'WHEN I got close up to him, I could see he was wearing my true face . . . the face I always wanted.' This, according to The Who's scrupulous biographer, Dave Marsh, is how hard-core fan 'Irish Jack' felt when he first saw Pete Townshend on stage at a Shepherd's Bush church hall in 1962. The epiphanous effect might seem to be undermined by Jack's qualifying statement - 'Everything would have been perfect if I had a nose like this geezer' - but it actually isn't. It was The Who's very distance from picture-book pop- star ideals that would make them so important to people.
The shock of The Who is not something that has been felt for a long time, even though they've made more comebacks than Jeffrey Archer. The band's huge impact has been steadily dissipated by their own powers of endurance, to the point where their name is now more likely to be mentioned in the context of how rock has gone wrong than how it's gone right. The sad decline and demise of their great, clowning, scattershot drummer Keith Moon, the horrific crowd stampede at a badly organised Cincinnati stadium show in 1979 which claimed 11 lives, even Roger Daltrey doing American Express adverts: all these facts now stand between the listener and whatever it was that made The Who great.
Nothing would seem to be more inimical to the band's original spirit than the inevitable, imminent four-CD boxed set, The Who: Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. In the sleeve-notes he wrote in Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 for their brilliant singles compilation Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, Pete Townshend observed presciently that this was 'the greatest of Who albums', bearing in mind that when the band started out, 'albums were what you got for Christmas, singles were what you bought for prestige'. Whatever you might think about The Who's exchange of pop's thrill for rock's self-importance, chances are that the eternally querulous Townshend will have thought of it first.
The Who's ultimate consumer durable comes adorned with pictures of vandalised amplifiers. This makes a kind of sense. This band's contradictions have always been ingrained. When Townshend first wrote the words 'Hope I die before I get old', he was proclaiming the moment, not looking to the future. It wasn't The Who's fault that their celebration of built-in obsolescence was built to last.
Even the classic Pop Art identity- crisis which the band's name appears to embody is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Townshend, the art-school theorist who should have been delighted by such a notion, preferred the rather less conceptually pleasing The Hair. This was not the end of the confusion. Townshend's nervy, volatile lyrics were to be given voice by the lusty Roger Daltrey, a former apprentice metal- welder. The band's outstanding instrumentalist was their drummer, and much of the credit for their extravagant guitar sound was due to their (relatively) unassuming bassist, John Entwistle. Furthermore, for all the band's air of street- gang solidarity, outsiders - first pill- popping mod avatar Pete Meaden, then flamboyant co-managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp - were crucial in formulating their identity.
'Pete was the only one of us you could really describe as a mod,' the affable Daltrey remembers. 'It's quite hysterical to think that John Entwistle or Keith Moon could ever be described as mods, and I was just a ted in mod's clothing, as simple as that.' Somehow, though, they managed to make a sound that captured the mixture of outward flash and inner turmoil that was the mod condition, at the exact moment that the movement went nationwide.
The aggression which The Who projected so successfully came, at least in part, from personal animosity. Did the band thrive on antagonism? 'Definitely,' says Daltrey. 'I think because most of Pete's songs were written about teenage anger and frustration, the antagonism just used to make those songs better. We'd always do a better show if we had a fight before we went on.'
The sense of danger they projected was not only physical (the trashed equipment, the guitarist's psychotic arm-and-leg ballet, the drummer's flailing sticks): the music had a kick to match. The beat which slams into the recycled Kinks riff at the start of 'I Can't Explain' can still jerk the most sceptical head into a Phil Daniels nod. And whether or not Pete Townshend was the first to discover the joy of feedback - the sound of electricity on the loose and looking for trouble - the noise that came juddering over the skyline in 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' ushered in a new era.
To many, The Who's subsequent musical development could only be a disappointment. Lester Bangs wrote of 'all this accomplishment sailing them steadily further from the great experiment they'd begun'. Daltrey doesn't agree. Tommy (1969) was the first time he felt truly happy that the departure from the group's R&B roots had been justified. If that music is now hard to separate from the fate it suffered at the hands of Ken Russell, The Who's Woodstock experiences still command respect. An island of British bloody- mindedness in a sea of hippie euphoria, they not only breached protocol by demanding to be paid, but also (in one of many instances of public bad feeling captured here) kicked yippie eminence Abbie Hoffman off their stage.
In the Seventies, The Who challenged fellow British road-pigs Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones as setters of new standards, if that is the right word, in rock-star debauchery. By the time punk hit, The Who should have been the enemy, but the Sex Pistols still cut their teeth on the primal garage angst of 'Substitute' and 'I'm a Boy'. In a memorable chance encounter in a Soho drinking establishment, Pete Townshend apparently ranted at Paul Cook and Steve Jones that The Who were 'prostitutes'. 'Don't break up,' came the earnest reply. 'You're our favourite group.'
Townshend's ambivalence about his group's continued existence dominates the later stages of the boxed set. However, there are enough inspirational songs earlier on to enable anyone to understand why he was under so much pressure not to break up the group. Not just familiar classics, but forgotten ones too, like the flop 1968 single 'Dogs', which is actually Blur's Parklife in miniature, a quarter of a century early.
The break-up seems to have happened now though. Next month, while Townshend takes the hugely successful Broadway production of Tommy on an American tour, Daltrey, Entwistle, Ringo Starr's son and several orchestras set off around the same continent playing 'the music of The Who'.
'Pete doesn't want to do it at the moment,' Daltrey says without rancour. 'Our music doesn't get played on the radio much,' he continues, 'so it's up to me to get it out there.' Does he think The Who get the respect they deserve? 'I don't know whether we deserve any respect at all,' he laughs. 'When you see the boxed set I think there is an enormous amount of work, and some of it is incredibly important in the rock'n'roll genre. Whether it deserves respect or not is not for me to say.' He pauses. 'I think Pete would like it to deserve respect.'
'Thirty Years of Maximum R&B' (Polydor, CD only, about pounds 40) is out on 4 July.
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