As a teenager, I was obsessed with The Who. They were in effect, the soundtrack to my high school years. Pete Townshend is one of the few songwriters in rock and roll, that truly captures the emotions of being a teenager. To maximize the effect, The Who played almost every single song like it was the end of the world. And in the mind of a teenager, every little incident can certainly seem like a catastrophe waiting to happen.
For my 17th birthday, my siblings bought me the Who’s exhaustive boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B. For the longest time, it was one of my most prized possessions. It was a treasure chest of previously unreleased studio tracks, and rare live performances. Containing 4 CDs, the set was sequenced chronologically – beginning with songs when the Who were known as the R&B outfit High Numbers and ending with some tracks from their 1989 reunion tour.
The first CDs were amazing, and each song seemed to speak to different situations in my life. As for the 4th CD, only about half of it interested me. To me, The Who ended when Keith Moon died and I had absolutely no desire to listen to anything they put out past his death in 1978. When I finally listened to these two albums (borrowing them from a friend) my suspicions were confirmed. Both releases lacked the fire and intensity of The Who’s original line-up. It seemed as if Townshend was going through the motions, and saving his best material for the solo albums he was putting out at the same time.
The guilty pleasure of “You Better You Bet” aside, “Eminence Front” is the only Who track I’ve actually cared about from the Kenny Jones era. (And no disrespect to Mr. Jones – he was in The Faces after all!) I wouldn’t have even given the song chance, if my older brother hadn’t insisted that I listened to it. ”I don’t believe it,” I told him.
So he put on “Eminence Front” on the CD player. As the first swirling synthesizer notes slipped through the speakers, I forced myself to roll my eyes. It sounded like a weak re-write of “Baba O’Riley” – and one that was made for the 1980s. As soon as Kenney Jones thumped his way in, I knew there was something about this song that was special. The extended introduction (in which Townshend gets to demonstrate how great of a guitar player he is by alternating by rhythm and lead seamlessly) sets the tone for the haunting lyrics which depict wealthy businessmen hiding behind “white powder” to use Townshend’s words.
“Eminence Front” might not rank up with Who classics such as “Substitute” or “My Generation” but the lyrics are classic Townshend in its observation of drug-use and its effect. Even though Townshend (and the rest of The Who) had their substance issues, Townshend was always weary of their effect, and the characters in his songs reflected that. After being drugged by a gypsy (aka “The Acid Queen”) Tommy finds enlightenment, and Jimmy from Quadrophenia becomes violet and destructive when he takes too many pills and downs his gin. Townshend famously chronicles his own problems on The Who By Numbers and his own solo album, Empty Glass.
“Eminence Front” shows what happens when these drugs are applied in the business world: “Shares crash, hopes are dashed.” To Townshend, “people forget” what really matters and they’re hiding behind this fallacy. ”It’s a put-on!” He snarls in the chorus, without a shred of sympathy.
I’m not entirely sure whether Townshend is being hypocritical in this song or not. Certainly the case could be made – his own issues, and the fact that The Who themselves are more of corporation at this point. But as always with Pete Townshend, he’s at his best when he’s fired up and pissed off about something. And this would be the last time he would do that within the context of The Who.