The Who’s classic “Baba O’Riley” has been a part of American culture long before it appeared on Stranger Things Season 3.
We’re diving into the past this week, digging for old gems from rock history, polishing them off, and holding them up to be appreciated and examined. Our efforts have been guided by combing the archives of music history, and finding something new to connect to each day. On Monday, we looked at one of the few Beatles’ songs written by Ringo Starr to commemorate the day his short-lived predecessor, Pete Best joined The Silver Beatles. And yesterday, we examined Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”, played in concert for one of the first times in 1971.
The day after Pink Floyd played in Melbourne, Australia, on August 14th, 1971, The Who released their fifth album, “Who’s Next”. “Baba O’Riley” was one of the three singles released for the album, and also served as its opening track. While it’s a song that has been written about and examined for years, it’s too big of a hit for us to ignore.
But before we get into “Baba O’Riley”, let’s first take a look at the album.
“Who’s Next” was The Who’s fifth studio album, released just two years after the rock opera, “Tommy”. Despite the fact that it was developed from a collection of songs intended for another rock opera (“Lifehouse”), this more traditional rock album by The Who is widely considered to include their best work. However, one can’t help but wonder how good “Lifehouse” could have been. Of the nine tracks that make up “Who’s Next”, eight are from the “Lifehouse” project.
“Who’s Next” also came with a whimsical album cover of The Who’s four members taking a pee break against a cement pillar. The inclusion of the pillar was inspired by the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Apparently, during the photo shoot, only Pete Townshend was able to eek out a stream. The other members’ urine was faked by the photographer Ethan Russell, who poured water onto the sides from cans.
“Baba O’Riley” may be the most recognizable song ever written by The Who. The title of the song is often mistaken to be “Teenage Wasteland”, after the often repeated phrase in the lyrics. And while it served as a working title, the official title was chosen as a combination of two of Townshend’s major influences. Spiritual leader Maher Baba, and musician Terry Riley.
“Baba O’Riley” was one of the few tracks on “Who’s Next” that utilizes a heavy dose of what sounds like a synthesizer, but was actually a Lowrey electronic organ. Using one of the organ’s repeat features, The Who were able to achieve the repetitive, synth-like effect, which was inspired by the work of Terry Riley.
The lyrics to “Baba O’Riley” are often interpreted as a championing of hedonism and youth, but is that what they’re really about? Or is there another interpretation that makes more sense?
The lines most often misinterpreted are “Teenage wasteland”, and “We’re all wasted!”. While these lines probably inspired a lot of young Who fans to party their butts off, they can also be seen as comments on the wild life of party goers seen at the legendary 1969 Woodstock Festival. It wouldn’t be the first time a song was written about the festival.
“Baba O’Riley” was originally meant to be included in the “Lifehouse” concept album. This means that some of the lyrics might have other meanings we can only speculate on. If you have a theory or source regarding the true meaning of the lyrics, feel free to share down below.
For the longest time, I myself just assumed that the real title to “Baba O’Riley” was “Teenage Wasteland”. It rolls off the tongue a little better. Besides, most songs tend have titles after their most repeated phrases. But maybe the title was also meant to be the name of a character in the “Lifehouse” project.
Regardless of what you call it, “Baba O’Riley” is a legendary song whose influence has stretched over the years. It captured a culture, and has since been brought back to re-inject a fresh dose of nostalgia and championship into new generations.
That about wraps up our discussion for today. I hope you enjoyed listening to “Baba O’Riley”, and maybe learning a thing or two about it that was new. Tomorrow we’ll be back with another song from the archives of music history. Stay tuned.