Pete Townshend’s 3rd solo album was a divisive record; many critics called it pretentious, over-thought, and an “ambitious failure”.  But it contains at least two Townshend masterpieces, including “The Sea Refuses No River”, a song with deep spiritual meaning to Townshend.  This episode, we explore this eloquent, graceful classic.

“The Sea Refuses No River” (Pete Townshend) Copyright 1982 Eel Pie Publishing Limited

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TRANSCRIPT:

Music can inspire, music can unite; it can challenge, it can enlighten, it can heal. Here on the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, we don’t take music for granted. On this podcast, we take an in depth look at an individual song to discover what goes into making a song work. I’m your host, Brad Page, here the Pantheon Podcast Network where each episode, we explore the arrangements, the performances and the production that make a song great.

On today’s edition of the show, we’re taking a look at a song by a man who I think is one of the greatest songwriters in history. A man who is not only one of the most electric live performers you’d ever see, but a brilliant composer, writer, and a visionary, and one of my favorite guitar players, too. This is Pete Townshend with “The Sea Refuses No River”.

Pete Townshend is, of course, the primary songwriter, guitarist and sometimes vocalist for The Who, one of the greatest and most important bands of all time. But by 1982, their legendary drummer, Keith Moon, had died. The band was struggling to find a place in the post punk, new wave landscape, and Townshend was disillusioned with, well, everything. He had left his family the year before and went on a binge of drugs and alcohol. He eventually cleaned himself up and went back to his family.

While all of this was going on, he was working on his third solo album, which he named “All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes”. He would later say he should have won the “Stupid Title of the Year Award” for that one.

Considering everything that was going on in his life, it’s no wonder that the songs on this album are deeply introspective. And though they incorporate sounds and approaches that were contemporary at the time, none of the songs were recorded with rock or pop radio or MTV in mind.

When he played the finished album to his record company, they were dismayed. They didn’t hear any hits. But Townshend wasn’t writing for hits. He was pursuing the path he’d started on his last solo album, “Empty Glass”, and the previous album by The Who, “Face Dances”.

He was always literate, but these songs were the most wordy he’d ever written. It’s Townshend at his most poetic. To many fans and critics, it was a bit much. It was considered to be pretentious– like, really pretentious. And some tracks are more successful than others. But I think when these songs really work, it’s magical when the music and the lyrics gel really come together. I think these songs have real emotional impact, and on this track, a spiritual impact, too.

The album features a huge band and some great players, including Tony Butler on bass, Mark Brzezicki on drums; both of those guys played with Big Country. Simon Phillips also plays drums on this record. Honestly, I’m not sure which one of them plays drums on this track. You’ve also got Virginia Astley on keyboards, John Lewis on synthesizer, Peter Hope Evans on harmonica– he plays a big part in this song. Jody Linscott on percussion, Poli Palmer on tuned percussion. Chris Stanton plays some additional keyboards. And Pete Townshend plays all the guitars, some keyboards and the lead vocals. The brass arrangement was by Anne Odell.

The album was produced by Chris Thomas and the song was written by Pete Townshend and Alan Rogan. It’s one of the few songs I can think of where Townshend shares a writing credit.

Okay, let’s get into the song. Peter Hope Evans harmonica is the focal point, and John “Poli” Palmer, who was in the band Family, is adding some accents on something like a Glockenspiel.

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There’s also a nice bass part going on underneath, played by Tony Butler from the band Big Country. Then there’s a short drum fill and we’re into the first verse.

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There’s a guitar in there playing choppy staccato chords, followed by a sustaining ringing chord. That is classic Pete Townshend -style guitar playing.

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The verses open on a minor chord, which gives it a darker feel. But then after a couple of lines, it shifts to a more buoyant melody.

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And right before the next part of the verse, there’s some guitar feedback that fades in. Let’s listen to the rest of that verse.

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The music sort of pauses for a breath there. And then we’re into the first chorus.

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“The sea refuses no river”. Townshend found the quote in the Oxford Book of Proverbs. Actually, I read that Pete’s daughter found it and he really liked it and wrote the song based around it. He’s using it as a spiritual metaphor. Every river, no matter how pure and clean, or dirty and contaminated, every river ends up in the same sea. You can call it the afterlife, you could call it heaven, call it space or the universe… no matter how great or how flawed you are, we all end up in the same place. We’re all individual drops that make up that ocean. It’s a beautiful idea, and I think it’s one of Townsend’s most powerful vocals. It’s a great performance. You can really feel the passion in his voice.

The harmonica melody returns…
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I like the drum part here. Let’s bring up the drums in the mix.
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“The sea refuses no river, we’re polluted now but in our hearts, still clean.” As I said, this is one of Pete’s best vocal performances. He really delivers on this song. So let’s bring the vocals to the front for this chorus.

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This leads us into the guitar solo section, played by Pete Townshend, over some great instrumental backing by the band.

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The bass and drums are laying down a nice groove here. Let’s check that out.

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That leads directly into a series of big, crashing chords. Dramatic, almost orchestral. This is the kind of big moment that Townshend and The Who did better than anyone else.

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More guitar from Pete. Nice use of feedback.

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Let’s hear what the bass and drums are doing under this section.

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For the next verse, they reel it in dynamically. After that dramatic buildup from the solo, they get a little softer for the next few lines.

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Compared to the previous sections, the instrumentation here is very sparse. Just guitar and drums, maybe some piano in the background.

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Let’s hear the instrumental tracks under the vocals. With more of the band playing here, check out the way the bass and the drums are playing off of each other and how all the other instruments are layering their simple individual parts. That, when it’s all put together, provides a really lush surrounding for the vocals. This is a great arrangement.

Now let’s add the vocals back in and listen to how it all works together.

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And from there we head into the last two choruses.

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Pete’s vocals reach their apex here. I love the way he sings this.

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You can hear Pete play some harmonics on his guitar and wiggle them a bit with his whammy bar. Then he’s going to hit a few heavy chords—Who-style– that kick off the final chorus.

There’s a nice little guitar fill there, followed immediately by a bass guitar lick. It’s just another example of the band interplay here and what great players they are.

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Pete Townshend “The Sea Refuses No River”

Townshend has released a handful of solo albums; the last one was Psycho Derelict in 1993 and of course, a dozen classic albums with The Who.


Whether with The Who or solo, I think all of these albums are worth listening to. There are few, if any, artists whose work is more significant or as meaningful as Pete Townshend.

Thanks for listening to this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. We are part of the Pantheon Podcast Network, where you’ll find a ton of other shows, all dedicated to the artists, the records and the history of the music we love.

This show will be back in about two weeks with another new episode. You can hear all of our previous shows on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com or on your favorite source for listening to podcasts. You can keep in touch with us on Facebook, just look for the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. You can post reviews or comments on podchaser.com, and if you really want to support the show, tell people about it. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth.

Thanks again. And remember, as Pete Townshend says, “Whether starving or ill, or strung out on some pill, just because you own the land, there’s no unique hand that plugs the dam. The sea refuses no river.”

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