In 1980, the Who guitarist’s cup overflowed as the finest solo outing of his career
Although a true solo album from The Who’s wunderkind might have been eagerly anticipated at the time, Empty Glass–Pete Townshend’s first fully fleshed out album outside the boundaries of his band–still begs the question of why he didn’t opt to record these songs with the Who.
After all, Face Dances, the album the group released shortly thereafter, was, by all estimations, an inferior effort, widely derided as one of the weakest releases of the Who’s career. Roger Daltrey himself claimed he was disappointed that Townshend denied the group the opportunity to take a shot at Empty Glass and make it a masterpiece the band could claim as its own.
Some could consider the singer’s resentment a matter of professional jealousy. If so, it’s easily dismissed. Where Townshend’s first nominal effort on his own, Who Came First, was essentially a grab bag of demos and solo sketches, Empty Glass is a masterpiece even by the Who’s exacting standards. The album title alludes to Townshend’s eternal search for spiritual salvation, particularly at a time where he was beset by an array of issues that had all but consumed him — among them, alcoholism, substance abuse, marital difficulties, and the death of his friend and bandmate Keith Moon two years before. Symbolically, “Empty Glass” refers to an analogy that compares a bar patron passing a bartender an “empty glass” in hopes it will be filled, and a seeker of spiritual redemption approaching God with an open heart, looking for the solace only the Almighty can provide. Townshend was finding further inspiration in the works of a Persian poet named Hafez, who drew the musician’s interest in the wake of his fascination with his personal guru, Meher Baba.
Indeed, the songs offered such a sense of reflection and rumination, it’s hard to imagine Empty Glass being delivered from anything other than his personal perspective. The song that emerged as the album’s initial hit, “Rough Boys,” bows to Townshend’s unresolved sexual ambiguity. Although he dedicated it to his children Emma and Minta, it made more sense as a shout-out to the Sex Pistols who, at the time, represented punk’s brooding, blistering upending of traditional rock norms. Years later, Townshend himself alluded to its alleged homosexual references, noting that he knew members of the gay community but was not gay himself. Given that some saw the song as a coming out of sorts — a decidedly wrong assumption, Townshend assured them — it would have been an awkward choice for the macho Daltrey to voice. Nevertheless, The Who did eventually include it in their live sets, a wise choice considering that it ranked among their strongest contemporary material at the time. It also hit Billboard the top ten, the only Townshend solo song ever to achieve that distinction.
The rest of the album is similarly introspective. “Let My Love Open the Door,” the second single from the album, made its way up the charts, although both Townshend and his management allegedly expressed some misgivings about the song. A third single, the similarly philosophical “A Little Is Enough,” which Townshend acknowledged was his bow to the Kinks’ Ray Davies, failed to make any impact at all, although Townshend considered it a better bid for chart success than the aforementioned “Let My Love Open the Door.”
VIDEO: Pete Townshend “Let My Love Open The Door”
While several songs could have been compelling candidates for inclusion on a new Who album — “And I Moved,” “Empty Glass,” “Gonna Get Ya,” “A Little Is Enough,” and “I Am an Animal” would have been fine fits for Daltrey’s vocals — Townshend surrounded himself with an able support cast. Producer Chris Thomas, best known for his work with the Pretenders, Procol Harum, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Pink Floyd, helped manage his client’s blend of pomp and poignancy, while four different drummers — recent Who recruit Kenney Jones, all-star session man Simon Phillips, Big Country’s Mark Brezicki and James Asher — as well as the Who’s erstwhile keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, Medicine Head’s Peter Hope-Evans on harp, and another Big Country stalwart, bassist Tony Butler provided the instrumental underpinnings. Townshend once claimed he wanted Todd Rundgren to oversee the proceedings, but changed his mind, fearing Rundgren’s abilities as a singer and guitarist would steal the album’s focus.
Regardless, Empty Glass still ranks as the best individual effort of Townshend’s career and a worthy companion piece to his Who resume. In this case, the glass was more than half full.