Peter Townshend

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Robert Christgau

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1376

Since Townshend is a master of commercial usages, the indifferent success of his group [before 1969] is a curiosity. Despite his creative equipment, he has always required guidance. Until he met his first manager, Peter Meaden, he never thought in terms of image, and until he hooked up with his present advisers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, he didn't try to extend the images musically. The whole mod youth violence thing which Townshend perceived at the center of rock—and still does: the live set always includes "Summertime Blues," "Young Man Blues," and "My Generation"—finally came together on the great "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," recorded in May 1965…. The lyrics redefined the punk machismo of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "The Wanderer," and the instrumental—pioneer feedback which has rarely been surpassed—enforced the mood.

Furthermore, the song epitomized the group's break-'em-up visual presentation, though it has since been replaced by "My Generation." Both were made for Roger Daltrey, the punkiest of all rock singers…. [Daltrey] has offended many with his James Brown imitations. Reportedly, Townshend finds him trying as well—he will only hit high notes under considerable duress—but Townshend has a genius for uncovering the good—the great—in conditions others would reject as intolerably confining, transforming necessity into freedom. The tendency in rock has been toward the prima donna and away from the group, but Townshend has resisted it, even moved in the other direction, thus preserving one of rock's most interesting qualities: the group as creative unit. "The only reason I'm successful as a writer is because I'm a writer for the Who," he says. "The only reason I'm successful as a talker is because I'm a talker for the Who." He manipulates the group as skillfully as he manipulates words and music. Each stage personality modulates Daltrey at the center. Daltrey projects the grimy heart of rock and roll more purely than Townshend ever could: he is a not-too-bright tough, not much of a singer, but absolutely cocky, swinging that mike, missing sometimes and who cares. Keith Moon has the same intensity, but he is playful instead of dangerous. Townshend, on the other hand, projects the danger at a more cerebral and self-conscious level. And John Entwistle is the burgher on the other side of every J. D.: he just stands there and earns his paycheck.

Youth rebellion—not merely asserted, but understood and in a sense indulged—infuses the Who. The same defiance underlies most white blues, but whereas the constrictions of rock are used by the Who to strengthen and complicate the message, the open-ended aab structure of blues lends itself primarily to demonstrations of stamina. White blues is physical music to the same extent that folk was intellectual. The unique virtue of the Who is that it is both, which makes the group, as Townshend says, the only rock and roll band left. (p. 36)

"Tommy" is the last of the grandiose rock masterpieces, a throwback to that mythic era of the distant past, about 18 months ago. Whatever follows will be an anticlimax—an exciting anticlimax, no doubt, but still an anticlimax.

"Tommy" is not the first rock opera…. But except for the Mothers' "We're Only in It for the Money," it is the first successful extended work in rock. Like Frank Zappa, Townshend has his parodic side, but Townshend's parody is more profound and equivocal. "Tommy" doesn't take itself seriously, which would be fatal, but it doesn't poke such obvious fun that all of those who want to take it seriously can't. Townshend knows that the first duty of the popular artist is to try and please everyone. All his skill...

(This entire section contains 1376 words.)

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would be less compelling if it weren't tempered by this overriding necessity, which like all the best pop is simultaneously self-serving and humane. "Tommy" is deliberately constructed so that pieces of it—songs—can be enjoyed individually, and the two long instrumentals (both of which function narratively and as delicious comments on all the Claptonesque furbelows of the typical rock solo—they just go on and on, as peaceful and vital as a heartbeat) come at the end of sides so they can be rejected with no loss. The kids can take it as a parable of drugs and mysticism—and clamor for "Smash the Mirror"—the group has apparently abandoned literal smashing, by the way—while the rest of us contemplate how Townshend has taken these commonplace elements without being taken in by them. Townshend knows he is no reincarnation of Eddie Cochran. He is a complicated person with a bohemian past who grows one year older every 365 days. All of that is present in the music. Yet he has remained true to the kids.

This determination to give his audience what it wants without burying his own peculiarity—this constant, even perverse, formal struggle: it may be, after all, that Townshend is more dedicated to rock forms than his audience is…. The Who has always been elevated above your everyday anarchist foursome by a charity which is fairly simple but never credulous. From the time of "The Kids Are Alright" he has shown a rare compassion for men-in-general, but of course he can't just write about loving everyone. Anyone who loves all men automatically is either slightly loony or doesn't know a whole lot of men. And so the Who performs many songs about apparent human dregs—beach hermits and dipsos and fratricides and tattooed men and girls with shaky hands—which have more than a touch of humor but are always filled with love. Happy Jack and Mary-Anne with the Shaky Hands are true heroes, and specific in a way the Fool on the Hill is not. "A Quick One While He's Away," on the other hand, renders a petty working-class infidelity with sardonic understatement until the finale, in which the words "you are forgiven" are repeated in a litany that turns the song around. (pp. 36, 42)

As part of his love of freaks, Townshend has always shown a cockeyed interest in the odder aspects of religion. He now opens the group's live sets with a song (I don't know the title) that presents a child's version of Heaven and Hell—scary, but funny. He is also a longtime fan of the Meher Baba, the Hindu mystic who vowed silence until he was ready to die, when he would reveal the secret of life to the world. Unfortunately, there was no one around to listen when he finally crapped out, but that doesn't stop Townshend from wearing his Meher Baba pin. The crazy are wonderful. In "Rael," a fanatic sails to fight the infidels on the island womb of his religion and instructs the captain of his yacht to rescue him if things get thick. After he is gone, the captain says: "He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again. / He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again. / He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again. / He's crazy / anyway." But the song ends with the fanatic's instructions repeated, and they sound a little more wistful this time. Townshend clearly doesn't expect the captain to return. But he feels sorry for the crusader.

In "Tommy," this religious vision, if you want to call it that, combines with Tommy's fascination for misfits and respect for the commonalty. The deaf, dumb, and blind boy is straight out of the tradition of the sainted fool. His disabilities do render him almost divine. But who wants to be divine if it means being deaf, dumb, and blind? Tommy makes the error of genius. He assumes that just because people want to follow him, they should, and he is punished for it: the rabble that hisses "We're not gonna take it" have achieved their own enlightenment.

"I'm not a mystic," Townshend says, explaining the ending. "But there are mystics in the world." Not quite, Peter. In a sense, you are a mystic. Your music is far more complex than many of those who love it will ever understand. But you don't make Tommy's mistake, because you let them take it however it suits them best. (p. 42)

Robert Christgau, "Whooopee!" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1969), in The Village Voice, June 12, 1969, pp. 36, 42.


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