The Iron Man (Pete Townshend) – Album Review (Part 2)

by Emilio Pérez Miguel on February 22, 2010

Don’t forget to read the introduction to this review.

Pete wrote 20 songs for this musical, 11 of which are included on this album. Some were released as B-sides, too. The singles from the CD were going to be “A Friend Is A Friend” (a song that does not sound like a Townshend composition at all – maybe that was the reason why it was a single) and the excellent set opener, “I Won’t Run Anymore”. Sung by Pete (as Hogarth) and Deborah Conway, the song details the protagonist’s initial encounter with the lumbering giant, and his determination to be as courageous as an adult would be and face the situation instead of fleeing.

The song is immediately followed by “Over The Top”, my personal favorite of the two songs in which John Lee Hooker takes the lead. The other is “I Eat Heavy Metal”, and I am certain most of you will actually like it best than “Over The Top” as it treads bluesier territory, hence Hooker is more at home. In any case, John Lee Hooker as the Iron Man was the best casting decision of the whole disc.

For its part, Simon Townshend tackles “Man Machines”, a brief passage that deals with the same theory that movies like “Terminator” have popularized – we come up with machines to fight our wars for us, and in the end they will nab us.

The song leads into the first Who tune, “Dig”. Roger fills in as Hogarth’s father (no doubt he got an added thrill for lecturing Pete on the song), and the song gave everybody renewed faith on the Who. But the band was not going to record any new tracks after a lackluster cover of Elton John’s “Saturday’s Night Alright For Fighting”. The next recordings would already take place after Entwistle had passed away.

“A Friend Is A Friend” follows “Dig”, and that is followed by “I Eat Heavy Metal” in turn. The songs deal with Hogarth’s betrayal of the Iron Man and their eventual reconciliation.

That is where the first part of the disc ends. The second side is heralded by the super-charged “All Shall Be Well”, the best song in terms of taking advantage of the large cast that was assembled. It would have been a perfect third single from the album, and I dare say it also would have been a more successful one that the two that were actually issued.

Nina Simone’s character (The Space Dragon, a being that threatens to engulf the whole Earth) is introduced next, and her song (“Fast Food”) is nowhere as humorous as Hooker’s contributions. Two ballads are placed either side of this song, “Was There Life” and “A Fool Says”, some of the most characteristic Townshend songs on the whole disc. Specially “Was There Life”. And the fact he sings it almost without involvement from other cast members might go some way into explaining why it recalls past glories, only with a more polished sound.

The last segment of the disc includes the confrontation between the Iron Man and The Space Dragon (”Fire”, the lackluster cover by The Who), and the forced finale, “New Life”. As I said on the first part, don’t look for an open ending a la Tommy because you will walk out of it utterly disenchanted.

Critical reaction to this record was mostly negative, and sales were not good. In the same way bit players were to violate the integrity of The Who in the 1989 tour, it was said that the cast obscured Pete and that was the reason he could never really drive any point home. It was also said that the material offered little insight into who Pete really was, owing to it being an adaptation, and that the songs: A) Dealt with issues Pete had already touched upon best with The Who or on his own, and B) Put him face to face with themes that had nothing to do with him.

Certainly, as far as growing up went he had studied that ever since the early days, and through compositions that had a bigger relevance to him like “Pictures of Lily” or “Tattoo” – hence, songs that he could infuse with his own sense of humor.

And the narrative songs like “I Eat Heavy Metal” and “Fast Food” could have been penned by just anybody. Pete said at the point he felt as if he had written himself out of ideas. The thing is, the change of scene just did not deliver.

The album was to eventually become a Broadway show, right after Tommy’s run there captivated everybody in show-biz and landed Pete a Tony award. Again – it met with little enthusiasm, and it was shortly cancelled.

Finally, an animated movie was issued in 1999 by Warner, retitled “The Iron Giant” so as to avoid any confusion with the Marvel superheroe. The movie received rave reviews but it was marketed abysmally. Pete was credited as an executive producer.

All of the above makes the Iron Man seem a bit like a true hole in Pete’s safety net, doesn’t it? The album certainly marked the moment he stopped having hits, and the instant he turned back to the Who. In the same way that being liberated from the band was to free him creatively in the early ‘80s, becoming involved with them again seemed to occupy his every thought once more. Their subsequent reunions were to come under a barrage of criticism, and the one and only reason The Iron Man is remembered now is because it was the first step towards the reconstruction of the Who. Musically, no single cut has gone down, and the same was to apply to Pete’s final solo disc, “Psychoderelict”. It was time to become the Godfather again. Only that young punks wouldn’t be that receptive this time around.

Rating: 6/10

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