I love The Who. In the heated race to be my favorite band, they are a close second, next to Led Zeppelin. Just as Led Zeppelin has such breadth in the styles of their songs, The Who’s repertoire ranges from sweetly melodic to hard rockers, excelling in all arenas.
Yet they are different from Led Zeppelin in that whereas every member of Led Zeppelin was indispensable and irreplaceable, and that Led Zeppelin would not have sounded like Led Zeppelin without each and every member, that’s not true of The Who. The truly indispensable member is Pete Townsend as the primary songwriter.
As with the Beatles, it is the songwriting that makes the Who The Who. Yes, Moon’s drumming makes The Who The Who also, and, as I’ve already noted, poor Kenny Jones, though a great drummer, could not drum like Keith Moon, but Pete’s songwriting is the true glue that made the Who stick. Recall that “You Better You Bet,” written and recorded with Kenny Jones after Moon’s death, still is a good song and sounds like a Who song, even without Moon’s drumming.
Therefore, although Moon’s drumming helped make The Who sound like The Who, Pete’s songwriting is the core of the band, the unshakable center. (However, I must give mention to Moon’s own songwriting – “Girl’s Eyes” is such a sweet song, and so unlike a song I would have expected from Moon the Loon, but it is one of my favorites).
In Led Zeppelin, the primary songwriting partnership of Page and Plant was not always brilliant until the pieces of the band brought their brilliance to it. With The Who, the songs are brilliant on their own. Regardless of who is singing or playing the songs, they are works of genius. Pete Townsend is a true songwriting genius. Absolutely.
Which brings me to my favorite member of the band. Normally, as I’ve said, I tend to pick favorites who are the most humble and least seeking of attention (John Paul Jones of Zeppelin, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Kirk Hammet of Metallica) or one who is seen as an underdog (Paul in The Beatles, though this is only so compared to the near-deification of John, for my initial favorite was George), but when it comes to the Who, my favorite is Pete. I loved John Entwhistle in that he seemed quietest and least spotlight-oriented, but Pete’s contribution to The Who is so all-encompassing that I cannot have any favorite other than him.
Musically and melodically, Pete is only surpassed by Paul McCartney, and lyrically only by John Lennon, but it is so close that all three of them might actually be on the same level. While Led Zeppelin’s “light and shade” is well-appreciated, this contrast comes more from the execution of the singing and instrumentation than from the actual melodies of the songs themselves on paper, but with The Who, it is the actual songwriting.
Listen to the sheer breadth and depth of the songs that Pete wrote. To go from “The Kids Are Alright,” a perfect pop melody, which also has dark undertones, to the breathtaking intense scope of “Baba O’Riley” (my favorite Who song and one of the most remarkable songs ever) is a stunning feat. Everytime I listen to The Who, I am amazed and humbled at Pete’s songwriting genius: “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” “Relax,” “Rael I,” “Rael II,” “Melancholia,” “Jaguar,” “Glow Girl” (I love, love, love this song!), “Overture” from Tommy, “Sparks,” “Christmas,” “Go to the Mirror,” “Welcome,” “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Naked Eye,” “Cut My Hair,” “Dirty Jobs,” “Bell Boy,” “The Rock.” Each one of these songs is sublime. I cannot imagine having such a brilliant, genius mind to create songs with such real characters and potent feelings and that are so wonderfully melodic at the same time.
Pete Townshend may not be the most humble (though to a degree he is somewhat humble, acknowledging that only Roger Daltrey could properly interpret his songs), but without him The Who would not have existed and so he is my favorite member of the band. His songwriting, more than anyone’s instrument or voice, made The Who The Who. He is a pure songwriting genius.