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Music

The one song that Pete Townshend declared to be "perfect"

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Pete Townshend once said, “Rock ‘n’ roll may not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.” Beyond the pithiness of the line, there is untold depth. With 17 words, Townsend distilled a cultural movement down to a single sentence. After all, rock ‘n’ roll came to the fore as a way to push through exultant liberation despite the problems subsuming the blues originators. Townshend himself has continued that same spirit. You simply can’t listen to ‘Baba O’Riley’ and have a single care knocking around the old cranium. 

When it comes to the heroes who have made him dance, Townshend is mostly reticent. After all, it’s not very rock ‘n’ roll to brown-nose. Iconoclastic criticism, on the other hand, is his forte. “When you actually hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy,” he once said. As for Led Zeppelin, he opined: “I don’t like a single thing that they have done, I hate the fact that I’m ever even slightly compared to them.”

However, this makes his praise all the more notable, especially when he declares a song as a perfect work of art. “I love Brian [Wilson],” Townshend once said of The Beach Boys’ leader. “There’s not many people I would say that about. I think he’s a truly, truly, truly great genius. I love him so much it’s just terrible – I find it hard to live with. ‘God Only Knows’ is simple and elegant and was stunning when it first appeared; it still sounds perfect.”

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It was a song that changed the face of music forever; The Who were no different from any other musicians when it came to the pandora’s box moment that the track represented. Speaking of the song’s influence with Guitar Player, Townshend commented: “You know, if we think about ’66 as being the year that we got Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys, that was a quantum leap for them, from being kind of a surf band very much in the tradition of Jan and Dean, which was very lighthearted, very much about the beach, very much the California story. It was, ‘Push away our blues!'”

That cloud-shifting music was magnificent, but beyond that, The Beach Boys were now heralding a key-less complexity to pop music with mindbending innovation that essentially made it Baroque. “Brian Wilson had a harmonic sensibility that was sort of off the map. ‘God Only Knows’ is a masterpiece,” Townshend continued.

Adding: “And I suppose to some extent with ‘I Can See for Miles’, the challenge was not to try to equal Brian Wilson’s harmonic sensibility but certainly to say, “Well, that’s a new standard. Instead of just doing three-part harmony, let’s do five-part harmony and see what happens.” 

Townshend didn’t just recognise the beauty of the record, but he also seized upon its importance. “I was the child of the guy who played saxophone in a post-war dance band. He knew what his music was for – it was for post-war and it was for dancing with a woman that you might end up marrying. It was about romance, dreams, fantasy,” he told Apple Music

Continuing: “Music even today is about much more than that. It has a function which is to help us understand what is going on in the world and to help us understand what is going on inside us, so the purpose and the duty of somebody who makes music is very different to the way it used to be. […] And I think I was the first to articulate that and try to explain it.” And this revelation was partly brought into bloom by a ray of wonder from Mr Wilson. Thankfully, it is still blossoming now.

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