When Pete Townshend – guitarist and co-founder of The Who – gazed out upon a field of rubbish in 1969, it’s hard to imagine how even he could’ve foreseen just how ubiquitous the song it inspired would become.
According to Townshend, it was the sight of the deserted, litter-strewn landscape at the end of The Isle of Wight festival that compelled him to write the famous “teenage wasteland” line—a lyric that, for many, has become the track’s adopted, if entirely erroneous, title.
But ‘Baba O’Riley’ has come to embody much more than the wasteful habits of festivalgoers in the five decades since its initial release. Depending on who you ask, the song serves as everything from a raucous celebration of adolescent exuberance to the catchy jingle of a popular American police procedural to an earworm that popped up rather unexpectedly in the trailer for a Pixar movie.
Initially conceived as part of their unfinished Lifehouse project, the song’s mesmeric, repetitive synth sound—inspired by the work of composer Terry Riley, whose name forms one half of the track’s title—has proved a staple of the band’s enduring appeal. So too, it seems, has the relevance of its ostensibly chameleonic lyrics. In 2018, Roger Daltrey claimed the song carried a stark warning about overusing social media. In 2021, a time defined by isolation and absence—a period when schools, universities, nightclubs, music venues have remained largely desolate for the best part of a year—never have the words felt so alarmingly literal.
Words by George Nash
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