Tom Morello on the Who: They Were a 'Feral Rock Beast' - Rolling Stone
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Tom Morello on the Who: They Were a ‘Feral Rock Beast’

Rage Against the Machine guitarist recalls how Pete Townshend taught him that “rock is about more than getting the notes right”

Tom Morello; The WhoTom Morello; The Who

Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello sings the praises of the Who, as the band continues its 50th anniversary tour.

Kevin Mazur/Getty, David Thorpe/REX/Shutterstock

The Who are currently trekking across North America on their “The Who Hits 50!” tour, which Roger Daltrey has described as the beginning of the group’s “long goodbye.” The band has influenced countless musicians who have followed in its footsteps, including Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who shares his love for the Who below.

In junior high, I made a mix-tape cassette entitled “The Greatest Songs of All Time.” The Who’s “My Generation” was definitely one of the 12. The punk attitude, the stuttering vocals – it felt like a meat cleaver of rebellious energy. The other songs on that cassette were mostly in the hard rock and metal vein. That was probably the only classic rock song, but it was a short, sharp shock of punk adrenaline. That early Who just felt like a train that was off the track – it was wild and there had been nothing like it before. When I heard Roger Daltrey’s stuttering, my first thought was: “How dare he!? This is awesome!”

Later, when I was 15, my mom and I went on a budget vacation in England. We saw The Kids Are All Right in the theater, and I got a grand exposure to their story and their live performance. They just looked like the coolest live band. The way they destroy the gear was so wild, so untethered, you didn’t know what was going to happen. Things were exploding and they’re throwing stuff and it really felt like it wasn’t in any way choreographed. It felt like this sort of feral rock beast.

Find out five things you didn’t know about the Who:

I learned a lot from Pete as a performer and copped a few of his stage moves. The first time I ever played in front of an audience was with my high school band, the Electric Sheep, with Adam Jones from Tool on bass. We played Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” for this school show about the Sixties. We came out. and we were not a great band, but the highlight of the entire evening was when I jumped off the riser. There was a lesson in there. Rock is about more than getting the notes right. I spent a lot of time in my mom’s basement practicing scales, thinking, “When I finally master the solo to ‘Detroit Rock City,’ then I am a rocker.” But the thing people remembered was that I jumped. That was rock & roll. And that was all that mattered.

Live at Leeds sounds like somebody hit the record button on the right night. When they were in that sweet spot, no band ever burned as hot. It’s the untamed fury of a band at its peak, a band that can kind of vacillate between feral beauty and the big ideas of Tommy and Quadrophenia. There’s nothing like that band in rock music. There’s the high-minded poetry of Dylan, but he was never smashing guitars, sounding like a hundred bowling balls coming down the hall. The Who combines the artistic intellect and the raw beast-itude in a way that no one ever did. Pete Townsend is always striving for it. He was a seeker in that regard. Thank goodness for him.

At home drinking with friends, we play this game “MVP/Weak Link,” where you take any band and you must identify who’s the MVP and who’s the weak link of the band. It’s a fantastic game. I love all the members of the Who, but the MVP is Keith Moon. It’s his chaotic personality and drumming that pushes that band over the edge. The songs are incomparable, Roger Daltrey’s performances are heroic, John Entwistle’s bass playing and the artistic vision that is kind of Pete Townshend is one that is singular in rock music and his wholly his own, but it isn’t shit without the drummer. He’s the one who makes it sound like someone dropping a hundred bowling balls. When all the lions are out of the cages and they’re devouring the patrons, when that guy is behind the kit, there’s nothing like it. And it’s his wildness that is the soul of the band.

I’ve seen them a few times. I saw them in Hyde Park after John passed, and it was a pretty great show. But bands have their moment. From those early moped-driving, pill-poppin’, amp-smashing days up until Roger Daltrey’s fringe jacket, with Pete Townshend redefining rock star with every pose, that’s the sweet spot. As a live band, you just can’t touch that.


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