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Famous Musical Pieces: Baba O'Riley

Famous Musical Pieces:
Baba O'Riley

Genre: Rock
Composed and performed by: The Who
Released: 1971

You've probably heard this song on television or in the movies - it has that synthesizer sound at the beginning going up and down the scale really fast. And the guy sings the phrase "teenage wasteland" over and over again. Watch the video below to hear the song performed live by The Who.

The song was written by Pete Townshend, the main songwriter and guitarist for The Who. This English band actually wanted to create a science-fiction rock opera for their next album called "Lifehouse" - but they eventually abandoned this rock opera album concept. The song would have been sung by a Scottish farmer in the opera, who sings as he gathers his wife Sally and their two children to begin their exodus to London, which makes sense when you consider the lyrics:

Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living
I don't need to fight / To prove I'm right / I don't need to be forgiven

My kids ain't gonna break my heart / My greed ain't gonna spoil their part
This life just has to be a new one / I'm gonna tan underneath a new sun

Here's Pete Townshend's description of the rock opera:

"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."

Musical Influences for Baba O'Riley

One of the two main influences for this song was Meher Baba, The Who's spiritual guru. Meher Baba was an Indian mystic and a spiritual master. In 1925, at around the age of 31, he took a life-long vow of silence. He also declared in 1954 that he was the Avatar of the age. While he took his vow of silence, he communicated usually using an alphabet board or through unique hand gestures. He died in 1969, but caught the attention of the Who songwriter Pete Townshend. Pete Townshend was deeply influenced by his philosophies and carried them as a personal and artistic influence.

Pete Townshend wanted to input the life information of Meher Baba into a synthesizer, which could then generate music based on that information. A synthesizer is an instrument that can produce a ton of different sounds based on varying frequencies. In 1970, a popular synthesizer was the Minimoog and looked something like this:

A Minimoog synthesizer on the left and the Deluxe organ on the right

Pete didn't end up using that synthesizer music on the track, though - he instead played the sequence on his organ - a Lowrey Beckshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ using its repeated "marimba" sound feature. As you can see above, the organ looks like your typical organ.

The approach that Pete used for the synthesizer track was inspired by the work a famous minimialist composer named Terry Riley - the second main influence in this song. The approach is known as "modal", which is an ordered series of musical intervals, which is apparent the moment you begin hearing the track.

The names of both Terry Riley and Meher Baba was used to create the song title "Baba O'Riley" as a tribute to them.

Other musical decisions
Keith Moon, the drummer for the Who, inserted a violin solo at the coda of the song. Here, you can hear the style of the song shift from hard experimental rock to an Irish folk-style beat. It might seem a bit strange to include this sort of musical style, but considering that the song was originally intended for a rock opera where the Scottish farmer begins his move to London - it becomes clearer on why these artistic decisions were made. During concerts, the violin solo is sometimes replaced with the harmonica.

Baba O'Riley's Impact on Musical History
Baba O'Riley a prime early example of experimentation with the synthesizer and other electronic music with traditional English rock. It is considered one of many songs which have shaped rock and roll history. Today, it's considered a "classic rock" song. You can hear it in movies like The Girl Next Door and Fever Pitch, television shows like the theme song for CSI: NY and in episodes of House - and even in video games like Rock Band. The repetitive electronica structure throughout the song makes for an interesting and certainly very recognizable riff.

The Who in their older years

Images/References: Mettre, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Virgin Media, Songfacts

  1. lucyinthesky saidFri, 12 Dec 2008 21:16:18 -0000 ( Link )

    This is probably one of my favourite classic-rock songs. It never really gets old, and it just has a contagious rhythm – especially with that “boom…..boom boom” at the beginning part! I had no idea that “Baba O’Riley” was the combination of the two people who influenced the song.

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