One of my most talked about pieces for PJ Media noted as an aside that I thought The Who were better than The Beatles.
Loads of people signed in to yell at me for writing that — almost as many as those taking issue with my slagging of George Carlin.
Now I’m finally getting around to explaining what I meant, in six “bits” arranged in no particular order.
So prepare to spar with me, and each other, in the comments below, as I try to convince you that The Who is better than [insert name of that stupid band you like, here].
#6 – The Who are more than the sum of their parts — and their parts are amazing.
As made blatantly obvious (some would say too obvious) with the release of their double album Quadrophenia (1973), the idea of The Who as a “quartnity” of four persons in one “body” held significant power for guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend.
Ultimately, this unified field theory of the band was too quirky, personal and unwieldy to make it into the finished album intact. Perhaps Townshend was overthinking the obvious, and working too hard to express something that fans already understood:
That his band was comprised of four people who, combined, produced music that was “4 to the nth power.”
Townshend’s focus on The Who as a quartet of distinctive individuals is almost as old as the band itself. In the short video below, Pete Townshend shares his proto-punk thoughts about his band mates, circa 1966:
I’m not about to claim that Pete Townshend was the greatest rock guitarist of all time (he placed only #50 in the Rolling Stone Top 100), or that Keith Moon was the greatest drummer.
Yet no one can make a similar claim about any of The Beatles, either, and they are regularly referred to as most successful band in history. (Ringo isn’t called “The Luckiest Man Alive” for nothing.)
What I can do is present the bios that make up part of the sensational documentary about The Who, Amazing Journey, in which other big name musicians explain and demonstrate what makes every member — to use an over/mis-used word — unique:
#5 – The Who Could Take Hippies or Leave Them
I’ll fess up: I always kind of liked Abbie Hoffman.
Of all the individuals who tried to destroy American in the 1960s and 70s, the Yippie “leader” and Chicago 8 defendant was the most energetic and entertaining, a hippie Groucho Marx.
[Hoffman] said: “I think this is a pile of ***t! While John Sinclair rots in prison…”.
Hoffman was protesting (…) the imprisonment of John Sinclair (leader of the White Panther Party and manager of the left-wing hard-rock band MC5) who had been convicted and sentenced to nine years of prison because of marijuana possession.
Townshend cursed repeatedly at Hoffman and — accounts differ at this point — reportedly struck him with his guitar.
Townshend didn’t approve of Sinclair’s draconian sentence any more than Hoffman did, but he was in the middle of a high adrenaline performance in front of half a million people at five in the morning.
A lot of Americans congratulating themselves on the fact that this festival was gonna change the world. I kinda saw through it. There was a lot of political stuff going on in the background. (It was) a self congratulatory affair.
Even before Woodstock, The Who didn’t take lefty “world changers” very seriously. In 1967, they appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The titular twits were your typical self-important 1960s show biz liberal blowhards:
As buttoned-down as its hosts appeared to be, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour came as close as any network program could in 1967 to being culturally and politically subversive. Tommy and Dick Smothers fought a running battle with CBS during their show’s three-year run over scripts that subtly tweaked “the Establishment” and guests whose off-air politics were deemed controversial by network censors.
As I’ve written before at PJ Media, Tommy Smothers in particular was, and is, such an obnoxious, small-minded, ill-informed ideological bully that he’s even rendered his verbally felicitous and highly opinionated (former fan) Penn Jillette speechless.
Perhaps mistaking Smothers for the naff he pretended to be, or — I like to think — having caught a glimpse of the creep who hid behind a “nice guy” mask over the course of their five days on the set, The Who decided to have considerable fun at his expense. If the Smothers Brothers wanted to “smash the system,” then smashing they would have.
The Who have never been a pointedly political band; they specialize in attitude, not analysis. To the relief of their fans, they’ve never held pretentious “Bed-Ins” or promoted themselves via fashionable causes.
So I was quite cheered to learn that Roger Daltrey has turned into what the British call (as an insult) a “Little Englander” in his near-old age. (The North American equivalent would accuse him of shouting “get off my lawn.”)
“I find it very interesting that people who spout socialism don’t want to pay for a socialist state,” Daltrey, a lifelong Labour Party voter, told the British press recently. “It doesn’t quite add up.”
I was appalled at what Labour did to the working class — mass immigration, where people were allowed to come here and undercut our working class.
It’s fine to say everybody can come into your country, but everybody should work towards a standard of living expected by people who live here. Not come here, live 20 to a room, pay no tax, send money home and undercut every builder in London. They slaughtered the working class in this country. I hate them for it because it is always the little man who is hurt badly. It’s terrible. It frustrates me.
We have got to stop pandering to people because we won’t be able to afford to keep this going. At the very least, it should be a pre-requisite that people have to learn English.
What really made me angry about that period is not that people shouldn’t come here — that’s fine — but you have to make allowances for the strain that is going to put on your social services and they made none.
#4 – The Who Sing About the Same Thing Most of the Time
Some might think this is a negative. However, almost all great artists work and rework the same plot of psychic land all their lives:
Monet and his waterlillies. Woody Allen and a single slender demographic of New Yorkers.
The awkward teenaged male is Pete Townshend’s Mount Fuji.
Hence Judd Apatow’s choice of Quadrophenia‘s poignant “I’m One,” for an otherwise silent scene in Freaks and Geeks, creating one of the most poignant and beautifully observed TV moments of the last 15 years:
By rights, Townshend’s particular muse should have become a handicap, an embarrassment (like a disfiguring, inoperable growth) decades ago.
Ironically, though, Townshend’s apparently arrested adolescence has… matured.
This paradox has let him, and us, travel from this (1965):
To this (1973):
To this (2004):
We’re walking the same path three times. However, the first time, we’re doing so in spring. The second, round about Labor Day. The third, in winter.
When people say “some things just never get old,” those are, amusingly enough, exactly the sorts of “things” they mean.
#3 – The Who Won’t Go Away
Which brings us to the inevitable:
Complaining that Pete Townshend got old and didn’t die, and, worst of all, still sings that song in concert without a camp wink or apologetic shrug, is a peevish complaint that’s way past its sell-by date.
Ditto observing that they hold the world record for “farewell” tours.
Look: we can and will complain all we want that the “Mona Lisa” is, frankly, pretty homely, or Christmas is “really just a pagan holiday” (and is “too commercial now.”)
Here’s the problem: it’s too late. None of that stuff is going away at this point.
Similarly, at an early age, Pete Townsend built a lyrical and attitudinal brick wall. Then he got old, and drove a truck through it.
If you’re still standing there bitching in the dust after he’s miles down the road, that’s really your problem at this point.
#2 – The Who Aren’t Pompous Phony Blowhards
After 9/11, self-appointed poet laureates U2, Neil Young and pompous phony blowhard Bruce Springsteen clearly felt obligated to squeeze out something for the occasion.
Now, given its sheer proximity and magnitude, 9/11 demands profound artistic representation in direct disproportion to how hard that is to actually pull off.
Alas, those poet laureates didn’t comprehend that. The world needed some chicken noodle soup, and these performers were damned if they were going to let anyone else bring it. Too bad the broth was cold and weak, hastily served in a chipped bowl.
Unlike these bandwagon jumpers, The Who didn’t hurriedly compose and shoot out a ham-fisted, self-conscious tune advertising their own Profound Sensitivity™ and sudden onset temporary patriotism.
They just went to New York City and played some old songs, ones that didn’t have the words “towers” and “fire” and “smoke” or “planes” hurriedly jammed into them.
Oddly enough, the folks whose opinions really counted seemed to approve:
#1 – The Who Accepted an Award From President Bush and Didn’t Embarrass Him or Themselves
Don’t laugh: how rare was that for eight years?
They didn’t grab the opportunity to make a “political statement” or send out Pocahontas to (refuse to) pick up their prize.
Instead, everybody had a nice time. Maybe even Barbra Streisand!
Roger Daltrey’s official statement upon hearing that The Who would be the first rock band to ever receive a Kennedy Center Honor was unfailingly classy and gracious:
As a teenager growing up in the austerity of post war England, it was the music I heard emanating from America that gave me a dream to hang my life on. That dream was to make music and make it there. I am deeply touched at receiving this honour. The warmth and affection I feel from our US audience is humbling indeed. To be added to the list of past recipients of this award makes that dream come true.