The relationship between Jimi Hendrix and The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend was a strange one. Undoubtedly pitted as rivals, the two axemen also enjoyed a friendly relationship, perhaps becoming one of rock and roll’s very first cases of “frenemies”. In the years since Hendrix’s sad death, the guitar-smashing Mod has often shared his view on the impresario and how his challenging style had always provoked a reaction from the ‘Tommy’ songwriter.
One of the most notable moments of competition came backstage at the Monterrey Pop Festival, where Hendrix and Townshend nearly came to blows over who would go on stage first. It ended up with the duo performing guitar licks at one another from across the room as they both vyed for the perfect pop music position. Some years later, in 1973, three years after Hendrix’s death, Townshend would provide perhaps his most honest assessment of the guitar hero as he notes him as a friend, an idol and a competitor.
During the conversation with the interviewer, Townshend opened up about how Hendrix made him feel giddy as a school kid when he arrived in London in 1966. “It was like being thrown back into the days when I had heroes like Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed and T Bone Walker,” The Who guitarist confesses of his admiration for Hendrix, “it’s like suddenly being thrown back into that. And funnily enough, the clubs that I dragged myself round to Jimi in the two weeks he did in London were all the same clubs that I had seen all those people at when I was like 16 years old.”
“We [he and Eric Clapton] were like a couple of schoolboys,” continues Townshend, dewy-eyed in his nostalgic trip, “we used to ring up and find out his date sheet, pick one another up, then get all excited on the way there, standing in the front. Often, if the crowd was a bit down, we’d get all excited and try and whip the crowd up.” It offers one of the few moments whereby Townshend pitches himself as the lesser player or, at least, a keen idoliser of the performer. It’s not all praise, however, and Townshend goes on to acknowledge their less than perfect friendship.
“Eric was much closer with Jimi than I was,” Townshend says to the reporter. “I felt, in a way, that perhaps this was because Jimi felt he had the edge on Eric. But he couldn’t quite make me out.” Noted for his somewhat cantankerous view of any band that wasn’t The Who, and sometimes that group too, Townshend’s appraisal of their relationship is candid: “I felt very competitive with Jimi. I felt ‘okay, he is great, he is a genius, there is a fantastic aura about the man, but if I really let him whip me too much, I’ll never really be able to play again. So I must fight back, as it were'”.
It’s a facet of the sixties that isn’t often shared. While creativity was in their air like cheap patchouli, the reality of the swinging London scene wasn’t cohesion and community but competition. The rock and roll scene had grown into such a peacock walk that artists felt constantly compared to one another and, guitarists especially felt the need to display their talent at every opportunity. There was a gladiatorial edge to guitarists of the time, and Townshend knew it.
However, as with many who met Hendrix, his sincerity and otherworldliness really captured The Who man’s heart. “He said many precious things; they weren’t meant, necessarily, for the world to hear. But to me, they were very important. Alright, they were said when he was drunk and so on, but they were said, and they’ve always been important.”
No matter the group, Townshend is an artist who was always likely to carve his own path. “He always felt that Eric and he and I had a sort of empathy and complimented one another in a way,” continued the guitarist. “Although I knew that to be true at heart, I could never see myself as part of the triangle. I could never fit in. Where I fitted in was the least glamorous bit, the plastic bit, the stage bit. I was the very plastic bit of Jimi’s stage show. Eric, of course, was the very soulful bit, the musician bit — far more romantic. Mine was the blatant, the showbiz, the year son the road with Little Richard. The act. The facade. The rock and roll leotards.”
Townshend finally confesses the universal truth we have in music — Jimi Hendrix changed the way people play the guitar. “What happened there was really important to me. Fantastically important to The Who, and it’s changed the sound of the electric guitar. Turned the whole rock world upside down.”
Watch Pete Townshend explain his strange relationship with Jimi Hendrix in this rare footage from 1973.