‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is one of the most iconic moments in the entirety of The Who’s back catalogue. Featuring the arpeggiated acoustic guitar at the beginning, the introspective lyrics, dovetailing vocals and the raucous end as the band kick in, the song is a classic that needs no real introduction. Taken from the band’s 1971 masterpiece Who’s Next, the track made such a dent in popular culture that even V-necked bro-metallers Limp Bizkit covered it for 2003’s Gothika.
The chorus lyrics are some of the most affecting that Pete Townshend ever penned, as he dials in: “But my dreams they aren’t this empty / As my conscience seems to be / I have hours, only lonely / My love is vengeance / That’s never free”. Given that the song’s emotional undercurrent is so tangible, it comes as no surprise that it has a backstory.
The song originated after a Who show in Denver, Colorado, on June 9th, 1970. The story goes that after the performance, Townshend was tempted by the advances of a groupie. However, he instead opted not to pursue the sexual dalliance and returned to his room alone. It has been claimed that the decision stemmed from the influence and teaching of his spiritual leader, Meher Baba. Famously, Baba inspired the title of the hit single from Who’s Next, ‘Baba O’ Riley’.
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During this period of the band, Townshend is noted for his unwavering and somewhat ridiculous dedication to the teachings of Baba. When he returned to his room, he began writing a prayer, and the first words were: “When my fist clenches, crack it open”. Of course, these are the first words sang when the “climactic rocking section” kicks in towards the end of the track.
It wasn’t just spiritual teachings that influenced the song’s creation, however. The rest of the material was crafted to be released as part of Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse project in what was a multi-media space opera intended as a follow up to Tommy. However, it was swiftly aborted due to logistics but ended up playing a significant role in forming the basis of Who’s Next.
The song’s autobiographical nature stems from the way that Townshend wrote it from the perspective of the project’s antagonist, Jumbo. The lyrics are styled in the form of a lament from Jumbo, who’s angry because of the pressures and temptation that consume his existence. If the project came to fruition, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ was to be Jumbo’s theme song.
Townshend said: “‘Behind Blue Eyes’ really is off the wall because that was a song sung by the villain of the piece (Jumbo), the fact that he felt in the original story that he was forced into a position of being a villain whereas he felt he was a good guy.”
In reality, there are many parallels to be drawn between Townshend’s existence at the time and those of the fictional Jumbo. All the discussion of temptations, and the frustration stemming from them, sounds mightily like what is inferred that Townshend was feeling after returning to his hotel room.
Either way, it’s a marvellous song, and the power of Roger Daltrey‘s voice brings to life these frustrations and makes the lyrics have a universal appeal, a genius piece of songwriting.
Listen to ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ below.