For people like me, who grew up watching Richard Linklater’s School Of Rock on repeat, The Who’s Pete Townshend was impossible to ignore.
There’s a fabulous montage in that film in which Zack Mooneyham watches some grainy footage of the guitarist doing his iconic ‘windmill’ stage trick at a show in the early 1970s. Simple, euphoric and profoundly cool, the stunt has been making the hairs on young people’s necks stand up for around 50 years now. But where did it actually come from? Was it a spur of the moment decision, or was it carefully planned in the same way it was often pre-decided whose guitar would be smashed by who?
Well, according to Townshend himself, the guitarist’s trademark move was actually stolen from The Rolling Stones member Keith Richards. Townshend explained everything in a conversation with David Letterman: “[The Who] supported the Stones for two shows,” he says. “They were young, they were brand new and they had one hit, with a Chuck Berry song called ‘Come On.’ I met them backstage and they were all very charming”.
“As the curtain opened, Keith Richards is doing this,” the guitarist continued, getting to his feet to demonstrate the iconic windmill motion. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ I thought it was part of his ‘thing.’ A couple of weeks later, we supported them again in a club in south London. I’m watching carefully, waiting, and he didn’t do it.”
Confused, Townshend approached Richards to ask why he didn’t do the move again. “He went, ‘What?!'” Townshend recalls. “I can’t tell you what exactly what he said, but the inference was, ‘I’m Keith Richards. Do you really think I’m gonna do ballet?’ That was the inference.” The good news was that if Richards had no intention of adopting the trick, it was probably up for grabs. So Townshend did what any ambitious young guitarist would do and pinched it.
Soon enough, the windmill had become one of Townshend’s most popular moves. In the 1960s, the guitarist became famed for a style of stage performance hitherto unseen in the world of rock music. The Who weren’t simply the loudest band in rock music; they were the most chaotic, the most carnal, and the most irrepressible. The theatricality of their performances was about more than mere destruction; it was about envisioning a brighter, more spontaneous world, and Townsend’s moves were an early indicator of what that world might look like. Even if they were knowingly cultivated.