The Who’s Pete Townshend is famous for three things: his guitar smashing antics, his vitriolic tongue, and that book. The group’s chief songwriter is, however, always reliable for a scathing quote. Usually, it’s about his frenemy Roger Daltrey, but even The Beatles have fallen victim to the wrath of Townshend.
The guitarist quickly earned himself as the physical embodiment of the aggressive edge of the British invasion both on and off stage. He never cared for niceties and played up to his villainous persona at every opportunity. During The Who performances, he would deliberately act as caustic as humanly possible, and Townshend’s furore rolled over into every aspect of his life.
When The Who made their arrival in 1966 with their thunderous lead single, ‘My Generation’, it represented the fervent energy of youth. Their all-guns-blazing approach wasn’t confined to their music, and in one of their very first interviews, Townshend shockingly called The Beatles “flipping lousy”.
After a conversation around the idea of “musical quality”, something Townshend shrugs as irrelevant to him and his band, the interviewer then suggest that The Beatles have “quality.” “Ooh, that’s a tough question,” the guitarist replied with a sneering smile.
He continued: “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. When you actually hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy.”
It was a powerful statement from Townshend and showed that he didn’t hold The Beatles on the same pedestal as everyone else did. Whether he exaggerated his distaste for the group to deliberately rile up controversy is another matter. These contrarian comments showed that, from the start, The Who refused to kneel at the altar to The Beatles and, more importantly, built Townshend’s bitey reputation in the process. He was elated to play the pantomime villain and took pleasure in turning heads.
In 1982, Townshend took a more subtle swing at The Beatles during an interview with Rolling Stone. Paul McCartney’s Tug of War arose in conversation, and the interview says it has “virtually nothing to do with rock & roll“. In response, Townshend’s bluntly asks if McCartney “ever really had anything to do with rock?”.
“No, he never did,” Townshend immediately replied to his own question in a blink of an eye. “You know, I could sit down and have a conversation with Paul about rock & roll, and we’d be talking about two different things,” he added.
Finally, decades later, Townshend put down the pretence and admitted his love for The Fab Four. “I wasn’t crazy impressed with the Beatles when I first heard them,” he told Rolling Stone in 2019. “But I loved them.”
“I did love them,” he reiterates. “They were joyful, they were funny. They were more a pop group than I would have liked [but] they had this incredible image. They were delightful, absolutely delightful.”
Despite him lambasting the group, the guitarist’s comments seemingly were exaggerated to make jaws drop, and it worked. Townshend’s verbal assaults cultivated a venomous image around The Who and differentiated them from anyone else around.