The Who: Straight Rock & Roll Music

Pete Townshend: "The music has auto-destructive implications. Smashing the guitars is almost inevitable."

Pete Townshend onstage
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pete Townshend onstage
By |

Peter Townshend – who smashes his guitar – is regarded among the cognoscenti as one of the best rock and roll guitarists in the world. Yet the Who, of which he is the lead guitarist, composer and leading light, passed virtually unnoticed through San Francisco in November, squashed in the middle of a rather dumpy concert at the Cow Palace.

Generally acknowledged in England to be one of the best of the British groups, the Who are comparatively little known in this country. They have had two single hits – "Happy Jack" and, just recently, "I Can See For Miles" – yet neither of their albums is listed on the chart of 200 best-selling LP's. Like dedicated and hard-working musicians, they have slogged their way through two long American tours – the current one, a rugged series of widely-spread one-nighters, and a two-month series this past summer which took them just about everywhere there is in America – and are planning a springtime tour of the college circuit.

"Nowhere in the world compares with San Francisco in what's in the air," Peter Townshend said during his few free hours between the group's afternoon and evening spots at the Cow Palace. "The vibes that this place gives off are fantastic.

"Usually we just sort of show up, do the gig and split," said Pete "but the most fantastic thing happened in Kansas City. There were 500 kids at the airport. They all had our records and were making the point of 'We remember you when.' But at the concert that night they were stone cold."

Townshend, who has a reputation of being difficult to talk to, is actually very polite and self-assured. He doesn't seem to care if the girls hang around his motel room, and, unlike, say, the Association, which topped the Cow Palace bill, is not the type to hang around waiting to be asked for an autograph.

Townshend's interest in music began eight years ago when he learned to play a banjo in the "trad jazz" style then popular in Britain. He soon picked up the guitar, mainly playing Cliff Richards and the Shadows material. "Then I heard rhythm and blues and it was all over. The first record I remember was 'Green Onions' by Booker T. I never listened that much to Muddy Waters and people like that. It was Steve Cropper who really turned me on to aggressive guitar playing."

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend

The Who formed in 1963 and 1964: Roger Daltrey, lead singer, who swings around his microphone with ease and hits it against the bass drums; Keith Moon, the insane young man who was one of the first rock and roll drummers to utilize two bass drums; John Entwhistle, the comparatively staid bass player; and Townshend.

(The Who should also be remembered for several other things. Townshend was a student at art school before he got together with Daltrey and Entwhistle and two months later, Moon. He began using the Union Jack design on his amplifiers and as clothing for the group, a sort of mini-shot that was heard briefly around the world.)

Their music is very much rock and roll. Townshend's guitar playing is characterized by rhythm building solos utilizing chords rather than extended single note soloes. One of the best numbers in their current repertoire is Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" ("I'm a-gonna raise a fuss, I'm a-gonna raise a holler; been workn' all day just a tryin' to make a dollar . . . ")

The music of the Who can only be called rock and roll; it is neither derivative of folk music nor the blues; the primary influence is rock and roll itself. They work with a simple guitar-bass-drum complement, and use occasional and simple overdubbing in the studios for the vocal tracks rather than for additional instruments.

The guitar-smashing, drum-kit bashing and smokebomb finale is usually the most remembered part of the Who's performance. The group has just about abandoned that part of the act in England, but it has been influential on a number of other English performers, including Jimi Hendrix, was undoubtedly the inspiration for the rock and roll scene in Antonioni's Blow Up; and has caused a lot of comment, much of it negative from many otherwise hip people who feel that it hasn't anything to do with the music and that consequently, the group cannot possibly be musicians.

Pete Townshend Demonstrates the Art of Guitar Destruction: Exclusive Clip From Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who

"It has a traumatic effect. The weight of the finale is in the violence," Pete explained. "In 1964 we were in a crescendo bag, like the Yardbirds, using loud, free-form music with a lot of feedback. I used to move the guitar around a lot to control the feedback and it used to bang on things. The banging also gave some unusual sounds.

"One night I banged the guitar on the ceiling. It was fantastic visually, with my legs spread and everything. In the second set I banged it on the ceiling again and it broke. There were a few laughs, mainly negative reaction. So I carried on and smashed it to bits. It gave me a fantastic buzz. The audience really liked it and I started to do it as part of the act.

"Now it has become a rather artificial finish. We decided to stop smashing the equipment until the theatre owners said that we had to. We want to get out of car accidents and into music.

"'My Generation' [the number which closes a smashing set] moves itself as a natural finale without smashing the guitars. If we don't do any smashing the audience remembers the rest of the show. If we do it with smashing, they remember only the anger and heat of breaking the equipment.

"Of course, when you're done, some people don't believe you've actually done it.

"Keith is an obviously aggressive drummer and aggressive personality. Throwing his drums around was the logical thing for him to do. He is an aggressive guy playing aggressive music. In England the audience wanted aggressive music, like the Stones. But the people aren't angry anymore. They're not bored; the music has changed. Smashing the guitars used to be proper anger; it isn't anymore. It's theatrical melodrama.

"The music has auto-destructive implications. Smashing the guitars is almost inevitable. That's why the audiences dug it. It makes it nice, 'cause people know it's going to happen and they pack the show waiting for it. When we found out what it was, we used it for attention.

"We always perform to the peak of our ability, but we started letting the music decline. We began using the smash as a lever to get them to come and then hope that they would dig the rest of the music.

"I've broken twelve guitars that I really loved and I put them all back together if they could be. One I put back together six times. Through a performance you learn to love a particular guitar. Breaking it is a whole thing. When you break it, you break down your own dependence on love of material things.

"Often I actually don't smash my guitar. I only do it when there is a real physical need for it. You can saw it to get a particular sound out of it. You can show people the grain of the wood. When I smash it, I'm playing the guitar to its utmost, playing it completely for the first time. There's nothing in the way between me and the guitar."

This story is from the January 20th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 4: January 20, 1968
x