‘Baba O’Riley’, the iconic opener for The Who’s 1971 album, Who’s Next, has become one of the band’s most instantly recognisable hits. Needless to say, the song reaps its unique identity through the futuristic rolling ostinato that leads into the tumbling drums in the introduction and underpins the music throughout.
These repeated notes were originally recorded by Pete Townshend on a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ at his home studio. The intention was to create “a replication of the electronic music of the future.” In this, he succeeded, and he didn’t even need a synthesiser to create the sound.
Townshend initially tried to run the arpeggios through an ARP synthesiser/sequencer but didn’t manage to get the sound he was seeking. Ultimately, he managed to achieve the ‘Baba O’Riley’ sound by using the “marimba repeat” setting on his Lowrey organ to create the arpeggiated repeating pattern.
The lyrics of the song don’t contain or connote anything to do with Baba O’Riley. In fact, the song is often unofficially referred to as ‘Teenage Wasteland’. The ‘Baba O’Riley’ name is actually in reference to Townshend’s repeated organ arpeggio.
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The lyrics were taken from an earlier idea the band had been working on. Townshend once commented on the “Wasteland” part of the unofficial titular phrase: “A self-sufficient drop-out family group farming in a remote part of Scotland decide to return South to investigate rumours 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” part, 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 expensive 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.”
This lyrical concept was merged with the “Baba O’Riley” organ section, which attained its name through the two people who inspired the idea of the futuristic-sounding instrumental section, Meher Baba and Terry Riley. For The Who’s (still unfinished) rock-opera follow-up to 1969’s Tommy, the band were experimenting with some novel ideas. This follow-up was to be called Lifehouse.
“For the Lifehouse series of electronic music experiments which involved trying to use statistical information about people to make random music,” Townshend once explained. “You put your height and weight and astrological details, the colour of your skin and length of your hair, and [away] you go and you get a piece of music out the back… I thought I would start with an experiment based on the statistics of my Indian Master at the time, Meher Baba. When I finished I was amazed to hear that the end results sounded very much like a piece by a guy called Terry Riley, who I was very into at the time. So I called it Baba O’Riley.”
It wasn’t the programmed sound of Meher Baba’s profile that ended up on the finished track, but the melody spawned the idea that would eventually become Townshend’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ ostinato.