Baba O’Riley is one of those great oldies most people know but often call it by a different name.
It’s one of the most popular songs from the early 1970s. And one that has an anthem-style sound to it.
But who is Baba O’Riley? And why is the name never actually mentioned in the song?
Let’s take a look to find out the meaning behind this epic classic hit!
Who Originally Wrote and Recorded Baba O’Riley?
The electrifying guitar player from The Who, Pete Townshend, wrote Baba O’Riley. He also happened to be the band’s primary songwriter.
Born in London on May 19, 1945, Townshend seemed destined to play music. Both his mother and father were professional musicians. His dad, Cliff, played the saxophone in the Royal Air Force’s dance band. His mom, Betty, was a singer in the local orchestra.
Townshend’s parents temporarily separated when he was a toddler, and he spent two years with his maternal grandmother. When his parents got back together, Pete went to live with them again.
When he was 11 years old, Townshend was introduced to rock and roll through the 1956 movie Rock Around the Clock. That same year, his grandmother gave him his first guitar.
Pete’s dad taught him a few chords, but he essentially taught himself how to play music by ear. He never learned how to read music.
Pete Townshend attended Acton County Grammar School, where he became friends with future Who bassist John Entwistle. The two boys formed a jazz band called The Confederates. Pete played banjo, and John played horns.
Making a Detour
After playing only one gig, they realized they preferred rock and roll. Neither banjo nor horns were suitable for rock music, at least at the time. So Pete began playing guitar while John picked up the bass.
Another Acton student, Roger Daltry, had his own band called The Detours. He asked Entwistle to join, and six months later, asked Townshend to join as well. When the band needed a drummer, Keith Moon joined them.
In 1964, the young men discovered another band known as The Detours and decided to change their name. From then on, they were known as The Who.
Pete Townshend’s songwriting ability matched his incredible guitar playing. He composed powerhouse songs such as My Generation and I Can See For Miles.
Pete also was known for his very wild stage performances. Running and jumping across the stage was a regular occurrence, and his “windmill” guitar playing became his trademark. It was also not uncommon for Townshend to completely smash his guitar at the show’s end.
Reportedly, Townshend smashed 35 guitars in just 1967 alone. He began breaking them in 1964 and continued the tradition into the late 60s. However, as it turns out, Pete glued these broken guitars back together, so they weren’t all brand new guitars! As long as the necks remained intact, he could reconstruct the body.
So, Who is Baba O’Riley?
Two very influential people in Pete Townshend’s life – Meher Baba and Terry Riley – were the inspirations for the name Baba O’Riley. Baba was a well-known Indian spiritual leader who Townshend considered a guru. Riley was a musician who Pete greatly admired. He also influenced the composition of the song Baba O’Riley.
What Does the Song Mean by Teenage Wasteland?
Townshend wrote Baba O’Riley as part of Lifehouse, a follow-up project to The Who’s album and rock opera Tommy. Pete wrote the script and songs for Lifehouse.
The plot centered around a Scottish farmer, his wife, and their children making their way to London for a concert. The event was rumored to be a wake-up call to the apathetic British society.
Most of the Lifehouse songs were much longer than record companies wanted for studio albums. Baba O’Riley clocked in around 30 minutes! When Lifehouse didn’t get off the ground, The Who revised and shortened the tracks and included them on their 1971 album Who’s Next.
Baba O’Riley is often called Teenage Wasteland due to the repeated phrase in the chorus. Townshend mentioned in an interview the term “teenage wasteland” came about after seeing trash strewn all over the land after their 1969 Isle of Wight Festival set.
Townshend also said the iconic Woodstock Festival inspired him as well. In a 2019 interview, he recalled, “the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where audience members were strung out on acid, and 20 people had brain damage.”
The Who never released Baba O’Riley as a single in the United States or the United Kingdom. It only became known as a track on the band’s studio album Who’s Next. Baba O’Riley became one of The Who’s biggest hits and one of rock history’s all-time best songs.
What Popular Covers Are There of Baba O’Riley?
Many bands have covered Baba O’Riley over the years. Grunge-rock band, Pearl Jam, performed a rousing version of the song in 2003 at a Madison Square Garden concert in New York City.
For a truly unique interpretation of Baba O’Riley, check out the Blue Man Group performing the song live in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Other notables such as Green Day, Dropkick Murphys, Nirvana, and Guided By Voices have all taken the opportunity to cover Baba O’Riley in their own style.
Fan Favorite No Matter the Meaning
Pete Townshend and The Who provided us with many great hits over the years. But this one seems to stand out as a favorite for many music fans, whether they understand the meaning behind the song or not. Did you know the story of Baba O’Riley before today? What did you think it was about?
Monday 14th of February 2022
I'm not the biggest The Who fan, but respect their abilities. It was interesting to hear the story behind this song!