The Secret Policeman’s Ball was the name given to a series of concerts for Amnesty International in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, the show was directed by John Cleese, who not only recruited Peter Cook, but fellow Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
On the musical side that year were John Williams — yes, that John Williams — Tom Robinson and Pete Townshend, who was still in his post-Keith Moon’s death spiral, and in the middle of recording his first solo album, to boot.
At the show, Townshend performed three of his greatest songs: “Pinball Wizard,” which was fine, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — with John Williams, because why not — where he always claims he was so drunk that he fell asleep during one of the guitar breaks, and “Drowned,” which was fucking amazing.
I’ll get into a deeper analysis of the lyrics of “Drowned,” which is probably in my top five all-time Who songs — please don’t ask me to actually make that list — when I get there, but for now let’s just say it’s either a song about wanting to end it all in the ocean, or accepting the overwhelmingness of God’s love, or perhaps both. Maybe like, the Iron Born, you have to drown to accept God’s love.
Certainly in this version, Townshend leans into the second interpretation, as he sings in a quavering voice near the end:
Let the tide in, and set me free
I wanna drown
I wanna drown drown drown drown drown drown
Give me wine, let me drown
In your sweet sweet love
Ohhh, I wanna drown
That’s cool and all, but what sets this version of “Drowned” apart for me was Townshend’s guitar playing.
It’s just him and an acoustic guitar, and the way he juggles the main spindly riff and the chords of the chorus is just masterful. And then, after the bridge he just takes off, strumming his guitar furiously, spinning and spinning with near-flamenco speed and virtuosity. It’s just fucking amazing. And he was probably shitfaced through the whole thing, which makes it that much more amazing.
I’m pretty sure I saw the film before buying the album — no doubt with at the Tower Theater at a midnight showing with Tim, just based on the odds — because anything with the Pythons and Pete Townshend was going to be on my to-do list in the early 1980s, and just seeing him going off on his acoustic guitar during the break somehow gives it that much more power.
“Drowned” live at the Secret Policeman’s Ball, 1979
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