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The Who smash it up

I recently found myself watching the infamous nightclub scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up that features Jeff Beck smashing up his guitar during a Yardbirds’ performance. It turns out that the Yardbirds had not been Antonioni’s first choice to perform in this scene. He had already tried and failed to persuade The Who – whose debut singles had been released in late 1965 and early 1966 – to re-enact the destructive onstage act that he had been told about; and had also considered the Velvet Underground (but they were far away in New York).

The Who at that time, in many ways, were a strange mix of the familiar and the new; but perhaps more conscious of the stage as the medium for pushing performance to extremes through the use and abuse of amplified sound and DIY pyrotechnics (i.e., smashing up equipment), but also in allowing their songs to expand in scope and intensity as the setting or occasion demanded. The music – even in its more ‘contained’ recorded version – already would occasionally exhibit greater aggression and more punch than anything before it; the ‘farthest out of any rock extant’ at the time, in the words of Phonograph Record magazine’s resident expert on all things extreme, Metal Mike Saunders. There is some irony in the fact that the title of the Who’s first album when it was released in America was, The Who Sings My Generation, when surely what they do is smash it to pieces.

The Who’s debut album in America (Decca Records), April 1966.

The title song’s collapse into an aural heap was almost a metaphor itself for the hastening of that hoped-for early demise (‘hope I die before I get old’ etc) that would become another variant of the intergenerational theme of rock’n’roll rebellion. The songs of The Who are saturated with images of teenage alienation, but also – repeatedly – the lure of a kind of liberation from all the weight that holds anyone down and stomps on dreams.

‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ was about blowing up limits, breaking down the barriers to free expression – something that meant slightly different things to the band’s twin frontmen. The former art student Townshend’s more Romantic sentiments – freedom to roam, and so on – were punctuated by the verbal swinging boot of Daltrey, the former sheet metal worker who in fact started the band, whose contribution to the lyrics were in lines that gleefully anticipated ‘kicking in doors’ that stood in his way. In the interplay of the main two focal points – the lead singer and the main songwriter – the Who had found, and for a time would refine, a violent energy that was often formed into precise blows, yet able to spill out like a wrecking ball. But it wasn’t long before it was refined into something more controlled.

‘I Can See for Miles’ – from 1967, little more than a year after ‘My Generation’ – doesn’t so much continue the early experiment with crashing through the limitations of the rock/pop form, whose symbolic constraints took shape in the form of the 7-inch 45rpm record, usually clocking in at around three minutes. It is refined into visions of the infinite, of boundless expansion and travel and bursting the limits of corporeality. It was something that seemed to underpin Townshend’s aborted ‘Lifehouse’ project and is evident, too, in some of the songs from that project that ended up on Who’s Next, such as ‘Going Mobile.’

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By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.