All bands have tension. The Beatles had John and Paul's different visions and George trying to be heard, The Stones had Mick and Keef and early on Brian Jones all fighting for musical dominance. The Who were much worse. Only Pete Townsend and bassist John Entwistle were actually friends. Early on, Roger Daltrey was a complete dictator and had to agree to a democratic system only after Townsend and Entwistle threatened to quit. Keith Moon was the last member to join, the final piece of the puzzle, one of the most amazing drummers in rock history. He was also a drunk and a drug addict and most of the English music scene knew how miserable he was in the band, with people like Jeff Beck actively trying to poach him away. Still, he stayed until his death in 1978.
Over the past fifty years, The Who's career has been distilled down to several great hits such as My Generation, Who Are You?, Baba O'Riley, Pinball Wizard, Substitute, Behind Blue Eyes, Won't Get Fooled Again and many more. I want to take a look at some early recordings that aren't quite as famous but completely turn the sex god rock star image inside out.
Let's start with Pictures of Lily, a story of familial bonding over the restorative effects of masturbation and the eventual heartache of falling in love with a woman who died fifteen years before you were born. This interpretation of the text is not hard to decipher, though I will admit there is some slight subtext here. Compare this to The Beatles' appreciation of underage girls (Well, she was just seventeen/ You know what I mean...") or the Stones being coy about menstruation ("Baby better come back maybe next week/ 'Cause you see I'm on a losing streak"). Singers are supposed to glorify the search for sex, even if it is unsuccessful. Enjoying masturbation is not usually an acceptable topic.
The only fig leaf of dignity allowed Roger Daltrey singing this Pete Townsend song is the fact it is set in childhood. Still, there isn't a song in rock from another band that comes close to being this odd until The Kinks record Lola in 1970.
Our second exhibit is I'm a Boy, again sung by Daltrey and written by Townsend, again set in childhood, a story about a young boy forced to cross-dress by his mother. Looking at it through a 21st Century lens, we have a cisgendered boy forced to behave as if he was transgendered. It takes only a little bit of empathy to see how this story relates to the lives of the transgendered forced to conform to sexual roles in which they aren't comfortable.
The song's lyrics are dark ("My name is Bill and I'm a head case..."), but the music is unrelentingly cheerful. The final notes singing "I'm a boy!" have a harmony part that is at the very highest end of most males' falsetto.
This is just strange. Fifty years ago, it was even stranger.
But I'm a Boy isn't nearly as strange as The Who Sell Out, their third studio album. It had songs that were ads for deodorant and baked beans. The biggest hit was I Can See For Miles, but the song presented here is Tattoo, a slow and tender ballad about kids getting beaten by their parents. Critics loved this change of pace and Townsend considers one of his favorites.
So here's to The Who, great hit makers for several decades and the band that may have produced more truly subversive songs than any other major rock band in history.