Simon Townshend — brother of The Who’s Pete Townshend — is flipping the bird. In the film “The Who: Six Quick Ones,” he’s demonstrating on an acoustic guitar how his sibling voices chords by “taking out the pretty part.” As he works the frets, the middle finger on his left hand pops up. The rude gesture isn’t intentional, but it’s nonetheless an apt means of expressing how The Who’s music must have sounded when it came blasting out of the U.K. in the mid-‘60s. The “pretty parts” often got smashed.
A decade before punk rock emerged from the streets of England in the ‘70s, The Who was creating the blueprint. The way the band packed mayhem and melody into a Molotov cocktail of sound in the studio and especially onstage instantly set it apart from its more tradition-bound contemporaries. Looking back on the band’s experiments with distortion and feedback circa 1964-67, Townshend wrote the song “The Punk Meets the Godfather” in 1973, both to acknowledge and mock his contribution to future generations of noise boys and girls. He had become, as he once wrote in Rolling Stone, “the aging daddy of punk rock.”
At a London club in 1977, the punk(s) actually did meet “the godfather” when a drunken Townshend confronted Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. “Rock ‘n’ roll’s going down the fucking pan!” he declared. “You’ve got to take over where The Who left off — and this time, you’ve got to finish the fucking job.” The Pistols had little use for aging rock dinosaurs, but they assured Townshend that The Who didn’t have to exit the stage just yet. On the contrary, they assured the godfather that his band had “paved the way” for punk. Indeed, the Sex Pistols had been playing The Who’s “Substitute” in their sets, which helped give the 1966 single a second life in Britain’s Top 10 in 1976.
Like the Sex Pistols’ generation, which faced an England with “no future” defined by massive unemployment and race riots, Townshend and his bandmates grew up in a bleak world made out of rubble. All were born during or soon after World War II and lived in a London shattered by Nazi bombs and missiles. Their parents and grandparents carried the scars of that conflict to their graves, the post-traumatic-shock of hiding out in subway tunnels while the world above them was exploding. Their children often played in the equivalent of a graveyard, stumbling across skulls, watches and shattered toys in the debris.
In a world defined by violence, the music it inspired needed to throw that impulse back in its face just as violently.
Music provided a way to dig out. In the early ‘60s, Townshend attended the same art school in south London that gave the rock world Freddie Mercury and Ronnie Wood, and there he was introduced to the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger. The German-born innovator once demonstrated the hidden sonic potential of a double bass guitar by chain-sawing it in half. Wide-eyed Pete got the message. In a world defined by violence, the music it inspired needed to throw that impulse back in its face just as violently.
With The Who (briefly known as the High Numbers in 1964), Townshend first tried to channel that feeling through his guitar. As he wrenched feedback from the hunk of wood and wire in his hands, he harpooned the speakers and then the low ceiling during a High Numbers set in September 1964 at the Railway Hotel. As the guitar’s neck broke, he felt a surge of adrenaline, frustration, rage. “I might as well finish it off,” he chuckles as he recalls the moment in The Who documentary “Amazing Journey.” In seconds the guitar was in splinters. The fans loved it. Here, at last, was a band that sounded and performed like they felt.
Drummer Keith Moon, not to be outdone, climaxed a set at the same club a week later by trashing his drum kit. “Once I knew Moonie was with me,” Townshend says, all limits were off, no act of destruction was too extreme. Playing a driving rhythm-lead, the guitarist would windmill his right arm and slash his fingers across the strings, often splattering the instrument with his own blood as if he were engaged in some sort of combat. Just as much of London once lay in smoke and ruins, so too did The Who’s stage immediately after a show. As the carnage mounted, so did the band’s expenses for new equipment. For its fans, The Who’s sonic barrage echoed the world in which they lived.
It all started innocently enough. Singer Roger Daltrey founded the band, and initially his love of the American R&B and blues records pouring in from overseas dictated the sound. But with the emergence of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Kinks — who were starting to crowd the pop charts with original songs circa 1963-64 — The Who needed something more to compete with its British Invasion peers. Enter Townshend, the 18-year-old guitar player, who would be anointed the band’s songwriter out of pure necessity. Like all great songwriters, he started by ripping off somebody or something he envied — in this case, the Kinks hit “You Really Got Me.” Imitation gave way to inspiration.
“I Can’t Explain” was loosely about romantic travail, but it felt more elusive and allusive than a traditional pop love song. It aimed inward, an attempt to articulate an emotion that resisted articulation: “Got a feeling inside… It’s a certain kind… I feel hot and cold… Yeah, down in my soul.” Each clipped declaration was answered with, “Can’t explain.” The stammering guitar chords and galloping drum interjections echoed the narrator’s mind set: anxious, confused, lost, and kicking mad about it.
Townshend, along with manager Kit Lambert, turned The Who into a volatile, ever-changing art project that pushed rock to the brink of what was deemed acceptable by the suits who ran record companies, recording studios and the BBC. Indeed, The Who’s primary airplay was not on the old-guard BBC, which dominated England’s radio landscape, but the pirate stations on off-shore boats manned by renegade DJs.
Townshend strutted through London in a suit resembling a British flag, a walking, fast-talking, artist-rabblerouser writing hard, roaring anthems of discontent streaked with vulnerability.
The London mod scene — populated by sharp-dressed, pill-popping, Vespa-riding rebels sick of condescending, set-in-their-ways, finger-wagging adults trying to limit their freedom and future — found their voice in Townshend’s songs. Townshend strutted through London in a suit resembling a British flag, a walking, fast-talking, artist-rabblerouser writing hard, roaring anthems of discontent streaked with vulnerability. In one bracing 1965 single, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” the guitar solo consists largely of feedback, a simulation of a defective record about a defective society.
“Hope I die before I get old,” Townshend wrote in another flash of anger. He thought nothing of the song. To him, it was little more than a rant modeled after a Jimmy Reed-style talking blues. But Lambert heard something bigger, and urged his protégé to go bolder. The simple guitar riff for what would become “My Generation” gained weight as it passed through four ascending key changes. When the other instruments briefly subsided, John Entwistle made like Godzilla trampling London with a bass solo for the ages. Daltrey stuttered the vocals like he was hopped up on pills, a punk spewing bile and coming tantalizingly close to blurting out the “f” word.
In a mere three minutes and eighteen seconds, “My Generation” was done, crashing down amid the cannon fire of Moon’s drums and Townshend’s hailstorm of feedback. The song became The Who’s biggest hit in the U.K., peaking at No. 2 on the pop chart and anchoring the quartet’s debut album, released in December ‘65.
The song remained a staple of The Who’s setlist ever since and punctuated the group’s appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967 — basically the band’s nationally televised introduction to America. As “My Generation” ended in a cacophony of destruction, Moon set off explosives planted in his drum kit that sent shrapnel flying into his arm and singed Townshend’s hair. The song had laid waste not just to a television show, but to expectations about what a rock song could say during the era when the term “generation gap” was popularized. Other songwriters of the era dove deep into protest song, but The Who’s defiance was a timeless personal statement to which just about any kid with authority issues could relate — even a Sex Pistol.