At their best, The Who were one of the fieriest bands of their generation, and at their worst, they were destined for folly, and nothing more. ‘Who Are You?’ flits somewhere between the two ideals, invoking the thunder of the band’s early material, before heading into a chorus that’s equal parts ingenuity and idiocy in its resolution.
‘Who Are You?’, like the majority of the band’s songs, was written by guitarist Pete Townshend, and featured on the 1978 album of the same name. It was one of the last albums to feature drummer Keith Moon, who died later that year.
The song is bolstered by one of Roger Daltrey’s grittier vocal deliveries, strengthening the whimsy with a fire that comes from deep within himself, sex emanating from his nostrils, anger jumping from the confines of his belly. The song might be Townshend’s, but it’s impossible to imagine the guitarist singing it half the ambition or a quarter of the fury that makes up the finished product.
Like many other bands of the 1970s, The Who were being pushed to the brink of extinction as newer, younger musicians challenged the validity of the bands that came before them. Punk was the new musical lingua franca, and any band that dared to ignore the charge was crushed under the weight of a country rushing towards the new generation of musicians. Even Led Zeppelin got in on the act, toning down the guitar flourishes for the turbo-charged ‘Wearing and Tearing’. To defy punk was to make a punk-like statement, which might explain why ‘Mull of Kintyre’ is one of the bonafide punk tracks of the era.
“We were getting incredible accolades from some of the new Punk bands,” Daltrey recalled. “They were saying how much they loved The Who, that we were the only band they’d leave alive after they’d taken out the rest of the establishment! But I felt very threatened by the Punk thing at first. To me it was like, ‘Well, they think they’re f—ing tough, but we’re f—ing tougher.’ It unsettled me in my vocals. When I listen back to ‘Who Are You?’ I can hear that it made me incredibly aggressive. But that’s what that song was about. Being pissed and aggressive and a c—!”
The song is notable for boasting a number of “fucks”, no hollow metaphor, but the epithet repeated by Daltrey on at least two occasions. Unlike Robert Plant, the “fuck” had less to do with sexual come-ons but instead stemmed from the band’s innate disdain for authority and society. As it happened, the lyrics were based on a run-in with the local police, where an inebriated Townshend was told he could skip a night in jail if he “just went home.” Townshend was a notorious drinker, which he exercised on the startling ‘However Much I Booze’, and the songs were frequently padded with hints to the demons in his personal life that led down this slippery path to drink.
Moon was also known for his imbibement, as was bassist John Entwistle, but Daltrey staunchly refused to touch the booze, fearing that it might interfere with both his fitness and singing style. Instead, he focused on the rise of punk, launching their slings and arrows at the walls, citadels and bricks that sheltered the British veterans of the mid-1970s. It was as if he was issuing a warning, proving to the punks that he had more to offer than hair and a piercing gaze, offering them the chance to withdraw from the fight with any dignity that was left to them.
‘Who Are You?’ stands as one of the greatest defences against the new guard, exposing them as the charlatans they knew themselves to be. But ‘Who Are You?’ is much more than that: It’s also a showcase of Daltrey’s singing style. He’s become unfashionable as of late, Brexit supporting et al., but the guy really can sing, particularly when the subject matter meant so much to him. And boy oh boy, he sings this one well.