The Who in San Francisco

THE WHO PLAY rock "n’ roll music ("it’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it," says Chuck Berry). Not art-rock, acid-rock, or any type of rock, but an unornamented wall of noise that, while modern and electronic, has that "golden oldies" feeling. Four Mod kids who started in 1963 as the High Numbers in London’s scruffy Shepherd’s Bush, the Who play a tight driving music which is a descendant of the rock of Elvis, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, and even the early Beatles.

In San Francisco near the end of a ten-week, fifty-city tour, the Who were at their best, packing the huge Fillmore West three nights straight, their single show nightly as an hour and a half of brilliantly intense excitement capped by the climactic smashing of the guitar and drums that is their trademark. They played old songs and new, drawing each out into long rocking statements that had wild but economical power. The smashing is by now almost off-hand, and gone is their audience hatred (almost: Pete Townshend did kick the fans who scrabbled too eagerly for his broken guitar). Jumping around with smiling hilarity and dressed in street clothes rather than their former outfits–pop art suits and Regency lace–the Who just played the music.

"We’re getting used to the fact that to play more music we have to sacrifice some of the visual bit," said Townshend. "The costumes used to get in my way, and I don’t want to look like James Brown anymore. The whole violent style happened because we couldn’t play–it covered that up and expressed our frustrations. Now we’re getting more musical, so we don’t need the anger like we did."

He scratched his neck for a moment, grinned dourly, and continued in thick cockney. "But we still like the smashing. If some creep yells for it, we’ll do it and be happy. Whatever there is in our systems we don’t get out playing, we get out with the smashing. It’s inherent to us. It is the Who."

But the Who are more than their nihilistic ritual (from which Antonioni built the nightclub riot scene in Blow-Up). In their five years they have toured England endlessly, done five American tours, and produced several polished albums and a series of hits. Though without the overwhelming success in America that makes pop stars millionaires who can retire from public life while still adolescents, the Who are in a secure middle status: not as big as the Beatles or Rolling Stones, but with a demonstrated staying power, both creative and popular, lacked by groups like Cream and Jimi Hendrix.

The men Who are: saucy-faced Keith Moon, presiding madman at the drums; the painfully skinny and bleached blond Roger Daltrey, who sings lead and writhes for the ladies; stolid basist John Entwhistle, who writes a few songs, including the group’s most requested number, ‘Boris the Spider’; and Townshend, a pleasantly moody 23-year-old who, besides playing lead guitar, is the group’s leader, main songwriter, spokesman and theorist. "Talk to Peter," said Entwhistle, "he’ll spin out the rubbish as long as you’re willing to listen."

Townshend did, sprawled out bonily on a sofa in his motel room. "Maybe we play rock ‘n’ roll, but if we play it, it’s because we’re in the one big rock ‘n’ roll movement. There’s not Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and the Beatles and the Who, all playing different music. There’s just rock ‘n’ roll, full stop. We’re in it, it’s not in us."

He stopped and sneered a classic Townshend sneer. "Rock’s just about dead in England, the scene there has had it. England is a European country filled with boring people who like boring things. It must have been an accident that the Beatles got their sound together there. Do you know that Engelbert Humperdinck"–he almost spat at the name of a currently popular English ballad singer–"is a bigger property now than anybody? Rock ‘n’ roll is happening in America like it always did. We love it here. The Byrds, Steppenwolf, Booker T., Moby Grape, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.

"You can tell what is and what isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. To be the real thing, a song has to have an awareness of rock history. It has to have the beat, that undulating rhythm. Even while it feels history, it has to say something new. And, most important, it has to have crammed into it all the poignancy and excitement of youth because that’s what it’s really all about."

The Who live the definition. Their biggest early hit was ‘My Generation’, with the lines, "Things, they say, look awful cold, Hope I die before I get old." ‘Summertime Blues’, a hit of singer Eddie Cochran’s from the mid-‘50s, is still in their repertory. Townshend carries tapes of Cochran (killed in a car crash in 1960) wherever he goes. All four are big fans of what English pop fans call "flash," the hard-edged charisma of fame, sex, power, and lavishly spent money. While in San Franscisco, Townshend bought a Lincoln Continental Mark II and will have it shipped to London. "I love American cars and this one’s a classic," he said. "All gold paint, leather seats, and the engine is painted bright blue." They tour not just for they money–they make up to $7,500 a night–but because gruelling one-night stands are part of rock tradition.

"We’re travelling on our own now, but I’d rather tour with a lot of groups, a couple of dozen blokes jammed into a bus having the time of their lives. If we stopped touring, we’d go off. Dead.

"Playing on stage, though, we’re playing history. New ideas come from sitting down by yourself and working. That’s where the spark is, work. I don’t respect groups who won’t work. And the spark, you have to get that on the records. So we don’t mess around with all the fancy studio stuff, tracking and tracking a thing into obscurity. We want to make sure that on record the impact of the idea is captured in all its vibrancy and dynamite–that’s what we’re after. We’ve never put out a record that didn’t say what it was supposed to."

What Townshend and the group want to say has changed. From the first days of pure aggression, they have moved through the humor of ‘Happy Jack’ and ‘Tattoo’ to the zinging unearthliness of ‘I Can See for Miles’ and ‘Magic Bus’, their latest release. Some of the anger is still there, in part because Townshend grew up hating people who laughed at his enormous nose; his songs often feature deformed little boys who get back at the cruel world. Now Townshend is testing new directions for the album the group will record in the fall.

"I am incredibly excited. I know people want something new. They want a new reason to go to a rock ‘n’ roll concert. What we are going to try is opera, not something trashy like the pompous arty types do. They do fancy things because they can’t play. We’ve done mini-operas, now we want a long thing around a theme–I’ve been thinking about a story about a blind, deaf kid–with dialogue, songs, and an incredible finale. I want to get into stuff that will leave the smashing way, way behind."

Townshend started to pace the room. "We’ll be into impressionistic music, music like Wagner and Mahler, music that conjures up things more powerful than you can handle. Music can create fantastic high points in people’s minds. We want to take those minds," and as he spoke, he raised his hands high above his head, then whipped them down as though hurling a boulder into the innocent sofa, "and bomb them open!"

© Michael Lydon, 1968

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