Behind the Meaning of the Song “Baba O’Riley” by The Who

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“Baba O’Riley” is one of the strangest songs to become a big hit.

With its odd title and strange opening, the track, which many believe is named “Teenage Wasteland” has nevertheless overcome any obstacles to become one of the most well-known songs today. (The track even got a whole episode dedicated to it by the comedian Joe Pera.)

But let’s dive deep into why this song has become so beloved, where it came from and how The Who came to love their creation.

The Who

The English rock band was formed in London in 1964. The band’s classic core lineup included singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist and singer Pete Townshend, bass guitarist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. (Both Moon and Entwistle have since passed away).

Today, the band is considered one of the most influential in rock history and was part of the movement in the ’60s and ’70s known as the British Invasion, which included other bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and more. In total, The Who has sold more than 100 million records worldwide.

Origins of “Baba O’Riley”

Putting on the song, one wonders if the band just fell in love with some new technology that produced the opening sounds. Some rudimentary computer program or synth. Regardless, the opening has provided a great deal of fun with new listeners trying to figure out what exactly that sound is and when, exactly, the rest of the band will come in with drums, the big piano chords, and Daltrey’s raspy voice.

The track first appeared as the opening track to The Who’s studio album, Who’s Next. The song was released as a single in Europe on October 23, 1971. Daltrey sings the verse while Townshend sings the middle section: Don’t cry / don’t raise your eye / it’s only teenage wasteland. And musician Dave Arbus plays the violin solo.

“Teenage Wasteland”

This—it may come as a surprise—is not the name of the track, despite the fact that the band sings the words “Teenage Wasteland” many times and the words “Baba O’Riley” no times. Poetic license, right? However, at one point “Teenage Wasteland” was the working title of the song in its nascent stages. (Later Townshend released his own song named “Teenage Wasteland,” which is slower and features different lyrics.)

“Baby O’Riley”

The actual title of the song is a result of two major inspirations of Townshend: Meher Baba (an Iranian spiritual master) and Terry Riley (an American composer).

Lifehouse Rock Opera

The song was originally written by Townshend for his Lifehouse project, which was a rock opera meant as the follow-up to The Who’s seminal concept album, Tommy. In Lifehouse, a Scottish farmer would have sung the track at the beginning as he gathered his wife and two children to begin their trip to London. But when the idea was scrapped, eight of the songs were kept and used for the 1971 album by the band, Who’s Next. “Baba O’Riley” lead off the LP.

According to Townshend, after the band played their 1969 concert, the field was covered in trash from fans, which inspired the line: teenage wasteland. In an interview, the singer also said the song was inspired by “the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where audience members were strung out on acid and 20 people had brain damage. The irony was that some listeners took the song to be a teenage celebration.”

Opening Synths

The repeating notes at the beginning of the track (known as Ostinato) came as a result of the Lifehouse concept in which Townshend wanted to input the vital signs and personality of Meher Baba into a synth that would then generate music based on that data.

When that idea fell through, however, the songwriter instead recorded a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ using its marimba repeat feature to generate the sounds. This modal approach was inspired by the work of the minimalist composer Terry Riley.

Originally, Townshend created a nine-minute demo, which the band then reconstructed. The song at its outset was a staggering 30 minutes long but was later edited down to the “high points.” Later, the other original parts of the song appeared on the third disc of Townshend’s Lifehouse Chronicles as “Baba M1 (O’Riley 1st Movement 1971)” and “Baba M2 (2nd Movement Part 1 1971).”

The Violin

Dave Arbus, who was in the band East of Eden, was recording next door in the same studio as The Who and was invited by Keith Moon to play a violin solo during the song’s outro. In subsequent live performances, the part is played by Roger Daltrey on harmonica.

“Baba O’Riley” In Pop Culture

The song is often covered by the Seattle-born grunge band Pearl Jam in concert. And as mentioned above, the song was highlighted in an entire episode of comedian Joe Pera’s Adult Swim show. Of course, the track has also been used in a number of television episodes, video games, and films, including Miami Vice, That ’70s Show, and many more. The song has also been used for player introductions for the Los Angeles Lakers during their home games in L.A. To continue the sports connection, “Baba O’Riley” was used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics.

One Direction Controversy

Music fans have pointed out that the 2013 track “Best Song Ever” by One Direction bears a strong resemblance to the structure of “Baba O’Riley.” Townshend even responded to the claims, noting that The Who was not going to pursue legal action. He added that he is a fan of the One Direction song and was happy the band was influenced by The Who.

Lyrics

Many have noted that the lyrics for the song are incredible. Their concise storytelling and epic quality of them have allowed the song to shine for decades. The song begins:

Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living
I don’t need to fight
To prove I’m right
I don’t need to be forgiven
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah


Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland

So much is said in such little time and the result is a rousing, heart-pounding feeling.

The lyrics, though, are short, with only two more verses included. Much of the song is taken up by the violin solo at the end. But perhaps that’s the mark of a great track: no need to linger too much on any one aspect because each section is brilliant.

Photo by RB/Redferns

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