Before there was punk, there was Pete Townshend. No one in the music world prior to Pete Townshend was so able to channel young rage into aggressive and fierce guitar playing. Certainly people like Clapton and Hendrix demonstrated that the electric guitar was a liberating instrument, but it was Townshend who first turned it into a symbol of anger, rebellion, and even danger. If it was Elvis’ hips and sneers that had mothers locking up their daughters in fear of rock and roll, it was Townshend’s crashing guitars (and his smashing of guitars) that mothers want to lock up their sons.
The Who were the loudest, the brashest, and the roughest of the hard rock bands to emerge in the late ‘60s. They were in the original sense of the term, punks (and let’s not pick nits over the “mods vs. rockers” stuff). Zepplin was more musically experimental, although no less excessive in their personal and public pursuits; The Rolling Stones were nastier and more lewd; but The Who were the maddest, and they weren’t afraid to show it. They broke each others’ noses, they broke up hotel rooms, and they broke their equipment. They mouthed off, they drove expensive cars into swimming pools, and generally taunted anyone that didn’t understand them or got in their way. But under Townshend’s leadership, The Who played some fo the most memorable guitar tunes in the history of rock. Townshends was—and is—and incredible songwriter who created the defining rock anthems for the “post-flower power” generation. The structure he created for Tommy became the formula for all “rock operas” to follow, from The Wall to Operation: Mindcrime.
Townshend never claimed to be a great guitarist. He always said that the flashy finger stuff was for everybody else, and he never gets listed along with the British “Big Three” (Beck, Clapton, and Page). But he is the consummate rhythm player (some might claim that Entwisle was really the band’s “lead player”), and he realized before anybody loud could be good. In fact, he made loud great.
It’s a good thing that Townshend didn’t die before he got old, a phrase from “My Generation” that has haunted him since he wrote the tune four decades ago. He is a quirky individual, and always has been, and age hasn’t diminished that. We were pleased to dig up old archives that talked about what he thinks of guitar playing in the 40 years that he has been one of its prime purveyors. He thinks a lot of it is laughable, and he blames himself for some of it.
In the end, however, Townshend has had some impact on anyone who has ever picked up an electric guitar. Admit it. You’ve tried—at least once—to play your guitar while windmilling your right arm. You’ve tried to jump into the air while holding a guitar onstage. And you may not have, but you’ve probably wanted to smash your guitar against something in a fit of madness. Pete Townshend was there doing it when it wasn’t cool or even acceptable—you could get away with it today because Pete was there first.