The Who and The Rolling Stones had an interesting relationship throughout their respective heydeys. Although they were both London acts who came to prominence around roughly the same time, The Who and the Stones might as well have come from two different worlds.
The Who were entrenched in the Mod scene, employing pop art visuals and instrument destruction on their way to becoming Britian’s loudest and most violent rock band. The Rolling Stones, by contrast, were blues purists who exhibited a more laconic and detached sense of cool. Both were in love with American R&B and both were helping push rock music forward, but the two bands certainly had their differences.
That being said, The Who and the Stones didn’t have the same kind of rivalry that existed between the Stones and The Beatles. Instead, there was a casual friendship that mainly existed in the London clubs, where band members would mingle and occasionally bounce ideas off each other. This amicable association would actually come back to bite the Stones when they invited The Who to their Rock and Roll Circus performance – The Who proceeded to bust out a ten-minute version of their proto-opera ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, setting an impossibly high precedent that the Stones themselves failed to live up to.
The Who were in the middle of recording Tommy when they stepped into the Stones’ three-ring circus, and just by coincidence, had a song in their new repertoire that was directly inspired by the Stones. ‘I’m Free’ features the layers of harmonies and dense plots that made Tommy such a unique listening experience, while retaining all of the raw power that made The Who so exciting. According to Pete Townshend, at least some of that sound was indebted to the Stones.
“‘I’m Free’ came from ‘Street Fighting Man,'” Townshend recalled in the liner notes for the reissue of Tommy. “This has a weird time/shape and when I finally discovered how it went, I thought ‘Well blimey, it can’t be that simple,’ but it was and it was a gas and I wanted to do it myself.”
Both songs feature acoustic guitars that lead otherwise high-energy rock numbers, and both have the same kind of aggressive approach. While being essential to the progression of Tommy‘s story, ‘I’m Free’ was also enthralling enough outside of this context to be released as a single. Reaching the top 40 on the US pop singles chart, ‘I’m Free’ was a rare hit from a band that had notoriously found it difficult to grab chart success during the peak of their powers.
The track is also notable for having a few different drum parts overdubbed on top of each other, with only a few of those hits actually belonging to Keith Moon – but that’s a story for another day. Check out ‘I’m Free’ down below and compare it with ‘Street Fighting Man’.