Pete Townshend has an infamously sharp tongue. The Who guitarist, and the band’s principal songwriter, has had a fair few words to share about most of his contemporaries throughout his life within the music industry. Known for his scathing retorts and a glaring eye, Townshend quickly earned himself a reputation as the aggressive edge of the British invasion both on and off the stage. However, as the years have gone on, this edge has been one that he hasn’t been able to shake off. On one occasion, he even regretfully lost his cool and bizarrely began shouting expletives at a seven-year-old fan.
This anger initially stems from the fact that The Who were a devastatingly powerful quartet, their sound was louder and grittier than anybody else in the mid-1960s. They put on an exhilarating rock show which nobody could compete with until, of course, Jimi Hendrix showed up. Bursting onto the scene with relentless authority, they soon packed out stadiums across the world.
Despite their studio success, it was their chaotic live shows in which they came into their own. Townshend’s on-stage presence was uber aggressive from the very first note he played until he slammed his guitar into the ground at the end of a show, a moment of performative art playing out in front of audiences every night.
This act would become just as notorious as their music. It has followed Townshend like an albatross around his neck throughout the course of his career and something he tries to leave in the past. When The Who toured Toronto in 2013, an innocent seven-year-old fan, Jenny Costell, who came with her father Eric, held a sign that said: “Smash your guitar, Pete!”. When the guitarist spotted it, he yelled: “Go away with that sign please, just go away with it, just go away with it. Don’t bring your children, use them. I want to tell you two words but I can’t because you’ve got a child there,” Townshend said before then mouthing the expletives in a toxic manner while the crowd cheered on.
Decades earlier, Townshend explained to Playboy’s David Sheff why he had grown to loathe smashing guitars on stage. “Well, you have to remember I’m not angry all the time,” he said. “Even now I occasionally get frustrated on the stage with guitars and want to smash them. I tend not to do it, but the opportunity’s always there,” the guitarist then explained, “It’s also embarrassing, is what it is. It’s like comedians’ being forced to use their catchphrase after they’ve become serious actors.”
Shortly after the incident in 2013, the guitarist apologised to the family for his actions and admitted that his behaviour was unnecessary. “Apologies and condolences from my side, and very best wishes to you and your family,” he wrote, before asking the duo if they could “meet and be friends and put this behind us”.
Suppose it wasn’t for video footage of the incident leaking on the internet, who knows if Townshend would have apologised for his actions. Even if Townshend has grown tired of being asked to smash his guitar, there are no excuses for his overreaction.
One would presume that the musician has grown used to having the same requests at every single show and the bizarre way in which he responded to the sign that Costell was holding truly beggars belief. This night was likely her first-ever time at a concert, and her lasting memory won’t be a rousing rendition of ‘My Generation’ or ‘Baba O’Riley’, instead, it will be getting told to ‘fuck off’ by the artist she had come to see.