Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Who Script 1

If you don't like the music of The Who, bail now.

Seriously, now. This post will bore you.

Because I'm working on the notes I will be using for a program we'll be doing here at the library about the music of The Who; the program will be sometime in mid-July and I've already got two lengthy Word docs going: the first basically the script I'll be working from (already about 13 pages long); and the second a compilation of the lyrics of the songs I intend to play and discuss (8 pages so far).

Below is essentially the first two pages of the script, which I am trying to edit for clarity. If you have any useful criticisms or suggestions to offer, I'd be much indebted to you.


The Who - The Name Says It All

What would we expect to hear from a musical group named "The Who" if we knew nothing about them other than their name? The group's guitarist Pete Townshend wrote most of their songs and in just about all of his songs you'll find him exploring the question of identity — indeed, that's frequently his major theme. It is perhaps significant that the often extremely personal lyrics of Peter Townshend are usually presented/sung to us by an entirely different personality, The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey. Assuming for the moment that the songs can be said to be revelatory of Pete’s personality — which may indeed not even be a valid assumption — the "revelation" is already being partially attenuated, obscured and disguised right  from the get-go.

The Who's first big hit1, "My Generation", is in essence a stuttering Mod teen's unsuccessful attempt to forge and assert an identity not just for himself, but for his whole generation. The Who's first single, "I Can't Explain", was almost a dress rehearsal for "MG", thematically, except it's nominally a love song, albeit an odd one.

Some Background on Mods and Rockers and the beach fights of the early 1960s.

It’s not strictly necessary to know anything about the history of the conflict between Mods and Rockers in early ‘60s Britain to understand “My Generation”, but it’ll be useful later on when we discuss Quadrophenia – and now is as good a time as any to touch on that history. Mods were kids who were a bit obsessed with current (i.e., of the time) fashion, and constantly changed the style of the clothes they wore. There was a certain kind of music they liked – R&B as well as music derived therefrom, designated "Mod" because it was more forward-looking than basic old-time '50s rock; and there were certain groups who played that music, The Who, at the beginning of their career, being one of them2. Mods tended to use amphetamines (that’s one of the reasons Roger Daltrey stutters the lyrics in “My Generation”: Mods were typically so amped up on speed that they tended to stutter) but also managed to hold down jobs because it cost money to keep up with the latest fashions, go to clubs, see your favorite bands, etc.

Mods defined themselves in opposition to the leather-clad Rockers, a group of kids who were still into basic rock music and worshiped Gene Vincent, Eddy Cochrane, Elvis, Duane Eddy, etc.

Their differing tastes in music and fashion were enough for these two groups to be mortal enemies; in the Spring of 1964 they managed to get into a number of fights – actual riots – at beach resorts in Britain. Quadrophenia deals with the aftermath of a Mod-Rocker conflict in Brighton and its effect on a young, confused and conflicted fictional Mod named Jimmy. That’s the opera’s basic high level plot.

Listen to “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation”3

In both of these songs the singer attempts to define something – in “ICE” it’s a feeling and in “MG” it’s an identity – and in both cases, the he fails. This is BIG in Pete Townshend Who songs: The search for meaning – personal, political, social, spiritual – that almost always ends in failure and frustration or, at best, ambiguity and uncertainty. The only “identity” the narrator in “MG” manages to assert is an anti-identity: Adults are so “cold” that “I hope I die before I get old.” He also tells “outsiders” “don’t try and dig what we all say”, but he actually never says anything – never positively asserts anything – in this song, does he? He defines himself in a negative way, by what he doesn’t want to be or become. (8 years later, PT would have his Mod protagonist, Jimmy, utter the lines: “I know I should fight/ But my old man, he’s really all right” in “Cut my Hair”. Pete was all of 28 years old by that time and already he was starting to identify or at least sympathize with the Old Heads he had formerly wanted to die before becoming like. PT’s already thoughtful vision matured and deepened rapidly over the years.)

Other Major Themes/Images To Be On The Look Out For In PT/Who Songs

  1. La-la-la Lies (song title from the first album) – Deception, lies, false appearances (“Disguises”, another early song) – Lies are VERY big in The Who canon. This ties in with the Identity/Personality issue a lot of the time.
  2. Mirrors/Reflection (in both senses)/Inside-Outside (“5:15”) – Mirrors are also huge in the lyrics of Pete Townshend. The mirror that Tommy stares into in Tommy is pretty central. This gets into the whole issue of how you see yourself v. how others see you; Appearance v. Reality (“Bargain”)
  3. The Search for MEANING/Atonement/Redemption (through music, often) – “Join Together:, “Pure And Easy”, “Faith in Something Bigger”, “Let’s See Action”, “The Seeker”, the whole failed Lifehouse project.
  4. Self Loathing “However Much I Booze”, just about all of The Who By Numbers.
  5. Generational Conflict/Youth v. Age You’d be surprised at what age PT was counting himself among the “aged”. “My Generation”, “Slip Kid”, “How Many Friends”, “Punk and the Godfather”.
  6. Child abuse/Cruelty – This crops up in Tommy (Tommy is physically, psychologically, and sexually abused); “I’m a Boy”; “Little Billy”; “Happy Jack”, “Tattoo”, etc.
Who Script 2 tomorrow
1 It was their third or fourth single, depending on whether or not you count "I'm The Face"/"Zoot Suit", which they released under the name The High Numbers. Similarly, "I Can't Explain" was either their first or second single depending on what stance you take regarding "I'm The Face"/"Zoot Suit". Personally, I do count their High Numbers single as a Who single for the arbitrary reason that I think "I'm The Face" is a pretty good song. Also, they later included "I'm the Face" on the compilation album Odds and Sods.

2 Other supposedly "Mod" groups: The Kinks; The Yardbirds; The Small Faces.

3 I'm using the video of The Who's September 1967 performance of "My Generation" on the The Smothers Brothers Show rather than the studio recording because I'm hoping, for the library program, that we'll be able to set up some video equipment and use this same video. It's classic Who. Keith Moon bribed a stagehand to load his bass drum with something like 5 times the amount of explosives he usually used, with the result being the explosion you see near the end of this video – an explosion that shot shards of the cymbal into Keith's own arm and actually set Pete's hair on fire (you can see him trying to pat it out at the end of the clip); that explosion was also probably the root cause of the tinnitus that plagues Pete to this day, and nearly drove him deaf. It is also interesting to see John Entwistle, the bassist, just standing there doing nothing while all of this chaos – explosions; smashed instruments – is going on around him.

This is quintessential Who right here.


  1. I like The Who, but I am far from a musicphile and typically could give a rats pajamas about these types of things, but I wanted to say that not only did I read the whole thing, I really enjoyed it.

    You have a great style that combines historical context and current interest.

    I do not think that is coming out the way I mean it, but fuck it, I never claimed to have any writing skill. I just appreciate those that do. :)

  2. I'll echo RBR, in that I really don't know music at all, but found this interesting. I never knew why all the stuttering took place--I just thought it was the singer being weird.
    Great post. I rarely read anything on music, especially that era of music, but I thorougly enjoy your thoughts on it.

  3. What kind of library are you running up there? I had no idea what the stuttering was about either. I guess you do learn things by hanging around with smart people (on the interwebs, that is).