It’s difficult to talk about rock & roll because it’s essentially a category and a category which embodies something which transcends the category.
–Pete Townsend, 1968
Thus spake rock music’s resident philosopher in a 1968 interview. While the Beatles were trying to figure out what to do after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Rolling Stones were trying to figure out how to act like international superstars, Pete Townsend was trying to figure out what it all means. As the quote above demonstrates, Townsend was aware of the contradictions that arise when trying to give a broad context to an art form primarily comprised of three minute explosions of lust or anger or frustration or combinations thereof. Individually, the songs are self-contained entities, but by the late Sixties it became apparent that collectively the songs were describing—and even defining—a generation.
Guitarist/songwriter Townsend and his bandmates in The Who (singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon) came out of the British Mod movement of the early sixties, which at first was nothing more than an attitude and a fashion statement. The Who provided a soundtrack for the movement, and their hit single “My Generation” became an anthem—first to the Mods, then to the entire rock subculture. “My Generation” also became the song with which The Who would routinely end their concerts, accompanied by the deliberate destruction of Townsend’s guitar. Premeditated spontaneity—an irony not lost on Townsend.
During the interview from which the above quote is taken, Townsend discusses at great length his songwriting process, he compares Britain’s Mod movement to America’s hippie culture, and he offers commentary about how rock music is (or should be) experienced. Townsend also describes in the interview an idea he has for a “rock opera”, a seemingly self-contradictory concept appropriate to Townsend’s flair for irony. The project he was describing turned into Tommy, an ambitious concept that pushed the artistic boundaries of rock music and secured Townsend’s reputation as a genius.
Townsend’s follow-up to Tommy was another concept album to be titled Lifehouse. Although the project eventually was abandoned, from its remnants came the songs that would appear on Who’s Next, widely considered to be one of the best rock albums ever made.
In 1980 Townsend released a solo album, Empty Glass, which produced the hit single “Let My Love Open the Door,” and was stacked with other great songs including “A Little is Enough”, this live version of which features a full blown backup band including horns and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.
For tonight’s featured video I have chosen a 2012 Townsend performance of the classic “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, from the aforementioned Who’s Next. It is a slowed-down acoustic version yet it still packs all the punch of the faster and louder original version. The song is preceded by some friendly banter with the audience; once one of rock’s brashest upstarts, Townsend is now one of its venerable ambassadors. And the irony is perfectly appropriate.