Before Kurt Cobain put his too-personal-to-understand songs with Nirvana, there was Pete Townshend, who thought nothing of setting a nervous breakdown to music. Indeed, The Who was probably one of the most unusual of the British Invasion bands. Townshend once described The Who as having no proper lead guitarist as that role was filled by John Entwistle on bass, and its keyboardist was really Keith Moon, only he played them on the drums.
The Who, in their classic line-up, was Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon. Originally, Daltrey was the lead guitarist while the band, then known as The Detours, had another vocalist. They also had a part-time drummer, a house painter named Doug Sandstrom, who was several years older than still-teenaged Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle. As the three ultimate surviving members tweaked their band, it was still late enough in the sixties for them to take their queues from the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Kinks. As Daltrey siezed the microphone for himself, Moon barreled his way into the drummer’s seat, and Townshend became the band’s creative center, the influence of the Stones and the Kinks became obvious. Listen to the early Townshend/Daltrey-penned songs such as “I Can’t Explain,” and you can hear shades of The Kinks in their chords.
Soon, though, The Who became a vehicle for Townshend’s flights of fancy. Their breakout album, The Who Sell Out, is presented as a transmission from a pirate radio station in London, with parody ads between tracks. Yet it was Tommy, a so-called rock opera, that cemented Townshend’s reputation as a mad genius. Based on a story Townshend once heard about an autistic boy with selective mutism, Tommy told the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who nonetheless can play pinball (This would have been even more impressive if it had been written in the heyday of Atari or later). When he gains his sight and hearing, he becomes a messiah for his generation who is ultimately rejected in the end. It is something of a parallel for the life of a rock star. They followed Tommy up with the more conventional Who’s Next, with a cover featuring the band making a little stop along the highway during a tour.
Anyway, if Tommy showed Townshend’s imagination it the peak of its powers, Who’s Next put the band’s raw power on display in all its ear-splitting glory. The high-volume, earth-shaking thunder hinted at in “I Can See for Miles and Miles” only a couple years earlier explodes with “Baba O’Reilly” (unofficially known as “Teenage Wasteland”) and the cynical look at political upheaval “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They followed this up with Who By Numbers. Released at a time when The Who were undeniable gods of rock and roll, the strain showed in the lyrics. Critics dubbed the album “Pete Townshend’s suicide note.” And there were cracks. The classic line-up’s last studio album, Who Are You, was as good as anything else the band had done, especially the title track, it was only a matter of time before excess killed one of the members. Entwistle’s habits were fairly under control, as were Daltrey’s, but it seemed to be a race to the grave between Townshend and Moon. Moon won, swallowing a handful of pills meant to keep him from drinking himself to death only to die from the overdose. Townshend later said Moon died as he lived, since the overdose was a practical joke in keeping with Moon’s warped sense of humor. Remember, this was a man who drove a sports car into a swimming pool and marched around in a Nazi SS uniform in his driveway to annoy neighbor Richard Burton, who played a Nazi in a movie at the time of the prank.
The songs of the classic period resonate with me more than the Kenny Jones-era songs, even though the only songs I remember when they came out are “Squeeze Box” and “Who Are You.” When I was in junior high, when they gave a farewell tour, they had recorded Face Dances and It’s Hard. From that era, the only song that grabbed me, and still grabs me today, was “Emminence Front.” And that story almost got me suspended from school. I could not understand what they were saying when they played it on the bus, and thought they were singing “Baby, let’s fuck.” The driver was not amused when I got half the bus singing along with me. Neither was my mother. Somehow, I still got It’s Hard for Christmas.
Listening to the surviving members separately during the eighties and nineties, I wonder if The Who should have carried on as a studio band. There were flashes of The Who present on Daltrey’s Under a Raging Moon and Townsend’s White City, as well as Entwistle’s subsequent solo work. Part of The Who’s problem, aside from excessive touring, was that Townshend took on too much of the creative load himself. Daltrey and Entwistle were more than capable songwriters.
The Who are just Daltrey and Townshend now, with Townshend’s brother Simon occasionally on second guitar, Townshend’s bass player Pino Palladino taking over for Entwistle on bass, and Zack Starkey, son of Ringo Starr and allegedly still a member of Oasis (I suspect he’s not sure if there’s even a band left) on drums. It’s Who-like and a track I could see Mick and Keith taking with The Stones, but I found Endless Wire too little, too late. It should have been finished while Entwistle was still alive.
Still, I love The Who. They were especially helpful in getting me through some dark times. Somehow, if Pete Townshend was suicidal, my day went just a little bit better. Thanks for taking one for the team, Pete.