Crossing things off the list is the easy part. Deciding what this Who classic is about is more complicated. By 1971, when Pete Townshend wrote this song, he was no longer satisfied with power chords and clever stuttering. Against his wishes, he had grown older, and his sense of the cosmos had grown more complex. Some avant-garde musical concepts had even wormed their way into his old school rock and roll.
The result was "Baba O'Riley," written as the opening piece for his never-completed rock opera Lifehouse. (Townshend was no stranger to rock opera, and he intended Lifehouse to follow his previous project, Tommy.) Since Lifehouse was never brought to the stage, all we have in "Baba O'Riley" is a beginning without a clear middle or end. Nevertheless, we'll do our best to make sense of this song, starting with what there is to know about the rock opera it was meant to introduce.
Although the details of the plot changed over the course of its crafting, Townshend's basic ideas remained the same. At point in the future, humanity is reduced to an unreal existence. Controlled by a tyrannical government and forced indoors by deadly pollution, people have lost touch with nature, God, and themselves. Their "reality" is a spoon-fed illusion; encased in "experience suits," they are fed "life" (food, relaxation, entertainment, etc.) through intravenous tubes. Lo and behold, a visionary arises who remembers the liberating power of rock and roll. He builds the Lifehouse, where people can be freed from their artificial lives through music, and he calls people to this lifesaving building over pirated airwaves. A farm girl hears the message and sets off on a pilgrimage to the Lifehouse. Her parents, Ray and Sally, leave their farm to find her.
Now you should be able to see why "Baba O'Riley" was supposed to come at the beginning. "Sally, take my hand / We'll travel south cross land" is Ray's voice, asking his wife to come with him and look for their daughter.
At this point, you're probably wondering who Baba O'Riley is. This is where the story gets more complicated, and where the evolution of Townshend's personal beliefs over the years becomes more important.
The road to "Baba O'Riley" started in 1967 when Townshend was introduced to the writings of Meher Baba. This self-proclaimed avatar, or incarnation of God, was born in 1894 in central India. He experienced a religious awakening at age nineteen when he was kissed on the head by a holy woman. After that, he studied with other spiritual masters and cultivated the mystical experiences that would lead him closer to holiness. By the age of 30 he had built a following. Then he took a vow of silence that he kept until his death in 1969.
At the heart of Baba's teaching was the idea that "reality" was actually an illusion, just a bundle of erroneous beliefs and perceptions formed by weak and unholy minds. The goal was to see through this false reality and discover truth, or the "oneness of God." Toward this ultimate objective all beings passed through a series of stages, from stones to vegetables, to worms and fish, and so on, before becoming human. In this final state, they acquired the ability to recognize their sameness with God.
Townshend was immediately captivated by these ideas. Always something of a seeker, he had been previously obsessed with the flying saucers he saw frequently in the Florida skies, certain that they held the key to the world's future. After learning more about Baba, he tore up his flying saucer magazines and declared the Indian mystic "absolutely it . . . the one" (Townshend, "In Love with Meher Baba," Rolling Stone, 26 November 1970, 25).
There was no doubting Townshend's sincerity or commitment. His embrace of Meher Baba was enduring (he still counts himself as a follower) and it was transforming. Baba had written that "what I want from my lovers is real unadulterated love, and from my genuine workers I expect real work done" (Rolling Stone, 26 November 1970, 25). Townshend took this to heart and began to integrate Baba's teachings into his music. At times, the new Townshend sounded more like a cliché peddler than one of music's most creative voices. He claimed to be "stoned all the time" on a "natural high." Especially when talking about Baba, he could sound downright spooky—"a mere twitch of his nose could split the planet, a twiddle of his finger could save your life." At others, he sounded like the followers of many religions—"the shortest route to God realization is by surrendering one's heart and love to the master" (Rolling Stone, 26 November 1970, 25).
You may have noticed we've only gotten to the "Baba" in "Baba O'Riley." That's because Baba was not the only Eastern spiritualist to influence Townshend during these years. He was also drawn to the writings of Inayat Khan. (There's no "Inayat" or "Khan" in the song name, but maybe you can think of him as the "O" in O'Riley.) Khan suggested that the universe was inherently harmonious—so too were individuals. But all things could be thrown out of whack, and "inharmonious chords" could take over our existence. Harmony could be restored, and one tool for doing so was music. Music, according to Khan, was "a miniature of the harmony of the universe." And therefore, music helped "to train ourselves in harmony."
Khan's concept squared with Townshend's own experience. He had witnessed, he said, thousands of strangers lose themselves in the music at a concert. Their individual idiosyncrasies were lost as they become part of a single, harmonious mass. And therefore he coupled Khan's theories to those of Meher Baba in crafting Lifehouse, his most ambitious project to date. Even though it was never completed, it's easy to see where Townshend was going with the concept. At the Lifehouse, the experience-starved pilgrims would find not only "reality," but harmony. In music they would discover the deeper commonalities between them and their even deeper commonalities with "god."
Townshend intended to illustrate this ultimate epiphany by incorporating the ideas of yet another influential figure, and here's where the "Riley" comes in. Terry Riley was a minimalist composer and musician who made a splash during the 1960s with ideas about multi-layered, amelodic compositions. He was among the first to use tape loops and delay systems to explore the musical possibilities lying within repeated, overlapping, and interlocking musical patterns. His most influential piece was simply titled In C and consisted of 53 separate patterns, repeated and woven together into a harmonious whole.
Riley developed his patterns by working from a single note or chord, but Townshend theorized that these patterns could be drawn from a different source. By feeding an individual's biographical information into a computer driven synthesizer, he argued, a musical portrait of that individual would be created. Individual portraits would vary; they would reflect the idiosyncratic personality traits of individuals. Linking Baba and Khan to Riley, Townshend believed that when these individual musical portraits were played simultaneously, the separate patterns would overlap and interlock, producing a harmonious whole—one giant chord capturing the harmony of the universe and humankind's unity with one another and God.
In Townshend's most ambitious moments he envisioned live concerts that would mimic the Lifehouse storyline. Individuals would be invited onstage where their vitals would be fed into a synthesizer. Once a series had been collected, they could be played producing a harmonious group portrait. This proved too difficult to actually produce, but Townshend did incorporate the basic concept into "Baba O'Riley." With an organ, he simulated a biography-fed synthesizer; the repetitive electronic music that opens the song is meant to be the sort of musical portrait he hoped eventually to turn into mass harmonic webs. Running through the song, underneath the other instruments and vocals, this organ track imitates the sort of musical pattern Townshend drew from his study of Riley. In fact, the track sounds a great deal like one of Riley's compositions, "A Rainbow in Curved Air."
"Baba O'Riley" is a theoretically dense piece of music, and the larger Lifehouse project proved too theoretically dense to bring to life. Individual songs from the rock opera were sprinkled on The Who's next several albums and Townshend's first solo album. In 2000, Townshend released a box set titled the Lifehouse Chronicles that includes early demos of the music and a 1999 BBC radio enactment of the story.
The opening song "Baba O'Riley" remains the most memorable and widely recognized legacy of the project. It's on Rolling Stone's list of greatest songs and it's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's been frequently covered, and used in several movies and television shows. Many of the song's fans don't understand it or its history—but they could if they would just look closely at the title.