Empty Glass. Pete Townshend.
1980, ATCO. Producer: Pete Townshend and Chris Thomas
Purchased ca. 1997.
IN A NUTSHELL – Driving guitar rock with emotional lyrics and energetic vocal performances. Lots of catchy songs, and a few that grow on you with repeated listening. Great background vocals and harmonies, and interesting song structure, give the songs an operatic feel. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had even more guitar.
I grew up in a rather small town in a made-up state in the 70s. Generally, this meant my sisters and I experienced typical American life about 15 to 18 months after everyone else did. “Hey, TIME magazine says there’s a hot new fad called “Pet Rocks!” Not in our town. Maybe they’ll show up at The Mall next summer, as the rest of the nation buys their first Bean Bag Chairs. I’m surprised the Bicentennial didn’t happen in my town in 1977!
Living life in my town was like watching a DVR’ed TV program, only we couldn’t see the green bar in front of us showing how far behind we were.
But we could tell. We were behind the curve. I heard about things like ATMs and home computers and microwave ovens, but nobody I knew really USED those things – they seemed to be part of the made-up Hollywood world, the type of thing that Johnny Carson made jokes about, but that “real” people didn’t use, like plastic surgery, dresses for men and airplanes.
So considering how behind-the-times we seemed, it’s surprising that we had Cable TV in my little part of town for as long as I can remember. Cable TV was introduced in the US as early as the late 40s but hardly anyone had it. In the 70s, most of my friends and relatives still had unsightly antennas on their houses, which pulled in TV signals broadcast through the atmosphere and delivered those signals to a heavy wooden box with a bulbous blue screen protruding from it.
And those signals weren’t always clear. Depending which way the house’s antenna was pointed, and which channel you were trying to watch, if you wanted a clear picture and sound the antenna had to be adjusted. This gave the viewer three options:
1) Shinny up the side of the house, crawl onto the roof and move it around, while a partner watched the TV and shouted, “A little more! A little more! STOP!! No! Too far! Go back! STOP!! No! Too far!” …
2) Buy a futuristic automatic antenna adjuster device, like my grandma had, upon which you turned a dial marked with the four cardinal directions, and somehow the TV antenna moved, enabling you to get perfect(ish) reception, which in turn allowed you to make a list to keep on top of the TV with cryptic tuning instructions like “Ch. 15 – WNW. Ch 27 – E. Ch. 8 – SW +4” …
or 3) Forget the adjustments altogether, and just find one “best position” for your antenna, where most of the “good” channels got the least-poor reception, and where the “lousy channels” didn’t come in as clearly. (Although, the lousy channels always seemed to have some kind of super-receptive-power that enabled you to always be able to clearly view boring shows like Big Blue Marble or Masterpiece Theater even though over on the “good channels” every episode of McHale’s Navy or Baretta seemed to be constantly phasing in and out of static and snow!)
It made TV viewing frustrating. But my household didn’t have to deal with all the frustration. We had a big, black, ropy Tarzan-vine of a cable looping onto the side of our house from the heavens (I guess) which carried brilliantly clear pictures and sound directly into our TV set. I don’t know if my neighborhood was part of some consumer test group, or if someone on the Township Board of Commissioners had blackmailed a TV executive somewhere, but for some reason cable TV was the only aspect of 70s life in which my family was AHEAD of the curve.
It wasn’t Cable TV as is commonly thought of today, with 2,713 individualized networks catering to every interest known to (or conjured up by) humans. There were only a few channels, all of them “Broadcast TV,” all of them found on either the VHF or UHF dials on a conventional television of the day.
But with Cable TV, these broadcast stations were wired directly into our living room, meaning the signals were always clear. Meaning, also, that we could receive signals not only from the handful of channels available from local cities, like Lancaster and Harrisburg, but that we could also receive clear signals from channels in the faraway big city of Philadelphia! This meant I got to watch shows like “Wee Willy” Webber, and Dr. Shock’s Horror Theater and watch commercials for Krass Bros. Clothing (“Store of the Stars!”) and Tastykakes (“All the good thing’s wrapped up in one”) and Frank’s Soda (featuring Patty Smyth and her band Scandal, years before She Was The Warrior) all from 100 miles away. It’s easy to see why I watched so much TV.
In the 80s, Cable TV started to expand beyond UHF and VHF channels. Suddenly Cubs baseball games were always on, and there were channels that showed movies (without commercials!) or showed ONLY SPORTS – which sounded like a great idea – sports all the time – but before ESPN had broadcast rights for major American sports, they showed sports like Australian Rules Football and Darts and the opening round of the professional slo-pitch softball championships (!!) so it wasn’t very impressive. None of those new channels impressed me, really, except for one:
All Day, All Night, All Music, they said, and that’s what it was. It began broadcasting on August 1, 1981, and by October of that year, my family – which had been years behind every other technological advance and breakthrough product since before the advent of indoor plumbing (my parents’ childhood homes both had outhouses until well after WWII) – was among the vanguard consuming the product responsible for the downfall of substantive, meaningful popular music and the recording industry as a whole.
And I loved it.
When people discuss early MTV and its music, the focus is frequently on interesting-looking bands, typically English, who played catchy pop, but made their reputation as much through their looks as their music. But one of my earliest MTV memories is seeing a music video featuring an older, shaggy guy playing guitar in a pool hall while harassing the players, and angrily singing a driving, catchy song that ended with a series of ascending chords, played with larger and larger windmill motions, building up the anticipation for a final exclamation that just … felt awesome!! (In the parlance of my 14 year old self).
The video is for the first song off Empty Glass, “Rough Boys,” one of my favorite songs of all time. I didn’t know what the song was about (and I still don’t know for sure), but that really didn’t matter. I just knew that the power and energy seemed to encapsulate my emotions about life as a teenager in my little town. And watching Pete play and sing as he jumped around the tables intensified those feelings. I’d jump around myself as I watched, as long as my sister wasn’t around.
I’ve read, maybe in Townshend’s excellent autobiography Who I Am that the song is a response to the punk rockers of the 70s (the album states the song is dedicated to his kids, Emma and Minta, and The Sex Pistols), an attempt to capture some of their anger and energy, and lyrically the song describes Pete’s desire to better understand where that anger and energy comes from.
“Gonna get inside you
Gonna get inside your bitter mind”
With its lyrics about leather and tough boys and biting and kissing, much has been written and discussed about Pete’s sexuality and how this song fits into the topic. I don’t remember being aware of all this as a teenager, I just remember loving the song. And I still do.
Pete Townshend is, of course, a founding member and chief songwriter of The Who, probably the third most famous rock band to come out of the 60s, along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
When I first heard the songs on this record (or – more accurately – watched them, on MTV) I was aware that there was a band named The Who, and I knew some of their songs, but it didn’t really register with me that Pete was part of that band. Many listeners, I’m sure, immediately compared Empty Glass to albums by The Who, and reviewed the record in the context of Pete as a Famous Musician and Songwriter. To me, Pete was just another British guy on MTV making cool songs and videos. Not unlike Thomas Dolby or Gary Numan.
The next video I remember from this record, and the biggest hit of Pete’s career, was the song “Let My Love Open the Door,” a catchy, keyboard-driven song with a solid, danceable backbeat, that reached Top Ten in the US in the Fall of 1980.
This well-known song was quite different from anything else in the Top Forty that week, with lyrics that are typical of the entire Empty Glass album – heartfelt and emotional, and not shy about human feelings. The deeply spiritual Townshend has said that the lyrics are meant to be about a larger love than person-to-person, intending them to be about God’s love in times of crisis or doubt. As an atheist, I can’t go there personally, but I appreciate the intent. For me, the lyrics have always been a strong testament to the power of friendship and family, and how we all need others in our lives to make it through the days. Plus, it has an infectious beat and a cool hook. And the video – like most Townshend/Who videos from this era – was simple footage of the band playing – the type of video I always found most inspiring back in the day.
These two songs were favorites of mine for a long time, but I never thought about buying the album until I noticed it kept popping up on various “Best Of” lists of 80s albums. I’ve written before about my general distrust of Best Of record lists, but when I saw a used copy of the LP in a record store in San Francisco, I picked it up to hear what the hubbub was about.
Pete’s solo songs have an operatic quality about them – probably not surprising, since he’s the father of the Rock Opera.
“And I Moved” is a song that displays these operatic qualities. Granted, the only thing I know about Opera is what I learned from Bugs Bunny, so maybe it’s not operatic, but it sounds grander than most rock songs, and even though it’s a mid-tempo song, it has a weightiness and a quick, driving drumbeat that makes it sound important. It’s a somber song, with oblique lyrics, and upon first listening I disliked it. But as I’ve listened more, it’s grown on me. As with all the songs on the album, Pete’s sings with The Three E’s: Energy, Emotion, Earnestness. Throughout Empty Glass, he sounds as if he believes his words are the most important words he’s ever known. This could be a negative if performed by the wrong singer, or with the wrong material but it works for me on this record.
Also operatic, to me and Elmer and Bugs anyway, is Pete’s frequent use of backing vocals that answer the main melody, like The Chorus in a stage musical, providing background information or counterpoints to supplement what is sung in the main melody. (All of the songs have excellent, interesting backing vocals, something that is often missing in rock and roll created after the 70s.) Pete used this technique with The Who frequently. It’s on display in the song “Gonna Get Ya,” a march of sorts, with a compelling bass line and Pete’s urgent voice. There’s an extended instrumental section in the middle that again, as in the ascending chords in “Rough Boys,” builds the song to an emotional, frantic finale. (My only quibble with this song are the shouted words “Girl, I’m Gonna Do Ya!”, which sound creepy, even coming from a Rock Icon).
Pete’s plaintive vocals can, at times, almost make me feel bad for the guy. In the song “I Am An Animal” the vocals and lyrics flip among anger, hurt and sadness, and the quality of his voice is such that I just want to give him a big hug. He clearly has more on his mind than sex and drugs and rock and roll, and offers the listener a candid glimpse into his emotional life. But he spares us further direct microscopic examinations of his hurt and sadness on the album, which is a good thing. We all have met people who are “over-sharers,” and know the awkward experience of wondering, “Do I put an arm around this person I met five minutes ago who is now sobbing to me about his colon issues?” But despite Pete’s emotions on display throughout the record, he never makes me feel uncomfortable as a listener.
The best display of emotion is the song of furious anger, “Jools and Jim.” This is Pete’s response to some rock critics who in the late 70s had questioned the relevance of 60s and 70s rock to an audience now steeped in punk rock, and in doing so mocked Who drummer Keith Moon’s death.
“Typewriter tappers/you’re all just crappers …. Typewriter bangers-on/you’re all just hangers-on …” he sings (or shouts, really), and he goes on to ridicule the lack of spiritual and emotional depth of critics in general. But even in the middle of his fury, the thoughtful Pete slows the tempo and offers to meet the two for drinks, “’cause you’re right, hypocrisy will be the death of me …” I think it’s rare for a rock musician to display such depth and self-awareness, especially a famous, wealthy rock musician whose head is on the mythical Mount Rushmore of Rock. Even in the middle of a rage, Pete is thoughtful. My only complaint with this song is that the song ends with the curious phrase, “Oklahoma! Oklahoma! Oklahoma! OK!”
I have been on a quest for nearly 20 years to find out why this state slogan is put here, and what it has to do with the rest of the song. It is one of my Great Unanswered Questions of Rock, and if anyone can send me the answer, or post it in the comments, I will be forever in your debt. This song is also one of my favorites on the album, a great tune to blast at high volume, and proof that Pete, nearing 40 years of age, could still hang with the young guns on the scene.
My town was ahead of the curve on cable, but I was late to this record. I may have given the impression that Pete is very serious throughout the record, but the songs are truly great. And just to show that he could tone down the seriousness at times, here’s a (likely) drunken Pete with a goofy video from the record for a song called “Keep On Working.”
I Am An Animal
And I Moved
Let My Love Open the Door
Jools and Jim
Keep On Working
Cat’s In The Cupboard
A Little Is Enough
Gonna Get Ya
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