What Mr. Townshend does manage to do here with insight, verve and sometimes grandiosity is describe how the Who and its music evolved: how the group “set out to articulate the joy and rage” of the generation that came of age in the “teenage wasteland” that was post-World War II Britain, under the shadow of the atomic bomb and deeply alienated from the established class system. This is why the Who’s early sound — with all the screaming feedback and distortion, the wrecked guitars and Moon’s frenetic drumming — was so aggressive and explosive.
“I wasn’t trying to play beautiful music,” Mr. Townshend explains. “I was confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sound of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence — one day an aeroplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash. It could happen at any time. The Cuban Crisis less than two years before had proved that.”
This is Mr. Townshend in his rock theorist mode — familiar to fans, who have read his music essays and reviews, or listened to his ruminative interviews. He speaks candidly in these pages about the influence that artists like the Kinks and Bob Dylan had on him, recalling that when he first sat down to try to write songs for the Who, he isolated himself in the kitchen of his Ealing flat, and listened to a few records over and over again: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”; Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul,” from “Mingus Ah Um”; John Lee Hooker’s “Devil’s Jump”; and “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs.
He proves equally engaging as a sort of rock historian, describing the musical landscape in Britain in the early 1960s, when rock exploded on the scene. He describes how it upended the old order represented by the swing music that his father, a clarinetist and saxophonist, played in a band called the Squadronaires. And he charts how the Who came to push the boundaries of rock, creating one of the most acclaimed early concept albums (“The Who Sell Out,” 1967) and pioneering the form of the rock opera with “Tommy” in 1969.
As Mr. Townshend sees it, the Who’s ascendance would eventually be undermined by the rise of punk rock in the late ’70s. Though Who songs like “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” became “anthems for a particular time,” Mr. Townshend writes, by 1981 “a gulf had opened up between the Who and the new younger generation.
“I had to accept that we had reached our peak of popularity at Woodstock, and however famous and successful we still were as a band, our ability to reinvent ourselves was declining as we continued a long slow descent from that moment when Roger sang ‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,’ the sun rose up behind us, and my guitar screamed to 500,000 sleep-tousled people.”