I often see conversations online from people who wish they could journey back in time to New York City circa 1977 and the beginnings of punk rock. That could be cool, but if I could jump into a time machine I would dial in the late 60s Fillmore East: Jimi Hendrix, early Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Miles Davis, early Allman Brothers and The Who with Keith Moon, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey and nutcase extraordinaire Pete Townshend, the true Godfather of Punk; decked out in his boiler suit, big boots and slinging a cherry red Gibson SG. While The Who was never my favorite band and I did see them in the 80s, in the late 60s/early 70s, with Keith Moon still alive, they were easily one of the most kinetic and explosive concert acts in the world. Youtube clips from the 1970 “Tanglewood” show have the band at the top of their game:
When I say the band was never my favorite, it’s mostly because I always found a lot of their songs really hard to relate to, especially growing up. The early single hits were easy enough and the band always rocked, but some of their best moments were really off the wall. Take A Quick One, the mini opera that completely kills at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. The performance is so good that they completely own the Stones, but the whole thing is just so weird to listen to that it’s hard to imagine a testosterone-charged teen looking to rock would want to throw it on when the urge struck. But the clip shows what The Who always had — smart arrangements and writing and an absolutely blistering live execution of their material…and they are funny. You can’t watch a clip with Keith Moon in it and not be entertained…that is flat-out impossible. This isn’t the best visual quality clip, but get The Kids are Alright or The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus DVD to enjoy a spectacular performance.
Keith Richards once said about Keith Moon…that (paraphrase) “he didn’t know a tin pot from a paradiddle, but he could play with Townshend.” This fact appears in many places in rock literature — Keith Moon was the Chico Marx of rock drumming; an amazingly instinctive player who never practiced, didn’t know what he was doing half the time and played in a manner with certain techniques (like his double-kick) that defy convention and common sense. As the band evolved it’s interesting to wonder what kind of effect Moon had on Pete’s guitar style, because it’s not like you could be in a group with a guy like Moon and not be affected somehow.
Since I’ve been doing a lot of coding and trying to think of things in a mathematical/scientific manner (LOL) consider the graphic above. If you compare Townshend to Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page with the extreme left representing the player’s rhythm to lead ratio and the extreme right representing the player’s lead to rhythm ratio, Pete and Jimi are squarely in the middle. Both players integrated chords and fills into their playing much more than Page, who played more single-string riffs and long solos, or Richards (at the opposite end) who played more chord based riffs. This isn’t to suggest that Richards never played lead or Page never played rhythm — Page began using more chord-based riffs as Led Zeppelin’s career progressed and Hendrix started to change his style as his “songs” developed into “jams” later in his career. But Townshend’s style as we know it, is a complete integration of lead and rhythm guitar; he segues from a chord, to a few notes, to some more chords, to a feedback squeal to a loud BOMM on the low E string all in a few measures. He became the master of the rhythm slash and power chord, augmented and accentuated by these “bits” of counter-melodies or noise played on the high strings or single strings. One reason why Pete (and Jimi to a certain extent) differ is that he didn’t come from a blues-based approach growing up, but loved the RnB style of Booker T and the MGs and guitarist Steve Cropper. (Before he hit it big Hendrix put in a fair amount of time on America’s Chittlin’ Circuit playing in RnB bands). In the early days, The Who were known for their MAXIMUM RnB, which meant less solos and more fills, but Towshend’s highly charged, aggressive live approach to guitar and having Moon as the drummer put all of the dance rhythms of RnB on steroids. This is the main reason I think he is the Godfather of Punk as a lot of players in that genre were obviously heavily influenced by him and by the band’s approach to a group sound that minimized individual soloing. This is Keith Richard’s point in the quote above — Townshend and Moon were perfectly suited to playing with each other just as Hendrix/Mitchell, Page/Bonham, Richards/Watts were good combinations. Try to imagine changing those dual combos around and whether that would even work.Townshend/Watts? Richards/Bonham? Kind of hard to imagine. Then factor in how John Entwistle’s bass lines worked within what Townshend and Moon were doing. Together they produced a very busy and explosive sound and that sound defines The Who, at least through the late 1970s.
While some of Pete’s aggression can be written off to his style and personality, part of his artistic background included being influenced by Gustav Metzger, artist and political activist who “pioneered” the concept of creative destruction and auto-destruction in the early 1960s. Metzger would influence other artists and musicians including Cream and Yoko Ono. In the early days The Who were very Pop Art and Townshend certainly was conscious of all of the various things happening in the art world at the time. Yoko Ono has taken a lot of heat over the years as a “singer”, but if one considers what she is doing or some of what she is doing in the same vein, the whole point is not to sing in the standard or beautiful way. Here, let’s look at the following equation:
Yoko singing (sometimes) = Pete smashing guitar
See how it all begins to make sense? At the (Yoko) link above Townshend describes being aware of Ono because of his association with Metzger, and describes what she was doing as “insane” but in an admiring way, so I’m not just trying to be funny with the above equation. Townshend was never just a ROCK AND ROLL DUDE!! kind of guy and he didn’t just break things. He was using feedback before Jimi Hendrix came on the scene, combined slashing chords, single note runs, picked arpeggios and extreme volume to bring the sound of violence and destruction to the musical form. Of course, for the actual violence he had a very willing partner in Keith Moon, who absolutely loved breaking things and blowing them up. While some of this was showbiz and some of it was lunacy, the ideas behind it descended from a bona-fide and controversial art movement in the same way that Jim Morrison (and later Iggy Pop (perhaps)) used influences like New York City’s The Living Theater to perform in a way that shocked and moved an audience out of its complacency. It has long been alleged that this is what Morrison (who had been incorporating similar ideas in his performance from the beginning) was trying to pull of in Miami 1969 when he was arrested for indecent exposure and inciting a riot. Below is the entire clip from The Smothers Brothers Show in 1967 when The Who brought auto-destruct to prime-time television. Unbeknownst to anyone else Moon had loaded his bass drum with serious pyrotechnics. Townshend has long maintained his problems with Tinnitus began in the wake of this explosion.
Pete expanded on A Quick One in 1969 with the first full-blown rock opera, Tommy, which was quite an ambitious undertaking at the time. While it has attained legendary status over the years, it certainly wasn’t embraced by everyone when it was first released. Given the nature of the story and some of the themes that appear (infidelity, murder, child abuse, sexual abuse) it really isn’t any wonder that some found it excessively vulgar, exploitative, and casual in its approach to such heavy subjects (boy gets sexually abused by his uncle, plays pinball). But Townshend had a history of bringing taboo subjects into the popular music form (I’m a Boy, Pictures of Lily, My Generation, A Quick One) all done with a British style of humor and eccentricity and Tommy represented a supreme coalescing statement of everything the band had done up to that point and certainly qualifies as a real artistic achievement. What really makes it work is how much of opera revolves around Townshend’s guitar work in a very rhythmic sense. There was no departure from what he and the band were already doing and many of the songs (Pinball Wizard, Amazing Journey, Sparks, Acid Queen, Christmas, We’re Not Gonna Take It and I’m Free) stand on their own as great guitar-driven rock songs. This period of the band, which included performances at Woodstock and Isle of Wight saw them getting the solid recognition they had been working for throughout the 60s and this ranks as my favorite period of their career. Their rave up of Young Man’s Blues from Isle of Wight is as good as rock and roll gets and illustrates perfectly everything I’ve tried to describe about Pete’s guitar style.
While The Who started to lose me a bit around the Quadrophenia years, there were still some good songs on the record and throughout the rest of the 70s, at least until Keith Moon passed away. After that they were a completely different band in the same way that LED ZEPPELIN ended with John Bonham’s death. Pete has had a pretty successful solo career in addition to continuing on with Who projects over the years and he is one of the most influential guitarists in rock music. His use of acoustic guitars over the years has really piqued my interest lately — he definitely uses acoustics like Richards/Page to 1) layer nice textures onto a track, 2) provide nice contrasting parts within the song, 3) fill out what is an otherwise “electric” song with an acoustic mixed low to beef up the sound and, 4) in some cases using all acoustics to give the song a really huge, percussive sound. A really close listen of Tommy demonstrates all four of these methods and Pete (like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards) was always a master writer/producer as much as he was a great guitar player. With this in mind I’ll end this with a great solo version of Drowned from The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979. Notice that Pete’s technique is the same whether he is playing acoustic or electric. Like many other great guitar players (Django, Stevie Ray, Jimi etc, etc) he has always played guitar as if his very existence depends on it and that is an attitude and mental state every guitarist should aim for every time the instrument is picked up. The real beauty with all of these players, Pete included, is how they are able to channel the energy, need to play and aggression into something that is stylish and ultimately…artistic!
The Kids are Alright, Isle of Wight and The Rock and Roll Circus are all really great. 4 stars! They are must-have’s in any serious rocker or guitarist library!