“Baba O’Riley” is one of the weirdest songs to become a big hit.
With its odd title and bizarre opening, the track, believed by many to be named “Teenage Wasteland”, nevertheless overcame all odds to become one of the best-known songs today. (The track even received an entire episode dedicated to it by the comedian Joe Pera.)
But let’s dig deeper into why this song became so beloved, where it came from, and how The Who came to love their creation.
The English rock band was formed in London in 1964. The band’s classical core included vocalist Roger Daltrey, guitarist and vocalist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. (Lune and Entwistle have since passed away).
Today the band is considered one of the most influential in rock history and was part of the 60s and 70s movement known as the British Invasion, which included other bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles etc In total, The Who has sold over 100 million records worldwide.
Origins of “Baba O’Riley”
Putting on the song, one wonders if the band just fell in love with some new technology that produced the opening sounds. A computer program or a rudimentary synth. Either way, the opener provided a lot of fun with new listeners trying to figure out what exactly that sound is and when, exactly, the rest of the band will be coming in with the drums, the fat piano chords and the hoarse voice of Daltrey.
The track first appeared as the opening track on The Who’s studio album, Who’s next. The song was released as a single in Europe on October 23, 1971. Daltrey sings the verse while Townshend sings the middle section: Don’t cry / don’t look up / it’s just a teenage wasteland. And musician Dave Arbus plays the concertmaster.
“The Teenage Desert”
This – surprisingly – is not the name of the track, despite the fact that the band sings the words “Teenage Wasteland” multiple times and the words “Baba O’Riley” no times. Poetic licence, right? However, at one point, “Teenage Wasteland” was the working title of the song when it debuted. (Townshend later released his own song called “Teenage Wasteland”, which is slower and features different lyrics.)
The actual title of the song is the result of two major inspirations from Townshend: Meher Baba (an Iranian spiritual master) and Terry Riley (an American composer).
House of Life rock opera
The song was originally written by Townshend for his House of Life project, which was a rock opera intended as a follow-up to The Who’s seminal concept album, tommy. In House of Life, a Scottish farmer is said to have sung the track at the start as he gathered his wife and two children to begin their trip to London. But when the idea was scrapped, eight of the songs were kept and used for the band’s 1971 album, Who’s next. “Baba O’Riley” leads the LP.
According to Townshend, after the band played their 1969 gig, the pitch was covered in trash from fans, which inspired the line: teenage wasteland. In an interview, the singer also said the song was inspired by “the utter desolation of the teenagers in Woodstock, where audience members were hung on acid and 20 people had brain damage. The irony was that some listeners took the song for a celebration of teenagers.
The repetitive notes at the beginning of the track (known as Ostinato) are the result of the House of Life concept in which Townshend wanted to input Meher Baba’s vital signs and personality into a synth that would then generate music based on that data.
When that idea fell through, however, the songwriter instead recorded a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ using its marimba repeat feature to generate the sounds. This modal approach is inspired by the work of minimalist composer Terry Riley.
Originally, Townshend created a nine-minute demo, which the band later reconstructed. The song when it debuted was a staggering 30 minutes long, but was later tweaked down to the “highlights”. Later the other original parts of the song appeared on Townshend’s third disc Lifehouse Chronicles as “Baba M1 (O’Riley 1st Movement 1971)” and “Baba M2 (2nd Movement Part 1 1971)”.
Dave Arbus, who was in the band East of Eden, was recording next door in the same studio as The Who and was asked by Keith Moon to play a violin solo during the song’s outro. In later live performances, the role is played by Roger Daltrey on harmonica.
“Baba O’Riley” in pop culture
The song is often covered live by Seattle-born grunge band Pearl Jam. And as mentioned above, the song was featured prominently on an entire episode of comedian Joe Pera’s Adult Swim show. Of course, the track has also been used in a number of TV episodes, video games, and movies, including Miami Vice, That 70s show, and much more. The song was also used for Los Angeles Lakers player introductions at their home games in Los Angeles.
Music fans pointed out that One Direction’s 2013 track “Best Song Ever” strongly resembles the structure of “Baba O’Riley.” Townshend even responded to the claims, noting that The Who was not going to sue. He added that he was a fan of the One Direction song and was glad the band was influenced by The Who.
Many have noted that the song’s lyrics are amazing. Their concise storytelling and epic quality have kept the song shining for decades. The song begins:
Here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I come into my life
I don’t need to fight
To prove that I’m right
I don’t need to be forgiven
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Do not Cry
Don’t look up
It’s just a desert of teenagers
So much is said in such a short time and the result is a rousing and thrilling feeling.
The lyrics, however, are short, with only two additional verses included. Much of the song is taken up by the violin solo at the end. But maybe that’s the mark of a great piece: no need to dwell too much on one aspect because each section is brilliant.
Photo by RB/Redferns