Pete Townshend Psychoderelict

KC Psychoderelict is Pete Townshend’s last original solo studio album to date and if he were to die tomorrow it should serve as a warning about the dangers of stretching a good idea past its breaking point.

In this case, the “good idea” is the narrative rock album / concept album / rock opera.  Townshend and the Who created two masterpieces of the genre, Tommy, released in 1969, and Quadrophenia, which came out in 1973.  But you don’t have to pay attention to those two classic albums in order to fully understand Psychoderelict .  Instead, you should focus on the years in between them, when Townshend suffered a nervous breakdown attempting to produce another concept album called Lifehouse.

To make an incredibly long story inappropriately short, Lifehouse was Townshend’s attempt to create a piece of music, utilizing synthesizers as well as the Who’s typical instruments, that would interact with the audience so that once everyone was dialed in, band, audience and, eventually, the world, would arrive at one perfect universal note that would cure humanity’s ills.  In the post-apocalyptic Lifehouse story, this comes to pass because almost everyone is hooked up to a mainframe called the Grid via Lifesuits that are designed to keep humanity alive in a completely polluted and inhospitable world.  Eventually, the Grid is manipulated by a proto-hacker named Bobby so that this perfect note, generated during a concert that he sets up to feed off of the attendees’ biometric data, is broadcast to everyone wearing Lifesuits, resulting in some kind of rapture.  Townshend fully intended to replicate this fictional concert, biometrics and all, in real life.

Needless to say, Lifehouse didn’t work out.  So the Who took a bunch of the Lifehouse songs and turned them into 1971’s Who’s Next and 1978’s Who Are You.  But Townshend never really let go of the project.

Believe me, I wouldn’t have spent over an hour trying to summarize Lifehouse unless it was absolutely necessary for understanding Psychoderelict, which should give you some idea of how convoluted this album is.  Since I’m a masochist, I’m going to try and summarize it anyway.

Psychoderelict tells the story of Ray High, an aging rock star brooding alone in his mansion while his royalties dry up.  Ray’s manager, Rastus Knight, is sleeping with Ruth Streeting, a rock critic who is clearly not a fan of Ray’s.  In exchange for piece of the pie should Ray start recording new material again, Ruth, at Rastus’s urging, devises a plan to lure Ray out of his cocoon by posing as a fifteen year old fan named Rosalyn.  (Are all of the names starting with “R” getting to you yet?)  In order to get Ray’s attention, Rosalyn sends him a picture of herself (really Ruth, remember) naked in a graveyard.  (Side note – Ten years after this album was released, Townshend would become involved in what can charitably be called “legal difficulties” related to child pornography.)  Ray and Rosalyn start corresponding and eventually Ray sends Rosalyn a demo of Flame, a song he has been working on for years that is part of his – wait for it – unfinished Gridlife project.  Ruth publishes a story framing Ray as a pedophile and, strangely enough, Ray’s album sales take off.  Ruth then produces Rosalyn’s version of Flame, and it becomes a monster hit.  Ray, who is now out of the doldrums and actively working on his Gridlife album, reveals to Ruth that he’s known that she was Rosalyn all along.

Elaborate explanations of Gridlife, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Townshend’s actual Lifehouse concept, are interspersed throughout this album.  To make matters even more meta than they already are, Townshend uses four synthesizer samples from the actual Lifehouse demos, including one that would eventually become Baba O’Riley, as songs in Psychoderelict.

In order to make this plot discernible, what seems like half of Psychoderelict is actually dialogue spoken by actors, which has a negative effect on the musical continuity of the entire affair.  (The record company actually released another version of the album without the dialogue, but it didn’t sell either.)  When it comes to the original songs, there’s not much to hold your interest in between the spoken word segments.  The supposed hit single, Flame, would never be one in real life and English Boy, an autobiographical piece, is OK but would have been better if it was faster and sung by Roger Daltrey.

I actually purchased Psychoderelict when it was released, and if you had asked me about it then, I would have given you a very different review.  At the time, my fifteen year old self thought that this concept was incredible and worthy of being evaluated in the same breath as Tommy and Quadrophenia.  Remember, the internet hardly existed in 1993, so I had no easy way to discover that the Gridlife project was actually recycled from twenty year old rejected Who material.  It was just a cool idea.  The theater nerd in me loved the dialogue and I was willing to overlook what even I could tell were the album’s musical shortcomings because I thought the whole presentation of Psychoderelict was amazing.

Hearing Psychoderelict again now, it just seems like a mess musically, lyrically and conceptually.  Townshend should have quit this particular line of inspiration back in the 70’s while he was still ahead.  But the album does sit out there as a warning for anyone who things that no idea is too grandiose to be made into a rock opera.

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Tinariwen’s Tassili

KCNo band in my collection has a backstory like Tinariwen’s.  The Malian group came together as refugees living in Algeria after fleeing the civil war in their home country.  In between stints as a party band, the members of Tinariwen formed part of a Libyan-trained Tuareg militia group and participated in the Tuareg rebellion that took place in Mali and Niger between 1990 and 1995.

Since I know next to nothing about Northern African music, I probably would never have discovered this album had it not been for the fact that Nels Cline from Wilco and a couple of members of TV on the Radio played on it.  (They didn’t play live with the band – they overdubbed their parts from quarters more comfortable than the Sahara).  Further research reveals that Tassili was the first Tinariwen album that the band produced using entirely acoustic instruments (the westerners, again the outliers, added the electrified parts and some vocals).  The result is a cacophony of voices, claps, guitar drones and effects that can be hypnotizing.

The first few times I listened to this album, it all seemed to blend together, especially since I don’t understand 95% of the lyrics (one song – with the TV on the Radio folks – has English lyrics).  But further listening, especially contemplative sessions on headphones, reveals a remarkable, if subtle, range of tempos and sounds that encourage even deeper attention.

If you’d like to learn more about Tinariwen’s story or their previous albums, I found Jody Rosen’s 2007 Slate article on the band a good place to start.