“The mod thing is dying. We don’t plan to go down with it, which is why we’ve become individualists.”
June 5, 1965. In the august pages of the Melody Maker, a radically stroppy band are being unveiled to a world beyond Shepherd’s Bush. “A new name is being hurled around in hip circles – The Who,” the piece begins. “Today, with one hit gone and another on the way, they are reckoned by the ‘In Crowd’ to be on the crest of a success wave that could make them the new rave – on a nationwide scale.”
Over half a century later, what Pete Townshend referred to as “the mod thing” has died, been reborn, and cycled round and round again several times over, yet still the indefatigable Who endure, both embodying and transcending that scene. They have, of course, become successful on something far bigger than a national scale. In two nights’ time (Feb 11), Hammersmith Apollo will host a “fully immersive cinematic theatrical experience” celebrating Quadrophenia, featuring a screening of the 1979 movie and a Q&A with many of the original cast, among other Who/mod-based activities.
Then, on February 13, The Who themselves play a London show at Wembley Arena before heading off on the latest leg of the self-explanatory “Who Hits 50” tour – a tour, in fact, that currently seems destined to last almost as long as the band’s extensive, storied history. From the end of February until the end of May, Townshend, Roger Daltrey and their accomplices will be bringing their volatile and often remarkable show to some of the biggest venues in the USA.
Not a bad time, then, for Uncut to unveil a deluxe remastered edition of our Ultimate Music Guide to The Who (it’s in the shops on Thursday, but you can order a copy of The Who Ultimate Music Guide from the Uncut store any moment now.) “I think our greatest accomplishment was to create the arena anthem,” Townshend tells us in a typically candid introduction. “That is a song that on its own serves almost as a short show in itself. This caters for the shallow attention span demonstrated by the audience in busy and chaotic arenas or stadiums… Three or four of the best anthemic Who songs strung together generate a blistering 25-minute musical event. This was something we stumbled onto by accident rather than by design.
“Now that stadium events are seen to be so overcooked, it may be an accomplishment that should be reassessed and downgraded, but ‘Baba O Riley’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ are extremely hard to beat as a way of rallying a massive audience. I’ve written about 650 songs. Only a few of them could be described as ‘anthems’, but those will probably be the songs that prevail.”
I’m not sure we’ve tackled every one of those 650 songs in the Ultimate Music Guide. Nevertheless, as usual, there are deep reviews of every single Who album, plus a treasure trove of interviews that span 50 years and which showcase Townshend, in particular, as one of the most complex, self-flagellating and quoteworthy figures the rock era has produced. There are agonising meditations on age (“I often feel that I’m too old for rock’n’roll,” he gripes – in 1973!); frank recollections of his addictions (“My theory about smack is ‘Keep taking the tablets ’til the pain goes away'”: 1993); repeated tussles with the weight, significance and meaning of “Tommy”, “Quadrophenia” and “Lifehouse”; and one last combative encounter from 2015, in which Townshend prepares for his 70th birthday by announcing, “There’s a desire I have to do a show which is crap. Go out in front of a bunch of devoted Who fans and say, ‘Listen, you bunch of fucking cunts. Fuck off. Don’t come back…'”
Townshend’s meaning, of course, is never quite straightforward. His appetite for stirring up trouble remains, however, unquenchable, and hopefully this Ultimate Music Guide is testament to that, and to the quixotic genius that The Who have manifested for so long. They have, it’s fair to say, “become individualists…”