They were punk rock before punk was rock. They were art rock, before rock became art. The Who wrote the anthems of a generation's rebellion against authority and conformity, and rocked harder, and possibly smashed more guitars and wrecked more hotel rooms than all those who followed in their footsteps. Now, The Who is back after 25 years of silence. Last year, the two surviving, original members returned as senior citizens to reclaim their throne. VOA's Larry London has more on one of rock's most popular bands, The Who.
The Who's world tour gives fans a sentimental replay of the band's unforgettable songs. But in the mix of old anthems and new songs, the tour also ended a 25-year wait for inspiration, and brought together the competing visions of the two surviving, founding members: singer Roger Daltrey and songwriter Pete Townshend.
Pete Townshend explains the band concept. "He (Daltrey) acts as an advocate. He carries his view of The Who as a brand name with him, and he is more of a fan than I am. I act as an insider, and see the band as being almost like an art installation, not like The Beatles, not like The Rolling Stones, not like Genesis, not like (the) Police, not like Bruce Springsteen. I see The Who as having a function, which is entirely expressed through its audience.
I love this band. I carry the 'it' but Roger carries the performance, so together once we decided we had the songs, we knew we had the album. So, it has been 25 years of waiting."
Daltrey says he and Townshend continue to generate the energy that defines The Who. "We're a rock and roll band. For me, it is the live arena. Recording is one thing. The record industry that we grew up with is no longer, so the only thing for us is the arena, and it is just great to be able to do it. In some ways, it comes from what we are. It kind of exists in the space between the two of us, and it's in that energy that we create together. That is The Who. It's always fantastic and it's still there."
Anywhere they go, The Who brings out four generations of fans who still remember such rebellious acts as smashing guitars and amps [guitar amplifiers] on stage.
Townshend says the band survived beyond the short-lived art project for which it was conceived, because it helped him rediscover himself as a musician. "The band was supposed to be very, very short-lived. We saw ourselves as a precursor punk. We saw ourselves lasting maybe a year, a year and a-half, and then, literally blowing ourselves up one day, as we nearly did on The Smothers Brothers Show [a U.S. variety TV program from the late-1960s], which you can see some of that.
You know what happened was that I started to really love the fact that I thought I was doing better work as a songwriter than I was as an installation artist in The Who. In other words, I started to get less arty-farty [pretentious] about it. But by then, the guitar smashing had become symbolic. It had become something, an expression, in a sense, maybe, maybe this is stretching it too far, maybe an anti-materialistic thing. You know, when you are kid, you long to have that particular toy, that particular car, that particular guitar, that particular girl. In a sense, I have been through that. So, having been in the place where I could just go, 'Hey, this is the guitar. You know, what really counts is the fact that I am here and I am alive, and I am free.' So, we have been through a few phases with guitar smashing, and I don't do it anymore, if I can help it."
The Who's tour is anything but a nostalgia trip, featuring songs from their new album, "Endless Wire," recorded last year.
Townshend, adds, "It is nice to be playing some new songs as well as the old songs. We are celebrating the old stuff, and even the new stuff is celebration of the old stuff in disguise. The success of the new songs is partly because they are based on The Who lineage, of the music we have been writing for most of our career."