Pete Townshend took a chance with this song and the album. Back in1971 when you used any new synthesizer or electronic sounds you ran the risk of sounding dated very quickly as new devices were coming out regularly.
Townshend played a Lowrey TBO-1 organ at his home studio. He tried to run it through an ARP synthesizer/sequencer, but couldn’t get the sound he was looking for. Instead, he used the “marimba repeat” setting on his Lowrey to create an arpeggiated, complex repeating pattern. The album sounds fresh today.
The song was on Who’s Next…arguably the most successful album of the Who’s career. There is not a weak song on the album. The difference in the sound of the album compared to Tommy is phenomenal. This album has a sonic quality that not many albums have.
The album was released on August 14, 1971.
The first part of the title comes from Meher Baba, who was Pete Townshend’s spiritual guru. The second part comes from Terry Riley, an experimental, minimalist composer Townshend admired – many of the keyboard riffs and sound effects on Who’s Next were a result of Riley’s influence. According to the Who’s Next liner notes, Townshend wrote it as his vision of what would happen if the spirit of Meher Baba was fed into a computer and transformed into music. The result would be Baba in the style of Terry Riley, or “Baba O’Riley.”
The title is not mentioned in the lyrics, so the song is often referred to as “Teenage Wasteland.” The “Teenage Wasteland” section was a completely different song Townshend combined with his “Baba O’Riley” idea to form the song.
Pete Townshend spent a few weeks in his home studio putting together the part that sounds like a synthesizer on a Lowry organ. His goal: to create “a replication of the electronic music of the future.”
When he took the tape of his recording to engineer Glyn Johns, he expected Johns to alter it, but Johns left it as is, insisting it was perfect.
This is the first song on Who’s Next, the most successful album of The Who’s career. Although this is one of the most popular Who songs, it was never released as a single in America or the UK. It was, however, the perfect song for the up-and-coming Album Oriented Rock (AOR) format that was picking up steam on FM radio. Always played in moderation, “Baba” became a Classic Rock staple and remains on many playlists.
When The Who perform this live, the processed organ is played from a recording, since it would be nearly impossible to replicate on an instrument. The guitar doesn’t come in until 1:40, giving Pete Townshend some time to reflect on his work. “There is this moment of standing there just listening to this music and looking out to the audience and just thinking, ‘I f–king did that. I wrote that,” he told Rolling Stone. “I just hope that on my deathbed I don’t embarrass myself by asking someone, ‘Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of ‘Baba O’Riley’? I just want to do it one more time.”
This marked one of the first times a keyboard/synthesizer was used to form the rhythm of a rock song, rather than employing it as a lead instrument.
Regarding the phrase “Teenage Wasteland”:
Lifehouse is set in a time where most of England is a polluted wasteland. Townshend described it as: “A self-sufficient drop-out family group farming in a remote part of Scotland decide to return South to investigate rumors of a subversive concert event that promises to shake and wake up apathetic, fearful British society. Ray is married to Sally, they hope to link up with their daughter Mary who has run away from home to attend the concert. They travel through the scarred wasteland of middle England in a motor caravan, running an air conditioner they hope will protect them from pollution.”
As for the “teenage” bit, Townshend said: “There are regular people, but they’re the scum off the surface; there’s a few farmers there, that’s where the thing from ‘Baba O’Riley’ comes in. It’s mainly young people who are either farmer’s kids whose parents can’t afford to buy them experience suits; then there’s just scum, like these two geezers who ride around in a battered-up old Cadillac limousine and they play old Who records on the tape deck… I call them Track fans.” So basically, teenagers traveling across the wasteland to attend this concert.
The famous violin part was performed by Dave Arbus of the group East of Eden, who created what many consider the first Celtic Rock song with Jig a Jig.
According to Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, this violin jig at the end was drummer Keith Moon’s idea. In concert, Roger Daltrey would play the jig on harmonica.
This began as part of Townshend’s “Lifehouse” project, which is a film script he wrote. The playscript was published in 1999 by Pocket Books, Great Britain. In the screenplay of “Lifehouse,” Townshend wrote about the composer (Bobby) setting up the concert: “An experiment Bobby conducts in which each participant [in the concert] is both blueprint and inspiration for a unique piece of music or song which will feature largely in the first event to be hacked onto the grid.”
Townshend subsequently decided to actually pursue this, which he did through lifehouse-method.com.
Townshend was never able to convince anyone to do the Lifehouse film, and he more or less gave up on that – but he never gave up on having it produced. He revised the script to be more relevant to the world of the Internet (which had caught up with his 1971 concept of a global grid), and to incorporate thoughts and insights he’d had in the ensuing 25+ years, and it was performed on BBC3 on December 5, 1999.
The final version of the song runs 5:01, but Townshend’s instrumental synthesizer demo of the song was a healthy 9:48. This demo was released in 1972 on a Meher Baba tribute album called I Am.
In an interview with Billboard magazine carried out in February 2010, Townshend discussed how he feels now that 40 years on this and other Who songs take on a deeper meaning. He explained that when he wrote the band’s classic tunes, “The music there was about living in the present and losing yourself in the moment. Now that has changed. Boomers kind of hang on to that as a memory.When I go back and listen to those songs, the Who songs in particular of the late ’60s and early 70s, there was an aspiration in my writing to attune to the fact that what I could feel in he audience was – I won’t say religious – but there was certainly a spiritual component to what people wanted their music to contain. There’s definitely a higher call for the music now which is almost religious. U2, for example, are hugely successful with songs about inner longing for freedom, ideas.
A song like ‘Baba O’Riley,’ with ‘we’re all wasted,’ it just meant ‘we’re all wasted’ – it didn’t have the significance that it now has. What we fear is that in actual fact we have wasted an opportunity. I think I speak for my audience when I say that, I hope I do.”
This is the theme song for the TV show CSI: NY, which launched in 2004, the third in the CSI franchise. Every CSI uses a theme song by The Who: for the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation it’s “Who Are You,” CSI: Miami uses “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and for CSI: Cyber it’s “I Can See For Miles.”
This was used in commercials for the 2000 Nissan Pathfinder, and also appeared in ads for Cisco. The Who lost a lot of money on bad business deals in their early years and decided to cash in when they were offered big bucks for commercials.
This quickly became a concert favorite for The Who. Live versions of this song can be found on the albums The Kids Are Alright (1978), Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (1979), Who’s Last (1982), The Blues To The Bush (1999) and The Who & Special Guests Live at the Royal Albert Hall video (2000).
Black Francis of the Pixies finds this song rather intriguing. He broke it down in an interview with Songfacts. “It’s not just straight up verse/chorus/verse/chorus,” Francis said. “I was always impressed by that song, the way that it changes, the way the end of the song sort of becomes the chorus by eliminating one of the chords. It removes the minor chord, and it’s an outro, I guess, but it feels like, Oh, here we are in the chorus again, even though it’s not again – it’s totally different than anything that came before it. So I really like that song. Songs like that I tend to deconstruct a little bit and try to understand what it is that I’m hearing.”
In 2007, the song was covered by The Blue Man Group for the TV show America’s Got Talent. Since then, it has become a staple at Blue Man Group shows.
While Townsend’s keyboard playing is legendary and brilliant, it’s not quite what it seems. When the song was recorded, the band’s newly purchased Lowry organ came with a very special feature: a pedal that, when pressed, would repeat each note played three times in succession. (Source: interstitial on 97.1FM The Mountain, Denver, Colorado – thanks, S.D. – Denver, CO)
Spike Lee used this in his 1999 movie Summer of Sam, and a fully orchestrated version was used at the beginning of the 2002 movie Slackers. Other movies to use the song include:
Far Out (2015)
Slash 3 (2015)
Premium Rush (2012)
The Girl Next Door (2004)
Fever Pitch (1997)
Love in Maid (1975)
It has been used in these TV series:
Stranger Things (“Chapter One: Suzie, Do You Copy?” – 2019)
Family Guy (“Quagmire’s Mom” – 2015)
The Good Guys (“Vacation” – 2010)
My Name Is Earl (“The Trial” – 2007)
One Tree Hill (“Pictures of You” – 2007)
House (“Control” – 2005)
King of the Hill (“Tankin’ It to the Streets” – 2002)
Miami Vice (“Out Where the Buses Don’t Run” – 1985)
This song was used for Part 3 of the VH1 special The Drug Years about drug use in the 1970s. It showed how drugs went from a religious experience in the ’60s to just getting “Wasted” in the ’70s.
This was used at the end of the trailer for the film The Girl Next Door. The movie encompasses some of the dramas of teenage life.
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
Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland
Sally take my hand
We’ll travel south cross land
Put out the fire
And don’t look past my shoulder
The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let’s get together, before we get much older
It’s only teenage wasteland
Oh yeah, teenage wasteland
They’re all wasted!