Popular Songs That Are Actually Really Good: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”
Some songs grow far too popular and iconic to get the proper respect they deserve in 2016. We hear them at sporting events, barbeques, and wedding receptions. They get so ingrained in us that it’s easy to see them as a nuisance, or simply white noise. I think it’s easy to forget that most of these types of songs have gained this level of popularity because they’re really good. In “Popular Songs That Are Actually Really Good” (or PSTAARG, for short!), I’ll examine these songs and hopefully shed new light onto something you’ve been mindlessly humming along with for years.
The legacy of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is one of incorrect titles, misunderstood lyrics, and Indian spiritual gurus.
Many will be surprised to learn that this song is not called “Teenage Wasteland.” In fairness, that would been a pretty good title and something that the masses would instantly associate with this song. Instead, lead guitarist Pete Townshend elected to make the title a kind of portmanteau, borrowing names from minimalist musician Terry Riley and Indian spiritual guru Mehar Baba. Given that the two were a heavy influence on the song itself, I suppose it gives the title some deeper meaning. It also means it has nothing to do with the song on the surface.
The song also suffers from the same sydrome Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” does. “Swimming Pools” isn’t a celebration of drinking, it’s an indictment of it. “Baba O’Riley” isn’t a celebration of a teenage wasteland, it’s an indictment of it. In a September 2009 interview with Guitar World, Townshend said the phrase was inspired by the “absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where the patrons were smacked out on acid and 20 people had brain damage.”
As far as the music itself goes, is there anything that sounds more heroic than the opening synthesizer arpeggios? Never trust anyone who hears the “Baba O’Riley” intro and doesn’t immediately want to launch into a dramatic montage.
The song was originally written as part of a rock opera called Lifehouse, set to be a sequel to The Who’s Tommy. The opera never got off the ground, but eight of its songs were salvaged. Instead of being stuck at the beginning of the opera, “Baba O’Riley” was stuck at the beginning of Who’s Next. More context to the literal meaning of the song can be found if you think about it in its opera sense.
The lyrics of the song still work well in a metaphorical way, but their original intent was very literal. The song was to be sung by a farmer gathering his family for a journey south, in search of a runaway daughter who left home seeking spiritual renewal in some sort of massive concert event, which sounds like some kind of dystopian Woodstock.
Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living
Sally, take my hand, we’ll travel south ‘cross land
Reading about Lifehouse makes me kind of sad it never came to fruition. It’s a crazy plot, but it’s the right brand of crazy. When the opera was finally abandoned, all of the salvaged songs allegedly had to be shortened. The first version of “Baba O’Riley” was said to be a full 30 minutes long before being distilled into what we now know.
Although the song was written by Townshend, he has just two lines of vocals. Lead singer Roger Daltrey handles the bulk of singing duty, while Townshend croons what’s unequivocally the best part of the song, the middle eight:
Don’t cry, don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland
“Baba O’Riley” clocks in at basically five minutes, but the final 90 seconds is a soaring instrumental finale, featuring the infamous synthesizer, crashing cymbals, a guitar solo, and a racing violin, which was apparently added at the suggestion of drummer Keith Moon.
I’ve heard this song everywhere from movies to post-game fireworks displays to the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. It was listed at #340 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. It’s also a lasting testament to the wonderfully wild and off-centered ambitions of The Who.