Even though he’d proved he could be successful with any kind of song, for some reason Pete Townshend decided the only “albums” worth putting out had to have some kind of concept behind them. Coupled with his work as a book editor, this manifested itself in a half-baked album like The Iron Man, based on a children’s book by Ted Hughes.
Grandly subtitled “The Musical by Pete Townshend”, the album might have worked a little better had he chosen to sing all the songs himself, rather than “casting” the roles. As nice as it is to expose new listeners to Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker, they are ultimately distractions for those of us just wanting to hear Pete. And those are at least names we know; it’s difficult to say how much success the likes of Deborah Conway, Cleveland Watkiss and someone known only as “Chyna” (not the wrestler) can attribute to their work here.
The best moments are Pete’s, which can usually be taken outside of any concept. “I Won’t Run Anymore” has potential, as do “All Shall Be Well”, “Was There Life” and “A Fool Says…” The obvious single was “A Friend Is A Friend”, as it sounds most like a Pete song, but the addition of a kids’ chorus is never a good idea, even on a musical meant for children. His brother Simon sings all 42 seconds of “Man Machines”; a longer version included on a later reissue gives the track much more room to breathe.
The “superstar” turns are, frankly, embarrassing. John Lee Hooker gets two songs, neither of which fit his persona. “Over The Top” is expository, but “I Eat Heavy Metal” (with the choir adding “he eats heavy metal” after each line like a horrible Rankin-Bass production) is just plain cartoony. Surely, given his admiration of Miss Simone, he could have provided her with something more meaningful than “Fast Food”, particularly with the choir asserting “she wants food fast” in the Rankin-Bass style.
But most of the attention, of course, was given to the two songs that Roger Daltrey sings, with John Entwistle on bass, making for a Who reunion—on paper anyway. “Dig” is pleasant, if not exactly substantial, but “Fire”, an unrecognizable remake of the old Crazy World of Arthur Brown hit, is just plain stupid, and badly produced to boot, by the same guy whose biggest production credit is for “We Built This City”.
What we really wanted was for Pete to rock; he was certainly able to do that within the murky outline of White City. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he could have done that here too? He maintains today that he was forced to cut a lot of material because the label didn’t want a double album, but it’s hard to believe that we’d be missing anything.
Ultimately, The Iron Man was a resounding disappointment, with a libretto to match. A movie was eventually made, but without Pete’s songs. His dream of creating an actual musical from the material hasn’t quite come to fruition, though he wouldn’t abandon his Broadway dreams just yet.
Pete Townshend The Iron Man (1989)—2
2006 remaster: same as 1989, plus 3 extra tracks