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Was Woodstock A Teenage Wasteland? The Who's 'Baba O'Riley'

Music | May 27, 2019

Left: Meher Baba in 1925. Right: Pete Townshend on stage circa 1971 at the Fillmore East Theater, New York City. Sources: (Wikimedia Commons; Jeffrey Mayer WireImage)

It's one of the riddles of classic rock: who is 'Baba O'Riley' and what is this "teenage wasteland" we keep hearing about? For Pete Townshend, songwriter of The Who, the oddly-titled song is a meditation on the controversial ending of the '60s, as well as a fragment of Lifehouse, an unfinished rock opera. 

For the artist who'd once touted the potential and solidarity of "My Generation," it may be an admission that things hadn't gone so well.

This 1971 single by The Who has transcended its original stadium rock origins and integrated itself into our lives. "Baba O’Riley" can be heard on TV shows and commercials, and whenever you think it’s gone it pops back up. The song seems omnipresent, but there are still people who think it’s called “Teenage Wasteland.” The song has a tricky history, and its backstory is just as twisty as the song’s syncopated backing track. 

Don’t Cry, Don’t Raise Your Eye, It’s Only Teenage Wasteland

The cover of 'Who's Next,' the album that features 'Baba O'Riley' as its opening track. Source: Pinterest

The phrase “teenage wasteland” has a few different meanings. The entirety of “Baba O’Riley” is a pivot from an earlier work of Townsend’s called Lifehouse, a science fiction rock opera that took place in a dystopian future where rock 'n roll no longer exists. The “teenage wasteland” of the song is describing a group of people in Townsend’s story who are seen as “scum.” He explained:

It's mainly young people who are either farmer's kids whose parents can't afford to buy them experience suits; then there's just scum, like these two geezers who ride around in a battered-up old Cadillac limousine and they play old Who records on the tape deck... I call them Track fans.

The Finished Track Is A Rumination On Post-Woodstock Life

Photo from Woodstock, 1969. Source: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘60s was a decade of experimentation with sex and drugs in an attempt to gain a higher spiritual state. But by 1969 a series of things had happened that proved that in order to attain another state of being people have to do more than hang out. The wave of free love crested at the Woodstock festival in 1969.

Townsend’s lyrics point a finger at their own audience, and the young people who hung out in the muddy fields of upper New York. The guitarist has said that with the lyrics, “Teenage Wasteland, yes! We're all wasted” he’s not celebrating the strung-out teens at the festival, he’s chastising them. Townsend explained that the theme of the track is:

The absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where audience members were strung out on acid and 20 people had brain damage. The irony was that some listeners took the song to be a teenage celebration.

The Title, “Baba O’Riley,” Is A Shoutout To Townsend’s Gurus

Left: Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who. Right Meher Baba in 1957. Source: Publicity photo for 'Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who' via IMDB; Wikimedia Commons

“Baba O’Riley” sounds like a bunch of syllables that someone in The Who just slammed together and wrote at the top of a lyrics page. However, the tile is actually a nod to two men who were very important to Pete Townsend: Meher Baba and Terry Riley.

Meher Baba was an Indian guru who inspired his followers to eschew psychedelic drugs and marijuana along with evangelizing for him. He simply wanted his followers to live a spiritual life. Terry Riley is a composer whose experimental work is based on improvising in various keys and making tape loops of the pieces that he creates.

Townsend took pieces of each man’s philosophy in order to create the backing track of the song. Initially, Townsend wanted to run the vital signs and personality of Meher Baba through a synthesizer, and have the machine interpret the information into sound. That didn’t work out, so instead, he used the marimba setting on a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 and looped it throughout the track. 

The Song Began As A Part Of Townsend’s Lifehouse Project

Source: (pinterest.com)

Following the success of The Who's rock opera Tommy, Townshend wanted to continue raising the stakes of rock 'n roll with another concept album. “Baba O’Riley” was included among the initial tracks for Lifehouse. The song was meant to be sung by a Scottish farmer as he gathers his family so they can go off in search of his teenage daughter.

The project was never finished, and while Townsend was never able to flesh it out in the early ‘70s he’s spoken about the plot at length. He explained the story as being about:

A self-sufficient drop-out family group farming in a remote part of Scotland decide to return South to investigate rumors of a subversive concert event that promises to shake and wake up apathetic, fearful British society. Ray is married to Sally, they hope to link up with their daughter Mary who has run away from home to attend the concert. They travel through the scarred wasteland of middle England in a motor caravan, running an air conditioner they hope will protect them from pollution.

Townsend Believes 'Baba O’Riley' To Be His Crowning Achievement

Source: (pinterest.com)

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your own work, especially if you’ve written something that’s as magnificent as “Baba O’Riley.” Townsend has said that whenever he plays the song live he reflects on writing the song, and everything it’s taken him.

He told Rolling Stone:

There is this moment of standing there just listening to this music and looking out to the audience and just thinking, 'I f**king did that. I wrote that.' I just hope that on my deathbed I don't embarrass myself by asking someone, 'Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of 'Baba O'Riley?' I just want to do it one more time.'

Tags: Baba ORiley | Meher Baba | Pete Townshend | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Who | Woodstock

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.