Originally published in the Hindu Metroplus Bangalore edition on November 8, 2012:
November is ripe for two bands with timeless music – The Rolling Stones release their 50th anniversary compilation album ‘GRRR!’ featuring two new songs, and just two years behind them in the timeline are The Who, heading out on Quadrophenia Tour in the US with gigs going on till February.
There’s also guitarist Pete Townshend’s biography ‘Who I Am’, which released last month, spilling out intimate details of his days with the band, his personal life and his relation with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger. After 48 years of rocking out, smashing instruments on stage, peaking and then seeing your band members pass away from the vices of rock n’ roll, the Who are definitely one of those bands which stand out for bowing out and then returning. How else does one explain their 2005 release ‘Endless Wire’, which only featured Daltrey and Townshend, out of the original four?
This is the exact return that still spurs on a following among the old and the young – fans who are accrued either instantly as the opening organ riff to “Baba O’ Riley” kicks in or over decades. Every time you hear their music, there’s the throwaway quotes on “My Generation”, the invention of the genre now called art-rock, and more importantly, the timelessness of their rock operas.
Townshend told the Guardian in an interview recently, “I remember two boys, on different occasions, came up to me and said about ‘I’m a Boy’, ‘That song really helped me to get to grips with…’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ And they mentioned a word I’d never heard before: ‘I’m a transgender individual.’ And we’re talking about 1966. I had no idea what they were talking about.”
It is anecdotes such as these that make you revisit the band’s discography, looking for hidden gems, or even inspiration. It happened by accident to Uday Benegal, vocalist of Indian rock band Indus Creed. While he says the influence of the Who’s music has been more subliminal than direct, he mentions: “Here’s something I discovered purely by accident – I was listening to Quadrophenia again and there was a lyric in ‘Drowned’ which went “Just a tear in baby’s eyes,” Which is also the last line in (Indus Creed song) ‘Pretty Child’. It was just a lyric that made its way into one of our songs, when I hadn’t heard Quadrophenia in years. I like that little connection.”
Benegal also performs as part of acoustic rock trio Whirling Kalapas. At their most recent gig, they covered the rather obscure but memorable song ‘Blue, Red and Grey’ off ‘The Who By Numbers’. He’s been hooked to their music ever since his older brother bought a cassette tape of Quadrophenia by the band, which he says remains his most favourite album till date. “Their music influenced me like no other music at the time, when I was 13.”
The 1973 album climbed the music charts in the US and UK, and was certified gold within ten days of its release. But it’s not just the sales that are proof. Quadrophenia was chiefly responsible for getting 22-year-old law student Kabir Barat hooked over the summer to The Who’s music. He’s been on that trip ever since. “I first heard of them when I was into Pearl Jam. (Vocalist) Eddie Vedder is a huge fan of Pete Townshend,” he explains. Barat also happened to hear a portion of their other major 70s hit “Who Are You” on a TV show.
Barat feels that the Who’s music has stood the test of time due to two reasons: first, their unorthodox (at the time), no-holds-barred live act. “A lot of clichéd theatrics that you see associate with rock bands were inspired The Who: the breaking of instruments, Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar technique, trashing of hotel rooms,” Barat says, adding that their “wildly differing personalities and the fact that they popularised the concept albums with Tommy and Quadrophenia” drew him to their music.
Reflecting on their stage act, Townshend said in an interview, “Some of our bad behavior as young men was a response to the way we were treated, not the challenge to authority and order it was seen to be by the press. We travel and hotel elegantly today. Our fans treat us like precious friends, not chattel.”
Both Benegal and Barat believe their timelessness also boiled down to how experimental they were with their compositions. Benegal says, “Townshend was extremely progressive. He popularised the power chords, but also experimented with synthesizers and arpeggios.” While Barat feels they were a band ahead of their time. “If one were to listen to a lot of modern bands and then go back to The Who, you realise that they were doing the same thing exactly 40 – 45 years ago, if not better. You have “My Generation”, which you could call an early punk/ garage rock song,” he says.
Benegal had the opportunity to catch the Who live a few years ago with Daltrey-Townshend-Entwistle lineup before the bassist passed away in 2002. “I was a bit apprehensive, because when you’ve grown up listening to a band who are currently in their late fifties, you wonder if seeing them live is going to be a damp squib. But they totally blew my mind. They were in incredible form. Daltrey was singing like a beast, Townshend was playing in another realm entirely, and Entwistle was great.”
While promoting the Quadrophenia tour, Townshend had stated: “The real high point for me is always the final song ‘Love Reign O’er Me.’ Roger (Daltrey) and I now stand almost alone together, representing not only the original band, but also its Mod (the sub-culture promoted by the Who) audience, and of course all our other early fans. We are connected by it, in what is the most clear cut prayer for redemption, and it feels like an acknowledgment that rock music has managed to deal with the highest emotional challenge: spiritual desperation.”
Benegal, who incidentally says ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ is also his favourite song, sums up what the band’s 48-year legacy stands for: “It’s not just great music, it’s a great vibe and there’s a spiritual thought that lies within that, which is what makes it timeless.”