorrow Never Knows from the Revolver album.

In the mid-60s, John Lennon purchased a copy of Leary, Alpert and Metzner’s book The Psychedelic Experience. Lennon read the book, dropped acid, and later wrote the song Tomorrow Never Knows, whose lyrics were inspired by a quote from the book,
“Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream”

After their adventures touring with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the Dead are the ideal group to feature a song about drug-induced experiences. In this song cycle, Steve Miller contributes some psychedelic guitar licks.

We’ll conclude with some additional history of the Grateful Dead.

The group is believed to have given more than 2,300 concerts – or perhaps more precisely, jam sessions. The Dead generally did not prepare a set list in advance, preferring instead to pick songs on the spot from a playlist that usually contained about 100 songs. During their life span, the Grateful Dead played over 500 different songs at their various performances.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Grateful Dead was their relationship to their fans, or Deadheads. It was not unusual for Deadheads to follow the band on concerts from town to town. The Dead also actively welcomed Deadheads taping their shows, even allowing fans to tap into their own soundboards.

As a result, the Dead and their Deadheads resembled more a gigantic extended commune than ‘normal’ bands and their fans. Deadheads were an exceptionally eclectic lot, ranging from 60s-era hippies to professional athletes, from panhandlers to distinguished scientists.

The constant touring, coupled with the immense quantities of drugs ingested by Dead band members, eventually took its toll on the band. Three different Grateful Dead keyboards players passed away (Pigpen McKernan in 1973, Keith Godchaux in 1980 and Brent Mydland in 1990). And Phil Lesh had a liver transplant in 1998.

Jerry Garcia experienced a variety of health problems, largely as a result of addiction issues, compounded by the band’s nearly incessant touring.  In 1985, members of the Dead held an intervention and forced Garcia to enter rehab. Although he came out clean and sober, he proceeded to relapse on several occasions thereafter.

In summer 1995, Jerry Garcia checked into a rehab clinic. On Aug. 8, 1995, he was found dead in his room of a heart attack, at age 53. This was exacerbated by his long history of drug addiction, diabetes, heavy smoking, and sleep apnea.

Jerry Garcia’s death marked the end of an era. Although it was not possible to re-create the atmosphere of the band with Jerry at the helm, members of the Grateful Dead continued on in various combinations; for example, Furthur, The Dead (more recently, Dead and Company), and Phil Lesh & Friends.

Despite a “farewell” concert in July, 2015, former Dead members are still performing. So, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead are apparently keeping on truckin’, continuing their long, strange trip.

Pearl Jam and Baba O’Riley:

Pearl Jam is a West Coast grunge band. They are currently a quintet, with Eddie Vedder on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Mike McCready on lead guitar, Stone Gossard on rhythm guitar, Jeff Ament on bass, and Matt Cameron on drums.

In the late 1980s, Gossard and Ament were playing in a Seattle band when their lead singer died of a heroin overdose. The duo joined forces with guitarist Mike McCready and they produced an instrumental demo record.

Eventually the demo found its way to vocalist Eddie Vedder from San Diego. Vedder composed lyrics for three of the songs, and returned a tape to the band. They were sufficiently impressed that they invited Eddie to join the group.

Below: a photo of Pearl Jam performing at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards.

Embed from Getty Images

The group’s first album was released in late summer, 1991. It slowly but surely gained momentum, and a year later it reached #2 on the Billboard charts. The album turned out to be a real blockbuster; it remained on the Billboard album charts for five years, and transformed the group into cult favorites.

Since Pearl Jam hailed from Seattle, it seemed natural to lump them in with other West Coast grunge groups such as Nirvana or Soundgarden. However, Pearl Jam found inspiration more from classic rock groups like The Who and Led Zeppelin, and punk rock bands such as The Ramones.

Pearl Jam’s music was not for the faint of heart. It dealt with issues such as depression, alienation and suicide. However, the music resonated with young listeners, and the group took the grunge movement to new heights of commercial success.

Pearl Jam’s next couple of albums cemented the group’s popularity. The band became known for its intense live performances. Vedder’s deep voice and growling vocals reminded many of The Doors’ singer Jim Morrison.

Here is video of a live performance by Pearl Jam of Baba O’Riley, from a concert in July 2003 at Madison Square Garden.

The punk group The Buzzcocks opened for Pearl Jam at this concert, and guitarist Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks sits in with Pearl Jam on this song.

This is a fine cover of The Who’s anthem, although to be honest, any cover of Baba O’Riley can only be a pale imitation of the original. I really enjoy Eddie Vedder’s vocal style.  The song builds nicely to a climax, and the audience appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Eddie throws his tambourines into the crowd at the end of the song.

The concert shown in the video was part of Pearl Jam’s tour for its Riot Act album. The name of the album commemorated the deaths of nine people at a Pearl Jam concert in 2000 in Roskilde, Denmark.

The fans were crushed and suffocated when the crowd surged towards the stage while Pearl Jam was playing at the Roskilde Festival. A subsequent investigation cleared the band of responsibility for the tragedy.

For a long time now, Vedder and Pearl Jam have been very active politically. I was particularly pleased when Pearl Jam took on music industry giant Ticketmaster.

Anyone who ever purchased concert tickets through Ticketmaster (nearly everyone who has ever attended a rock concert, since that company had a near-monopoly on ticket sales and concert tours) must have noticed the infuriating, colossal service fees tacked onto ticket prices.

The members of Pearl Jam, and in particular Eddie Vedder, also felt that Ticketmaster’s near-monopoly on ticket sales, together with their exclusive long-term contracts with concert venues, constituted anti-competitive conduct.

Relations between the band and Ticketmaster reached a boiling point following Pearl Jam concerts in 1994. Although the group had taken measures to keep ticket prices down and to discourage scalping, they discovered that Ticketmaster had added service fees onto the price of their tickets.

Pearl Jam then went public with its feud with Ticketmaster. Members of the band testified at congressional hearings on Ticketmaster’s practices. The band attempted to boycott the company, and refused to play at venues where Ticketmaster had exclusive contracts.

I hoped that the band would prevail against what appeared to be an “evil empire” company. Unfortunately, Pearl Jam suffered great economic harm from this battle. Very few bands joined their boycott of Ticketmaster, and they were forced to appear at small venues.
The band tried to work around Ticketmaster’s exclusive contracts by hosting charities and benefits at major venues, because the exclusive contracts often contained a clause allowing charity event promoters to sell their own tickets.

In 1998, Pearl Jam once again began selling tickets through Ticketmaster, and went on a tour using venues with contracts with that company.

Unfortunately, Pearl Jam was badly burned through their fight with Ticketmaster. However, it is conceivable that things have changed for the big, bad concert vendors. Just this week I received an e-mail stating that I would receive a rebate from Ticketmaster as the result of a class-action suit.

Details of the agreement were only slightly more difficult to comprehend than James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, but it appears that I could receive discounts on tickets, or even free tickets, for future concerts.

The members of Pearl Jam have also been active in other progressive causes. The band developed a carbon-neutral policy in support of environmental issues, Eddie Vedder has spoken out about his pro-choice views, and band members were bitterly critical of the Bush-Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq.

Eddie Vedder was also a strong supporter of Ralph Nader in 2000. I am deeply conflicted on this issue, as it appears obvious that Nader’s candidacy resulted in tipping that election to G.W. Bush.

Pearl Jam have also participated in a number of charity projects, including Hurricane Katrina relief, the American Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity. In recent years, they have headlined several festivals, including Reading and Leeds in Britain, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Baba O’Riley
Wikipedia, The Who
Wikipedia, The Grateful Dead
Wikipedia, Jerry Garcia
Wikipedia, Ken Kesey
Wikipedia, Tomorrow Never Knows
Wikipedia, Pearl Jam

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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5 Responses to Baba O’Riley: The Who; The Grateful Dead; Pearl Jam

  1. Lynda says:

    Hi Tim,looks like you’re ramping it up. Good going!


  2. The first concert I ever attended (when I was about 15 — so that would be 1968) was The Who playing at the Spectrum in Philadelphia … on tour playing all the songs from Who’s Next. What a concert!! I’ll never forget Peter Townsend and Roger Daltry leaping around the stage .. and yeah, he did destroy his guitar at the end of the show. Amazing post, Tim!!!


    • Glad you liked the post. As I have mentioned, my response to The Who was “OMG, I could never play bass like John Entwistle — it’s time for me to retire!” So, while zillions of people heard bands like The Who, went out and bought a guitar, I went exactly the opposite direction.


  3. Pingback: Pinball Wizard: The Who; Elton John [Tommy]; McFly. | Tim's Cover Story

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