Everyone has that one song, that special track that requires cranking it at top volume. No matter where you are—whether driving while listening to the radio, or walking down the street with your iPod and earbuds, that one song never fails to stop you in your tracks. For me, the particular song has always been “Eminence Front” by The Who.
Before describing the tune, I must confess: I did not become a Who fan until college. Perhaps it was due to the first Who song I ever heard—”Magic Bus.” As a sixth grader, I could not understand what in the world Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon were talking about. “I want it,” Daltrey drawls. “You can’t have it!” Townshend cries. What the heck were they haggling over? Why does Daltrey want a bus?
But when I reached college, I listened to the band again, noting their R&B roots as well as their rock music. “Join Together,” “Who Are You,” “Slip Kid”—these songs gradually converted me into a fan. While I also enjoy their straightforward rock sound and Townshend’s experiments with rock opera (namely Tommy and Quadrophenia), it’s their integration of rock and blues, with Entwistle’s hint of funk, that keeps me listening. This aspect of The Who is best summarized by the title of a box set: Maximum R&B.
This rock-blues-soul mixture comes together in “Eminence Front” from the group’s 1982 album It’s Hard. Their previous album, Face Dances, experienced success but rose out of turmoil. Moon had recently passed away, and so The Who brought in two new members: Kenney Jones (drums) and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (keyboards). Despite hits such as “You Better You Bet” and “Another Tricky Day,” both Townshend and Daltrey stated that they felt disconnected from the Face Dances material (see Brian Cady’s liner notes page at The Hypertext Who). However, Townshend struggled with drugs and alcohol, eventually entering treatment in early 1982. By then, he was eager to reunite his bandmates to write and perform live again. It’s Hard hit the stores in Fall 1982 and received decidedly mixed reviews from critics. Even Daltrey said in a 1994 interview, “I hated it. I still hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it!” Stung by the critical reception, The Who did not release another studio album until 2006′s Endless Wire.
Despite the album’s inconsistent and slightly dated quality (just look at the cover photograph of the band standing around a kid in an 80s video arcade), it contains the superior cut “Eminence Front.” The swirling keyboards draw the listener in, building anticipation until the drums and guitar kick in. Once Entwistle’s incredibly complicated yet funky bass lines join in, Townshend’s clear voice soars over the track. The words are clear and direct: “The spray flies as the speedboat glides/People forget/Forget they’re hiding,” he sings, exposing people hiding behind possessions. “It’s an eminence front—It’s a put-on,” he declares, eerily predicting the 80′s excessiveness. People may be partying, carefully eying their investments, living the high life, but this fast life is a sham.
The steady beat drives the song, while Entwistle’s dexterous bass playing dazzles. Townshend delivers an impassioned vocal performance, particularly during live versions. The pulsating keyboards remain in the background, but lend continuity to the track’s mood. Townshend may be suggesting that this materialistic, reckless lifestyle lacks soul; the keyboard’s robotic and endlessly repeating riffs evoke cold, disconnected emotions. Pronouncing his final judgment on this superficiality, Townshend repeats the lines “Come and join the party/Dress to kill.” The song ends abruptly when he almost shouts “Dress yourself to kill!” Is he commenting on the shallow qualities of these people, or is he evoking darker images? As these lines echo throughout the latter half of the song, one cannot help but envision the seamier side to this lifestyle. Can excessiveness or recklessness kill? The lyrics stop short of answering the question, but the words and abrupt ending leave these impressions in the listeners’ minds.
For the official video (included below), The Who recorded a live version during tour rehearsals at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland; Townshend plays an extended guitar solo not on the record, and Daltrey sings during the chorus and plays rhythm guitar. Amazingly, “Eminence Front” did not set the charts on fire—it reached number 68 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was not released as a single in the UK. The first It’s Hard single, “Athena,” met with more success, reaching number 28 in the US and 40 in the UK. Still, The Who occasionally play the track on tour, and the song has undergone some changes. For the 1997 It’s Hard remaster, a mistake in Townshend’s vocals was corrected, and an alternate Entwistle bass line substituted for the original take. Subsequent It’s Hard rereleases contain live bonus tracks, including a ferocious 1982 performance of “Eminence Front” that features even angrier-sounding Townshend vocals.
No matter the version, “Eminence Front” is a noteworthy addition to The Who catalog, and still requires cranking the volume in order to fully appreciate the beat, bass, and Townshend’s voice. While the lyrics may have predicted the 1980s, their cautionary tales of materialism resonate today.