The Who’s Pete Townshend has been a confrontational figure ever since he set foot on stage with The Who. The lead guitarist and principal songwriter has never been afraid to speak his mind and that has seen him take more than a few potshots at artists from across the musical spectrum—including The Beatles.
Arguably one of the greatest bands to have ever walked the earth, The Beatles have always had their detractors. Their chart-dominating pop sound saw the group gain global success very quickly and therefore grab a few naysayers along the way. It would appear that a young Pete Townshend was one of those people who saw a lack of quality in their output.
In 1966, 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’, Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle carved out a career based on the fervent energy of youth. Of course, later that would move more towards a focus on grand productions and rock operas, but in ’66, Townshend was the face of Britain’s bristling youth.
Bristling is the right word for Townshend, too. Here, in this archival footage, he cuts a frustrated figure while being interviewed for British TV. It may be the fact that he is fielding questions from several interviewers or, more likely, it’s that said interviewers can’t see beyond their own point. It’s a point about the of “quality” music.
Townshend shrugs off the notion, saying that adding extra “quality” to songs and albums was a waste of time. “If you steer away from quality, you’ll be alright,” he says while proudly proclaiming The Who lack quality. It’s the arrogance of youth that made The Who such an alluring prospect during their inflammatory beginnings.
“What has got quality in the pop business?” he replied. “What’s got quality in anything? It’s just a matter of standards … in the pop business, we’re lucky in that there are no standards.” It’s a sentiment he has shared before, once saying the band had no quality and were, in fact, “music sensationalism”. Then someone asked about the Fab Four.
“But wouldn’t you say The Beatles and people like that have a certain musical quality,” she asked. The crowd hushed as Townshend’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, that’s a tough question,” the guitarist replied.
“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.” Townshend delivers his most telling line on the band’s output when he says, “When you actually hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy.”
Judging by the date of the video it’s more than likely that Townshend was speaking about The Beatles’ classic Rubber Soul.
Below you can listen to the interview in full.