This month, I have decided to continue our focus on the musical genius of legendary classic rock band The Who by taking a “deeper dive” into the musical minds of two of its members, composer/guitarist Pete Townshend and drumming great Keith Moon. What musical characteristics make the The Who “uniquely” unique? The extraordinary creativity and musical inventiveness of Townshend and Moon are at the top of the list!
The Musical Genius of Pete Townshend
A songwriting genius of the caliber of Pete Townshend is very rare. His vast array of musical influences included; the dixieland and traditional jazz he heard from his father’s band growing up, blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, classical music, and more. He also heard Chuck Berry (only the pop-chart hits) and Bo Diddley. What gave Townshend more depth was his interest in rhythm and blues and jazz. He listened to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Jimmy Smith. Pete remembered, “I didn’t start to collect records and listen to guitar players properly until I went to art school, when I’d already been playing for five years. So my style was already formed, and that’s why I think it’s so unique.”
Townshend revealed one of his striking musical influences recalling, “Kit Lambert had loaned me a record that changed my life as a composer. It was what I had played during my Scotch-fueled listening experiment-a Czech recording called Masters of the Baroque. It included the principal movements of Purcell’s “Gordian Knot Untied,” a Baroque chamber suite, the most powerful part of which was the Chaconne. The performance is passionate, tragic and deeply moving. I was struck by Purcell’s unique, luxurious use of suspensions, a staple part of Baroque decoration at the harpsichord, but in Purcell’s hands the suspensions were elongated into heartrending, tortuous musical modes, especially in the minor keys. I began to experiment, and the first time I used suspensions successfully, in ‘The Kids Are Alright,’ it was mostly to suggest a Baroque mood.”
In the beginning, Pete Townshend faced the challenge of combining his evolving guitar sound, his musical influences, and ideas for song lyrics. For “I Can’t Explain,” Pete would listen to songs that inspired him and then develop guitar ideas. He quickly played them into his clunky old tape recorder to make simple demos. As his process became more refined, Townshend remembered, “A lot of the writing I do on tour. I do a lot on airplanes. At home, I write a lot, obviously. When I write a song, what I usually do is work the lyric out first from some basic idea that I had, and then I get an acoustic guitar and I sit by the tape recorder and I try to bang it out as it comes.” Townshend also became familiar with a standard music theory book called Orchestration. It contained the principles written by Walter Piston that were utilized by many classical composers.
After his initial success as a songwriter, Pete Townshend began to realize that he needed a bigger canvas to paint on. The simple three-minute pop song felt restricting. He still needed to write songs that could function as pop singles, but Townshend realized he needed to compose extended works that would develop the storyline for his rock opera Tommy. A rock opera can be defined as a large-scale work that utilizes character roles set in songs, all relating to a common storyline. The characters and theatrical stage production separates the rock opera from the concept album; although both the rock opera and concept album do allow composers to expand musical material. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, was acknowledged as the first rock opera when it was introduced in 1968. Another significant rock opera was Jesus Christ Superstar, which was introduced in 1970.
Pete Townshend had already dabbled with the mini-opera format when he expanded his compositional and literary vision to write Tommy. Tommy was many things; pure genius, spiritual message, brilliant melodies and orchestration, strong performances by each member of The Who, and a storyline that, at times, was somewhat silly. Townshend remembered what he was striving for when he said, “I knew that pop audiences would begin spiritual searching, as I had. I could write stories and clearly see theatrical dramas in my imagination. Whether I could realize them was still to be tested. But I began thinking about a project that I wouldn’t allow anyone to divert.” It was at this time that Townshend met and began to follow the metaphysical beliefs of an Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba. Through Baba’s teachings, Townshend set out to describe a disciple/master relationship and through reincarnation, a plan to connect the last seven lives of that disciple in an operatic drama that ended in spiritual perfection. Townshend further explained, “Each time the child/disciple Tommy is reborn, he returns with new inner wisdom, but still his life is full of struggle. Since the boy’s ignorance of his spiritual growth is a kind of disability, I decided my deaf, dumb, and blind hero could be autistic. This way, when I wanted to demonstrate the glorious moment of his God-realization, I could simply restore to my hero the use of his senses. It was a good plan; the boy’s sensory deprivation would work as a symbol of our own everyday spiritual isolation.”
In preparation for Tommy, Townshend recalled, “One of the important documents I referred to while writing Tommy was a diagram I had sketched of the beginning and end of seven journeys involving rebirth. I was attempting two ambitious stunts at once: to describe the disciple/master relationship and, in a Hermann Hesse-style saga of reincarnation, to connect the last seven lives of that disciple in an operatic drama that ended in spiritual perfection. In ‘Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy’ I borrowed from Meher Baba’s teachings to underpin ideas I’d been playing with during the previous year of psychedelia.”
Townshend’s next rock opera, Quadrophenia, although possessing a hard to follow storyline, did contain some strong compositions. This included the songs; “The Real Me,” “5:15,” and “Love Reign Over Me.” Townshend wrote the story as a distorted dream view by Jimmy, the lead character, and this made it challenging to follow when he revealed his unhappy life. Quadrophenia also represented teenage rebellion and criticized the British economic and educational systems. Although Quadrophenia extended Townshend’s credibility as a composer, it was a disaster to perform on stage. Ultimately, The Who infused the strongest of Quadrophenia’s songs into their live performances.
Pete Townshend was able to truly realize his musical genius by drawing from a large variety of musical influences and exerting a strong musical appetite for creating highly personal musical works.
Pete Townshend-Compositional Genius
The drumming legend of Keith Moon
Keith Moon played the drums like nobody else before or since. Listening to Keith Moon play is a whole lot easier than trying to play his drumset parts. He seemed to be reeking havoc, refusing to play time on his hi-hats (which he stopped using altogether at one point) or ride cymbal. He sounded more often than not like he was playing an endless drum solo over The Who’s melodies, Daltrey’s vocals, or Townshend’s guitar solos. But he wasn’t. Moon was listening carefully to the song and its arrangement and he heard tornado-like drumset flurries as a compliment to the music. One of Moon’s not so subtle tricks was to incorporate backbeats (accents on beats two and four) underneath his raging tom-tom assault. That, in turn, created the “illusion” of a time feel and not a solo. Everything he played had a reason; everything made musical sense. Pete Townshend was intrigued with Moon’s approach to playing. Townshend said, “An eccentric player, Keith seemed to be showing off all the time, pointing his sticks up in the air and leaning over the drums, face thrust forward as if to be nearer the front of the stage. He was loud and strong. Slowly, too, we realized that his fluid style hid a real talent for listening and following, not just laying down a beat.”
Before adding Keith Moon to the band, The Who auditioned for Fontana Records in March 1964. Fontana liked their potential, except for drummer Doug Sandom. Keith Moon, when not working with The Beachcombers (his surf rock band), would regularly attend The Detour’s gigs. One such night Keith approached the band looking to sit in. Sandom had already left the band and a session drummer playing with The Who that night allowed Keith to play a few tunes. A bystander in the crowd remembered, “The whole kit was shaking as if it had been caught in a hurricane, this kid…was hitting the drums with so much venom it was as if he was holding them responsible for everything wrong in the world. By the time The Who thanked Keith, and asked the drummer to come back up to complete the set, the bass drum pedal was broken and at least one of the skins was torn. The hi-hat looked worse for wear as well…Keith had not even joined The Who and already the band was paying for his damages (the session drummer charged them for the broken gear).”
Moon found unorthodox ways to apply snare drum rudiments such as ruffs and ratamaques and then orchestrated them creatively around the drums. Moon’s loose feel was similar in some respects to the loose feel that jazz great Elvin Jones achieved with jazz saxophone icon John Coltrane. Guitarist Jeff Beck said it best when he explained, “people underestimated him, he was the most incredible drummer. You can’t even mimic him. Nobody’s been able to do it! I’ve watched and stood beside him and just gone, Jesus! I could describe a car crash easier than I could describe his drumming.”
Keith Moon’s off-stage behavior was also legendary. Although not all of the stories and rumors about him were true, here is an example of one that was true and well documented!
Keith, sometimes called “Moon the Loon,” discovered that fireworks were legal to buy in some American southern cities. Keith enlisted the help of John Entwistle to see what was possible with a few dozen inoffensive cherry bombs and a hotel room. Said Entwistle, “We tried one out in his suitcase. It blew a hole in the suitcase and a chair. So then we decided the hotel deserves to get fu**ed because we’d had so much trouble with room service…our idea was to put the cherry bomb down the toilet and flush it so we couldn’t get blamed for it. Hopefully it would blow some pipes along the way. We crouched over, Keith lit it and I flushed and the cherry bomb just kept going round. The flush didn’t work properly. We looked at it and went Aaaagh! and ran out. And as we slammed the door the explosion went off, and when we went back, there was just a hole in the floor where the toilet had been. The toilet was completely gone.”
Keith Moon-Rock Legend and drumming genius
All of the above material for this post of the musical genius of Pete Townshend and Keith Moon was taken from the rock history textbook Rock History-The Musician’s Perspective and The Rock Doc music history course Early American Classic to Modern Rock