Peter Townshend

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Gary Herman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3558

The years between 1964 and 1968 represented the adolescence of The Who as a group. Their early years were a host of garbled impressions and varied influences which they assimilated uncritically; their middle years show them, like their audiences, struggling for some kind of identity in the chaos of the world at that time; since about 1968 they have achieved the mark of maturity—the faculty of self-critical development.

Among the influences which the group did assimilate, artistic movements played the most important part. The music and stage act of the middle years shows influence from auto-destructive art, the Theatre of Cruelty and electronic or concrete music, besides the more obvious debts to the blues and American rock 'n' roll. In assimilating these influences, The Who gave a perspective to their art and thus gave both their own music and rock in general, which had too long paid little attention to the wider cultural scene, a cultural dimension. They were, in fact, the very opposite of "rootless"; they were strictly located in the history of art and society, strictly placed in the perspective of Western culture. (pp. 58-9)

It is difficult to overstress the importance of the mod experience in any interpretation or evaluation of The Who's work. If it is at all true that art derives some of its validity and power from its nature as a means of transmitting, objectifying and commenting on subjective experience of the world, then The Who's roots in Mod are doubly significant, both to their work and to our appreciation of it.

In a sense … Mod was like a lens which sharply focused the aspirations and ideals of a whole new generation—the first with no memory of world war or its immediate consequences. Indeed, many mods, not least The Who themselves, constantly drew comparisons between the mod experience and their elders' experience of war. "Two wars gave youngsters something to identify with," Pete Townshend said…. "Our generation had to find something else." Certainly nostalgia about Margate and Brighton is comparable with nostalgia about Dunkirk or Piccadilly during the blackout…. The Who's talents were germinated and nurtured by these experiences, and it was inevitable that they should become the poets laureate of the way of life of which Mod was the perfect, if too brilliant, image. (pp. 77-8)

My Generation is Mod—it epitomizes everything that Mod meant to the mods themselves and to a whole generation of kids for whom Mod was the only adequate expression of their feelings. It presents again to us the picture of a confused, angry, inarticulate adolescent, declaiming his hatred of "straight" (adult) society…. (pp. 81-2)

The song itself employs what Townshend has called "The Who brag form." The brag is characteristic of those songs which relate most obviously to Mod. We are reminded of the forerunner of My Generation, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere, and its self-assertive aggressiveness. However, My Generation succeeded in conveying the essence of bragging rather than the simple boastfulness of the former record; for it revealed that the roots of the bragging lay in genuine insecurity. (p. 82)

My Generation encapsulates in its three minutes or so the entire mod experience—the individual anger and frustration, perversity and apparently misplaced nonchalance (listen to the lazy bass melody in the instrumental passage), and the collective violence…. Yet My Generation is a song of innocence, because it expresses no awareness of the deeper implications of its stance …; because it is simply a subjective statement, a rallying call to mods; because, finally, it does not even attempt to analyze the problem. Such an attempt would have necessarily implied...

(This entire section contains 3558 words.)

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that The Who should analyze the song itself; and it is a measure of their development that their present work does display such a self-consciousness. (pp. 85-6)

[Both] Tommy and Live At Leeds emphasize the progress The Who have themselves made and their divergence from their own beginnings in the collective enthusiasm of mod. At the same time the LPs attempt to reverse that progression. The group is aware of the passage of time and the fact of change, in artistic terms and especially as they affect their own circumstances. Change itself is an underlying motif of all their work, just as the fear of its inevitability was responsible for the mods' attempts to stop it. Mod was a Peter Pan mentality; above all it valued youth, for the sense of energy and of novelty that the mods themselves discovered in the early "Beatlemania" days. It was never a proselytizing movement, for it was essentially self-centered and unaware of a wider social role than that which it had at any given moment. It was for this reason that one could be a mod, and thus in revolt against the predominant social mores and ideology, while still submitting oneself to them.

Growing old was a critical phenomenon for the mod of My Generation, because, it seems, growing old will inevitably turn one into a "straight." The effects of time on personal relationships are witnessed in songs as apparently diverse as Substitute, The Kids Are Alright, Disguises, Dogs, A Quick One While He's Away, I Can't Reach You and, indeed, the whole of Tommy itself. (pp. 88-9)

[In] Tommy's final attempt to reverse the passage of time, after becoming disillusioned with the objective social world (one might almost say, adult world), and to return to his state of extended infancy, we can discern echoes of the mod reaction against the inevitable progression into adulthood. Tommy displays the conflict, between desire for the security of the past and awareness of the inevitability of change, that has been a motivating force not merely within The Who's work but in their very career. (pp. 89-90)

The Who's realization that their problem is only one aspect of a far more general difficulty has given their later songs a wider frame of reference than any of their previous works. No longer are they simply about deception and confusion on a restricted, interpersonal level…. [Even] though there is an implicit search for meaning and identity in the confused hatred of My Generation, or in the almost frantic self-reassurance of I'm A Boy, it is difficult to imagine the speaker in either of these songs expressing the idea of a search such as that described in The Seeker. Whereas the earlier songs were adolescent in that they were about adolescent topics (especially sexual ones like masturbation and "first love"), gave expression to adolescent feelings, and were without the perspective gained by experience, the later songs display the self-awareness and deeper understanding brought by maturity. It is important that The Who's adolescence coincided with their audience's. The group satisfied themselves, in their earlier songs, with expressing the most immediate and obvious solutions to problems. Such solutions are almost invariably superficial and impracticable. (pp. 95-7)

I'm A Boy was a semi-objective statement, and posed the problem it dealt with in terms revealing specific faults in a specific mother-son relationship—unlike My Generation or Substitute, which were vaguer subjective statements. I'm A Boy, which is written in the present tense and first person, leads to Pictures Of Lily, which presents its story historically in the first person. Thus there is a general trend away from a subjective, present-tense, first-person form to a more objective form of historical biography. Similarly, there is a tendency, as the lyrical form becomes more complex, to introduce other characters into the story, and to place them in a more explicit relationship to the protagonist than, for example, the ill-defined adults who appear in My Generation. These developments have led naturally to extension of the scope and length of songs, as the group has realized that social and historical influences are more far-reaching than they had thought. An inevitable result has been the creation of an integrated work spanning a life-time and involving the social environment and history of one person, as Townshend put it … "from birth to god-realization"; that is Tommy. (pp. 97-9)

Tommy is about deception and exploitation, and the confusion and frustration which they cause. Tommy is an ideal, the complete innocent, a pure being. He represents a purity that becomes tainted by his parents' deception, a simple being who gains complexity through exploitation by his uncle, his cousin, the "Acid Queen" and so on. Tommy's theme, a simple and initially pure melodic line underneath the lyric "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me" follows this development; as it is repeated during the opera it is built up harmonically, indicating the growing complexity of Tommy's character.

Touch is important for Tommy, as the means of locating himself in the world when he plays pinball, for instance, and as the means of communicating with others ("The few I've touched now are disciples"). Yet even touch, the most simple and direct of communications, can become misinterpreted and vague, and create confusion which Tommy himself could not have foreseen; for he developed in a subjective world where what he felt could not be doubted, since it could not be tested against external reality. Tommy's final withdrawal, which has the appearance of an existential act, is in fact the inevitable consequence of his achieving a purely formal ability to communicate with others on their own terms, without having the grounds for this communication in shared experience. He withdraws, in the end, because he (or Townshend) lacks a proper understanding of the process of communication. Tommy's existential act is his initial attempt to communicate, and, since it lacks the proper foundation, it is bound to fail.

The fundamental contradiction of human life—that people are at once the constituents and the products of their society—cannot be resolved by withdrawal into self. Indeed, the contradiction is the well-spring of art, and Tommy, in withdrawing, is like an artist who retreats into subjectivism, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the community of experience on which his art depends. In such a retreat, art, and therefore individual human life, becomes sterile and withers. Just so, Tommy becomes an object, outside society, outside human life, no different from a vegetable, because he has forgone the capacity to communicate. Tommy's inner life is an irrelevancy, in the way that any mystical experience is irrelevant if it remains uncommunicated and of no use to other people. (pp. 101-03)

Tommy's failure to communicate effectively … [is] of essentially the same nature as the inarticulateness of the speakers in I Can't Explain and My Generation. Each has its roots, not in the lack of available tools for communication, but in the nature of the relationships involved. It is the malaise which is dealt with in songs like Substitute, It's Not True and I'm A Boy, each of which emphasizes the deceptions of unsatisfactory human relationships. (p. 105)

The endings of both Rael 1 and 2 … on The Who Sell Out and Tommy embody the masses' triumphal rejection of everything their apparent leaders stand for. Thus in Rael: "He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back for him, he's crazy anyway," and in Tommy the song We're Not Gonna Take It:

               We're not gonna take it!                Never did and never will …                We forsake you,                Gonna rape you,                Let's forget you better still!                                    (pp. 106-07)

[His] former disciples are shown, in their unity, to declare their ability to govern their own lives. (p. 108)

Since My Generation The Who's characters have begun to live in a moral and emotional world that makes explicit the concepts of responsibility, guilt and sadness, which were only implicit in earlier songs. Townshend's first attempt at opera, A Quick One While He's Away, from the LP [Happy Jack], is a simple story of a wife's infidelity while her husband is away…. It [has] a happy ending, but the happiness is only possible because forgiveness is [given], and that itself depends on a concept of wrong within the song. Unlike I'm A Boy, Substitute, My Generation, It's Not True, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere and a host of other songs, the central character (the woman whose story is told) is introduced as innocent and therefore virtuous. Temptation and sin are introduced in the shape of Ivor who corrupts her innocence as the serpent corrupts Eve. The earlier songs imply notions of falsity and evil, which are preconditions of life within those songs and therefore of the songs themselves. Within such songs there is no expression of the moral concepts that are so important to A Quick One While He's Away, because they are primarily subjective, first-person, present-tense statements. That is to say that, in a sense, the early Who songs are much more immediately a part of the outside world than works of art customarily are. A Quick One While He's Away strikes one, as does Tommy, as more of an imaginative work, because it creates its own world and its own values. The decisions for earlier Who characters are already made for them, because they arise out of the reality of The Who's own lives. In A Quick One While He's Away, however, the process of separation from their roots begins to become evident, and is measurable as the degree of existential independence the characters are intended to have. (pp. 109-10)

Ultimately, A Quick One While He's Away leaves us with the same taste as a romantic novel; not necessarily a bad thing, except that it would have us believe that the problems The Who so convincingly portray can be solved satisfactorily within the creative imagination alone. In this context Pictures of Lily, while being a masterful portrait of a subject rarely discussed in art and even less frequently elsewhere, reveals an interesting discovery: that attempts to find aesthetic solutions for emotional problems can never, in our society, be adequate ones. (pp. 111-12)

The Who's magic [is] just a fantastic tool used to aid the solution of real, even mundane, problems. The quality we can detect in I Can See For Miles and to a lesser extent in Call Me Lightning and A Quick One While He's Away is a power and exultancy that derives from the certainty implicit in magical or fantastic solutions. (p. 114)

The elements of fantasy and romanticism in Who songs of the period seem to contrast sharply with the realization, expressed in Pictures Of Lily, that such solutions are inadequate in the external world. Yet it is precisely because The Who could be more objective about their work, seeing its social potential, that fantasy and romanticism became so important. Even in the group's most blatantly fantastic or romantic works, the problems of the protagonists remain real and common, and the mundane images that pervade The Who's songs of that time (the bus in Magic Bus, the greyhound racing in Dogs and so on) indicate how much they are still rooted in the everyday experience of the young of the English working- and lower-middle-class. The use of fantasy and romanticism reveal The Who's awareness of the value of their art on providing a temporary escape into the world of happy endings and apparently magical possibilities, in which human relationships are completely satisfying and one can "see for miles," not in any supernatural sense, but in the sense that one's full potentialities, intellectual, physical and emotional, can be realized. (p. 116)

Undoubtedly The Who's vision is one of a world free from deception and pretense, or, more precisely, free from the need for such tactics in human relationships. Their determination lies in their unshakable faith in rock and its power to express and inspire the values and emotions of a whole generation. The Who Sell Out, because it employs this power and is precisely located in the history and sociology of rock, is the nearest The Who have come to the perfect blend of the imaginative and the realistic. The album itself, and thus the vision, is rooted in a nostalgia that both emphasizes the distance the group have traveled from their origins (hence the title) and displays a faith in rock music and a confidence in those who grew up surrounded by rock and its paraphernalia. The Radio London jingles and advertisements which cement the different songs together not only signify a situation in which it is possible for the group to sell out (thus displaying an awareness of their own economic and social influence), but also invoke the past days of Mod and the early days of The Who themselves—Radio London was the first pirate station to play I Can't Explain.

In many ways this nostalgia, and the latter attempts to return to the group's musical origins, is comparable to a nostalgia, if not a positive yearning, for childhood days, for the days before the harsh experience of life can destroy the innocence and purity of youth. In this light Tommy can be seen as a celebration of childhood; a childhood in which the innocent and unprotected child is crucified on the cross of his elders' sins, and to which the grown-up Tommy finds it necessary to return, unable to compromise between the adult world of exploitation and deceit and his own, exaggerated, childhood experiences.

The Who Sell Out emphasizes the importance, for the group as a whole, of overcoming the distortion that experience imposes on our perception, without retreating from society as Tommy did. That attempts of this kind can succeed is yet further cause for melancholy, for success is often only fleeting. (pp. 117-18)

The loss of innocence, both generally and in the more restricted sense of The Who's career, and the awareness of that loss, has inevitably molded the group's work. While Tommy remains pessimistic on that point, and A Quick One perhaps over-optimistic in its use of fantasy, The Who Sell Out keeps a delicate balance between the two…. Tattoo is unique in being a single song that spans an entire lifetime. Like Tommy, I'm A Boy, and many of the earlier songs, it begins in childhood. Townshend's obsession with childhood as an age of innocence is quintessentially clear here, and this song, like others but with a greater emphasis, indicates how much he believes experience starts with sexual experience. (p. 119)

Pessimistic as the song appears to be, it is yet infused with a warmth and tenderness that stress the absurdity of attempting to ignore human experiences. In the end it is just those experiences that can form a bond between two people. In Tattoo the tattoos form as strong a unifying core for a human relationship as the experiences of mods did in the creation of their solidarity.

Insofar as sexual relationships have always been the chief sources of deceit, distortion and frustration, so loving relationships, in the work of The Who, offer opportunities of overcoming them. The Who Sell Out deals with loving relationships at some length, and the depth of these relationships is in sharp contrast to the superficiality of relationships in earlier Who songs. (p. 123)

While Tommy's love is universal and incommunicable (one cannot, in our world, say "I love everybody" and expect to be believed), and the love of the protagonists of A Quick One While He's Away is vacuous and fantastic, love in The Who Sell Out is something to be acquired—often painfully—through human experience, to enrich that experience and to lend it a certain beauty. It is therefore valued, and only foolishly rejected….

The pre-eminent position of love in the world of The Who Sell Out explains the real tragedy of Sunrise: not that the protagonist can only be with his love in his dream world (if that were tragic, Pictures Of Lily would have been a tragic song), but that he rejects real love in favor of that world. (p. 125)

The rejection of the real, present love of Sunrise is a tragedy because neither the protagonist nor anybody else knows how to make the dream a permanent reality, as secure and consistent as that of his waking hours. The dream ignores change and in its purity and perfection becomes an image of the past; it is a simple world in which everything is possible because there are no fixed rules, and is thus analogous with the world of childhood…. The process by which an individual develops in society is at the core of Tommy, The Who's work as a whole, and indeed the mod experience. From My Generation to The Seeker we are shown characters who cannot fully understand their development in society, and who, like the group itself, are only just beginning to realize that they cannot.

Hence Tommy, like Tattoo, I Can't Reach You, Sunrise, Our Love Was and, to a certain extent, A Quick One While He's Away and some of the later singles, presents us with an ineffable moment when innocence mysteriously becomes experience, when past makes a sudden leap into present, when youth grows up. It is the moment Townshend describes as Tommy's "god-realization," the moment two fingertips touch, the moment a sham love becomes "suddenly" genuine, the moment two boys achieve manhood, or the moment a woman decides to betray her husband and succumb to temptation. It is the moment, in Sunrise, when night becomes day and the dream instantaneously dissolves into reality. Perhaps most significantly, it is the moment, for the mod of My Generation, that he most wanted to avoid: the moment when he "got old." (pp. 127-28)

Gary Herman, in his The Who (copyright © by Gary Herman; reprinted by permission of the author), Collier Books, 1972.


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