Peter Townshend John Swenson - Essay

John Swenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Who have always been a full-blown enigma in a business normally insane to begin with. Of all the pop groups that surfaced in the British Isles almost a decade ago, they were considered one of the most unlikely to continue for long, as incessant punch-outs and constant mutterings about breaking up from within indicated that they were four totally incompatible individuals seemingly bent on mutual self-destruction. The force that held them in each other's orbits for ten years is perhaps the best observable example of the rock band gestalt, the strange magic that enables very ordinary people sometimes to form a whole that is not only greater than the sum of its parts but actually supports each one. (p. 48)

Townshend is one of the few great artists rock has produced—but that's not an easy thing to be, for rock's message is basically anti-art. At its most basic the music is merely an affirmation of the moment of existence, pure and easy…. Rock is an art form totally dependent on the audience; therefore a song is only as good as the audience it reflects can relate to it.

Which is all obviously very Townshendian. That's how he started: pick an audience (in this case, the mods of early '60s England) and feed them. "My Generation" has become a classic hunk of history for its sociological significance as much as for the bittersweet electric drone of a chord pattern. Pete had his creative outlet and he hammered it home, sensing what the audience was like across the footlights and playing his guts out for them. But like all creative people, Townshend longed for transcendence. One song at a time wasn't enough to satisfy his conceptual fantasies—he began to write mini-operas as early as the second album. The need to create a consummate work of genius led him to Tommy. As great as that record is, from his own point of view it is essentially flawed because it lacks the strength of the live Who. (p. 54)

John Swenson, "The Who: After Ten Years of Madness the Next State is 'Quadrophenia'," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1974 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January, 1974, pp. 48, 54.