Pete Townshend poured his frustration with life in the Who into Who Are You
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Who are these people?
If the songs here were a party, they’d be the most neurotic, insufferable group ever — drug addicts with delusions of grandeur and insufferable self-importance, constantly questioning their place in the world and whether progress has been made, and one of them might be obsessed with aliens.
Through the running time of nine songs, the Who paint a picture of a completely beaten-down band, running through the motions the way so many clock in and out of work every day for 40 hours a week or more in hopes that there’s at least a little relief on the weekend. And if, on paper, that seems mundane, it never quite turns that way.
Few can turn their disenchantment with their chosen art into quality art the way Pete Townshend has been able to for the better part of 50 years. In 1978, towards what would become the end of the Who’s classic period, he channeled that angst and exasperation into Who Are You. It’s unlike any Who record before or since, and its rewards are buried beyond the veneer.
Early on, Townshend’s natural skepticism ran counter with his profession and never quite stopped, and it was at its most pronounced at this point in the Who’s career. Keith Moon had reached a new low as a drummer, requiring producer Glyn Johns to have Moon play along with click tracks, while Townshend struggled to create new material for his band. Even the cover conveys the haggard nature of the band at this point, standing atop a pile of cables and roadcases, with Moon slouching behind a chair.
So, in the absence of anything else to say, he wrote about what it was like to be in the Who, 16 years on from their first recordings. He wrote about writing new songs, about slaving away with the guitar, about the pressures of staying relevant and fresh without straying too far from a successful path and about how all of it led to this absurd, cyclical existence.
This is all most famously cataloged on “Who Are You,” Townshend’s autobiographical tale of getting drunk and subsequently embarrassing himself, plodding along within the industry rat race and stumbling home wondering if he’s worth any of the things in his life. Roger Daltrey’s subsequent interpretation lost that feeling in the song, but like Townshend’s own happy-go-lucky reading of “However Much I Booze,” another self-hating piece from their previous record, all it does is mask the true feelings with a gruff exterior that Townshend himself was likely fronting in real life. In that way, nothing is lost — “Who Are You” becomes an all-too realistic portrayal of the frustration Townshend must have felt at every turn as the Who stared down the end of their second decade as a band.
But it’s just as well enunciated on “New Song,” and to more obvious effect. Here, Townshend writes about the grind of simply churning out a new song for the masses to keep the machine rolling, no better than in the refrain of, “I write the same old song with a few new lines / And everybody wants to cheer it.” The lines are so obviously him that they become so funny coming out of Daltrey’s throat — the idea of the ripped frontman with the flowing mane of curly blonde locks singing “My hairline ain’t exactly superstar” never ceases to make me smile.
Two songs Townshend brought to the album wouldn’t surface until the album’s CD reissue in 1996. “No Road Romance” was his ode to the grueling, workmanlike nature of touring with the band, walking from stage to stage with emotionally empty hotel rooms in between. “Empty Glass” would later become the title track to his 1980 solo album, but here it’s shown as a full-band workout (sans Daltrey), where he spins the frustrations of his musical life into a never-ending cycle before they finally “jump off the ledge.” By the time the song was released officially, he tempered that line, switching it to “driving the wedge,” but in its original reading, his dissatisfaction is much more pronounced.
Even the fact that John Entwistle got three songs into Who Are You’s original nine-track configuration spoke of Townshend’s general dismay with the industry. And apart from “905,” a fantastical tale of children being born to robotic parents, Entwistle’s songs fit in nicely with the rest of Townshend’s frustration-turned-music. “Had Enough” was straight-forward enough in its lack of patience with maintaining surface appearances, and “Trick of the Light” was a song about the perils of sex industry johns set to a pounding eight-string bass riff.
Still, there’s an expression to keep the art and the work moving forward. On “Sister Disco,” Townshend writes and Daltrey sings about railing in the face of the latest trends while trying to maintain dignity, while “Music Must Change” spoke of the constant necessity to keep moving forward within the medium. Both songs shared complex song structures and time signatures, betraying their pessimistic lyrics with the progressive nature of the song craft itself. Even while feeling stuck on an endless road of writing, recording and repeating as necessary, the Who were still pushing their own envelope even amid self-criticism.
Through it all, Townshend managed to make a relevant statement that stands up to time writing about a subject that could only have applied to one of four people. One of those four wouldn’t live more than a month after it was released. Moon’s death, in turn, created more challenges for an already weary band, and without the artistic triumphs to show for it.
Those who mark the end of the Who’s functional career with this album have a point. Beyond being the last album with Moon behind the kit, it’s the last one where Townshend’s message and turmoil was properly channeled for the length of an entire record. After Moon’s death, the band crossed a line it could never uncross, and with that come the appropriate rewards and pitfalls.
Being in the Who would never be the same. This, then, is the last moment of fervent, manic creation, even in the moments of burnout. The album provides a brief window into what that life must have been like. Who are you? Certainly, you are not and were never in the Who.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org