September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

Pete Townshend

Duck and cover. This is not a test. We have an incoming rocker vanity project. Townshend has written a “song cycle” based on British poet Ted Hughes’s children’s story of the same name. Now you might be hoping against hope for a reasonable result, seeing as how Pete Townshend with The Who practically created the “rock opera” with Tommy and Quadrophenia.

If you’re expecting something along those lines, boy, will you be disappointed by this turgid fare. Townshend has never been a good soloist on the guitar, so he has always depended on his songwriting and arranging skills to carry him. And they have deserted him on The Iron Man. “A Friend Is a Friend” and “Was There Life” are nearly passable melodies, but only by comparison with the rest of this album. Measured against the body of Townshend’s work, these efforts are third-rate. The rest of the songs, whether sung by Townshend or by such guest vocalists as John Lee Hooker or Nina Simone, are stunted and curiously devoid of charm. They have neither the dynamism of rock (even the would-be brash cover of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” is dull) nor the lyricism of pop. On “Over the Top” Townshend even resorts to a stale knockoff of Dire Straits. Everybody sing: “Over the top we go/Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/Over the top we go/Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Maybe The Iron Man sounds better if you have read Hughes’s story. Or maybe it’s designed to be listened to while you’re reading it. Heaven knows, there’s nothing here to distract you from the printed page. (Atlantic)

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