08 October 2009

Albums You Must Own (#1 of a series)

Rough Mix (MCA 1977)

Admittedly, I came to this album late, more than three years after its original release in September 1977. Maybe it was because the intervening period was filled with the urgent sounds of The Clash, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. Don't get me wrong: I was an avowed fan of The Who, and in fact their leader, Pete Townshend, had answered critics labelling them "dinosaurs" in the age of punk and disco with the powerful Who Are You in 1978. But a side project with a lesser-known member of The Faces? This record had maybe merited a small ad in the back of Rolling Stone and it didn't even garner much air play on the few free-form FM stations left on the dial.

So when my roommate came through the door with an excited look on his face proclaiming he had picked up a great LP while trolling the local record store cum head shop, I nodded and waited for him to drop the needle. . .and. . .

BAM! Roaring out of the gate comes Townshend's stinging guitar on "My Baby Gives It Away," a light-hearted take on, well, favors in a low-rent apartment setting. But then there is an immediate right-turn to Lane's "Nowhere To Run," highlighted by Peter Hope-Evans gorgeous harmonica. And so the yin and yang of Rough Mix begins; and it dawns on you maybe that's the meaning of the album's title.

Lane's contributions are measurable, and at times magnificent. In retrospect, there is a tinge of sadness to the whole project given it was around this time that he was diagnosed with MS. (Lane would live with the illness for 2o years before finally succumbing to its devastation.) The native of East End London was apparently keen on merging rock with Irish ballads and Scottish and British folk music. Indeed, "Annie" and its dirge-like quality juxtaposed with the stomping "Catmelody" (with the unmistakable back-beat of none other than Charlie Watts) could both fit at a traditional Irish wake, with a mourner holding a tumbler of Jameson's in one hand and a pint of Guinness in the other.

Townshend counter-punches with "Misunderstood," a Dylanesque update of "My Generation" that rides an odd, but irresistible, beat cushioned by guitar, harmonica, cowbell and drums. In understated fashion, he wills you to listen to the sneering lyrics: Just wanna to be misunderstood/Wanna be feared in my neighborhood/Just wanna be a moody man/Say things that nobody can understand. And "Keep Me Turning" - a confusing tale that nonetheless evokes true emotion via a great vocal - gives us some of the most fluid guitar work of Townshend's career.

But the spiritual and musical highlight of this recorded gem has to be "Heart To Hang Onto." With Lane singing the verses and Townshend answering with the chorus, the musical interplay of Townshend's guitar, John "Rabbit" Bundrick's mellotron and John Entwhistle's brass arrangement cuts to the quick of the listener. [Townshend resurrected the tune not long after Lane's death with the wise choice of Eddie Vedder as co-vocalist. See a performance of "Heart To Hang Onto" from a 1999 David Letterman show here.]

The ultimate goal in art is to make one feel the innate emotion of the work, a point addressed by rock critic Dave Marsh in his original review of Rough Mix: "The glory of this album and of the work of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane throughout their careers is that art and the deepest spiritual aspiration are completely intertwined. Often, of course, that makes for a rough mix, and a rougher life. But it's worth the turbulence, for it touches closer to the heart of the rock & roll experience than almost anything I know." TNOP bows in agreement.

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