How Pete Townshend’s ‘Iron Man’ Musical Led to Another Who Reunion
Pete Townshend was pushing back against those who criticize grandiosity as his musical The Iron Man arrived on June 27, 1989.
“I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea of pretentiousness,” he told the Associated Press. "It seems to me that’s what art most aggressively is about."
Inspiration for this latest project came in the '80s when Townshend was working as an editor at the publishing house Faber and Faber. He became acquainted with British poet laureate Ted Hughes, who wrote The Iron Man. Townshend had been entranced with the teen novel since the mid-‘70s.
The story focuses on a giant made entirely of iron that appears in a bucolic English town, where he eats farm equipment, angers the townsfolk, becomes friends with a young boy and battles a space dragon. But it also tackled very complex themes to which Townshend was attracted.
“Ted’s book connected with me at many levels," Townshend said in his book, Who I Am. "It was a post-war book, attending to the futility of the nuclear age: when a single bomb can wipe out an entire country. [...] By putting a young boy at the center of his tale, I was always working with the system I knew best: The problems of growing into manhood at such a time.”
After meeting Hughes, and expressing his interest in developing his story into a musical, Townshend started roughing out lyrics and music for "I Eat Heavy Metal," "A Friend Is a Friend," "Over the Top," and even "Fake It" – which would end up on his 1993 solo album, Psychoderelict.
News that Townshend was working on a musical resurrected hopes that the Who might reform. Townshend knew better, though: “The music I’d composed so far was definitely not suitable for the Who, and I knew Roger [Daltrey] would hate it.”
Townshend mostly stuck to his original idea of having a variety of voices during these sessions, ignoring suggestions of the band’s manager Bill Curbishley. His old band only regrouped to record a cover of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's “Fire” and an original called “Dig,” the most Who-like song on the record with vocal phrasing that fit with Daltrey’s singing style.
Also, in a bit of casting genius, John Lee Hooker was the voice of the Iron Man, deftly handling lyrics like: “I eat heavy metal and gargle premium gas / I drink heavy water and nitro-demitasse / I eat heavy metal and chew up a limousine / I munch barbed wire in my submarine.”
Listen to Pete Townshend's 'A Friend Is a Friend'
The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend arrived at record stores on June 27, 1989. Despite all the work that went into the project, however, some critics were unimpressed with Townshend’s foray into a Broadway-like musical.
Townshend ended up acquiescing to promoters who hoped to put together a commemorative tour around the Who's 25th anniversary. The Iron Man ended up getting lost along the way. Both “A Friend Is a Friend” and “I Won’t Run Anymore” failed to chart in the U.K. and the U.S., and the album suffered the same fate.
“I approach the year with mixed feelings," Townshend wrote in a journal entry from December 1989. "I let Iron Man sink so I could do the Who tour. But the tour was a triumph in many ways.”
In time, his financial house became more secure; Townshend also chalked up the added success of the Broadway version of Tommy. That led him back to The Iron Man, which finally debuted in 1993 at the Young Vic Theatre in London.
Unfortunately, the musical version garnered generally savage reviews, despite a good amount of popular interest in the musical. That box-office success nevertheless piqued the interest of Hollywood and, in 1999, the story was made into a film. Townshend ended up serving as an executive producer on The Iron Giant.
While the album followed a tradition of big ideas surrounding the transformative power of music, he later admitted that the songs on The Iron Man: The Musical by Pete Townshend could have used more of the power chords and soaring choruses for which he's always been known. "I'd overworked the songs," Townshend wrote in Who I Am, "so they sometimes came across without enough edge and seemed almost lightweight."
It all seemed to confirm something Rob Dickins at Warner Bros. had said to Townshend: “You’ve gone all whiter than white and squeaky clean. Your fans don’t know who you are any more.”