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Music

The jazz album that blew The Who’s Pete Townshend away

The Who were in many ways the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll group. They were ejected from the 1960s as one of the prominent groups of the British invasion, known for their explosively loud performances that would more often than not end in a scene of total destruction as guitarist Pete Townshend smashed his relatively expensive six-string into the stage floor. On one occasion, Keith Moon even rigged his drumkit with explosives while performing on a US television show – very rock ‘n’ roll.

Under the stony surface of rock and roll anarchy and chaos, the band were very serious about their craft. As the 1960s came to a close and the ’70s dawned, The Who became increasingly experimental. The music began to see the heavier involvement of the synthesiser, and they pioneered the rock-opera idea with concept albums, such as 1969’s Tommy and 1973’s Quadrophenia, which were later adapted into films. 

Their unique take on the rock genre was shaped by the members’ eclectic tastes in music which reached far beyond the realms of rock and roll tradition. Townshend, for instance, was particularly infatuated with avant-garde jazz music.

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In an interview with NME in 2018, Townshend discussed some of the albums that had been the biggest influence on his creativity over the past 60 years. During the conversation, he picked out one cult album that he believes everyone should hear at least once in their lives. 

Recalling the day he purchased the album, Townshend said: “I got really into that sort of way-out avant-garde jazz. But you couldn’t find his record anywhere. So, one day I was in a jazz shop in Chicago, which I think is where Sun Ra came from. I said, ‘have you got any Sun Ra?’ The guy says, ‘Yeah! All his stuff.’ I said, ‘Give me everything.’ ‘Everything?’”

He continued: “He comes back with 250 albums. Most of which I’ve still got in that room over there, still in the shrink-wrap.”

Of the 250 records, the album that Townshend was most interested in and picked out for essential listening was The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One. The seven-track album was released in 1965, when the American jazz composer, Sun Ra, was 50 years old. His work was known for its experimental tendencies as he opted to move with the times and integrate synthesiser playing into his compositions to achieve a “cosmic” sound.

While Sun Ra never achieved much commercial return for his labours, he is now revered for his pioneering work in free improvisation and modal jazz. He was also one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards and synthesisers – something of which many other jazz musicians at the time would have been sceptical.

Sun Ra’s embraced psychedelia in his music and was deeply inspired by cosmology. He would often be seen wearing eccentric costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian attire and the space age.

Listen to Sun Ra’s The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, volumes 1-3 below.