A chapter on the Who from Paul Friedlander’s study of rock.
A chapter from the book Rock and Roll: A Social History by Paul Friedlander — Westview Press: A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, copyright 1996, published in Boulder CO and Cumnor Hill, Oxford (UK), pages 120-131.
What was important at the time [Tommy], and continues to be important, is that the human individual accepts the fact that he or she is capable of being spiritually swayed. And in order to make the best of that, they really have to listen to what’s being said. (Pete Townshend, in a 1987 interview)
Adolescent Pete Townshend smashed his guitar and his teenage fans cheered. Young adult Townshend dabbled in drugs and Eastern religion and his college age fans grooved along. But as he approached his thirties, Townshend publicly became torn between writing to create songs about the difficulties of adulthood – marriage, being a parent, shaky health, fear of growing old, and the silence of God – and the demands of a youthful rock audience for loud, raunchy celebration. (Rock journalist Bill Flanagan, 1986)
Picture lead singer Roger Daltrey, resembling a perpetual-motion machine, commandeering the stage for a two-hour athletic romp. Guitarist Pete Townshend swings his right arm in a gigantic windmill motion, striking his guitar to produce loud, crashing, ringing power chords that saturate the hall. Sometimes these blasts are accompanied by agile leaps as Townshend vaults across the stage. Drummer Keith Moon frantically thrashes at his drum kit, occasionally launching one of his drumsticks off a drumhead and toward the audience. This whirlwind surrounds bassist John Entwistle, who stands as if anchored to the stage, motion-less except for the blur of finger attack on the bass fretboard.
This hypothetical set climaxes with the song "My Generation." After an extended solo, Townshend raises his guitar above his head and smashes it to pieces against the stage, jamming the remaining skeleton through the protective grill-cloth and into his speaker cabinet. Squealing, tortured feedback wails from the speakers, sounding the instrument’s death rattle. Daltrey swings his microphone by its cord in an ever-increasing arc until it too smashing into the stage. Moon’s bass drum has been set with a small charge of smoke-producing explosive and it erupts as he kicks it off the raised drum podium onto the stage. Standing behind his kit, Moon laughs maniacally at the smoldering pyre. Finally, Entwistle’s throbbing bass ceases and the Who straggle offstage, just another day in the life.
The Who have always been considered one of the most energetic and entertaining live bands in rock/pop music history. Even when compared to 1970’s hard rock performances, with their displays of athletic prowess, explosive charges, and frantic energy, the Who hold their own. At the same time, the Beatles bobbed their heads and the Rolling Stones sold sex and spectacle. But the incredible power of the Who’s live performances has overshadowed the extraordinarily thoughtful and musically interesting material that songwriter-guitarist Pete Townshend composed during the Who’s twenty-five-year existence. Of the three major British invasion groups – the Beatles and Stones being the other two – the Who most directly and thoughtfully confronted the philosophical and political issues of the day. To Townshend, good rock music reflected important societal concerns and was a powerful vehicle for ideas.
Of the major British invasion groups, the Who were initially the most musically competent. They developed and used the power trio format (using only one guitar, drums, and bass) long before Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Led Zepplin made it popular. Their definitions of the instruments’ respective functions were different than traditional classic rock definitions – typified by the rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, and drums used by the Beatles and Stones. The Who’s relatively complex harmonic structure, regular use of three-part vocal harmonies, and development of the "rock opera" format were innovative and sometimes overlooked.
In addition to the quality of the contributions, they also had a significant impact on subsequent rock generations. The rebellious fury of their 1965 teen anthem "My Generation" sowed the seeds of two major musical forms that sprouted later in the seventies, hard rock and punk. Townshend’s power-chording, Moon’s active drumming style, Daltrey’s aggressive lead vocalist image, and the band’s volume and overall stageshow were all precursors to hard rock; punk roots are visible in the music’s frantic driving pulse and its reactive get-out-of-my-face sentiment. Thus the Who, known primarily for energy and opera, made many important contributions.
The Who’s story is not unlike our previous tales. Roger, Pete, and John grew up in the Shepherd’s Bush district of London and went to the same grammar school. Roger was, in many ways, similar to John Lennon. He was rebellious, dressed as a teddy boy, formed a musical group with friends, and had a reputation in school. For the aggressive five-foot five Daltrey, prone to settling disputes with his fists, his band, the Detours, was seen as a way out of Shepherd’s Bush. Pete and John were best mates. They went through school together, one grade behind Roger, and started their own first band, the Confederates. After playing in a series of rock and trad-jazz bands, both eventually joined forces with Roger in the Detours.
Initially, Pete’s mom, Betty, acted as their booking agent and van driver. Rounding out the band were drummer Doug Sandom (ten years older than the rest) and a series of lead singers (as Roger then played lead, with Pete on rhythm guitar). During these years their repertoire included classic rock, country and western, traditional jazz, and current English pop by bands such as the Shadows and the Beatles.
The Detours, like the early Stones, was a group of comprising well-trained as well as untrained musicians. John’s parents were musicians, and as a youth he learned piano and trumpet, played in an orchestra, and studied jazz. His initial interest in rock and roll was as lead guitarist, but John’s primal urges led him to bass (bass being a fundamental part of the rhythm in rock). In addition to lead guitar, Roger played some trombone before switching to vocals. Pete’s dad played the clarinet, and Pete learned the banjo, playing in jazz bands. Townshend’s shift to guitar was motivated by the instrument’s growing popularity and by his insecurity about his appearance. In Pete’s mind, his large nose dominated his features, and attention focused on power chords and leaps shifted the spotlight away from the guitarist’s facial features.
Much like McCartney and Hendrix, both of whom compensated for the loss of their respective mothers with a single-minded pursuit of music, Townshend used music as a retreat from his self-perceived physical handicap. Keith Moon was another who possessed innate musical talent; he learned trumpet and started drums by age fourteen. His idols were big band drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and Hollywood session player Hal Blaine, the man who played on many of the early surf music hits. Dave Marsh, in his creditable Who biography, Before I Get Old, notes that Moon not only tried to emulate their technique, power, and flamboyance – Krupa’s twirling drumsticks, for example – but also copied their large drum sets, which at times included double kickdrums.
But musical training wasn’t the only formal education that helped the Detours. In 1961 Pete started studies at Ealing Art College; this turned out to have a major impact on the Who. Many rockers found in art school a stimulating refuge from the sometimes dead-end English educational system. Challenged by a new generation of art educators, Pete was impelled to think about how and why people create and about what forms creations might take. When Pete began to smash his guitar, Gustav Metzker’s lectures on "auto-destructive" art offered a fitting rationale.
While attending Ealing Pete entered a social circle that introduced him to the blues, rhythm and blues, modern jazz, and marijuana. (Also attending Ealing were future band biographer Richard Barnes, future Small Faces and Stones guitarist Ron Wood, and budding Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury.) Soon the Detours were incorporating Black American roots music into their show and by 1963 were popular enough to play on the same bill with the Rolling Stones, Manchester’s Hollies, and Liverpool’s Searchers. One day, however, they spotted a band on national TV that was also calling itself the Detours. The final choice for the band’s new name was between the Hair and the Who; they chose the latter.
Pete Meaden, an intense, fast-talking, pill-popping publicist who had just left Oldham’s Stones organization, sought a band that he felt could represent the growing Mod subculture. He changed the band’s hair, clothing, demeanor, and name. Meaden preferred the High Numbers, a term combining allusions to the "high" induced by the Mod penchant for amphetamines with a popular Mod t-shirt that was emblazoned with numerals.
With the addition of drummer Moon to the lineup in the summer of 1964, the intensity of the band’s music soared. In an incident resembling Pete Best’s departure from the Beatles, the Who (not yet the High Numbers) auditioned for Fontana Records. The A&R man suggested the band might benefit from a different drummer. Doug Sandom, who was not enjoying the new focus on blues, opted to leave the band. According to rock mythology, a slightly drunk Keith Moon auditioned for the band by performing a bashing rendition of "Road Runner" and then breaking the temporary drummer’s kickdrum pedal and hi-hat.
This story omits the fact that Moon had been following the Detours, knew their music well, and had come to the pub for the sole purpose of making the lineup. After the audition Moon returned to his drink, steeling himself for anticipated retribution over the damage to the drum set. Instead, the band offered to pick him up on Monday for a gig. Years later, Keith would contend that he was never formally asked to join the Who but was only asked, "What are you doing on Monday?"
Moon joined a band in transition. The High Numbers bought vented jackets and button-down shirts on Carnaby Street, played at the hip Mod Scene Club, and recorded the Meaden blues clone "I’m the Face/Zoot Suit" on Fontana Records (released in July 1964). Pete and Keith followed Meaden into the speed-laced Mod world of amphetamine abuse, becoming more combative in a band that already had its share of verbal and physical conflict. Roger and Pete vied for supremacy; Roger could win with his fists, but Pete had a sharp and brutal tongue. John had seen his straight-forward drummer traded in and was not sure he relished the idea of playing with a maniac. "The wiry, high strung and anxious nature induced by taking pills made them touchy," states biographer Barnes. "Anything could spark them off and usually did." Pete would later comment "We were four ‘orrible unpleasant little bastards."
In late 1964 the High Numbers were working steadily, touring and playing clubs six and seven nights per week. Still, their record wasn’t being promoted by the label and wasn’t selling. One evening movie producer Kit Lambert caught their act. Lambert and partner Chris Stamp were searching for a rock and roll band for a movie; after catching the act live they were convinced to forget the movie and manage the act. Meaden had no legal hold, so the band, attracted by Lambert’s upper-class demeanor and industry connections, jumped ship. The High Numbers toured that summer with such notables as Tom Jones, the Kinks, and the Beatles and then dropped the name, reverting back to the Who.
Different managers offer different areas of expertise to their bands. Epstein contributed style and organization to the Beatles, and Oldham was an image-maker for the Stones. Lambert, whose father was well known in British music circles, became mentor and confidant to Pete. Although not a trained musician, Lambert provided encouragement and critical thinking when Pete was just beginning his songwriting career. It was Lambert who would later suggest that Townshend string works together into lengthier pieces (he even helped with the libretto for Tommy). In late 1964, however, management’s job was to keep the Who working and secure another recording contract. Chris Stamp went back to work on the set of the film Heroes of Tellemark in Norway just to pay the bills.
The band survived on gigs such as their weekly dates at the Railway Tavern. One night, during the set, Pete accidentally bumped the neck of his guitar on the ceiling. He recalls that "it broke and it kinda shocked me cause I wasn’t ready for it to go… I was expecting everybody to go ‘Wow, he’s broken his guitar,’ but nobody did anything which made me kind of angry in a way and determined to get this precious event noticed by the audience. I proceeded to make a big thing out of breaking the guitar. I pounded all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage." The next week fans arrived expecting another guitar-smashing spectacle. Pete declined, but "Moonie" obliged, capping off the evening by beating up his drums.
Smashing instruments produced consequences. For on, it was costly; Lambert urged Pete to do it only on special occasions. (In fact, the penchant for trashing equipment kept the band in the red for a number of years.) It also created audience expectations as well as a stir in the entertainment community. To some, the Who’s destructive finale became the hit song the band was expected to play every show. Some fans experienced a vicarious thrill, the symbolic act of rage and rebellion carried out by their surrogates on stage. According to Moon, they destroyed things because they were just "pissed off."
The next logical step for the Who was to seal a recording contract. EMI passed, citing the lack of original material. So Townshend, with Lambert’s encouragement, pursued this challenge with a vengeance; songwriting became his passion. It turned out that Kinks producer Shel Talmy was so entranced by a demo of Townshend original "I Can’t Explain" that he signed the Who to a contract and scheduled a recording session. When Talmy insisted on using his trusted studio guitarist, future Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page, Townshend balked and played the lead solo. Page churned out the choppy Kinks-style rhythm-guitar chords. "I Can’t Explain" sold over 100,000 copies, peaked at #8 (U.K.), and earned the band nationwide TV appearances. Guitar feedback characterized their follow-up, "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," in an attempt to simulate and capture the live Who on record. It was adopted as a theme song for pop-music TV show "Ready, Steady, Go" but reached only #10 (U.K.) on the charts.
Despite its mounting success, the band was embroiled in turmoil. They were torn apart by conflicts over lifestyle, leadership, and creative differences. Pete, Keith, and even John were dedicated to life in the fast lane, fueled by amphetamines and alcohol and, in Pete’s case, marijuana and hashish. Each night, when the supercharged band hit the stage, sparks flew and anything could happen, and it often did. Thus it is not surprising that the Who’s live show was described as pure energy and that the mixture of drugs, adrenaline, loud music, and a rebellious psyche produced a climax of destruction.
Roger and Pete were also locked in battle over band leadership, a task for which neither was naturally suited. Both were argumentative, especially toward one another, and neither Roger’s fists nor Pete’s tongue helped in leading the band or mediating disputes. Finally, in Denmark, Roger, who was furious at Keith’s constant partying and inconsistent playing, dumped out a box of pills. When Keith protested, Roger knocked him out. Ejected from the band, Daltrey – who wasn’t considered to be a very good lead vocalist at the time – found himself staring at a future as a sheetmetal worker. Making an about-face, Roger promised to exchange his combative personality for that of a peaceful team player. This solution gave Pete creative carte blanche and challenged Roger with the role of interpreting Townshend’s material.
His first chance came with "My Generation." In retrospect this song is a successor to Chuck Berry’s "School Days" – a musical and lyrical adolescent anthem. In the fifties Berry criticized his era’s mores by favoring romance and rock; Townshend’s sixties were a time of more forthright rebellion. So to his older generation, Pete cries "People try to put us down/Just because we get around." And also "Why don’t you all f-f-f-f-fade away/Don’t try and dig what we all say." Townshend would later comment that "’My Generation’ was very much about trying to find a place in society. I was very, very lost."
Musically, the Who attack the song – guitar and bass pound out a quarter-note pulse, Roger shouts the lyrics, and Keith rides a percussive roller coaster of fills and cymbal crashes. Halfway through the song, the listener is treated to a unique guitar-bass call-and-response solo. The final degenerates into drummed frenzy and feedback-filled guitar barrages. Thus "My Generation" is hard rock before its time. But Townshend’s 1970 description of the song’s effect also anticipated punk rock: "It repulses those it was supposed to repulse, and it drew a very thick line between the people that dug it and the people that wouldn’t dig it." Some certainly didn’t dig the song’s retort "Hope I die before I get old."
Released in late 1965, "My Generation" quickly rose to #3 on the British charts but barely even placed in the United States (#74). Yet it was a definitive moment for rock and roll. The Who were laying the groundwork for the two important musical streams of the 1970s, hard rock and punk, in a single, driving, chaotic song – through the power trio, screaming singer, and distorted, pounding guitar on the one hand, and in-your-face lyrics and brash, thrashing music on the other. It was no wonder that Moon and Entwistle nearly quit and formed a band with Jimmy Page in 1966 or that, in 1977, Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols were to praise the Who as one of their favorite bands.
During the years 1966 and 1967 the band consolidated its popularity in England with its auto-destruct live shows and a series of top-10 British singles: "Substitute" (#5), "I’m a Boy" (#2), "Happy Jack" (#3), "Pictures of Lily" (#4), and "I Can See For Miles" (#10). During this time there was a distinct stylistic shift in Townshend’s writing. Whereas "I Can’t Explain" and other early tunes had musical and lyrical similarities to the early Beatles and other period hits, Pete was now electing to craft compositions in accordance with the emerging trend toward musical complexity and deeper lyrical meaning.
"I Can See For Miles," the Who’s only American top-10 hit (#9, September 1967), lyrically addresses romance (in this case, retribution), but musically it functions on a different level. The song offers a brilliant example of the power trio cruising on all cylinders. Moon is in delightful synchronization with Townshend’s power-chording during the verse as he provides the section with brash but tasteful dynamic coloration on his cymbals and tom-toms. A sustained E note by the guitar – the song is in E major – rides on top of the chorus as the voices and chords change underneath from the tonic I to bVII, IV, VI, IV, and back to the I.
Certainly powerful but also musically interesting, "Miles" was part of a conceptual expansion that included the EP A Quick One While He’s Away and the pop-art album The Who Sell Out. With songs tied together by original commercial jingles and on-air material from pirate radio station Radio London, Sell Out featured "I Can See For Miles" and an inside jacket adorned by advertising photos of each band member. (In fact Roger contracted pneumonia from the shooting, having been submerged in a tub of baked beans.)
In 1967 the Who, frustrated by their inability to crack the American market, finally made a number of major concert appearances in the United States. They were on the bill at Murray the K’s Easter Show in New York City along with Cream, the Blues Project, Wilson Pickett, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. During eleven destructive Easter shows the band totaled twenty-two microphones, five guitars, four speaker cabinets, and one sixteen-piece drum kit.
In June the Who appeared at the Monterrey International Pop Festival, rock’s first megaconcert. The group opened a monumental closing-night set, followed by the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and the Mamas and the Papas. The Who completed their show with their usual demolition; Hendrix, who had resided in England for a year and felt quite competitive, not only smashed his guitar but burned it as well. As relative unknowns in America, the Who gained notoriety with this appearance and toured with countrymen Herman’s Hermits – a classic mismatch, but not as bad as the one pairing Jimi Hendrix with top-40 idols the Monkees.
Later in the year the Who toured America once again and also appeared on CBS’s "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Richard Barnes describes the havoc caused by what Pete terms "the destruction bit": Moon, who was drunk on brandy, "secretly added extra flash powder to the special effects. The explosion at the end of "My Generation" was enormous. Pete temporarily lost his hearing and singed his hair, a fragment of flying cymbal embedded itself in Keith’s leg, and show guest [movie star] Bette Davis fainted into Mickey Rooney’s arms." In Michigan, Moon celebrated his alleged twenty-first birthday (really only his twentieth) by trashing rooms in the local Holiday Inn. While being chased by the authorities he filled all available cars with fire-extinguisher foam and then leaped into an empty swimming pool.
Experimentation with legal, recreational, and psychoactive drugs fueled the frantic nature that characterized the band’s work. Use of alcohol and speed kept some members intemperate and overly aggressive. Townshend and Moon also ingested LSD and other psychedelics. Like the Beatles, Pete was also entranced by the teachings of an Eastern mystic, in this case Meher Baba – a man who wrote prolifically but who had not spoken in forty years. In 1968 Townshend reduced his drug intake and began to follow Baba’s life philosophy. He would later say, "I think at the end of the day all religions are based on finding a reason why people should act in a caring, compassionate and humanitarian way. But, most of all, that they should act."
Reflective of this message of individual moral responsibility, Townshend set about to write rock and roll that was in some way illuminating to audiences. With the assistance and encouragement of manager Kit Lambert, he sketched out a storyline that worked in both the symbolic and real worlds. Townshend explained: "The thing is, we wanted it to work on lots of levels…We want to turn on the spiritually hip, we want to turn on the fuckers and the street fighters …We want to turn on the opera lovers and we succeeded in turning on a lot of people that weren’t reached before."
Early titles for this project included Amazing Journey and Brain Opera before settling on Tommy, after the central character. The fact that an actual story was being told through song, without accompanying narrative, was then unique in rock music and most closely resembled the opera form. This story, or libretto, begins with young Tommy witnessing his father’s death at the hands of his mother’s lover – the father, having been thought dead, returns years after the war. Tommy is traumatized and becomes deaf, mute, and blind. Tommy’s mother attempts to find a cure for her son, after which he is administered LSD by the Acid Queen; eventually he is miraculously cured after smashing the mirror into which he has been looking.
While in his sense-deprived state, Tommy becomes famous for excelling on pinball machines. And even though Tommy is finally cured, his Uncle Ernie still tries to merchandise the boy’s achievements, at summer camps. Once Tommy’s normalcy and the fraud of his returned senses are revealed, the campers (representing the public) revolt, and Tommy is left alone, pleading for compassion.
On a symbolic level Tommy represented a person who through suffering achieved a God-realized state, without senses yet in tune with the cosmic pulse of all life that surrounds us – in this case represented by electromagnetic impulses of the pinball machine. When the commercialized Tommy and his gifts – rock and roll, spiritual enlightenment, furtherance of humanity – are revealed to have been sold on a fraudulent basis, humanity revolts. Don’t sell us false prophets! they cry. "We’re not gonna take it!" A rejected Tommy cries "See me, hear me," still capable of offering spiritual enlightenment.
In his masterwork Pete, following the tenets of Meher Baba, attempts to engage important issues surrounding the search for mortality: "It [that era of pop music] was its strong connection with the roots of spiritual theosophy and the language that rang with it – the idea that pop music was about spiritual uplift, human potential, solidarity, unification." The response to Tommy was near-universal acclaim. Mainstream British magazine Melody Maker named it LP of the Year; Albert Goldman in the New York Times called it a "work of innovative power and philosophical profundity." It rose to #7 in the United States after its summer release in 1969 and reascended to #4 one year later.
The Who finally made it, achieving the kind of critical and commercial success that eluded them for so long. No longer relegated to the role of auto-destruct kings, the band took their place at the head of the creative/artistic class. Townshend received accolades as a composer and songwriter, Daltrey’s statures as a rock vocalist and song interpreter was at its zenith, and the rest of rock and roll finally caught up with rhythm-section pioneers Entwistle and Moon. Hard rockers looked to the Who as a prototype. And, as if to thumb their noses at the music aristocracy, the Who arranged for a Tommy tour of opera houses in Europe, ending with two shows at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center.
The Who’s appearance at Woodstock in August 1969 was filled with brilliant images, but it was in fact a personal nightmare for the band. the golden-maned Daltrey wowed ’em, resplendent in his white-fringed leather and bathed in blue-white light; Townshend windmilled his guitar; Moon and Entwistle drove the runaway train. However, they waited all night and had been dosed with LSD and had to follow an explosive set by Sly and the Family Stone at 3:30 AM. Said Pete of the experience: "Woodstock wasn’t what rock was all about… Tommy wasn’t getting to anyone. Sly and the Family Stone had just whipped everyone into a frenzy and then kind of walked off." After a long medley of Tommy songs, the exhausted bandmates performed a lengthy regular set that included the "My Generation" climax. During this set, an irritated and disoriented Pete swatted Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman into photographer’s row – the penalty for hijacking one of the Who’s microphones – during the set – to harangue the crowd with a political speech.
Many artists, having paid their dues and subsequently achieved high critical acclaim and commercial success, would dance the so-called dinosaur dance, content to rest on aging laurels. Pete Townshend paused for a moment and then began work on another major undertaking, a science-fiction film project entitled Lifehouse. The major character, Bobby, another God-realized guru, leads a small band of free-thinkers against the totalitarian rulers of the land. Bobby’s faith consists of a kind of biorythmic, transcendental mythology. Each follower, in touch with individual biorythms and concomitant notes or sounds, would, at nirvana’s gate, dance themselves into a whirling-dervish state – to the strains of the guru’s band.
However, the forces of control find the location of worship and break down the energy barriers protecting the church. They shoot Bobby, but before he dies the congregation achieves an ecstatic state, the mythological lost chord is sounded, and they are all transformed into the innocence as if in a Garden of Eden. Pete wrote the songs for this project and set about writing a screen treatment to sell to film studios anxious to capitalize on the Who’s previous success. In the end none was willing to risk the investment necessary for a contract and Pete eventually found himself in a a state of nervous exhaustion.
With their record company clamoring for a follow-up to Tommy and a release of live material, the Who recorded 240 hours of shows on their American tour. Nobody had the patience to cull the acceptable cuts, so the band booked a university concert in Leeds, England. Pete recalls, "We got a Pye 8-track and we said take it to Leeds, and we went to Leeds and it just happened to be like one of the greatest audiences we ever played to in our whole career." Released in May 1970, Live at Leeds includes cover favorites "Summertime Blues" by Eddie Cochran and Mose Allison’s "Young Man Blues"; it also contains extended renditions of "My Generation" and "Magic Bus." Not only did it showcase the vibrancy and vitality of their live act, but it also showcased Pete’s talents as both a rythm and lead guitarist functioning within the structure of a power trio.
Lifehouse was simply not to be and the task of compiling the band’s next studio album fell to acclaimed producer and engineer Glyn Johns. He assembled four Lifehouse songs along with three other Townshend cuts and Entwistle’s "My Wife." The result album, the critically acclaimed Who’s Next, was released in the summer of 1971. The Lifehouse cuts exhibit compositional brilliance, pioneering use of the synthesizer in rock music, and further synchronicity in play among the band members.
The first song, "Baba O’Reily," named for Meher Baba and electronic music composer Terry Reily, would have opened Lifehouse. The ARP-2600 synthesizer was programmed with approximations of physiological attributes of Meher Baba and thus the repetitive phrases at the beginning reflect the story’s interest with an individual’s sonic representation. At one point in the song, Townshend describes the future (and perhaps current) environment as a "teenage wasteland." The acoustic opening of "Behind Blue Eyes" is a form that parallels the Led Zepplin mega-hit "Stairway to Heaven," released the same year. Daltrey’s plaintive opening is followed by Moon’s explosive entrance at midsong in a number that attempts to engender sympathy for the leader of the oppressive forces.
"Won’t Get Fooled Again" uses another repetitive underlay from the synthesizer to set off the explosive ensemble. As they are in "I Can See For Miles," Townshend and Moon are marvelous at creating a broad and rythmic dynamic range by their synchronized playing. Entwistle adds bass slides to the mix during the chorus. The lyrics leave plenty of room for interpretation. If one neglects the verses, the song can easily be seen as "We’re not gonna take it" redux. Paradoxically, the verses actually discourage political interest or activism by suggesting that any change in leadership will produce new leaders just as bad as the old.
Townshend recanted in 1987, telling an interviewer, "It was dumb to deny the political role of the individual. The political responsibility of the individual…It was an irresponsible song. It was quite clear that during that period rock musicians had the ear of the people." "The Song is Over" rounded out the four Lifehouse cuts. The Who’s Next cover was graced by their owns science-fiction obelisk, in in the process of being adorned by band members, who appeared to be peeing on it.
The band’s early greatest-hits package, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, kept fans busy while Pete worked on his third parable, Quadrophenia. Centered around Jimmy, another hero, it chronicles the Mod experience in midsixties England and features a frustrate, inarticulate, confused, and violent young man who feels betrayed by all elements in his life. Townshend had always felt that rock, at its essence, was "the music of the frustrated and dissatisfied" and that the Mod subculture represented its purest, working-class audience.
The Mod was represented in four distinct personality characteristics, each with a theme song that also represented characteristics of a member of the band. Roger was the tough guy/"Helpless Dancer"; John the romantic/"Doctor Jimmy"; Keith the lunatic/"Bell Boy; and Pete the philosopher/"Love Reign O’Er Me." Feeling discouraged and disillusioned, our hero Jimmy returns to the Brighton coast, the scene of past glories from the gang fights between Mods and Rockers. During this return, he spies the Ace Face, the former general of the Mod troops, working as a hotel bellboy. In the final scene Jimmy clings to a rock in the coastal surf in a final reevaluation of life’s meaning.
Townshend called Quadrophenia "a study in spiritual desperation. The fact that all desperation and frustration leads somebody to the point where the first time in their life they realize that the only important thing is to open their heart. It wasn’t about blood and guts the way that the film turned out to be." The album represented the highest chart success for the band, peaking at #2 in November 1973. The film version, released six years later, didn’t garner the same acclaim, in part due to the distinctly British experience of the Mod subculture.
In 1978 the Who released Who Are You, which questioned the relevance of rock dinosaurs in the era of punk and metal creativity and the seemingly simultaneaous death of Keith Moon, who died from an overdose of pills. Into the ninties Townshend continues to write and release solo projects, and the surviving bandmates periodically go on tour.
As one of rock’s most accomplished and dedicated composers, Townshend continues to address issures he considers important: "[What] continues to be important is taht the human individual accepts the fact that he or she is capable of being spiritually swayed. And in order to make the best of that, they really have to listen to what’s being said." Although he considers the music business to be "financially, spiritually, and morally corrupt," Pete believes that rock still is a "key" to freeing the person to be themselves.
Having played in the shadows of other British invasion groups during the mid-sixties, the Who began to receive the recognition they deserved at the time of Woodstock. Musically, and in their live-performance style, they pioneered the hard rock form. Because of their musical aptitude, talent, and social proclivities, they redefined instrumentalist roles and functions, creating a daring and more sophisticated rock. Drums became more than timekeeper, and guitar became both lead and rythm.
As rock composer Townshend is one of the best. He wrote alone, not as part of a team like Lennon-McCartney, or Jagger-Richards. And he wrote about the broadest scope of topics, whether it be through in-your-face rock and roll or thoughtful, philosophical, and sophisticated commentary on the human condition. What’s more, this was accomplished as audiences and critics focused on the high-volume, high-energy, destructive bombast of their live shows. Rarely does one band successfullly combine such essential rock elements with such complex and sophisticated musical and lyrical components.