The guitar was The Who’s Pete Townshend first true love. The thrash and push of playing the guitar was endlessly appealing to a young upstart like Townshend. He would soon become one of the most revered guitarists in the world, but, despite being the band’s chief architect, it took him a while to appreciate the vital importance of songwriting.
When Chuck Berry bundled into his life, suddenly, his eyes were firmly open, and his approach to creating music had transformed.
The influence of Berry is less distinct in The Who compared to many of their 1960s contemporaries. The Rolling Stones, for example, wore their love of his records on their sleeve, and Keith Richards, in particular, idolises him. He once proclaimed, “Chuck is the granddaddy of us all.”
He added, “Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry. He is rock & roll in its pure essence.” Equally, John Lennon once remarked: “If you were to rename rock and roll you might call it Chuck Berry.”
The Who axman was just as enamoured. Interestingly, it wasn’t Berry’s breathtaking faculties on the guitar which appealed to Townshend, but his songwriting and the engrossing way he delivered every word he sang. Before listening to Berry, he thought that the music was all that mattered before his awakening occurred.
“When I started in the rock business, my grounding in music was probably trad jazz rather than rock’n’roll,” Townshend reflected about his musical roots with NME in 1982.
He continued, “A little bit of classical music thrown in on the side, listening to my dad’s dance orchestra. And then, suddenly, the ‘miracle’ of rock’n’roll – in the shape of Bill Haley, and Cliff, and Elvis Presley, who I still don’t understand. And that was all.”
His musical upbringing was more eclectic than that of his peers, and as he mentioned, Townshend never quite connected as profoundly with the artists who everyone else in his generation seemingly adored. Perhaps, this broader pallet helped Townshend operate outside of the box and create the groundbreaking work The Who became famed for, such as their rock opera, Tommy. However, Berry was different from the rest of the rock and roll set and utterly seduced him.
“Yet rock’n’roll still got into my blood as a new form,” he continued. “I don’t think it was until I heard Chuck Berry that I realised what you could do with words – and how unimportant the music was, cos Chuck Berry always used the same song!”
Earlier in the same interview, Townshend mentioned that he finds himself inspired by “anything that breaks down the traditional rules and regulations that exist between words and music,” and Berry certainly falls under that definition.
When The Who released Tommy in 1969, Townshend proved himself to be an innovator, successfully blurring the lines between words and music by introducing the notion of a concept record to a mainstream audience rock audience. It would be replicated up and down the genre spectrum as the years progressed.
If it wasn’t for Berry’s influence, perhaps, Townshend would have neglected this element of his artistry and not pushed himself to be the pioneering songwriter he elegantly developed into.