(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)
The Who were one of the great British bands of the 1960s, along with the
Rolling Stones and the
Few bands embodied the rebellious spirit of the young urban misfits like
the Who, the most celebrated of the "mod" bands.
I Can't Explain (1965) and My Generation (1965) "were" pure rage
and desperation. Those geysers of youthful energy also revealed the talent
of the greatest songwriter of that generation, Pete Townshend.
While the Who continued to wave the flag of the generational uprising with
Magic Bus (1968) and We Won't Get Fooled Again (1971),
Townshend proceeded to refine his compositional skills with ever more complex
suites, such as A Quick One (1966) and Rael (1967), and
eventually coined a whole new format with
his influential rock operas, Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973).
Throughout their career, the Who
consistently reflected the mood of their generation. Their entire
repertory can be view as the long and epic autobiography written by an entire
On the way to erect the myth of their generation, they also
invented a music anchored to
colossal guitar riffs, pounding drums and operatic vocals, which ten years
later will be renamed "heavy-metal".
While the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Kinks were rooted in the past
(whether rhythm and blues or musichall), the Who invented a style that was the
future of rock and roll.
(Translated from my original Italian text by Ornella C. Grannis)
The saga of Who is the story of one of the most interesting and
intrepid bands of the 60s. The group started as mods, young London
thugs, with a loud sound and arrogant lyrics a bit above the rest,
but then discovered its vocation in the rock opera, reviving a
British narrative tradition going back at least to Dickens, and
already transposed into rock by the Kinks, and finally found a
curious balance between polemic spirit and progressive spirit,
between rock and the classics. Among all of their generation,
they're the ones who came closest to the punk rock of the mid-70s.
In that sense, they're the ones who aged least.
The music of The Who is among the most autobiographical of the time.
Where The Kinks were obsessed with the society in which they grew up,
where The Animals were obsessed with the dilemmas of their generation,
The Who were obsessed, from beginning to end, with themselves. In their
first period, that of the generational anthem, The Who unleashed their
frustration with the spirit of a team of drunken hooligans. In their
second period, that of the rock operas, The Who transposed their
generational vicissitudes into a psychedelic and theatrical key. In
their third period The Who imitated themselves with self-celebratory
They began as The High Numbers, playing Dixieland jazz and rhythm and
blues - their first 45, in 1964, was I'm The Face, by Slim Harpo. But
their true inspiration was the virulent, rebellious rock of Eddie Cochran
and Gene Vincent, to whose tragic destiny the Who's entire opus is
dedicated. Another clear influence was Johnny Kid & The Pirates, perhaps
England's most original band before The Rolling Stones, the first band
to use the guitar-bass-drums-singer format, the first band to play rough
and powerful rock and roll. Pete Townshend emerged immediately as a vibrant
and original composer, thus The Who, unlike most of their contemporaries,
didn't have to use covers for long.
Christened The Who by their manager, the four invented a new musical
genre. I Can't Explain (January 1965), the first epic cry to claim the
right of British youth to an identity. The song combined Buddy Holly's
bittersweet "baby talk" and The Kink's riff from You Really Got Me,
with Moon's acrobatic drumming, often obscuring the singing. Townshend
composed elementary tunes that his guitar and Moon's drums transformed
into something extraordinary. He wrote lyrics more or less inspired by
Dylan, but adapted the pomposity of Dylan's poetry (more appropriate for
the intellectuals of the sit-ins and the hippies of the peace marches) to
the prosaic vernacular of street thugs. Dylan wrote psalms, speeches and
prophesies, Townshend wrote anthems. Daltrey was a formidable singer, not
as original as Eric Burdon (The Animals), Van Morrison (Them) or Mick
Jagger (The Rolling Stones), but just as influential. The anarchist
proclamation Anyway Anyhow Anywhere (May) availed itself of a breath
taking boogie beat oscillating between moments of suspense and cacophonous
conflagrations. In December 1965 the grievous, militant, stuttering,
defiant slogan of My Generation, lacerated by syncopations, distortions,
clapping and jamming in a rumbling and apocalyptic atonal satori,
forever changed the history of rock music.
Those early 45s were revolutionary from whatever perspective one chooses
to examine them. From the sociopolitical point of view, The Who were the
only ones to debut directly with a generational anthem. The others, from
Dylan to the Stones, got there at little at the time. The Who were born
with those anthems, with those call to arms, to illustrate the need for
separation. For the others it had been a progression, fast or slow, from
tradition to rock. For The Who there was no bridge from the past, there
was only a hurricane of electrical sounds and percussion.
That impressive series of detonations upset completely the structure of
the Merseybeat, already subverted by the urban guerrilla of the Stones.
My Generation, in particular, began a true musical revolution: its
admission to the charts perturbed the esthetics of marketable music -
the phrase "I hope I die before I get old" was an official declaration
of war against the adult world . With these epic broadsides The Who gained
control of London's west side within the mod nation. On the east side were
The Small Faces.
These masterpieces at 45 rpm were the soundtrack of a war fought in the
early 60s by a youth movement which demanded recognition and respect as
its own social class. Those lyrics completely exposed the violent and
rebellious essence of rock and roll, an essence that manufactured telegenic
idols such as Elvis Presley and The Beatles had reorganized. As the early
rockers of the 50s before them, The Who represented an outlet for an angry
generation aware of its powerlessness to change the order of things and
thus attempting to destroy everything.
Breaking their instruments on stage, The Who finished the circle of
rebellion that Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones had left unfinished.
That rebellion would become the gospel of the most troubled rock artists.
With The Who, the history of rock and roll went back to the drawing board.
They added a terrifying scenic impetus to their sonic base. Their fame grew
with the brutality of their shows, each one an unprecedented exhibition of
gratuitous violence on the stages of the stiff United Kingdom.
In such fashion The Who brought to the stage of the Merseybeat a fear and
loathing of suburbia. The underground mod culture had found their martyrs
in The Who, who were destroying their instruments night after night at the
end of their reckless act. Street life had found its demagogues at last.
The fury, the sadism, the anger, were the authentic products of a
generational turbulence of which The Who were the ignorant spokesmen.
Accidentally The Who discovered an enormous market to be exploited: that
sound also attracted bourgeois and conformist kids. The craving for hard
rock was ubiquitous. The Who also represented a reaction to the societal
hypocrisy of the Merseybeat (Beatles and Co.), that worthless heap of cute
sing-alongs and shy little guitars which very few kids from the lower
classes found appealing.
None of the four was a virtuoso, yet each one of them was a genius. Under
the influence of Link Wray, Pete
Townshend invented a guitar style barbaric and hysterical, and was also
the first to use feedback in a radical manner - he used anything at is
disposal to produce noise. Roger Daltrey fit into the bacchanal with
beastly sounds that were actual war cries, and a streetwise attitude
common to many suburban kids. Keith Moon had none of the sophistication
of jazz and blues - the genres that informed most drummers of those times
- and yet managed to clothe each song in a tribal beat. The perpetual
motion of his drums created a new style. John Entwistle completed the
formation with his vigorous bass phrasing. Townshend, the writer of the
group, was a genius at compressing so much violence in such short refrains,
an acrobat at packing such rough and deafening chords within the format of
The chemistry was perfect. Of the four, Daltrey was the true mod, the
perverted soul of The Who. Entwistle was at the opposite end, the melodic
one. Moon was the nut, the drug addict, but also the life of the show.
Townshend was the catalyst, the one who fed on the personalities of the
others, lit them up and watched them react. He was an intelligent kid
with the gift of synthesis who gave an emblematic face to his generation
- the "every kid".
Thanks to this alternative code, The Who were the first disciples of
chaos, the first real untamed prophets, the first intransigent noise
makers, the first stars of "home made" rock, soon to become garage rock
and then punk rock.
The Mod era was ending and the hits of 1966 show it. They are all a
semi-serious analysis of the world of adolescents: Substitute (March),
a melodic piece with a slight hint of soul and torrential drums, I'm A Boy (August), a surreal
refrain about a teenager misunderstood by his mother, to the rhythm of
trombone and bass drum, and Happy Jack (December), a sort of Vaudevillean
tune about the idiot of the village, lead by breath taking rhythm
progressions and sung in falsetto.
We're talking about a batch songs much more moderate than the preceding
ones. On the first album My Generation (Brunswick, 1965) are The Kids
Are Alright, with a wild version of the cute Merseybeat style sing-along
and the psychedelic The Ox (featuring Nicky Hopkins on piano and highlighting
the guitar feedback). On the second album,
A Quick One (Reaction, 1966), is the eccentric harmony of Boris The Spider
and the ten minute long suite A Quick One, the first taste of rock opera.
The impact of psychedelia is felt in the songs of 1967: Run Run Run,
Pictures Of Lily and Doctor Doctor, songs that blend dissimilar elements
such as Townshend's quasi-metal swoops, Moon's incessant drumming, soft
melodies and the first, timid effects of electronics. At the Monterey
festival in June, The Who unloaded all their residual energy.
The Who rebuilt their reputation - from illiterate toughs to
intellectuals of suburbia - with Sell Out (Track, 1967), an LP
structured as a collage of songs interspaced by parodies of commercials.
The album is a cross between Frank Zappa's Freak Out and the Kinks'
material of those years. I Can See For Miles, Armenia City In The Sky,
Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand display ethereal melodies, almost
parody-like, owing as much to music halls as to rock and roll clubs.
Rael is yet another long suite, another freewheeling instrumental melody.
For the lovers of psychedelia and of the "progressive" song, this is the
Part of Tommy (Track, 1969) is the continuation of that project. But Tommy
is also a clamorous betrayal: yes, the album is progressive and psychedelic,
but it's also melodramatic and pompous. It affirms the artistic stature
of The Who, but at the same time, it disavows their rebellious roots.
Tommy is, first and foremost, The Who's preeminent rock opera. It's more
the musical representation of a story than an allegory of their generation.
The protagonist of the story is a pinball wizard unfortunately born blind,
deaf and dumb. The music has lost a lot of the spontaneity, and thus the
aggressiveness, of the early 45s. In fact, it is obviously planned: careful
in detail, punctual in counterpoint and delicate in phrasing. The riffs,
the collective angry shouts and the assaulting rhythms that in the
beginning were vital to the structure of their songs, have been artfully
a pathos-based latex that indulges in epic triumph rather than in quick and
angry release. Most of all it's Townshend's personal show, the
demonstration that he is able to compose and to direct, even though at
times the opera
falls victim to pseudointellectual rhetoric and facile ingenuity.
The masterpieces of the album are the songs that bridge the two periods:
I'm Free, one of the most physical and anthem-like piano riffs, Pinball
Wizard, with the vocal impetus and the rhythm splits of the good old days,
and the mean and insinuating Acid Queen. Just as much pathos is hidden
between the elegant and nervous fibers of Amazing Journey, Go To The
Mirror, We're Not Gonna Take It, a waste of melodramatic over-emphasis.
The new method is much too exposed in the Overture and in the long
Underture, the album's most pompous episodes. They are instrumental
fantasies on melodies reminiscent of classic arias, movements by which
one truly feels at the opera.
It can be reckoned than A Quick One and Sell Out were rehearsals: the
style and instrumental passages resemble the style and passages from
Tommy - in particular the Underture derives from Rael. But most of all
Townshend drew from the inextinguishable patrimony of folk music (Sally
Simpson, Can You Hear Me). Although far from perfect, Tommy boasts some
of the most original melodies of the time -- not corrosive like those
of the Beatles, but rather enhanced by instrumental innovations.
In the meantime The Who continued to chisel songs not only revolutionary
in content but in structure as well: Magic Bus (1968), Moon's lysergic
and tribal masterpiece - an obsessive delirium tremens a la Bo Diddley,
a wild witches' sabbath, destined to remain at the top of British
psychedelia, and The Seeker (1969), a wicked feverish saloon-style
blues rock.These "alternative" Who -- alternative compared to the
official and austere Who of the rock opera, are documented in Live At
Leeds (1971, considered by most the Olympus of live albums (along with
the first by The Allman Bros. and that of Dylan & The Band), with two epic
versions of My Generation and Magic Bus (the reissued CD has forty minutes
of music added). Who's Next (Track, 1971) is a rock and roll masterpiece.
Some of the material derives from The Lifehouse Chronicles, intended to
be another rock opera that would eventually come to realization twenty
years later. The album exploded with another belated song of the
generational series: We Won't Get Fooled Again, Daltrey's vocal
masterpiece, after the stuttering rendition of My Generation. With an
organ that beats colorful and transcendental boogie images, with a guitar
that erupts in gusts of enticing riffs and with its typical refrain, We
Won't Get Fooled Again is perhaps the premier masterpiece of British
hard rock. The height of pathos -- the minimalist solo of the organ,
creates a suspense eventually shattered by Daltrey's maniacal scream
immediately followed by Moon's hail shower.
Then there is the homage to minimalist composer Terry Riley, Baba O'Riley,
a remarkable fusion of The Who's hard-rock beat with minimalist raga, and
a great indicator of Townshend's ability at the keyboard. Daltrey has
become an exceptional crooner, as the romantic ballad Bargain proves.
Unlike the Stones, who remained coarse, The Who evolved into one of the
shrewdest, most eclectic bands of their generation.
Quadrophenia (Polydor, 1973), the second rock opera of The Who, avails
itself of the musical stature of the band. Townshend's keyboards, with
their pseudo-orchestral effects, come before the guitar. Daltrey is no
longer screaming, he vocalizes like an operatic tenor. The arrangements
are much more sophisticated, not only when compared to their previous work,
but when compared to the progressive rock of the time. It sounds somewhat
like the technological symphonic version of Tommy.
This time it's a matter of painting a fresco about the mod generation and,
at the same time, putting together an album of personal memories.
The monumental scaffolding of Quadrophenia results in exposing Tommy's
flaws: verbosity, dispersion and redundancy. Once again the riff in The
Real Me gets played. The usual powerful vibrations of The Who only manage
to shake in 5:15, a piano boogie accompanied by loud rhythm and blues
horns. Some neurotic tics also surface in The Punk And The Godfather,
Dirty Jobs, and Bell Boy.
Epic for epic, at least the melodrama is truly energetic in Doctor Jim -
thanks to some awesome counterpoint, touching in the instrumental The Rock,
enticing in the mystical and heartbreaking Love Reign Over Me, respectable
as a symphony by Tchaikovsky. There are also citations of country, blues
and vaudeville, but they are drowned out under strata of electronic
The Who's creative vein seemed to have dried after this formidable push.
Both operas played in theaters.
For the remainder of the decade the band made a comfortable living by
imitating itself: Long Live Rock (1974), Squeeze Box (1975), Who Are You
Keith Moon, one of the most spectacular drummers of the world, died in
1978. (Ironically, eleven spectators died during the first tour of the
band without Moon.) He was replaced by Kenny Jones of The Small Faces.
The Who however, were at the end of their career. You Better You Bet,
from Face Dances (1981), is their last hit.
Best Of Last Ten Years (Polydor, 1975) and The Kids Are Alright
(Polydor, 1979) are both valid anthologies.
All things considered, The Who's musical saga mirrors the ideological
parable of their generation: from the rebelliousness and the
self-destructive impulses of the early years, that spell out a
profound existential malaise, to the commonplace refuge in drug
addiction and the pathetic self-celebrations of the later years.
The Who are shamans who kept themselves busy with rituals. To the
auspicious rituals of brute force (the premeditated demolition, the
mayhem of their generation), they added, later on, the evocative rituals
of nostalgia. By evoking all the ghosts, the tortured sounds, the
destructive cyclones, the twirling of guitars and microphones as batons,
the stuttering rock that twitched in the veins of a generation on the
verge of explosion, the smashing of instruments so that they too, through
hisses and distortions, could shout their anger and the desire to live a
different life, The Who showed themselves to be the most faithful veterans
of rock on the barricades.
On the whole, the mythology of The Who, expressed first in 45s and then
in rock operas, rendered homage to the heroics and the metaphysics of
hooliganism. If Ray Davis is the Dickens of rock and roll, and Mick Jagger
is its Faust, then Townshend can claim the right to be its Homer.
Both Entwistle and Daltrey have recorded several solo records, none of them
Pete Townshend has became an elegant and intellectual composer. The
progression of his solo recordings shows a rocker who is no longer
With Who Came First (Atlantic, 1972) Townshend distanced himself
completely from the angry cliche of the early Who, to embrace the
theosophy of guru Meher Baba. The songs, all in theme, compile a short
manual on oriental meditation. The music suffers a little. However,
Pure And Easy
and the epic blues-rock Let's See Action (1970) belong to the major
Street In The City ,with strings, and My Baby Gives It Away are the
jewels in Rough Mix (1977), a collaboration, mostly studio improvised,
with Ronnie Lane, Eric Clapton and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.
Let My Love Open The Door and Rough Boys are the best cuts in Empty Glass
(1980), which was followed by the mediocre All The Best Cowboys Have
Chinese Eyes (1982), well arranged but hardly noticeable (Face Dances
Part Two, Uniforms, Stardom In Action).
White City (1985), a concept album, is dedicated to a poor section of
London. The only hit is the cacophonous Face The Face.
Iron Man (1989) a story based on a fairy tale by the poet Ted Hughes,
is yet another rock opera staged with famous musicians. A Friend Is A
Friend, the single, and A Fool Says are both sophisticated songs, but
few of the others spark interest.
Psychoderelict (Atlantic, 1993), the story of an aging star at the end
of her life, is another concept album organized as a collage of songs,
narrations and instrumental passages. Its format is a cross between a
Broadway musical and a BBC radio program. English Boy has some of the
verve of the past material; Now And Then, shows class and introspection.
In 1993 Tommy, after a drastic revision and a complete change of message
by Townshend, was adapted to the Broadway stage.
Cool Walking Smooth Talking Straight Smoking Fire Stoking (Atlantic, 1996)
is an anthology of Townshend's solo career.
The six-disc box The Lifehouse Chronicles (Eel Pie) contains the original
music for the legendary rock-opera conceived by Townshend after Tommy,
and never realized, and also the version presented as a radio play on BBC.
John Entwistle died of a heart attack in June 2002.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend continued as the Who.
The mini-album Wire & Glass (2006) contains a new rock opera, probably
Townshend's worst composition of his entire career, later
incorporated in the album Endless Wire (2006).
Truancy (2015) is an anthology of Townshend's solo work.
The Who (2019), their first album of new material in 13 years,
contained the single Ball and Chain, a reworking of
Pete Townshend's song Guantanamo (2015).