Band members Related acts
line up 1
- Pete Townshend -- vocals, guitar, synthesizers
- John Barclay -- brass
Beachill -- brass
- Chyna -- vocals (The Crow)
- Patrick Clahar -- sax
- Deborah Conway -- vocals (The Vixen)
- Roger Daltry -- vocals (Hogarth's Father)
- Nicola Emanuelle -- vocals (The Jay)
- John Entwistle (RIP) - bass
- Gina Foster -- backing vocals
- Derek Green -- backing vocals
- John Lee Hooker (RIP) -- vocals (The Iron Man)
- Janice Hoyte -- backing vocals
- Ruby James -- backing vocals
- Julian Littman -- backing vocals
- Charlie Morgan -- drums, percussion
- Billy Nichols -- vocals (The Frog)
- Michael Nicholls -- backing vocals
- Earnestine Pearce -- backing vocals
- Simon Phillip -- drums, percussion
- Raymond Simpson -- backing vocals
- Nina Simone -- vocals (The Space Dragon)
- Simon Townshend -- vocals (The Owl)
- Cleveland Watkiss -- vocals (The Badger)
- The Children of St. Stevens and Orleans Schools -- chorus vocals
- The High Numbers
- The Who
Rating: 3 stars ***
Title: The Iron Man: The Musical By Pete Townshend
Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+
Comments: cut out notch top edge; original inner sleeve; includes insert booklet
Catalog ID: 2278
If you want to hear an album that died at the hands of the critics, then 1989's "The Iron Man: The Musical By Pete Townshend" might be a good place to start. I can remember this one getting cannibalized by the critics and then literally seeing stacks in my local record store (yes, I'm that old) selling for pennies. In fact my copy came from a Kemp Mill store in Virginia. I think I paid a dollar for it.
Okay, it wasn't "Tommy", "Quadrophenia", or "Lifehouse", but Pete Townshend's adaptation of British poet laureate Ted Hughes' 1968 children's story The Iron Man: A Children's Story in Five Nights wasn't without a certain confused charm. Before going on, let me say that if you've never read the story, the record may be a bit difficult to follow. The plotline was basically a ten year old boy (Hogarth - played by Townshend), makes friends with a large robot (The Iron Man voiced by John Lee Hooker). Locals like Hogath's father (Roger Daltry) aren't very happy with the robot who happens to have an appetite for metal in the form of farm equipment, and try to destroy him by having Hogarth lure him into a giant hole and burying him. The robot survives, befriends Hogarth and makes peace with his neighbors by eating scrap metal. And then it gets strange when a space dragon with a taste for human flesh (Nina Simone) threatens mankind. The robot ultimately saves mankind. The latter part of the story is largely lost amidst Townshend's songs. Okay, I'm not real sure what the moral of the story was, though I read Townshend's inspiration as having been: "My intention was to write a modern song cycle musical in the manner of Tommy. The story is very similar in a way to Tommy, to Quadrophenia, to a lot of the early Who singles, it's about the fear and deprivation and isolation of children, particularly of a little boy in this context. I think it's what I've always believe lies at the essence of rock and roll."
Well, that was a but heavy and perhaps pompous, but there was no denying the album featured an impressive cast of known and lesser known collaborators including the late John Lee Hooker, Billy Nichols. brother Simon Townshend, and two songs with backing from the surviving members of The Who ('Dig' and 'Fire'). Responsible for penning eleven of the twelve tracks, Townshend sounded in good form throughout, though he turned the spotlight over to guest vocalists on about half of the tunes. Admittedly the plotline was kind of a mess and exemplified by tracks like the Broadway-esque 'New Life/Reprise', the lounge act ballad 'Was There Life', and a miserable cover of Arthur Brown's 'Fire', there were a couple of duds scattered throughout the album. On the other hand there were enough interesting songs to warrant the investment. With Daltry handling the lead vocals, 'Dig' sounded like a good Who song and was the standout performance. With wonderful melodies and sweet lyrics 'A Friend is a Friend ' and 'All Shall Be Well' were almost as good, while John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone were hysterical on 'Over the Top' and 'Feed Me'. It certainly wasn't Townshend's creative zenith, but it wasn't nearly as bad as some folks would have you believe.
Man: The Musical By Pete Townshend" track listing:
1.) I Won't Run Anymore (Pete Townshend) - 4:51 rating: **** stars
The opening power chords sounded like a Who effort, but then the tune shifted into something that sounded like it had been written for a soundtrack. In spite of that, I have to admit I love this song. I'm not going to claim it was a classic Who tune, but there was no denying the song had a sweet melody and a too-die-for chorus, and while she wasn't very prominent in the mix, Australian singer Deborah Conway added a certain sweetness to Townshend's performance. Taken for an October 1989 performance on German television (looks like they were lip synching) YouTube has a black and white performance of the song at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCPd62EUswI This one was also tapped as a single in the UK:
- 1989's 'I Won't Run Anymore' b/w 'A Fool Says' (Virgin catalog number VS 1209)
2.) Over the Top (Pete Townshend) - 3:32 rating: **** stars
When John Lee Hooker's wicked laugh kicked in you knew this was going to be an interesting tune. The combination of Hooker's mouth-full-of-marbles delivery, the Mark Knopfler-styled lead guitar, and one of Townshend's breeziest melodies made this one a keeper.
3.) Man Machines (Pete Townshend) - 0:42 rating: *** stars
Brother Simon on lead vocals (and he sounds very much like Pete), but this musical snippet actually sounded like a Peter Gabriel effort.
4.) Dig (Pete Townshend) - 4:08 rating: **** stars
'Dig' was one of two tunes that featured Roger Daltry on lead vocals and John Entwistle on bass - effectively the first Who reunion since their 1982 split. One of the nicest melodies on the album, there was also something striking and thought provoking hearing Daltry singing "we old ones have seen two wars". And maybe it was just my abused ears, but this one's always sounded different that the rest of the album. I think I would have been able to identify it as a Who performance from a mile away.
5.) A Friend is a Friend (Pete Townshend) - 4:46 rating: **** stars
Admittedly it was a strange choice for a single. Yeah, it was one of those songs with a melody and hook you couldn't shake, but lyrically it was kind of strange without the rest of the story. YouTube has the promotional video that was released in support of the single: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08rO0-fFO94 YouTube also has a 1989 performance of the tune on the David Letterman Show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfns3-__zrM
- 1989 'A Friend Is a Friend' b/w 'Man Machine' (Atlantic catalog number 7-88875)
6.) I Eat Heavy Metal (Pete Townshend) - 3:29 rating: ** stars
Picking John Lee Hooker to handle the vocals on 'I Eat Heavy Metal' was sheer genius. The problem was the song Townshend gave him was crappy. You could almost picture Hooker wondering what the world he'd stumbled into ...
Another one that showcased Townshend's talent for crafting beautiful melodies. Deborah Conway and Chyna were featured on this one (the later basically taking over the song) and it was probably the album's most rock oriented tune (particularly when it got rolling).
2.) Was There Life (Pete Townshend) - 3:19 rating: ** stars
With a surprisingly sophisticated, adult contemporary sound (Sade should cover it), the keyboard powered 'Was There Life' wasn't exactly what you would have expected from Townshend. I can't say I love it, but it was certainly different.
3.) Fast Food (Pete Townshend) - 4:14 rating: *** stars
Lyrically it wasn't one of Townshend's finest moments, but 'Fast Food' had a nice rock melody, the album's best guitar solo, and the mesmerizing Nina Simone handled the lead vocals.
4.) A Fool Says (Pete Townshend) - 2:01 rating: *** stars
I liked the opening acoustic guitar and bass, but originally 'A Fool Says' didn't do a great deal for me - Townshend at his most bombastic (the topic of self doubt seems to be a staple in his repertoire). Admittedly, over the years I've grown to appreciate the song's sentiments and it did have a lovely Flamenco feel.
5.) Fire (Arthur Brown - Vincent Crane - Keri - Finesilver) - 3:48 rating: ** stars
The second tune featuring the reunited Who and the album's lone cover ... 'Fire' wasn't a particularly impressive effort, though it was nice to hear Daltry again. Giving the old Arthur Brown an anonymous, frenetic, big '80s update really didn't add anything to the original. Maybe because it was the album's most conventional performance, the track was released as a US single - good luck finding a copy:
- 1989's 'Fire' b/w 'Rest Cure' (Atlantic catalog number A-2556)
6.) New Life/Reprise (Pete Townshend) - 4:45 rating: ** stars
The opening chords sounded like a Who tune, but then the song ran off the tracks into Broadway show territory. Townshend was largely absent on this one with Chyna and jazz singer Nicola Emmanuel handling most of the lead vocals. In case anyone cared, the 'Reprise' section brought back 'All Shall Be Well' for a moment, closing the effort out with a Keith Emerson-styled keyboard flourish.
As mentioned, the album got creamed by critics and ignored by radio, but four years later a stage version appeared. The stage version saw Warner Brothers fund an animated version of the story released with the title The Iron Giant. While Townshend's soundtrack wasn't used in the film (the late Michael Kamen provided a suitably anonymous film score), he did receive an executive producer credit.
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