“We were carried and inspired by some energy and power that was higher than any we ourselves could generate.”
Quite simply, no one had ever seen a band perform like the Who. Their use of instruments was both counterintuitive and revolutionary: the bass player thumped out melody, the guitarist kept rhythm, and the drumming was almost lyrical.
Keith Moon spun like a whirling dervish behind the kit, punctuating, highlighting, and complementing the work of the other three musicians with furious flurries of syncopation, while bassist John Entwistle stood still as a statue, singer Roger Daltrey marched in step with the thunderous rhythms, and Townshend’s arm was a wind turbine, sending waves of energy through his electric guitar and into the charged crowd. He would leap around the stage, jumping so extraordinarily high he earned the nickname “The Birdman.” Of course, in both Christian scripture and art, the Holy Spirit is often represented by a dove in flight.
For all the power of their live shows, until the late ’60s the Who’s recordings were received with relative lack of enthusiasm compared to contemporaries at their level. While their reputation as a performing band grew, their singles and albums failed to generate the same excitement, especially in the United States. In fact, despite their success and reputation after years playing in England, it wasn’t until they were “discovered” playing live at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 that they finally broke through in America. It was the shared energy and vitality of their live act that earned them their most recognition until the themes and scope of Townshend’s songwriting moved into more explicitly spiritual, transcendent territory with the rock opera Tommy. However, their two most notable pre-Tommy singles, “I Can’t Explain,” and “My Generation,” strongly introduced themes of energy and ineffability into the mythos of the Who.
In “I Can’t Explain,” the earnest, befuddled protagonist expresses frustrations over his inability to express… anything, really. The lyrics of the song revolve around a vague romantic entanglement, and Townshend has said he wrote it about a kid who can’t find the words to tell a girl that he loved her. In the ears of listeners, though, the song’s meaning widens and deepens considerably. On the surface it is a song about youth, love, and deep emotion, but in a more universal sense it suggests a profound experience that’s exasperatingly beyond words.
It’s ironic that with the 1964 release of “I Can’t Explain” (their first single) the group was designated as a “voice” of the young generation, specifically the “mods.” Mod described a teenage subculture in England in the early-to-mid ’60s characterized by attention to fashion, social clubs, rock & roll, blues, and jazz music, amphetamine use, and all-night dancing. Mods lived for the moment, spending entire paychecks on the latest fashions that would be passé (or destroyed) in a matter of days or weeks, and dancing through the night when a full day of work waited in the morning. Mod culture was youth culture, and youth is a concept often used interchangeably with vitality and vigor. Even the mods’ drug of choice, amphetamine, served to artificially increase and prolong energy.
“My Generation” was a mod anthem and a youth anthem, but, essentially, an ode to energy. The protagonist insouciantly declares himself a spokesperson for the energetic youth, while telling the out-of-touch older generation to “f-f-f-fade away.” The stuttering utterances of Daltrey’s vocal delivery are integral to the song’s message, evoking the tied tongue of a mod kid hopped up on speed, or a person so full of energy that his words can’t keep up with him (recalling the inexpressible frustrations of “I Can’t Explain”). With the song’s most iconic lyric, “Hope I die before I get old,” the Who presented the vivacity of youth as diametrically opposed to stagnation and decay; and extended the materially transcendent experience of spirit to its practical, physical expression: self-negation or self-destruction.
For most of the ’60s, the Who opened their concerts with “I Can’t Explain” and closed them with “My Generation,” the final chords of which segued into one of the most powerful and distinctive aspects of the group’s early performances: the violent demolition of their instruments. In art school, Townshend had been influenced by the auto-destructive art philosophy of Gustav Metzner, and for years the Who destroyed their instruments onstage at nearly every show. This bombastic act of showmanship not only brought the incomparable power of the band’s stage performance to a definite catharsis, it also dramatized self-immolation in pursuit of this elusive and captivating “energy.” It was a negation of the ego and a brutal rejection of the material world. Townshend describes the violence perpetrated by the Who in concert as an unconscious act: “When I’m onstage, I’m not in control of myself at all. I don’t even know who I am. … I’m just not there.”
The deification of spirit and the abasement of flesh can be viewed as an example of the Gnostic emphasis on inner understanding of the divine—to be truly holy, the initiate must discard all external, physical influences, including their own body. Many Christian traditions have endorsed mortification of the flesh (or “dying to this life,” to paraphrase St. Paul) as the means to achieve oneness with spirit. Eckhart says, “The man who has annihilated himself … has taken possession of the lowest place, and God must pour the whole of himself into this man … who has utterly abandoned himself.” The dichotomy of contradictory truths, as well as the materially-transcendent nature of the divine, inevitably leads into many auto-annulling aspects of both contemplative mysticism and charismatic fervor.
These two principal types of human relationship to spirit were embodied by the most dynamic members of the Who. Townshend assumed the role of the contemplative mystic, pondering, theorizing, and seeking the source of spirit through music, art, and poetry. Moon, on the other hand, represented the charismatic who is overtaken by spirit. While Townshend orchestrated self-aware auto-destructive rituals onstage, Moon—with his gunpowder-enhanced finales, compulsive trashing of hotel rooms, biology-defying alcohol and drug regimen, and death-by-overdose at thirty-two—embraced auto-destructive art as lifestyle.
Moon may not have had the detached perspective on his role in the Who’s mythos that his contemplative bandmate did, but he personified the concept of spirit in a much more direct way than the other three members. He dove headlong into the rush of the music, the rock & roll lifestyle, and his own mythos in a way that has never been attempted quite so excessively and with such abandon. Moon let the energy consume and control him, and it worked through him to ignite the band. Longtime Who manager Chris Stamp explains: “The Who existed from the time Keith joined the band … until Keith died … They were this incredible, distorted, dysfunctional energy. … Pete was cerebral, John was very isolated and shut down, and Roger was Roger—his anger came through in his voice. … It moved because of Keith; his energy energized them.”
When the Who finally moved away from their literally auto-destructive performances, it was to create material that explored the inner quest of a boy who, lacking the sensory means to connect with the mundane world, embarks on his own spiritual voyage within, even as his body is used and abused by those around him. Though the group no longer smashed their instruments at every show, they brought the same indefinable yet unmistakable energy to their stage performances of this metaphysical rock opera, and indeed it was 1969’s Tommy that finally made the Who into superstars.