“The Seeker,” an exalting version of which appears on the second CD in this 45th anniversary edition of Pete Townshend’s Who Came First, is not one of his most stellar compositions, but the name of that song might well be the subtitle of this package (and, were it not so melodramatic, would’ve served as a fitting moniker for his autobiography instead of Who I Am,), despite the jaundiced tone by which the performer name-checks icons including Dylan and the Beatles.
This tune, originally released as a single in 1970 as the first post-rock opera work of the Who, the iconic British band of which Townshend is titular leader, is one of a handful of provocative inclusions of extra content in this fancily-designed package (a slipcase encloses a roughly 5”x 8” digi-pak holding the two compact discs along with a booklet of photos and text written by Townshend himself, plus a replication of the poster in the 1972 album, similarly eye-catching images of which appear in the aforementioned twenty-four page insert).
Originally comprised of nine tracks, this initial major label solo album of Pete’s was and is notable for two numbers culled from the mammoth Lifehouse project from which Who’s Next was distilled. “Pure and Easy” is a full exposition of the closing refrain of “The Song Is Over,” its mystical overtones grounded in a pragmatic passion for music, while “Nothing Is Everything (Let’s See Action)” is a slightly expanded version of the 1971 version by the Who, its circular chorus an effective contrast to the implicit plea of its parenthetical; the spiritual aspect of both songs becomes more evident in the context of this work of Townshend’s, inspired and dedicated to his espousal of the teaching of his avatar Meher Baba, but has a more practical, underlying connection to Pete’s equally deeply held conviction about rock as a motivating cultural force.
The comparatively low-key performances on these twenty-six tracks total (nine of which are previously unreleased) fortify those sentiments, even as the intimacy of the solo foundation (acoustic and electric, some with bass and drums) precludes the pretensions of overt statements: hear “Sheraton Gibson” as the definition of self-effacing. At the time of its original release, Pete Townshend’s profile had risen sufficiently in the afterglow of Tommy, then it’s successor Who’s Next, to support what is otherwise a fairly slight set of songs: “Time Is Passing,” for instance, almost but not quite sounds like a throwaway from the man’s imagination—the bridge is uplifting as a paean to his art–while selections including his avatar’s favorite tunes, such as the maudlin “There’s A Heartache Following Me,” hold but scant interest except to Townshend fanatics.
This forty-fifth-anniversary version of Who Came First from UME mitigates the somewhat overly-personal slant of the initial LP, if only because of the way the artist, writing in his customarily lighthearted (but still reverent) way, frames the underlying intent of the work and, more importantly, expands its content. The appearance of a 1976 version of “Drowned,” for instance, consolidates the importance of the work from which it’s taken, Quadrophenia, released three years prior, while this take on one of Townshend and the Who’s most famous numbers, “Baba O’Riley,” only reaffirms its status not only as a durable composition but arguably one of rock’s most famous: in this purely instrumental recording; his visionary use of synthesizer-like accompaniment takes precedence over the oft-misinterpreted ‘teenage wasteland’ lines.
Even in this lavish format, Who Came First may not be the best point at which to delve into the remarkable expertise Pete Townshend displays in these tracks as recorded in his home studio and various other locales, many as demos for the iconic band of which he’s a member (the expanded version of the aforementioned 1973 magnum opus is superior on that front). But for those dilettantes skeptical of the man’s depth of feeling, not to mention his intellectual rigor, this package will prove indispensable.