Peter Townshend

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Simon Frith

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

The Who by Numbers, was about survival…. Pete Townshend's concerns then were personal rather than public; he spoke for himself alone more than for the group. That record was muddled but moving. It asked the question, "What is it like not to die before you get old?"; it faced the puzzles of loyalty and love, friendship and regret. The subsequent Townshend/Lane LP, Rough Mix, seemed to mark the beginning of Townshend's mellow middle age. But Who Are You puts the emphasis back firmly on the group's rock mission: Townshend still wants to speak for his generation, still hears rock as the music of a community, still believes, in the importance of the Who as a group, as a symbolic rock community in itself.

Pete Townshend himself has two arguments. The first (most emphatic in "New Song") is aimed at the most recent generation of rock fans, at punks and their new-wave claims. Townshend's comment is that there is nothing new: punk is doing what the Who did a decade ago, and with much the same music. But Townshend's second argument is that it was futile to expect the Who to go on doing this forever—artists' interests and abilities change, and, as one song title puts it, "Music Must Change" as well…. Townshend's concerns, as a writer and musician, are not given enough emotional force to become our concerns too, because the album lacks the anarchic quality that has been essential for the Who through even their most ambitious projects….

Who Are You is dense with clever music, with well-organized sounds and complex arrangements, but contains nothing startling, nothing that surprised the group itself. Its most encouraging elements—Daltrey's new authority, Townshend's fluent, jazzy guitar runs—never add up to anything illuminating….

The Who were a group based on contradictions: non-mod mods, disillusioned romantics, fans as stars as fans. Its wonderful shows were based on the ventriloquist's art, Pete Townshend pulling the strings but dangling himself, and from the beginning, the group's members were more metaphors than personalities. Their music had the spontaneity of rock and roll—its surprise, innocence, charm, enthusiasm, cheek—but these qualities were the result of Townshend's detached understanding of what rock records, rock shows, and rock stars should be. The Who's problem, as rock survivors, became that without a clear rock role they were characterless, ciphers without a key.

Simon Frith, "Keith Moon Dies before He Gets Old" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 38, September 18, 1978, p. 93.

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