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The Story Behind The Song: 50 years of The Who's classic 'Won't Get Fooled Again'

Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle quickly became the talk of the town in the sixties as they quickly picked up the mantle of music’s maniacal set of youths. It was a fitting description for a band that spent more money on smashing their instruments than anything else. Likewise, as the world drastically changed around them, The Who were rightly seen as the future of music — confrontational, chaotic and ultimately, extremely talented. It would see the band become rock legends in a short space of time.

By the time the sixties had come to a close, and the creativity that once emanated from every set of student digs had ceased, The Who had ascended from the voice of a generation to a new standard of rock and roll icon. Like Led Zeppelin, they were a stadium-filling band who travelled the world amid a flurry of limousines and screaming fans. As the new decade provided more opportunity for excess, Townshend set about writing another set of songs to thrill his audience; this time, he was kicking things up a notch.

Released on this day in 1971, The Who’s track ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ is one of their most beloved. Though originally penned for Townshend’s Lifehouse project, the song would end up as the closing number on the band’s seminal album Who’s Next and was widely adored for its message of people power. But, the reality is that when you scratch the surface of the song, it’s actually far from a rallying call to arms and much closer to be a realising moment of resignation.

“It’s interesting it’s been taken up in an anthemic sense when in fact, it’s such a cautionary piece,” Townshend told Rolling Stone of the track. You can see how the confusion may have occurred. Firstly, if we look at The Who’s trajectory thus far in their career, it’s clear they rode a wave of counter-culture charisma. The band weren’t just seemingly smashing their instruments but the establishment too. The band revolted against the past icons, suggesting The Beatles were “lousy” and that nobody over the age of 30 could ever understand them.

Their style was also plucked from the youth subculture of London’s swinging scene, leading many to think that they too were a part of the new wave of thinking that was washing over the capital. By 1971, a natural progression to a revolutionary song was far from being outlandish. Instead, it appeared as though, like many bands before them, the group’s fervour for a new order had been curtailed. It became obvious in the band’s song ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.

It would seem that the song was picked up as a revolutionary anthem because of its first verse, which accurately depicts a worldwide uprising. It continues as the middle of the song overthrows those in power, creating a vacuum that is eventually filled. When Daltrey sings, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, we finally get the point of the song’s message. Townshend wasn’t anti-revolution but seemingly thought that politicians were an inevitable consequence of society. To him, the song was anti-establishment but warned, “revolution is not going to change anything in the long run, and people are going to get hurt.”

The real target of Townshend’s anger was the new wave of politicians following the explosion of youth in the sixties. Suddenly, politicians everywhere were “hip” and “cool” and understood exactly what the kids of the day wanted. For Townshend, living in a commune on Eel Pie Island in Richmond, London, that was too much to bear. It’s a safe bet that the commune affected his writing too. “There was like a love affair going on between me and them,” he said. “They dug me because I was like a figurehead in a group, and I dug them because I could see what was going on over there. At one point, there was an amazing scene where the commune was really working, but then the acid started flowing, and I got on the end of some psychotic conversations.”

He may have lived on a commune, but Townshend was no hippie; in fact, there are rumours that he belted Abbie Hoffman with his guitar after the activist tried to commandeer his microphone during The Who’s Woodstock performance, which also influenced the song. “I wrote ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ as a reaction to all that – ‘Leave me out of it: I don’t think you lot would be any better than the other lot!'” he explained to Creem in 1982. “All those hippies wandering about thinking the world was going to be different from that day. As a cynical English arsehole, I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them, and shaking them and trying to make them realise that nothing had changed and nothing was going to change.”

It’s a sobering message from one of the sixties most powerful bands. Though Townshend and Daltrey had been two of the swinging scene’s most recognisable faces, within a few short years they had become jaded by the experience and the revolution, whatever that was, had been called off.

From this moment on, it was clear that The Who weren’t about to play any games like that, they wouldn’t be ushered into any particular set or scene — they, as you might have guessed, wouldn’t get fooled again.

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