Peter Townshend Robert Christgau - Essay

Robert Christgau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Furthermore, the song epitomized the group's break-'em-up visual presentation, though it has since been replaced by "My Generation."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...

(The entire section is 1376 words.)