‘Who Are You’: How The Who Stuck It To The Punks

·3 min read

Though punk liberally poured scorn on early 70s rock’n’roll superstars such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, most of the Class Of ’77 retained respect for The Who, whose 1978 album, Who Are You, ensured the band’s relevance at the end of the decade.

Listen to Who Are You now.

Digging the amphetamine energy of the band’s legend-enshrining early 45s and their well-documented appetite for destruction, the notorious Sex Pistols often covered The Who’s 1966 hit “Substitute” in their live set, while director Franc Roddam later considered that same band’s frontman, Johnny Rotten, for the lead role in 1979’s Quadrophenia: Roddam’s landmark, mod-revival-enhancing movie based upon The Who’s ambitious double-LP from ’73.

Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones even became drinking buddies of The Who’s guitarist and primary songsmith, Pete Townshend, and an incident that occurred after this triumvirate had enjoyed a night out at London’s Speakeasy inspired The Who’s 1978 hit “Who Are You.” Featuring an autobiographical lyric in which Townshend finds himself woken up “in a Soho doorway” by a late-night policeman who allows the guitarist to go home “if you can get up and walk away”, the dynamic, synth-enhanced “Who Are You” (currently the theme for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) rapidly climbed into the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Released on August 18, 1978, The Who’s identically-monikered eighth studio LP then earned the band a gold disc in the UK and double-platinum sales in America, yet the record was something of a triumph over adversity and nearly didn’t get made at all. The group had been off the road since October 1976, and the protracted Who Are You sessions were further delayed by vocalist Roger Daltrey’s throat operation and bedeviled by drummer Keith Moon’s persistent health issues, which were affecting his performance in the studio.

To Moon and his cohorts’ credit, they stayed the course. The Who returned with a strong, consistent hard rock album, long on brash, FM radio-friendly anthems such as “Guitar & Pen” and the aspirational “Love Is Coming Down,” which came couched in some of Pete Townshend’s most complex, strings- and synthesizer-assisted arrangements. Curiously, however, though Who Are You was released while punk was still in vogue, only the titular song and the churning, John Entwistle-penned “Trick Of The Light” bought into its nihilistic aggression – though Townshend did acknowledge the changing times on the sharply observed “Music Must Change.”

Tragically, while the mercurial Moon endured the Who Are You sessions, he died within three weeks of the album’s release. Further bolstered by 1979’s critically acclaimed anthology The Kids Are Alright, however, The Who survived into the next decade. Retaining their credibility beyond punk, the veteran rockers recorded two more big sellers, Face Dances and It’s Hard, with ex-Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones, before splitting – albeit temporarily – in 1982.

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