The Who began as spectacle. They became spectacular. Early on, the band was in pure demolition mode; later, on albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia, they coupled that raw energy with precision and desire to complete musical experiments on a grand scale. They asked, “What were the limits of rock & roll? Could the power of music actually change the way you feel?” Pete Townshend allowed that there be spiritual value in music. They were an incredible band whose main songwriter happened to be on a quest for reason and harmony in his life. He shared that journey with the listener, becoming an inspiration for others to seek out their own path – this while being in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s loudest band.
Presumptuously I speak for all Who fans when I say being a fan of the Who has incalculably enriched my life. What disturbs me about the Who is the way they smashed through every door of rock & roll, leaving rubble and not much else for the rest of us to lay claim to. In the beginning they took on an arrogance when, as Pete says, “We were actually a very ordinary group.” As they became accomplished, this attitude stuck. Therein lies the thread to future punks. They wanted to be louder, so they had Jim Marshall invent the 100-watt amp. Needed more volume, so they began stacking them. It is said that the first guitar feedback ever to make it to record was on “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” in 1965. The Who told stories within the confines of a song and, over the course of an entire album, pushed boundaries. How big of a story could be told? And how would it transmit (pre-video screens, etc.) to a large crowd? Smash the instruments? Keith Moon said they wanted to grab the audience by the balls. Pete countered that like the German autodestruct movement, where they made sculpture that would collapse and buildings that would explode, it was high art.
I was around nine when a baby sitter snuck Who’s Next onto the turntable. The parents were gone. The windows shook. The shelves were rattling. Rock & roll. That began an exploration into music that had soul, rebellion, aggression, affection. Destruction. And this was all Who music. There was the mid-Sixties maximum-R&B period: mini-operas, Woodstock, solo records. Imagine, as a kid, stumbling upon the locomotive that is Live at Leeds. “Hi, my name is Eddie. I’m ten years old and I’m getting my fucking mind blown!” The Who on record were dynamic. Roger Daltrey’s delivery allowed vulnerability without weakness; doubt and confusion, but no plea for sympathy. (You should hear Roger’s vocal on a song called “Lubie [Come Back Home],” a bonus track from the My Generation reissue. It’s top-gear.) The Who quite possibly remain the greatest live band ever. Even the list-driven punk legend and music historian Johnny Ramone agrees with me on this. You can’t explain Keith Moon or his playing. John Entwistle was an enigma unto himself, another virtuoso musical oddity. Roger turned his mike into a weapon, seemingly in self-defense. All the while, Pete was leaping into the rafters wielding a Seventies Gibson Les Paul, which happens to be a stunningly heavy guitar. As a live group, they created momentum, and they seemed to be released by the ritual of their playing. (Check out “A Quick One,” from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.)
In Chicago recently, I saw Pete wring notes out of his guitar like a mechanic squeezing oil from a rag. I watched as the guitar became a living being, one getting its body bashed and its neck strangled As Pete set it down, I swear I sensed relief coming from that guitar. A Stratocaster with sweat on it. The guitar’s sweat.
John and Keith made the Who what they were. Now they’re different, but still the Who. Roger’s a rock. And at this point Pete has been through and survived more than anyone in rock royalty. Perhaps even beyond Keith Richards, who was actually guilty of most things he was accused of. Drummer Zak Starkey played me a new song a while back, “Real Good Looking Boy.” It was beyond moving.
The songwriter-listener relationship grows deeper after all the years. Pete saw that “a celebrity in rock is charged by the audience with a function, like, ‘You stand there and we will know ourselves.’ Not You stand there and we will pay you loads of money to keep us entertained as we eat our oysters.'” He saw the connection could be profound. He also realized the audience may say, “When we’re finished with you, we’ll replace you with somebody else.” For myself and so many others (including shopkeepers, foremen, professionals, bellboys, gravediggers, directors, musicians), they won’t be replaced. Yes, Pete, music can change you.
Presumptuously I speak for all Who fans when I say being a fan of the Who has incalculably enriched my life.
This story is from the April 15th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.