Pete Townshend is known for his uncompromising scathing nature. Infamously, there are very few of his contemporaries that Townshend hasn’t unleashed fury upon with his uncompromisingly sharp tongue. The Beatles are no exception, with The Who axeman speaking on plentiful occasions about what he dislikes about the iconic band from Liverpool. Despite all the disdain that Townshend has shown towards The Fab Four in years gone by, there’s a suggestion that perhaps he overplayed the negativity somewhat. Appearing to backtrack in recent years, the musician opened up about specific songs from The Beatles’ extensive repertoire that he considers to be his favourites.
The one-way rivalry between the two acts began in 1966, a time when The Who were beginning their meteoric ascent to the top of the rock and roll pile. Backed by a thunderous lead single in ‘My Generation’, the band carved out a career based on the fervent energy of youth. It got The Who some attention and, with that, a series of early TV interviews. One such discussion led to Townshend referring to the Fab Four as “flipping lousy” in what appeared to be a blatant attempt to speak out of line.
After a conversation around the idea of “musical quality”, something Townshend shrugs off as irrelevant to him and his band, the interviewers suggest that The Beatles have “quality” to rebuff his claims. “Ooh, that’s a tough question,” the guitarist replied with a sneering smile. “Actually, this afternoon, John [Entwistle] and I were listening to a stereo LP of The Beatles — in which the voices come out of the one side, and the backing track comes out of the other,” he continued. Townshend delivers his most telling line on the band’s output when he states: “When you actually hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy,” it’s enough to hear an audible gasp from the audience. Whether or not Townshend has softened his view on The Beatles won’t ever really be known, but, at this moment, you can tell that the guitarist has no love for the most famous band in the world.
Later though, while speaking with Rolling Stone in 1982, Townshend was asked about McCartney’s then-recent record Tug of War. Kurt Loder, who was interviewing Townshend, suggested it had “virtually nothing to do with rock and roll,” to which Townshend replied by asking if McCartney “ever really had anything to do with rock”. He then answered his own question: “No, he never did,” Townshend said before adding: “You know, I could sit down and have a conversation with Paul about rock and roll, and we’d be talking about two different things.”
However, years later, Townshend seemingly stopped trying to be controversial just for the sake of getting a thrill from the constant conveyor belt of fires that he was stoking up and dramatically changed his tune on The Beatles. “I wasn’t crazy impressed with the Beatles when I first heard them,” The Who’s Pete Townshend shared with Rolling Stone in 2019. “But I loved them”.
“I did love them,” he continues. “They were joyful, they were funny. They were more a pop group than I would have liked [but] they had this incredible image. They were delightful, absolutely delightful. I suppose the first song [I heard] would have been ‘Please Please Me,'” Townshend recalls. “[But] what really blew him away was single ‘Day Tripper ‘and b-side ‘Paperback Writer.'”
“I just thought, wow, these two songs are really great,” he enthuses. “They weren’t about falling in love, they weren’t about girls, girls, girls. They were about jobs, creativity. They were interesting songs those two,” Townshend then poignantly reflected, “And it was then I realised they were going to do great things.”
Even when Townshend is praising The Beatles, he can’t resist throwing in a medley of backhanded compliments such as suggesting that most of their songs lacked sustenance. However, The Who guitarist clearly adores the band and has changed his opinion from 1966. This backtracking on The Beatles also offers a stark reminder always to take the hyperbolic insults thrown out by Townshend with a heavy pinch of salt.