Here’s a clip of Who guitarist/visionary and rock opera guru Pete Townshend with a solo acoustic take on his song “Drowned”, the studio version of which appears on the Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia.
The reason the Who is in the upper echelon of British Invasion bands is that they helped to expand the possibilities of what a rock band means, and what a rock song can be about too. This doesn’t simply refer to head writer Townshend’s penchant for lofty and ambitious rock operas and concept albums, although these forms certainly became his main areas of concern by 1969. I think the underlying influence they had was making rock music into something which could be confessional as well as visceral. Rock music, Townshend proved, could be used as a vehicle for self-examination.
This approach began with the 1969 album Tommy, and the live versions of the story which came afterward. Ultimately, that album and the ‘rock opera’ to follow, had more to do with its writer than it did with a mythical deaf dumb and blind kid. But, with 1973’s Quadrophenia, Townshend wasn’t just telling his story. He was attempting to take on the stories of everyone he grew up with including, and maybe especially, his band mates.
With this tune, I think there’s a nakedness to it that is even more apparent in his solo acoustic takes, which he’d performed in a number of settings as a solo artist by the 1990s. On the surface, this is a song about the teenage mind, the driving need to belong, to matter, to align one’s identity with something greater. This is what it means to be ‘drowned’ in this song – to be subsumed by something powerful, something that is elemental, and able to deliver one from the crushing reality of isolation often felt most keenly by teenagers.
In the story, our young mod hero Jimmy finds himself at the sea in Brighton, the city which was the epicentre of the war between mods and rockers. There he waits to catch a glimpse of his hero, king of the mods Ace Face. Yet what he feels is bereft, lonely, and with the overpowering need to be included, to belong. To me, the visuals of this are so important. To see a middle-aged Townshend singing this tune, is to see that the sentiments in it go well beyond the confines of the story being told. And his latter-day performances of this song ultimately illustrate that the need to find belonging and meaning goes beyond age too. This is what it is to be human, to feel the overpowering drive to make a connection with something bigger than oneself.
For more, check out this interview with Pete Townshend from Rolling Stone magazine from 1968, before anyone was holding his feet to the fire for daring to get old after he’d made it clear that he hoped he wouldn’t. His main concern in 1968 was his work on a concept that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to communicate properly – Tommy.
Contrast that interview with this interview with Pete Townshend in 2003, when his ‘research’ into child abuse caused him some bother with the law. It seemed that his struggles to come to terms with his youth would be lifelong pursuit that would continue to lead him down some pretty thorny paths.