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Why punk was "hell" for The Who's Pete Townshend

The wave of punk bands that emerged towards the backend of the 1970s changed the landscape of Britain. The Who had gradually become part of the old guard, and Pete Townshend felt threatened by the new kids on the block, making it “hell” for him.

A considerable amount of cultural change had happened in the decade since The Who first emerged, and they were no longer the dissenting voice of the youth. The group had accumulated unfathomable riches during this period and could no longer connect with the struggle that the man on the street was enduring. As a result, there was a void which punk filled, and they were chasing the tail of the establishment.

At first, Townshend was thrilled to see this wave of new bands arrive and shake up the scene. He recognised a bit of himself within acts like The Sex Pistols, who were unafraid to take on the world’s most powerful bands. However, The Who guitarist didn’t consider that he would be in the firing line, making him re-evaluate his feelings about the movement.

In the documentary, Amazing Journey, Townshend candidly reflected: “What was actually happening at the time was the need for another tide wave. I suppose everybody wanted one band to do it and the Sex Pistols were obviously the most significant. I kind of welcomed and challenged it and wanted to happen it. Then I realised that the person they wanted to shoot was me.”

“So I was like ‘Yeah, come on, let’s get them, let’s show them’. Then they were all kinda looking at me and saying ‘No, you don’t understand. You are the one we gonna kill’. It was a very, very exciting (time), challenging, and there was a hell out of pain out there for Pete”.

The punk scene didn’t resent Townshend personally, and behind the scenes, he was cosy with Johnny Rotten, but they still wanted to knock The Who off their perch.

When Townshend was casting for Quadrophenia, he initially envisaged Rotten to play the lead role in the film, but his plans fell through, and Phil Daniels was cast instead. He explained: “I knew him as he’d been using my studio in Soho, what a fucking diamond, and so smart, but unfortunately we went out with the director… Johnny Rotten liked to drink, and so did I, and we went out and got pissed, and I drove my car the wrong way around a roundabout. We went to Camden Palais together, and I got stopped by the police, and they hauled us out.”

Townshend continued: “Anyway, I think he decided not to do it – I don’t think it was us. I really wanted him. I don’t know how good he would have been, but he’s very, very intense. He could have been good.”

Although the punk scene made it “hell” for Townshend, he wouldn’t have had it any other way, and the guitarist was full of admiration for groups like The Sex Pistols, who he viewed as a necessary force in the music industry.