Friday, June 11, 2010

Pete Townsend v. Eric Clapton – Songwriters Match Up #7

After a one week hiatus, I'm back with the latest songwriter match up between two classic rock guitar gods – Pete Townsend v. Eric Clapton. Who will come out on top as the best songwriter? This weeks match up will differ from my earlier match ups in that I am changing the way I award points for each section – from now on the point total will be split among the two contestants instead of the way I have been awarding points where the winner takes all. I think that this will help make the scoring a little more accurate.

Lyrics (Ten Points)

Both Clapton and Townsend wrote great lyrics, and their works include some of the most memorable rock music ever written. But Pete Townsend, as the dominant creative force of The Who was more of a trailblazer – his best songs were right in step with the turbulent times in which they were written – the sixties and seventies, a time of heightened generational tensions. Rebellious youth embraced the energy and driving force of songs such as Substitute, My Generation, The Kids Are Alright as well as the ground breaking rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia. Eric Clapton's songs are written from more of a personal perspective, often that of the tortured artist and lover such as Layla (written about George Harrison's wife Patty Boyd who at the time spurned his advances). Clapton was not the primary lyricist of many of the great bands to which he had belonged (and there were many great bands – The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith just to name a few). It took several years for Clapton to move from being guitarist to solo artist and songwriter. He didn't really contribute lyrics as a member of The Yardbirds and Jack Bruce and Peter Brown collaborated to write the lyrics for most of Cream's biggest hits (with the notable exception of Badge written by Clapton and Beatle George Harrison). It wasn't until his work with Derek and the Dominoes that Clapton really started to make his mark as a lyricist with classic rock hits such as Layla and Bell Bottom Blues. Clapton's work is heavily influenced by the blues. Townsend's songs drew from a wider variety of sources. I'm going to award this category to Pete Townsend – although his lyrics were more Pop in general than Clapton's, they are generally more imaginative. Pete Townsend gets the nod – 6 points to 4 points for Eric Clapton.

Composition (Ten Points)

This category definitely belongs to Pete Townsend. His studio work on albums such as Quadrophenia and Tommy is inspiring and more complex than any of Clapton's work that I know of. Then there is the innovative use of the synthesizer on Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Reilly. While overall Clapton may arguably rank above Townsend as a guitarist, his songwriting sensibilities were less groundbreaking and more traditional. Pete Townsend is again the winner, 8 points to 2 points for Eric Clapton.

Originality (Five Points)

Eric Clapton was much more of a traditional blues disciple than Pete Townsend (one of the reasons he left The Yardbirds was because he felt they were getting further and further from their blues roots). His songs were usaully about fairly common topics such as unrequited love and love gone wrong. In more recent years he has broadened his depth as a songwriter with hits such as Tears in Heaven about the tragic accidental death of his son. Pete Townsend was capable of truly weird songs – the whole Pinball Wizard story and earlier songs such as I'm a Boy about a boy trying to retain his sexual identity despite the efforts of a perverse parent who dresses him as a girl are testament to this. I have to go with Pete Townsend here again 3 points to Clapton's 2 points.

Influence (Five Points)

While both Townsend and Clapton were hugely influential, I think that Eric Clapton as a member of several of classic rocks greatest bands as well as a highly successful solo career should be awarded this category. When you think of classic rock guitar sound who comes to mind? Surely Clapton and Hendrix would have to be at the top of the list. As part of Cream, Clapton took improvised extended jams to the extreme, influencing a number of progressive rock and jam bands that would follow. Townsend's biggest influence I believe was the rock opera concept. I think Clapton gets the nod here by a narrow margin – 3 points Clapton, 2 points Pete Townsend.

Durability (Five Points)

It seems as though Eric Clapton has been more successful commercially in more recent years – Pete Townsend's battle with Tinnitus may by partially to blame for a reduced amount of artistic output over time. This lessens the chance that Eric Clapton's work as a whole gets too stale or sounds too dated. Both of these guys will continue to attract new fans for decades because they are both so good. By a narrow margin I am awarding this category to Eric Clapton – 3 points Clapton, 2 points Pete Townsend.

Conclusion – this week's winner is Pete Townsend by a margin of 21 points to 10 points. It is quite an accomplishment to defeat GOD!

1 comment:


    Although entirely different in style, I liken Townshend's songwriting technique to that of none other than Lenny Kravitz. These two guys tend to "build" songs in a practical manner, constructing it from a mindscape of ideas and feelings. Clapton is more of a gardener or a painter, nurturing his music into bloom, gradually having it grow to encompass what he envisioned. Clapton is an idealist. This is evident in the way that so many of his classics sound even better now than they did when he played them 30 or 40 years ago! Like fine wine it has all improved with age. But this is not to say that Pete Townshend's music is not built to last. Townshend systematically builds his sound while Clapton is more of an impressionist who is trying perfect ideas which he conceived long ago. After a few years a whole new facet to one of his songs may become visible when played live. I think of Townshend's music as magnificent castle which takes decades to build...and then stands unscathed for centuries. In the case of Townshend vs Clapton there is also the element of idea vs feeling. Clapton reminds of the blind bluesman who has learned to play with more feeling as a result of having his vision and his ideas darkened. What remains is pure soul. Pete Townshend's music however is full of vision. It's not to say he lacks soul, but a Townshend tune is born of a vision more than a feeling. Of course visions invoke feelings, and feelings inpire visions. So this is just a contrast. Clapton doesn't deal with deep concepts so much in his music, he just deals with traditional human situations and simple yet powerful feelings. Townshend is one to take a look at the bigger picture, at things like society and psychology...and some of his music is also very personal. But Pete's music tends to look out while Clapton's tends to look in.


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