It wasn’t easy to be in The Who during the height of their fame. Any rock band comes with the temptations of drugs and indulgence, but few bands seemed to embrace the art of destruction quite like The Who. This manifested in the crowd-pleasing instrument smashing that made them one of music’s biggest live draws, but also in the endless offstage antics of Keith Moon. Whether it was crashing a car into a pool or blowing toilets up with cherry bombs, Moon ensured that there was never a dull moment in The Who.
By 1970, Pete Townshend was getting tired of the whole scene. His devotion to the teaching of Indian spiritual leader Maher Baba was at odds with traditional rock star debauchery, some of which was being practised by his bandmates. In the greater scope of the world, Townshend couldn’t reconcile his peaceful spirituality with his aggressively violent stage persona, so he did the only thing he could – he wrote a song about it.
“Quite loosely, ‘The Seeker’ was just a thing about what I call divine desperation, or just desperation,” Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1970. “And what it does to people. It just kind of covers a whole area where the guy’s being fantastically tough and ruthlessly nasty and he’s being incredibly selfish and he’s hurting people, wrecking people’s homes, abusing his heroes, he’s accusing everyone of doing nothing for him and yet at the same time he’s making a fairly valid statement, he’s getting nowhere, he’s doing nothing and the only thing he really can’t be sure of is his death, and that at least dead, he’s going to get what he wants. He thinks!”
Although Townshend leaves the specifics open to interpretation, it’s not hard to see the references to the intoxication perniciousness of The Who as they wound their way across the US and UK, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Just for good measure, Townshend throws out a list of then-current figureheads including The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Timothy Leary in his search for meaning, only to not find any answers in these pop culture titans. If you were so inclined, ‘The Seeker’ could be read as the most anti-rock star song ever written by a group of rock stars.
Of course, since this is The Who, the song couldn’t have been anything other than a hard-driving rock number. Townshend throws in some country music licks and lead lines during the solo, but when Keith Moon and John Entwistle are your rhythm section, the results can only be big and powerful. ‘The Seeker’ is exactly what it’s railing against: exciting, impactful, and occasionally mindless rock and roll. The fact that Townshend snuck in a more thoughtful message didn’t seem to register with millions of fans.
Townshend had another source of frustration to work out: despite being one of the biggest rock bands in the world, The Who were still missing out on the top line of mainstream success. All of their ’60s rock and roll peers, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to The Kinks, had all landed number one hits. But The Who kept missing out on the top spot in the UK and were chart duds in America, topping out at number nine with 1967’s ‘I Can See For Miles’. The Who fared better off in the AOR long-form radio ’70s, where singles came as a secondary concern to albums and large-scale touring, but Townshend couldn’t understand why The Who failed to reach the chart heights of their peers.
All of this was collected onto ‘The Seeker’, and perhaps because of its difficult birth, Townshend wasn’t as high on the song at the time. “I suppose I like this least of all the stuff,” Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1971. “It suffered from being the first thing we did after Tommy, and also from being recorded a few too many times. We did it once at my home studio, then at IBC where we normally worked then with Kit Lambert producing. Then Kit had a tooth pulled, breaking his jaw, and we did it ourselves.”
“The results are impressive. It sounded great in the mosquito-ridden swamp I made it up in—Florida at three in the morning drunk out of my brain with Tom Wright and John Wolff,” Townshend concluded. “But that’s always where the trouble starts, in the swamp. The alligator turned into an elephant and finally stampeded itself to death on stages around England. I don’t think we even got to play it in the States.”
Indeed, ‘The Seeker’ was largely absent from The Who’s live setlists during the 1970s. It was only after the deaths of Moon and Entwistle that ‘The Seeker’ made a permanent return to the band’s live shows, now being a setlist stalwart on more recent tours.