The Who’s Pete Townshend is primarily known for his guitar-smashing exploits and his wild-man stage persona. While this would often mean that the quality of his marauding technique on the instrument is often overlooked at the expense of his reputation, this isolated track of ‘Who Are You’ offers a chance to view his masterful talent in all its glory.
Townshend has a razor-sharp tongue that is almost as fierce as his playing style, yet, even his own ability has been the victim of his brash outbursts at times. The guitarist once humbly said, “I find it astounding, and I find it hard to believe if anyone ever says that they rate me as a guitarist at all.”
Adding: “Although I dig my guitar playing, I think it’s kind of an obvious situation; I play what I want to play within my own restrictions. I play simply and tastefully and I don’t play like I do on the stage. I don’t play big chords and I don’t smash the guitar around. I just do the things which I feel are well within my capabilities as a rhythmic musician.”
If you believe that he is a limited guitarist as he claims to be, then Townshend has masked his frailties throughout his career in a miraculous manner. His performance on ‘Who Are You’ is visceral and fuelled by pent-up rage displayed on the track.
Even when he’s angry, Townshend still manages to dream up a rhythm part that is remarkably complex, elegant and measured. It provided the perfect backdrop for Keith Moon to add his searing drums and Roger Daltrey to deliver the most aggressive vocal take of his career.
“‘Who Are You’ was written about meeting Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols after an awful 13-hour encounter with Allen Klein who, in my personal opinion, is the awesome rock leech-godfather,” Townshend later divulged. “In one sense the song is more about the demands of new friendship than blood-letting challenge.
“Roger’s aggressive reading of my nihilistic lyric redirected its function by the simple act of singing ‘Who the fuck are you’ when I had written ‘Who, who, who are you’ Steve and Paul became real ‘mates’ of mine in the English sense,” he added. “We socialised a few times. Got drunk (well, I did) and I have to say to their credit, for a couple of figurehead anarchists, they seemed sincerely concerned about my decaying condition at the time.”
The Who released the track during the height of punk, and while they didn’t try to follow the trends that were implemented by the new generations, the fiery ‘Who Are You’ shows why even the eternally hostile Sex Pistols admired them.