Pete Townshend is selling (his soul), but who's buying? Not I.
There is a reason the Beatles are considered the greatest band ever. It’s simple, really: they are the greatest band ever. After them, it’s a fair fight for second place, and fans of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Kinks can duke it out for eternity. (And that’s just the British bands.) It would not be terribly enjoyable, or edifying, to argue about which band warrants consideration as runners-up, but since the Stones tend to be the ones most often considered just under the Fab Four's thumbs, how about the Who? Who knows what might have happened if Keith Moon had not kicked off for that great pub in the sky? (Based on what these other bands did, or did not do, after 1980, it’s safe to propose nothing terribly earth shattering was portended.)
But the output from their first decade goes toe-to-toe with any of these other bands’ best work. And if you want to go deep, what tri-fecta can possibly touch Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia? In terms of albums released in a row, that is a tough list to top. The Stones, of course, came close with Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street (and in terms of the immediate precursors, I would personally rank The Who Sell Out as every bit as good, if not slightly better, than the somewhat overrated Beggar’s Banquet). What else do you got? I wouldn’t fight to the death arguing that Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper aren’t the most important (if least perfect) consecutive albums to drop in rock history. Of course there is also the entirety of Hendrix’s studio output (while he lived, that is; the good, the bad and the ugly that still spills out of the vaults is a mostly positive mixed blessing), Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland. Fans of the underdogs will get plenty of mileage endorsing The Kinks’ Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks and The Village Green Preservation Society.
Inspiring? Pete Townshend, arguably, is the ultimate rock hero. He had the Lennon & McCartney songwriting skills, he was no Hendrix but he played the hell of those guitars he ultimately smashed into splinters (still more punk rock than some poser spitting into the crowd); he had Ray Davies’ lyrical chops and he represented the blue collar sensibility of the down-and-out working stiffs many years before the blokes from Birmingham called themselves Black Sabbath and took on the world one sacred cow at a time. And he was always a thinking man’s Keith Richards, content to swim in the scum but never letting it stall his creative engine. He makes those siblings from Oasis seem like the sissies they are: for all their squabbles did either of them ever beat the other into the hospital as Roger Daltrey did after Townshend whacked him with his guitar in the studio? And I love him for kicking Abby Hoffman offstage, literally, during Woodstock when he interrupted the Who’s set to rant at the crowd (nevermind the fact that his whining was well-warranted, since he was calling legitimate attention to John Sinclair’s ludicrous imprisonment, and nevermind that Hoffman later claimed the incident did not go down the way it was portrayed, begging the question of how and why the audio could have possibly been altered or misconstrued).
Influential? This, of course, was the band that made an album entitled The Who Sell Out. Aside from the fact that it was, in many ways, a blueprint for their subsequent masterpiece Tommy, it was an incredible album in its own right. Also important, it displayed the restless sensibility of the band’s principle songwriter, who always had his foot on the pulse and remained a step or two ahead of the crowd. A few years after he sang about hoping he died before he got old on “My Generation” and a few decades before he did get old, and began selling his songs to the highest bidder, he predicted all of it. Of course, he did so tongue very much in cheek, his sardonic wit and impish eye for human foibles firing on all cylinders. The band actually recorded mini commercials in between tunes (cool) that were actually fucking brilliant (cooler). In addition to the one that still scorches, “I Can See for Miles”, the album was brimming with inspired, offbeat slices of life. Consider ”Odorono“ or “Silas Stingy” or the not quite fully baked but enduring “Tattoo”. Or this personal favorite, which manages to hint at all the grandeur just over the horizon, “Someone’s Coming”:
Indeed, if there had been no Tommy, the bet here is that The Who Sell Out would be considered one of the seminal mid-to-late ’60s rock documents. As such, it is easily counted amongst the band’s better work and has been cited, covered and worshipped; it even inspired one of the truly eccentric yet satisfactory experiments of the new century. Petra Haden (daughter of jazz legend Charlie Haden) had the audacity to record an entirely a cappella reimagining of the album, naturally entitled Petra Haden Sings the Who Sell Out. To say this would not be everyone’s cup of chai is understating the obvious, but for those with a more adventurous sonic palette, its joys are bountiful.
The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie to better understand this apparent dichotomy). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.
And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”:
Led Zeppelin, to their eternal credit, did what the Who were unable to do when they lost their drummer in the late ’70s: they stopped making music. As such, their legacy is intact, and they can take credit for never making a sub-par album. The Who, on the other hand, plowed ahead (and who could blame them, then or now? Not me) and made some mediocre albums before they pulled the plug. Little did anyone know that the Who were about to sell out (literally and figuratively) in 1989, going on the road once again to celebrate their 25th anniversary (and who could blame them, then or now? Not me). As far as I’m concerned, if bands want to play and people want to pay to see them, rock on. It was, nevertheless, a bit pitiful to see the man who crowed about selling out and dying before he got old turning his “rock opera” into a family-friendly Broadway production in the ’90s. And then there were the commercials. I don’t exactly lose sleep over old rebels letting their back catalogs get pimped out by rapacious PR firms, but I believe Bill Hicks delineates what is at stake better than anyone else could (see him rant here).
So Pete Townshend wants to allow his songs to be used in order to hawk Hummers or HPs or… high performance headlights? Whatever. No matter how old and opportunistic he becomes, nothing Townshend can do will dampen my enthusiasm for his earlier work; that is the stuff that matters: the rest is between his soul, the devil and the deep blue sea.
Still, it was disconcerting to see Townshend get his knickers in a bunch when Michael Moore asked to use “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the conclusion of Fahrenheit 9/11. Don’t get me wrong, I often find the oleaginous Moore as nauseating as the next guy does, and I agree with his politics. I ultimately think he’s a cause for good, and many Americans would do well to recall that he was among the first, and loudest, public critics of the Iraq catastrophe long before the supine mainstream media took it upon themselves to connect the obvious dots. A man who makes movies like he does (ham-fisted and disgustingly self-satisfied) warrants a regular and healthy dose of ridicule, but he was targeted for telling the truth and for that alone he has eternal street cred. Plus, his movies contain gems of insight that usually emerge from the gratuitous commentary, too-cute-by-two-thirds editing and distracting presence of a man who should stay behind the camera at all costs.
Townshend made a big fuss about what a hack and a charlatan Moore was, which sounded like he was protesting a tad too much. However, whether he intended it, or whether he likes it, coming as it did in the summer of an election year, he gave the Republicans considerable fodder. That was unconscionable. For a man who was at one time progressive to license his songs to sell SUV’s is lame enough; to take a principled stand against a filmmaker who is trying to expose the lies and crimes that were, at that time, killing hundreds of American soldiers (not to mention the countless innocent Iraq lives) each month, is a large, ugly stain on Townshend’s legacy.
Which brings us back to the future. To see (and hear) “Won’t Get Fooled Again” being used in the latest Will Ferrell production, a remake of ’70s TV show Land of the Lost is…disappointing. Aside from the fact that the film looks predictably terrible, the idea that Townshend is happy to sell it is…revealing. Listen, I could care less if Townshend decided he was a hardcore conservative (though he may not appreciate the way Republicans in this country would have treated his little kiddie porn peccadillo); certainly it would sting a little bit to see him embrace the ultimate intellectual devolution. Again, it would not distract me in the slightest from worshipping the music he made when he still had a brain. But to allow a song that allegedly meant something to him at one time (”Won’t Get Fooled Again”, albeit a precious sort of political song, is still a timeless indictment of the system and our endless capacity for using our illusions) to shill mindless Hollywood dross? It’s more than a little disgusting.
And yet, in the final analysis, there is something quite appropriate about this turn of events. The movie is about dinosaurs and perhaps Townshend recognizes that he too is a dinosaur. He used to roam the earth and lesser creatures trembled at his presence. Now, his integrity is extinct, and he is himself a bit of a cartoon, alive mostly through memories and on TV, via the songs in the commercials that pimp product. And of course he will live forever inside the machines that play music, keeping his former soul safe and enshrined.