Our minds are changing at lightspeed during our formative years, and the striking impact of art is unquantifiable. That was certainly the case for The Who’s Pete Townshend after watching one film as an adolescent, which changed his life.
Music has always been an obsession for Townshend, but the musical climate of the day was hardly stimulating, and then rock ‘n’ roll came along to consume him. As a kid growing up in suburban Chiswick, the guitarist had to search far and wide to feed his habit after being brainwashed by a film that captured his heart for eternity.
He was born in 1945 and an integral part of the swinging sixties revolution, which changed the course of culture, but Townshend still had his forefathers to thank who ran so he could walk. One man, in particular, owed a wealth of gratitude towards Bill Haley, who was the first act he ever saw in concert, and it was a film that introduced him to the original rock ‘n’ roller.
Before watching Rock Around The Clock, Townshend was a fan of swing music and barely even knew that rock music existed. From that moment on, his eyes were focused solely on the genre, which he would later lead to new heights. “I was still playing the harmonica, and getting good at it, but it was clear that the guitar was the instrument that mattered,” Townshend recalled in Who I Am about watching the life-changing experience.
He continued: “Jimpy and I had been mesmerised by Rock Around the Clock, and Haley’s band only had a single sax player. They marked their Country and Western heritage with a pedal-steel guitar, and the swing was jaunty and extremely cheerful. Bordering on manic.”
After watching the concert film in 1956, Townshend would witness Haley in action the following year when he came to the UK, and his love for him somehow expanded even further. The guitarist later eulogised about the evening, “The birth of rock ‘n’ roll for me? Seeing Bill Haley and The Comets. God, that band swung!”
Townshend wasn’t the only pioneer who has Haley to thank for his chosen career. The first record that Pink Floyd’s guitarist and vocalist, David Gilmour, bought was the single version of ‘Rock Around The Clock’.
“The first record I bought and which turned me around a bit was ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley, when I was ten,” the guitarist told BBC 6 Music’s Matt Everitt. Prior to that moment, the songs on the radio had all sounded the same, but there was something different about Haley’s tune. “That was the first moment to me when I thought ‘this is something new and original,” effused Gilmour.
Haley helped rock ‘n’ roll storm the mainstream and etched it into the broader culture in a way like never before, even making kids from Chiswick pick up a guitar. If it weren’t for him, then Townshend would likely have still made something out of himself as a musician, but we’d all be immeasurably poorer if Rock Around The Clock hadn’t brainwashed him into the grit and grime of rock.