Happy 68th Birthday today to one of the greats of rock and roll, British and otherwise, a true genius and original in his craft, who not only showed the world what he could do with an electric guitar, but what could also be done with the rock song itself in the way it could be elevated to operatic mythos and all its glories, the man, the leader of The Who, guitarist Pete Townshend.
It’s kind of incredible when you think about the work of Pete Townshend and the overall underrated kind of perception he and The Who have when it comes to one quickly rattling off the names of the great bands and musicians during the arguable golden age of electric rock and roll, the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. For sure, there are a handful of Who songs that remain blended in with the all-time classics on compilations and classic rock radio and the like, but when you really take into account a band and a man who put so much craft, energy, scope, influence, and sweat and grit into the amount of work that made their bands what they are, Pete Townshend becomes a figurehead who towers high above the rest.
Those early Who records with the original lineup — John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle on bass, the “he broke the mold as soon as he was born” loony, eccentric drummer Keith Moon, and the booming, explosive guttural singing of golden-tressed Roger Daltrey — still stand as some of the best, an early forerunner to punk music (especially in the physical manner of Townshend on stage, leaping, jumping, soaring, throwing his energy into the electric wind and smashing guitars till they metaphorically bled), heavy metal, and even progressive rock and roll. Apart from some of the earliest records from the band, every album from The Who Sell Out to the rock opera Tommy to Who’s Next to the arguable masterpiece Quadrophenia is a oeuvre of sonic bibles which absolutely no question stand alongside any famously dissected, drawn, and quartered and endlessly debated all time “best rock and roll records.” It’s a scope and depth of vision that has no limits, no boundaries, and most of it came from the mind, instrument, pen, and soul of Pete Townshend.
With his windmilling style of playing guitar, mostly without a pick in the early days, and putting his arm in a revolution manner like a buzzsaw rotor blade, he almost unconsciously invented a style of guitar that was born and bred on a heavy power riff. Townshend effortlessly churned out power riffs that gave way to Who songs that sported arrangements which bordered on the unpredictable and complexity levels, a parallax of rock and roll in which, while Townshend too took the blues influence that became an absolute free reservoir for so many of his peers and contemporaries in England during that time of the late 1960s, he used it in a way that completely masked its foundational influence on the Who’s songs, unlike say the on-its-sleeve electric amped-up style of it that bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin were doing during that time.
The Who spoke of alienation and teenage angst, giving middle fingers to the Government a few years before Black Sabbath were doing it and about a decade before bands like The Clash and many others in that punk scene also wrote about with the baton they took from The Who in the rock and roll relay race. A lot of them owe a huge debt to Townshend, unlike the way the punk community thumbed its nose at bands that they perceived as rock “dinosaurs” at the time punk was at its peak during the years 1977-1979, with bands like Led Zeppelin and the kind of bands that were living, bloated, wealthy excessive lifestyles which completely alienated their audiences. The Who always seemed to be the wild card which was the band that strutted in a way like blue collar men, and even though they of course were rich and successful too, it never seemed that way to the audiences, and even though the tales of their drummer Keith Moon were elevated to the stuff of mythical legion, Townshend still remained a rock and axis in which not only kept the band grounded on record and in the studio, but his no-nonsense approach helped created albums which remain fresh, timeless, and exciting to this day.
Townshend carries on with Daltrey still here and there; the original rhythm section of Entwistle and Moon have passed on, (Moon quite some time ago, in fact, 35 years this year in September) and even though the man has been somewhat physically stilted by age and hearing loss, the energy still gets mustered up when it needs to on stage, and the adventurous verve still peers out of his rabbit hole. Townshend in essence is still in full force when The Who play, with albeit different lineups that have somewhat rotated through the decades since Moon’s passing, they all remain vehemently earnest and respective to the original era, when Townshend could do no wrong, when notes of stained glass would emanate out of his wall of amplifiers and shower the crowds and listeners with songs that are gleefully violent, hard nosed and edged and are now firmly entrenched in the rock and roll annals indeed.
So a wonderful happy birthday today to a true rock pioneer, who makes music that like the amplifiers of Spinal Tap, always goes to eleven. Get those Who records out, whether they are greatest hits, or Tommy, Who’s Next, Who Are You, or Quadrophenia, or all of them, and crank the living fuck out of them and squeeze them for every living bit they are worth. After all, that’s how Pete Townshend did it when he and The Who made them. Happy Birthday, Pete!