Just a terrific performance of the song that was in many ways The Who’s last great hurrah. Find me a rock ‘n roll number with better opening lines than these:
I woke up in a Soho doorway
A policeman knew my name
He said “You can go sleep at home tonight
If you can get up and walk away”
I staggered back to the underground
And the breeze blew back my hair
I remember throwing punches around
And preaching from my chair
It was the late 1970s. If there’d been any lingering doubt over the ultimate hollowness of the youth-driven cultural transformation of the prior decade, by then it was well and truly buried. Rock had become big business, a pre-fabricated, shrink-wrapped, stadium-filling commercial juggernaut controlled by guys in suits, while disco was taking over, the singer-songwriters were running rampant, and AM radio was a dead zone of danceable jingles about amorous muskrats and the frantic shaking of booties. The industry had turned into such a bloated self-parody that mainstream pop music had bred its own counterculture, the punks, determined, so it seemed to Pete Townshend, to scoop the rebel crown out of the gutter. His crown. “It was a revolution”, he said many years later, “and I reckoned the Beatles, the Who and the Stones were going to get their heads cut off in the public square”, and the thing was, he wasn’t sure if he was bitter and envious, or just relieved. Drunk, degenerate, and disillusioned, Pete was flailing.
It was in this already sour frame of mind that Townshend began an intensely demoralizing marathon business meeting in New York – various accounts have it stretching to as many as fourteen hours, but the lyrics make it out to be eleven – struggling with legendary parasite Allen Klein to secure royalties. Working class bandmate Roger Daltry, a former apprentice sheet metal worker, had always been adamant that he wasn’t apologizing to anybody for making it all about money, but Pete had once fancied himself an artist on a much higher mission. So much for that! Later on, he was sitting slit-eyed in some Soho bar, drinking himself stuporous, wondering how it had all come to this, and lamenting what a bunch of f’ing sellouts he and his peers had all turned out to be, when who walks in? Who, here, of all places? None other than Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. Christ! The last guys he needed to see. They recognized him immediately, of course, and came right over to join him, so Pete, struggling to thread his feet into the stirrups on his high horse, decided it was past time that the little upstart bastards learned the ugly facts of rock ‘n roll life from somebody who’d already seen and done it all while they were still in bloody short pants, somebody who’d experienced the complete moral, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, and indeed physical decay that awaited them just down the road, however flush with triumph they might now feel. Executive summary: It’s all shite and kills everyone who touches it, so if you think you’re the ones to take over where we left off, well be my guest, and good f’ing luck. When he was good and done giving the punks what for, he stumbled out the door, fell over, and awoke a while later to the sight of one of New York’s finest looming over him.
Time was the cop might have put the boots to him. Not any more. The erstwhile rebel and scourge of polite society, by now a beloved public figure, instead got the star treatment. No drunk tank for Pete, no rough handling. No, it’s all up you get Mr. Townshend, there you go, and look, so long as you can walk, by all means get yourself home to sleep it off. Seemed like no matter how hard you tried, sooner or later, you wound up as an elder statesman, waving the banner for some sort of Establishment. Hope I die before I get old, remember? That was the worst part. That, and how the two purported louts from the Sex Pistols had only come over to express their undying admiration for Pete’s body of work, and how much his music had paved the way for guys like them. They truly admired him – in fact, observing the sorry state of their drunken hero, they were worried about him. “Steve and Paul became real ‘mates’ of mine in the English sense”, Pete recalled. “We socialized a few times. Got drunk (well, I did) and I have to say to their credit, for a couple of figurehead anarchists, they seemed sincerely concerned about my decaying condition at the time”. That was something, eh? Oy. You had to have landed somewhere close to rock bottom when the bloody Sex Pistols were concerned.
Pete certainly was spiralling downward at this point, but not as badly as Keith Moon, who’s captured on celluloid above for one of the last times, during the filming for the documentary The Kids Are All Right. Just a month after Who Are You hit the record stores, he swallowed a handful of whatever pills were within arm’s length, as was his habit – ironically, this time, a prescription drug called Heminevrin, used to combat alcoholism – and overdosed. The band carried on, but really, it could never be The Who after that.