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(Credit: Takoyaki)

The Story Behind The Song: The Who and Pete Townshend's coming-out track 'Rough Boys'

Back when The Who emerged in the 1960s, homosexuality was still illegal, and even after it was finally legitimised in a court of law, large swaths of society refused to accept it. It was a dangerous place to be openly gay.

Townshend was always coy about his sexuality during the early stages of his career, rarely opening up about his private life for decades. That was, of course, until he released the solo track ‘Rough Boys’ in 1980. Even from that moment, it still took him another decade after the song’s release to discuss the true meaning and confirmed it was a “coming-out” song.

The guitarist recently said that during his younger days, he didn’t care about biological sex, gender, or gender identity and would sleep with anyone he felt attracted to. Even though he released ‘Rough Boys’ over 40 years ago, his recent comments are the first time that he’s formally put a label on his sexuality during his early adulthood before he married his first wife, Karen Astley.

The mastermind behind The Who was quoted by The Daily Star newspaper’s Wired column as saying: “With ‘I’m A Boy’ [1966 single] it’s the idea of masculinity and the way that men are seen to be at a time when I often forget, to be homosexual, to be pansexual, as I think I probably was, but not anymore. But I think I was ready to fall into bed with anybody that would have me.”

Adding: “I think I forget that homosexuality was still illegal, so these adventures had to be couched in vignettes of humour and irony.”

‘I’m A Boy’ sees Townshend look at gender identity, which in 1966 was a topic that was seldom discussed. In fact, the majority of society didn’t even acknowledge its existence. However, the track wasn’t written from personal experience and, instead, penned through the looking glass rather than first-hand.

‘Rough Boys’ was the first time that Townshend addressed this side of himself and his sexual desires for men. Alice Cooper later perfectly summarised the charm of the song, stating: “You have Pete’s sexual ambiguity going on here — it sounds like a gay song. I still don’t know exactly what he was trying to say with that song, but I love it, whatever it is. Pete’s an amazing mystery.”

After years of letting the music do the talking, allowing listeners to make their own minds up about the track’s meaning rather than to explicitly address it, Townshend opened up. In 1990, the musician discussed the song in an issue of Newsweek, commenting: “In a way, it was a coming-out. That it was a real acknowledgment of the fact that I’d been surrounded by people that I really adored – and was actually sexually attracted to – who were men. And that the side of me that responded to those people was a passive side, a subordinate side.”

Even in London, the most open-minded quarter of Britain during this time, acting as the epicentre of liberal thinking, was still not a location that some felt safe as an open homosexual. There will be a generation of people like Townshend who were forced to suppress their feelings because of how civilisation was operating – it is a damning reflection of a bygone era.

Despite Townshend’s recent comments around the release of ‘Rough Boys’, the guitarist vehemently denied that this part of him existed for a long time. If you take him out of the equation for a moment, his stance shines a light on how society made a whole generation feel about their natural existence, one which should be celebrated rather than shamed.

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