Tuesday 19 November 2019

Who did you say was the world's best band . . . ever?

Ed Power

The greatest rock band of all time? Until recently conventional wisdom offered two choices: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Lately, a new consensus has emerged: that the title should go to The Who, the 1960s outfit which, it is argued, did more to shake up rock music -- and the establishment -- than any other.

You know a band appeals to all comers when it is awarded the 'best rock group in history' accolade by organs as diverse as Rolling Stone and the London Times.

As the Londoners' iconic guitarist Pete Townshend publishes his autobiography this month, there is a gathering school of opinion that, when it comes to old fashioned, ear-drum ulverising rock, The Who truly had it all.

For those who blanched at the tweeness of The Beatles, were put off by the Stones' shameless cadging from American blues, The Who showed another way. If there is an anthem for the 1960s, 'My Generation' was surely it -- has a lyric ever rattled down the decades as powerfully as "Hope I die before I get old"?

They were also, arguably, far more influential than either of their erstwhile rivals. With his apoplectic 'windmill' playing style and penchant for scuzzy, no-frills riffs, Townshend foreshadowed the brutal assault of heavy metal and punk (and, later, grunge). You can hear his influence in the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, the Pixies, Metallica.

Frontman Roger Daltrey, meanwhile, was a golden-locked teen pin-up before his time who exuded a genuine sexual danger.

They broke new ground for bad behaviour, too. Before John Lennon insulted the Bible Belt by comparing The Beatles to Jesus, the worst the Liverpudlians got up to was a bit of boozy partying in Berlin. The Stones, for their part, didn't really hit their debauched stride until the 1970s. With drummer Keith Moon as mad-cap-in-chief, The Who were getting their crazy on when most bands were still going on stage in three-piece suits.

Shenanigans aside, their achievements endure. Townshend established a potent piece of rock iconography when he took to smashing guitars on stage. The trademark had begun by accident after he bashed his instrument off the roof of a London pub -- noticing the audience's hoots of delight he kept going.

With 1973's Quadrophenia, meanwhile, they created the 'rock opera' (what did the Beatles ever invent, apart from the over-indulgent double LP?). Tommy, from 1969, was the first concept album with a proper concept at its heart. And on 1970's Live at Leeds they gave rock its first great concert record.

Speaking to me last year, Roger Daltrey explained he and Townshend were constantly looking for new ways to progress their sound. "We were thinking, what can we do next?" he said of the making of Tommy. "Unlike the Stones and the Beatles, we were searching for a style. We didn't want to sound American.

"We had an ambition to make rock and pop into something more than a three-minute single."

Though they have sold millions of albums, there is an argument to be made that The Who never received their due recognition.

Most extraordinary of all, in all their decades they never once clocked up a number one single either side of the Atlantic. The Who never seemed particularly interested in the commercial side. Their goal was to jolt the audience, shake it out of its comfort zone.

"If Led Zeppelin made you want to boogie," wrote essayist Roland Kelts recently, "and The Rolling Stones and The Doors made you want sex. . . The Who made you want to smash something up, maybe even yourself, and survive the assault."

In other words, they put the rage into rock and roll. Four decades on, that anger is still the force that drives frustrated young men to pick up guitars and try to change the world, one clanging power-chord at a time.

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