White City: A Novel

Pete Townshend

Eel Pie, 1985


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


After the weird, dull All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, not to mention the official retirement of the Who for the foreseeable future, Pete Townshend returned to conceptual storytelling and relatively straight-ahead songwriting on White City. The result remains one of his best solo albums and, frankly, a bright spot in the morass of pop music that was 1985.

The standout song, the one that appears on all the compilation, is the six-minute whipsaw mechanical pop of “Face The Face,” which cranks up the volume on a drum machine, adds a cool bass riff and sax solo, and then tacks on some wordplay-esque lyrics about learning from past mistakes in order to move forward (You must have heard the cautionary tales / The dangers hidden on the cul-de-sac trails / From wiser men who have been through it all / And the ghosts of failures spray-canned up on the wall”). Any good Quadrophenia fan knows all about The Face as a symbol of Mod culture, adding a layer of self-reference to the song. But the piece is easily one of the most pulse-racing pop songs in Townshend’s entire output, not to mention one with more muscle than most ‘80s pop. Even the half-speed introduction is just my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 cool.

“Give Blood,” the leadoff track, brings in recently-unemployed guitarist David Gilmour for a decent rock song with melancholy lyrics about people-pleasing; Gilmour’s guitar is instantly recognizable, and he would join Townshend for a few shows on the ensuing tour, all smiles and dancing. “Hiding Out” explores a light African rhythm and some nice harmony singing, a foreshadow of Paul Simon’s Graceland the following year and proof that the ever-ambitious Townshend is always striving, always reaching. Only “Brilliant Blues” sounds like an early Who knockoff, in the vein of “The Kids Are All Right,” but it’s a pleasant three minutes and a necessary bridge given its placement on the album.

“Secondhand Love” is another standout, a confident midtempo pop-rocker with some great growl-singing by Pete and one that shows off its ‘80s trappings, but in an appealing way. “Crashing By Design” isn’t as successful in this vein musically but features some typically soul-searching, honest lyrics about self-destruction from Townshend: “In your single-roomed flat in a courtyard building / You sit alone just like a broken toy / Where's your mother, where's your lover and where are the children … Another man without a woman / Too many rages have cost you this time.” That vulnerability remains one of Townshend’s most endearing qualities, not to mention a rarity in rock music, especially in the ‘80s.

“I Am Secure” is an odd tune, half pop instrumental and half reflective acoustic song, but better is “White City Fighting,” in which Gilmour reappears to add guitar as Townshend sings about looking back on a youth filled with violence. Gilmour actually wrote the song for his own 1984 solo disc About Face but couldn’t come up with suitable lyrics; upon hearing what Townshend wrote, Gilmour simply gave the song away.

The theme running through the album, however loosely connected, deals with urban decay and disillusionment, violence, and the meaning of being a man, especially in the White City area of West London near where Townshend grew up. The mix of autobiography, vulnerability, solid lyrics, and mostly-great songs makes this recommended listening for Townshend/Who fans and easily one of the man’s best solo albums.

Rating: B

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