Listen to this track by former mod representatives turned classic rock institution The Who. It’s “Who Are You”, the concluding song that served as the title track to their 1978 album Who Are You. That record would represent the end of an era for the band when drummer Keith Moon passed away a month after it was released. The attached rendition of the song here is featured in the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright.
In some ways, this song and its album marked the end of an era for rock music, too. By the end of the seventies, popular music was exponentially dividing into multiple streams including punk, new wave, and disco. Certain tracks on this album make direct reference to that. Meanwhile, the band itself was struggling along after a three-year recording hiatus with Moon’s health in visible decline. The dynamics between musicians and in turn between the band and the production team that included Glyn Johns and Jon Astley were beginning to fray at the ends as well. These were not easy sessions. Perhaps this was the result of a shot of self-awareness at being among the second generation of rock musicians beginning to sense the end of their prime period.
As usual on this particular song, guitarist and head songwriter Pete Townshend’s well-trodden themes of image, identity, and truth are firmly in place. This time, they come with a bona fide autobiographical component to the story that perhaps goes against expectations when it comes to old rockers versus new punks. Read more
Listen to this track by former ’60s mod pin-ups turned rock-operaist foursome, The Who. It’s “The Real Me” as taken from their 1973 epic record Quadrophenia, a study in subculture and identity, and arguably their last significant release as the original quartet.
And how perfect that the album was based upon the idea that the group presents something of a unified entity, with the story of Jimmy the Mod really being a reflection of each Who member.
In this respect, this song is really the centerpiece to the record that Townshend envisioned; four identities shaping one, with the real identity being something harder to define.
Yet it is this idea that a “real” identity can be found when those of likemind gather together as a group that lays at the heart of the album, and later the film. But, in the end, it can be about identity as a whole, and our need to be a part, perhaps, of something bigger. But, what? Read more
Here’s a clip of Who guitarist/visionary and rock opera guru Pete Townshend with a solo acoustic take on his song “Drowned”, the studio version of which appears on the Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia.
The reason the Who is in the upper echelon of British Invasion bands is that they helped to expand the possibilities of what a rock band means, and what a rock song can be about too. This doesn’t simply refer to head writer Townshend’s penchant for lofty and ambitious rock operas and concept albums, although these forms certainly became his main areas of concern by 1969. I think the underlying influence they had was making rock music into something which could be confessional as well as visceral. Rock music, Townshend proved, could be used as a vehicle for self-examination.
This approach began with the 1969 album Tommy, and the live versions of the story which came afterward. Ultimately, that album and the ‘rock opera’ to follow, had more to do with its writer than it did with a mythical deaf dumb and blind kid. But, with 1973’s Quadrophenia, Townshend wasn’t just telling his story. He was attempting to take on the stories of everyone he grew up with including, and maybe especially, his band mates.
With this tune, I think there’s a nakedness to it that is even more apparent in his solo acoustic takes, which he’d performed in a number of settings as a solo artist by the 1990s. On the surface, this is a song about the teenage mind, the driving need to belong, to matter, to align one’s identity with something greater. This is what it means to be ‘drowned’ in this song – to be subsumed by something powerful, something that is elemental, and able to deliver one from the crushing reality of isolation often felt most keenly by teenagers.
In the story, our young mod hero Jimmy finds himself at the sea in Brighton, the city which was the epicentre of the war between mods and rockers. There he waits to catch a glimpse of his hero, king of the mods Ace Face. Yet what he feels is bereft, lonely, and with the overpowering need to be included, to belong. To me, the visuals of this are so important. To see a middle-aged Townshend singing this tune, is to see that the sentiments in it go well beyond the confines of the story being told. And his latter-day performances of this song ultimately illustrate that the need to find belonging and meaning goes beyond age too. This is what it is to be human, to feel the overpowering drive to make a connection with something bigger than oneself.
Contrast that interview with this interview with Pete Townshend in 2003, when his ‘research’ into child abuse caused him some bother with the law. It seemed that his struggles to come to terms with his youth would be lifelong pursuit that would continue to lead him down some pretty thorny paths.