David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 306: Pete Townshend (Face The Face)

December 3, 2023

The purest joy I derive from this song series is, in the search for songs/artists, I have either found stuff I never knew and now love (Amy Winehouse, Day 165), or rediscovered a favorite song/album I never updated into CD/digital format (Paul Simon, Day 169). Today, I rediscover a song and artist that I liked but never purchased in any format--vinyl, CD, cassette, 8-track or digital.

My approach in choosing songs for this series often is to jump around from decade to decade to prevent me from getting into a generational rut. Recently, that has meant the 1980s, a decade I have been struggling to cover recently, illogical as that might be, given I was in prime record-buying mode at that time (between 18 and 28 years of age). The trend of hits employing elements of big band sound, especially of horns, never fails to surprise me when I look broadly across that decade: Phil Collins with "Sussudio," David Johansen with "Hot Hot Hot," Paul Simon with "You Can Call Me Al," and David Bowie with "Blue Jean," to name a few. However, since all of these examples come from aging white guys, I saw no better angle than "old dudes getting horn-y in the 80s," or slightly better, "old dudes succumbing to Madness" and the influence of Ska.

Among those aging white guys in the 80s was Pete Townshend, whose foray into horns with "Face The Face" had been forgotten by me for 35 years until stumbling upon him in my recent 80s search. I could easily justify my Townshend amnesia. While I am a Who fan, I'm not a huge Who fan, my interest mostly in Who's Next and later. Townshend seemed a bit of an angry dude, maybe even a prick, so when he started releasing solo albums in the 1980s, I would hear a hit and think, "catchy song, but I'll pass." "Rough Boys," "Let My Love Open The Door," "Slit Skirts," and "Give Blood" all easily fit that description.  Somehow I had forgotten Townshend's 1985 release, "Face The Face," off of White City: A Novel. Those other Townshend hits sound a lot like The Who, which is not the case with "Face The Face." Maybe that is part of why I should have remembered it, as hearing it this week in prepping this song series made it unforgettable.

For all of his brilliance as songwriter for The Who, their best-known songs bore a familiarity that, like Edge's guitar for U2, could get old. Even lyrically, "Face The Face" dabbles in some typical Townshend territory, most significantly in the fascination with faces and reflections, going all the way back to Tommy. However, its the rhythm of those lyrics, with their frenetic verb-to-noun structure ("face the face," "place the place," "judge the judge," "fight the fight") that assimilates well with the music, which seems fresh, but still hearkens to Townshend's musical underpinnings.

The layer of requisite electronic beat that highlights "Baba O'Riley," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Who Are You," and even "You Better You Bet" aren't in "Face The Face," which instead starts with a beautiful piano opening, serving in the same way as the synth does in those Who tracks, introducing a mood, an underpinning, a film noir opening to the explosive song that comes in after a minute and a half with an incessant, hard-driven drum beat to kick up the song.

Had he heard Thomas Dolby's incredible "Hyperactive!" just the year before and decided to go hyperactive himself? Or more disturbingly, had he seen something in "Sussedio" that he wanted to capture? Did Pete hop on an 80s bandwagon, or more accurately "hijack" a bandwagon with "Face The Face"? If he did, he might have recruited the best band for that hijacking.

When touring as Pete Townshend's Deep End to support White City: A Novel, he pulled together a supergroup from both the album's session players as well as touring musicians that represent some of the best of the best. When one of the world's finest guitarists is able to recruit another of the world's finest guitarists, in this case, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, you are already in a band above bands. Add in Judas Priest/Tears For Fears/Gary Moore session musician Simon Phillips manning the relentless drum kit of "Face The Face," similarly sought-after session man, Chucho Merchan (Pretenders, Eurythmics, Everything But The Girl) for bass, and John "Rabbit" Bundrick (long-time session musician for The Who, Free, Bob Marley & The Wailers) for keyboards, and you have a pretty good show. He even turns over some of the lead singing to his background singers, including the catchy preface that seems to set up the song:

You must have heard the cautionary tales/

The dangers hidden on the cul-de-sac trails/

From wiser men who been through it all/

And the ghosts of failures spray-canned up on the wall.

In the Deep End, Townshend is left center stage, as conductor, ringmaster, perhaps as the wiser man who's been through it all. In many ways, he seems an uncomfortable lead man. The performance linked below reveals Townshend as that awkward lead singer, a cross between David Schwimmer as Ross from Friends and Nicolas Cage from, well, just about everything. Trust me, the windmill is a much cooler move for Townshend than the moving-walkway act appearing at about the 3:20 mark in the performance linked below. Besides the lovely piano opening, the only thing missing in this performance is the one glove, Pete.

Is this the performance of a man trying to reinvent himself? Or a man, struggling to stay afloat in the deep end? In his autobiography, Who Am I, Townshend writes, "Since so much of this music bubbled up urgently from my subconscious mind, I'm left to interpret it much like anyone else." Like many an artist, he can't necessarily tell us how "Face To Face" is a "cautionary tale." All I know is that I have the first item on my Christmas list.

Townshend, Pete. "Face The Face." White City: A Novel. Atco, 1985. Performance link here.

Day 305: Cheech & Chong "Basketball Jones"

Day 307: Shriekback "Nemesis"

See complete list here.